Belfast, 2-4 November 2007


Chiastic Reflection in the B-minor Mass: Lament’s Paradoxical Mirror

Melvin P. Unger

(Baldwin-Wallace College, USA)

In the form of Bach’s Mass in B minor as we know it today the “Crucifixus” serves as the architectonic center of the Credo (Symbolum) and, in a sense, of the mass as a whole, since it is equidistant from the repeated movements that give the work a cyclical unity—the “Gratias” and “Dona nobis.” Before Bach decided to write a new movement for the text of the “Et incarnatus,” the center point of the Credo had fallen at the beginning of “Et resurrexit,” a point that is marked—for whatever reason—with a melodic palindrome of thirteen notes. That the perfect symmetry of this arching line is not coincidental is clear from the fact that the soprano parts cross unnecessarily—more normal voice leading is employed when the melodic gesture is repeated later in the movement.

Various theories as to Bach’s reason for changing the structure of the Symbolum have been proposed. Most persuasive is the proposal that Bach wished to make the creedal statement concerning Christ’s crucifixion central, and to produce a pivot movement for a structure that was already chiastic. We know that Bach often used chiastic forms to portray Luther’s theologia crucis, which stressed the inverted order of God’s revelation. Well-known examples include the St. John Passion (with its central chorale) and the motet Jesu, meine Freude (with its central fugue). Similarly, Cantata 75, Bach’s debut cantata in Leipzig, which deals specifically with theologia crucis, presents a doubly chiastic structure in which two central recitatives (movements 4 & 11) present the inversion principle explicitly.

Bach’s decision to move the “Crucifixus” into the architectonic center of the Credo may also have been spurred by the theological connections between the “Confiteor” (the last newly composed movement in the Symbolum) and the “Crucifixus.” Indeed he may have made the decision while in the process of writing the “Confiteor.” We may further conjecture that, to strengthen the allusion to the theologia crucis, he incorporated a transposed inversion of the descending chromatic tetrachord (used as a bass ostinato in the “Crucifixus”) at the end of the “Et incarnatus.”

A look at the cantata from which the music for the “Crucifixus” was taken—BWV 12—provides insight into Bach’s use of the theologia crucis for musical invention. Perhaps even more illuminating is Bach’s use of melodic inversion to express the relationship between cross and crown is the riddle canon, BWV 1077, which he presented to a theology student in 1747, shortly before compiling the Mass in B minor. It goes without saying that no movement in Bach’s B-minor Mass depicts the abasement of cross-bearing more clearly than the “Crucifixus,” with its descending chromatic tetrachord. But if Bach was indeed thinking of the theologia crucis when he adjusted the architecture of the Symbolum, where is the corresponding anabasis representing glorification? Most immediately, we may find it in the ascending chromatic tetrachord at the end of the “Et incarnatus” and in the ascending lines of “Et resurrexit.” However, in the overall structure of the mass, the movements most striking for their rising lines are the only two in which Bach chose to use the same music: the “Gratias” and the “Dona nobis.” Did Bach intentionally decide to counterbalance the key musical feature of the “Crucifixus” (the descending chromatic tetrachord) with the rising lines (diatonic fourths) of these outer framing movements?

It would be overreaching to suggest that rising melodic fourths (chromatic or diatonic) held a fixed symbolic meaning for Bach. A study of the use of chromatic fourths in Bach’s other works reveals a variety of textual connections. Nevertheless Bach’s previously expressed interest in Luther’s distinction between the theologia gloria and the theologia crucis, and the correlation in the mass between the combination of descending chromatic fourths and ascending fourths on texts that relate to these theological concepts suggest that Bach was making allusion to them. From this perspective it seems likely that, as Bach neared completion of the mass he decided to repeat the music of the “Gloria” in order to create an architecturally large-scale allusion to the theologia crucis. His earlier decision to compose a new movement for the “Et incarnatus” (thereby pushing the “Crucifixus” into the pivot spot in the Symbolum) ensured that the two identical movements would be equidistant from the “Crucifixus,” the heart of it all. By these adjustments he was able to use formal chiasm and melodic inversion as apt symbols for the theologia crucis.

Last updated on 02 September 2007