What is the greatest piece of religious music? By great in this context I mean of musical stature and importance, inspiring worship, and connecting hearers to the numinous.
Of course views can change by mood or according to what you are listening to now. Some would suggest a favourite hymn, such as “Amazing Grace”, while my wife would certainly opt for Handel’s Messiah, the magnificent 1741 oratorio using only verses from Scripture. It’s in my top two!
But among Christians familiar with religious music from Gregorian chant to the present day, I suggest there would be a high degree of unanimity in favour of one work, Bach’s magisterial Mass in B minor.
Bach is sometimes known as the fifth evangelist, because he clearly saw music as a tool to connect people to God, whose glory was paramount. He signed every work SDG: Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone). Bach was a theologian whose tool was keyboard and manuscript paper. Himself of earth earthy, self-willed and given to irascibility, his music was surely from heaven.
And of all his prodigious invention – more than 1000 compositions, some three-quarters of which were written for worship – none is more profound, glorious, gorgeous, sometimes majestic, sometimes utterly simple, than the work he himself perhaps saw as his crowning glory, the B minor Mass.
We are not entirely sure why he wrote it, a devout Lutheran offering a full Catholic Latin Mass. He wrote the first half for a new Catholic monarch in 1733 as one of the most exalted job applications in history, and the second half at the end of his life.
He never heard it performed, and it is far too long for use in a church service. Suggestions include that he wanted to show what he was capable of, after decades of writing for weekly services – a sort of summary of his art. I think, whatever other reasons there may have been, this is surely one. An even more elevated view sees it as an ecumenical attempt to bring the two versions of Christianity together at a level beyond theology.
It is a sublimely religious work, but its appeal transcends particular religion; it is a spiritual work for humanity. I was fortunate to be on a panel at an international Bach symposium in Melbourne in late July, and asked whether, as a religious work, it meant more to believers. No one wanted to accept that, and probably rightly.
The work is not easy to understand at first. In the way that the complexity and subtlety of Plato’s thought makes him challenging, so the complexity, profundity, richness and technical perfection of the Mass cannot be grasped immediately . But though its depths can take a consummate professional a lifetime to explore, the first-time listener can be swept away.
Start with some of the great sections on Youtube: the Agnus Dei, the six-part chorus of the Sanctus, or the soprano aria Laudamus Te. And don’t give up!