Bach's Mass in B Minor was proclaimed "the greatest musical artwork of all times and all people" by Hans George Nageli when he published the first edition of the work in 1818. These words were high praise indeed for a work never performed in the composer's lifetime, nearly forgotten for decades, and not even published until seventy years after its completion. Yet, almost two centuries of performance and scholarship have proven Nageli correct: the Mass in B Minor remains the single finest setting of the Latin ordinary ever composed and perhaps the finest choral work ever conceived.
Another long-lost document provides further insight into Bach's masterpiece: his personal copy of the Calov Bible, listed as part of his estate at his death but lost thereafter until it was discovered in 1934 at the Reichel family farm in Frankenmuth, Michigan. A careful study of Bach's marginal notations in the three-volume Bible by Exultate's conductor, Thomas Rossin, left no doubt that Bach held a deep, personal Christian faith. This knowledge leads inevitably to a new understanding and interpretation of Bach's sacred music as his expression of that faith.
The Mass in B Minor and the Calov Bible share a place of prominence in Bach's life. The Bible volumes are dated 1733, the same year Bach composed the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass for the Dresden Court. The marginal notes found in his Bible give evidence that Bach searched the scriptures for guidance on handling his difficulties with his employers at Leipzig. His conclusion that he must obey the authority placed over him by God ultimately led him to quit composing sacred music for weekly services, concentrating instead on perfecting various musical genres in extended works such as The Art of the Fugue and the Clavier Ÿbung.
This recording is the culmination of a unique concert series combining performances of the Mass in B Minor along with displays of the Calov Bible. Audiences and musicians alike enjoyed the rare privilege of hearing Bach's greatest masterpiece after seeing his signatures and marginal notations in ancient volumes he once held in his own hands. The musical interpretations in this performance spring directly from a theological understanding of Bach's expression of his faith through his art. The result exemplifies Robert Shaw's description of the Mass in B Minor as "Bach's testament to, and of, one great universal faith."