At one time, music historians believed that J. S. Bach had put together his Mass in B minor as a collection of showpieces, designed to illustrate the different styles of vocal composition that he had mastered. It was to become part of his musical legacy, a summing up of his choral and aria writing. But scholars now agree that he intended it as a unified work, and that he used various methods to bind the individual movements into a musical whole. The key signatures are all closely related, never straying far from B minor and D major. Consecutive movements within a section are often harmonically linked and performed without a pause; to connect the Crucifixus to the Et expecto resurrectionem, Bach composed a special bridge section. In revising his old compositions for use in the Mass, he introduced musical cross-references that link movements dealing with related theological ideas. In his use of different styles, affective tones, rhythms, and scorings, he created a delightful sense of variety within a coherent overall structure. What unifies the Mass most profoundly, however, is the way it brings to life Bach’s own Lutheran faith, and dramatizes the relationship between the Christian worshiper and Christ.
The Ordinary of the Mass, taken as a whole, has a dramatic structure of its own. The Kyrie serves as an introduction, asking Christ for mercy. The Gloria is a hymn of praise to God and the Trinity, with its own plea for mercy. The Credo is a statement of belief in the fundamental tenets of Christianity, as well as an account of the course of human salvation through Christ. The Sanctus, together with the Osanna and Benedictus, is a declaration of the holiness and loftiness of God, and the blessedness of Christ. The Agnus Dei, with the Dona nobis pacem, is a concluding plea for mercy and for peace. In a Catholic Mass service, each part of the Ordinary occupies a specific place. The Kyrie comes right after the Introit, which opens the service; the Gloria follows the Kyrie without pause. The Credo is recited after the Gospel reading and sermon. The Sanctus comes after the Offertory and Preface, and is followed by the Agnus Dei, which is recited during the elevation of the Host, before the taking of Communion.
Bach could have envisioned a concert performance of his entire Mass, although this never occurred during his lifetime. The organization of his manuscript suggests, however, that he thought parts of it could be used as music in a church service. The manuscript is divided into four separate sections, each with its own specified orchestral and choral forces: “Missa” (Kyrie and Gloria) for five-part choir; “Symbolum Nicenum” (Credo) for five-part choir; “Sanctus” for six-part choir; and “Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei et Dona Nobis Pacem” for two four-part choirs. The Missa was presented by Bach to the Saxony Elector in Dresden in July of 1733; the performance parts – which exist only for this section of the Mass – suggest that the Missa was performed on that occasion in one of the Dresden churches. In most Lutheran churches of the time, the Latin Ordinary had long since been replaced by German equivalents. In conservative Leipzig, however, all parts of the Mass were chanted in Latin at one time or another during the year, and polyphonic arrangements of the Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus would be performed in Latin on various occasions. Other parts of the Latin Ordinary would only have been sung polyphonically in a Catholic service, for example at the Dresden Court.
What can we say about the structure of the Judaized version of Bach’s Mass, which we have presented here as Sara Levy’s Prayer in B minor? Is it a unified work? Does it preserve the coherent structure of its Latin model? Is it suitable for performance, in whole or in part, in the concert hall or synagogue? Musically, the Prayer in B minor and the Mass in B minor are identical, except for the fact that here and there, in the vocal parts of the Prayer, in order to accommodate the Hebrew text, it is necessary to modify the phrasing, to tie together two adjacent notes, or to split a note in two; these changes are so obvious that they did not need to be made in the score. Thematically, the Prayer parallels the Mass rather closely; Christian ideas and images are replaced by equivalent Jewish ones, or by contrasting Jewish ones that convey a similar affect. This can be seen by viewing the texts of the Latin Mass and the Hebrew Prayer side by side (click on Text with Mass and Translation).
The Jewish version of the Kyrie still serves as an introductory section; but instead of asking God for mercy, it asks Him to draw near. The intimate Christe eleison addresses Christ; the Jewish version addresses God equally intimately as our King. The language of praise and supplication in the Gloria is for the most part so similar to what we find in Jewish liturgy, that the transformation into Hebrew is quite natural; it requires small changes, with the elimination of references to the Trinity. In the Jewish versions of the Gloria in excelsis and Et in terra pax, the familiar idea of “blessing” replaces the idea of “glory”; and God’s “righteous ones” replace the Christian “men of good will.” In the Jewish version of the Domine Deus, the praise of Jesus Christ, the Son, is replaced by the idea of a renewed promise of redemption by God; and the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) is replaced by God Himself, using the name associated with His compassion (Ădonai, the Lord). For the Qui sedes, the supplication of the Son, who sits at the right hand of the Father, is replaced by the direct supplication of God, who hears His people’s prayers. And for the Quoniam and Cum Sancto Spiritu, the three persons of the Trinity are replaced by God – the Holy One – and the holiness of His name.
The Credo is the only section of the Mass that had to be changed radically for the Prayer, with the exception of three movements: the first two, asserting belief in one God, Creator of all things; and the last, asserting belief in the resurrection of the dead. The Et in unum Dominum asserts belief in Jesus Christ as eternal Lord, consubstantial with the Father, begotten in the flesh for the salvation of mankind. The Jewish version, by contrast, asserts belief in an indivisible, eternal, non-corporeal, transcendent God, who is First and Last. Whereas the Et incarnatus asserts belief in the Incarnation of Christ by the Holy Spirit, the Jewish version asserts belief in Divine Providence, that God knows our deeds and inner thoughts. The Crucifixus and Et resurrexit assert belief in Christ’s Crucifixion, Resurrection and ascent into heaven; and in his glorious coming again to establish his eternal kingdom. The Jewish counterparts of these two movements assert, instead, belief in Divine Judgment, that God punishes those who violate His commandments and rewards those who observe them; and that only He may be worshipped. The Et in Spiritum Sanctum asserts belief in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, is worshiped and glorified together with them, and speaks through the Prophets; and in one holy Church. The Jewish version, for its part, asserts the belief that Moses was the father of the prophets; that the words of the prophets are truth; and that the Torah was given to Moses in its entirety, and shall never be changed or replaced. Finally, the belief in one baptism for the remission of sins, as asserted in the Confiteor, is transformed in the Jewish version into the belief in the coming of the Messiah.
The Jewish versions of the Sanctus and Benedictus simply restore their Hebrew sources from Isaiah and Psalms. In the Jewish Benedictus, it is no longer the blessed Christ who comes in the name of the Lord; it is the victorious Israelite king, or the pilgrim, who enters God’s Sanctuary in blessedness. The Jewish Osanna is roughly equivalent to the Latin, replacing the shout of “Hosanna in the highest!” from the Gospel with idea of God’s glory filling the world, as already expressed in the Sanctus. In the Hebrew Agnus Dei, Lamb of God is replaced by Ădonai, just as in the Domine Deus of the Gloria; and the “qui tollis” part is rendered in the same Hebrew as in the Qui tollis of the Gloria. Finally, Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace) is translated literally into Hebrew as Ṣim ‘alenu shalom.
We can answer our first two questions in the affirmative: the Prayer in B minor is a unified work, with as coherent a structure as the Mass in B minor. The Prayer substitutes Jewish liturgical formulas for Christian ones, but preserves the inner logic of the Mass. Many aspects of the music that symbolize or represent Christian concepts can be successfully reinterpreted as representing Jewish ones. Although the symbolism of the cross is inevitably lost in the Jewish version, Bach’s use of groups of three, symbolizing the Trinity, can be reinterpreted in the Jewish context as an allusion to the three Patriarchs; this is true in particular of the three movements of the Kyrie. Where Bach “paints” or dramatizes the Latin text through musical gestures, or uses musical motives or harmonic relationships to link important theological ideas, it is generally possible to transfer these elements to the Hebrew text in a plausible way. Throughout this blog, I have tried to demonstrate that “Jewish Bach” is possible: that Bach’s musical setting, supplied with Sara Levy’s Hebrew text, can be heard as a Jewish liturgical piece.
Chris Shepard, in his “verba docent” blog, speculated in two consecutive posts about how Bach may have imagined the “large structure” of the Mass in B minor. In the first (Gestalt Theory #1), Shepard speculates that it has the structure of the Tabernacle, as described in the book of Exodus. The Kyrie corresponds to the laver (Exodus 30:17-21), where Aaron and his sons washed their hands and feet before bringing burnt offerings. The Gloria corresponds to the altar (Exodus 27:1-8) where they brought these offerings, which Christianity has replaced by sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. The Credo corresponds to the Holy Place and its furniture, representing the future Church; and the concluding portion of the Mass, from the Sanctus to the Dona nobis pacem, corresponds to the Most Holy Place, or Holy of Holies (Exodus 26:33-35). In this way Shepard sees Bach’s Mass as reflecting sacred architecture, whose purpose it is to take the congregant into God’s presence. Shepard tells us, in the same post, that Bach’s Credo is itself a musical representation of the Church, “structured architecturally in symmetrical pairs of movements” around the central Crucifixus. But he never completed his detailed analysis of the Mass beyond the Gloria, so we may never know just how he saw the architecture of the Credo!
In the second post (Gestalt Theory #2), Shepard enlarges his theory by suggesting that the structure of Bach’s Mass also mirrors the Trinity and Luther’s Bible. The Kyrie focuses on God the Father, and can be likened to the Old Testament; the Gloria, which explores different aspects of Christ the Son, can be likened to the Gospels; the Credo, which reflects the Church in its structure and codifies the faith inspired by the Holy Spirit, belongs to the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles; and the Sanctus through Dona nobis pacem, in representing the holiness of God’s eternal presence, is tied to the eschatological book of Revelation.
When I first read these posts, I was amazed at the boldness of Shepard’s imaginings, and decided that my own blog would not be complete without some ideas about the “large structure” of Sara Levy’s Prayer. The analogy with the Tabernacle might work for the Prayer almost as well as for the Mass, but sacred architecture does not have the same importance in modern Judaism as it does in Christianity. So here are some alternative ways of “wrapping up” the Prayer in a Jewish superstructure:
Holy Books and Persons. The Ḳ’RĂV-NA (Draw Near, We Pray) corresponds to the book of Genesis, and to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In Genesis God reveals himself to the patriarchs as a personal God upon whom they can call, and to whom they can become close through the observance of His covenant with Abraham. We have already seen that each of the three movements of the Ḳ’RĂV-NA corresponds in its character to the life of one of the three patriarchs. The BARUKH HU (Blessed Is He) corresponds to the book of Psalms, and to David, its legendary author. The BARUKH HU praises and implores God in the language of Jewish prayer, which borrows heavily from Psalms. The ĂNI MĂ’ĂMIN (I Believe) corresponds to the books of the Mishnah, and to Maimonides, whose commentary on the Mishnah is the basis for the text of this section of the Prayer. The Mishnah preserves, in condensed form, the Oral Law, which has in Maimonides its greatest interpreter and codifier. The final section of the Prayer, consisting of the Ḳadosh (Holy), K’vodo (His glory), Barukh hăba (Blessed is the one who enters), Ădonai, noṣe ‘aṿon (Lord, You who forgive sin), and Ṣim shalom (Grant peace), together correspond to the books of the Prophets. These contain visions revealing God’s holy presence, His glory, His blessed abode, and His plan for universal forgiveness and lasting peace. Isaiah is the prophet of holiness par excellence, and his inaugural vision provides the setting for the thrice holy exclamation of the seraphim in the Ḳadosh.
Types of Service. The Ḳ’RĂV-NA reflects ritual sacrifice, the ancient method of approaching God. The BARUKH HU reflects prayer, which replaced the sacrificial cult after the destruction of the Temple. The ĂNI MĂ’ĂMIN reflects the study of the Torah, the most important way of serving God in rabbinic Judaism. The Ḳadosh through Ṣim shalom reflect the practices of Jewish Kabbalah that allow mystical union with God, a symbolic entering into the upper realms.
The Four Worlds. The Ḳ’RĂV-NA and the BARUKH HU together reflect This World, from which we implore and praise God. The ĂNI MĂ’ĂMIN reflects the Resurrection of the Dead, belief in which tests our faith more than any other principle of belief. The Ḳadosh, K’vodo and Barukh hăba together reflect The World to Come, where we directly experience God’s holiness, His glory, and the blessedness of His heavenly Sanctuary. The Ădonai, noṣe ‘aṿon and Ṣim shalom together reflect the Days of the Messiah, which will bring the fullness of God’s compassion and His eternal reign of peace.
I have written all that I wish to write about Sara Levy’s Prayer in B minor, which, as you know, is my own creation. So with this post I bring the Jewish Bach blog to a close. My original purpose in writing the blog was simply to publicize the Prayer, in the hope that people would get interested in it and want to hear it performed. Then I realized that I also felt the need to justify it to those who might find it unnecessary, unworkable, or objectionable. In the end I came to think of the blog not only as an advertisement and an apology for the Prayer, but also as a kind of mode d’emploi or user’s manual for understanding it. I set out to explain how each part of the Mass in B minor was transformed into its Hebrew counterpart in Sara’s Prayer, and how it worked musically. Along the way I included ideas about the Hebrew language and about Judaism that I thought would be edifying or entertaining. Although I was brought up in a Jewish world, I tried to give Christianity its due. I hoped to vex my very Jewish reader with my sympathy for Christian doctrine; my very Christian reader with my obvious attachment to Jewish doctrine; and both of them with my skepticism.
I would like to acknowledge some of the people who helped me in the creation of the Prayer in B minor and in the writing of this blog.
My old college friend Steve Silberblatt was the first person with whom I discussed my idea for a Jewish B minor Mass; it happened just as I described it in my first blog post. Steve knows the language of the Hebrew Bible and of Jewish prayer, and had sung the B minor Mass in a chorus. Although he was enthusiastic about my idea, he insisted that I not begin my Jewish Kyrie, as I had intended, with the r in răḥem-na ‘alenu (“have mercy on us, we pray”), but with the percussive sound of the k in kyrie. This sent me on a search for Hebrew verbs beginning with the letter ḳof, resulting in the now familiar ḳ’rav-na elenu (“draw near to us, we pray”).
Marvin Wolfthal, my other old friend from college, is to blame for this blog. Marvin is a pianist, conductor, composer and computer maven. When I asked him if he knew a historian of music who might be willing to write a fake article about the discovery of a manuscript of a Hebrew version of Bach’s B minor Mass written by Bach himself, Marvin answered that he did not, but that I could write it myself in the form of a blog. It took me only a few hours to realize that his suggestion was brilliant, and that I was going to have to overcome my total ignorance of blogging. (It took me longer to realize that the person who could have Judaized the B minor Mass in the eighteenth century was not Johann Sebastian Bach, but Sara Itzig Levy.)
My wife Sylvie Weil did not bring me any cups of coffee while I worked on the project, but she suffered through seemingly endless nights and weekends of my “doing syllables” as I typed revised versions of the transliterated Hebrew text of the Prayer into text boxes covering the Latin text of the Mass. She encouraged me, in traditional Weil fashion, with the following declaration: “My poor husband! It pains me to see you spending so much time and effort on a project that the Jews don’t want and the Christians don’t need.” No encouragement could have been more welcome or more effective than this.
In Vermont, Reverend Rob Hamm, a man of God, always cheered me on; Jim Levinson, a man of peace, never missed an opportunity to hum the opening theme of Bach’s Kyrie in my presence, once from afar in a rowboat on the lake while I was on shore; and Kate Judd, soprano and cantor-in-training, helped me more than she knew by telling me that the first version of my Hebrew Laudamus te was all but unsingable, which led me to review the vowel sounds in every melismatic passage.
In France, Marcel Bénabou assured me that my turning a Catholic Mass into a Jewish prayer was altogether in the spirit of Oulipo, and he always approved of the Hebrew formulas I chose as replacements for the Latin. He dispelled any hesitation I may have had about attributing the work to Sara Levy, by pointing out the truly oulipian nature of this claim.
Claude Cazalé gave me as a gift Joseph Modrzejewski’s book, Un peuple de philosophes, on the origins of the Jewish condition. She knew it would be of great interest to me, but did not know that it would allow me to draw a straight line from the Jewish Enlightenment of eighteenth century Prussia to the Jewish reformers of Hellenistic Palestine in the second century before our era.
Leon Balter, my teacher in psychoanalysis since the beginning of my career as a psychiatrist, directed my attention to Rudolf Otto’s book, The Idea of the Holy. It was indispensable to me in clarifying my own feelings about the experience of holiness when I came to analyze the Sanctus.
I am grateful to Professors Menahem Schmelzer and Raymond Scheindlin of the Jewish Theological Seminary for generously taking the time to review my Hebrew text. They found several mistakes, in grammar and style, which I was able to correct.
Without George Stauffer’s superb book, Bach: The Mass in B minor: The Great Catholic Mass, which covers every important aspect of Bach’s masterpiece, I would not have understood the music nearly as well, and this blog would have been much poorer. I used the book as a basic source of information, and frequently cited it in the blog.
Chris Shepard was the first person to take up the cause of my Jewish Bach project in the world of choral music. His fascination with the striking parallels and contrasts between Christian and Jewish theology that were brought out in my Hebrew text inspired me to go beyond the text itself, and to create a Jewish symbolism for the music. In this effort I was greatly helped by his blog, verba docent, which supplemented the information I found in Stauffer’s book. Shepard also rescued me from my doubts about whether the Prayer in B minor would ever be heard in public, and whether it was singable. He conducted the Dessoff Choirs in a lovely performance of selected movements from the Prayer on January 12, 2014, in a sing-in at Congregation Habonim in New York City.
What are my hopes for the future of the Prayer in B minor?
I hope that Chris Shepard and the Dessoff Choirs will perform it someday in its entirety, with an orchestra. I hope that it will go on existing as a “version” of Bach’s Mass in B minor that other groups will consider performing.
I hope that synagogue and church choirs will sing parts of it in services and concerts, although I realize that the technical demands of the music are great. There are movements that are suitable for use in a Jewish service: the Ḳadosh (Sanctus) during the ḳ’dusha of the ‘Ămida prayer; the Năḳdish’kha (Laudamus te), K’vodo (Osanna), and Hu ĕlohenu (Domine Deus) during the ḳ’dusha of the Sabbath or Festival musaf service; the Ṣim shalom (Pacem) at the end of the morning Ămida; and the Barukh hăba (Benedictus) during the Hălel. The three movements of the Ḳ’răv-na (replacing the Kyrie) could be used as an introduction to a Jewish prayer service, although this would be an innovation; and the entire Ăni mă’ămin could be performed on its own, just as Emanuel Bach performed the Credo of the B minor Mass in 1786. There are movements that are so close in meaning to the corresponding movements of Bach’s Mass that they could be used in a church service as alternatives to the Latin originals: the Nodĕ l’kha (Gratias), Noṣe ‘aṿon ṿafĕshă‘ (Qui tollis), Ḳadosh (Sanctus), Barukh hăba (Benedictus), and Ṣim shalom (Pacem).
I hope that someday the text of the Prayer in B minor will be accepted as an authentic Jewish liturgical text, and that contemporary composers will create new musical settings for it. Judaism would then have the beginnings of a musical tradition equivalent to the Mass tradition in Christian music. Someone will come up with a better term than Prayer to describe it; I was not able to.
I have a fantasy that far off in the future, perhaps after some fourth or fifth Vatican Council, the Mass will disappear from Catholic worship, having been replaced by a more modern form of divine liturgy. It will be remembered mainly by music historians and by experts in the history of the Church. It will continue to be recited only in a handful of conservative Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran congregations. But throughout the world, in liberal Jewish congregations, Jews will sing Sara Levy’s Hebrew Prayer; and people will wonder at the small pockets of Christians who seem to have taken it as a model for Christian worship.