The "B-Minor Mass" is one of Bach's best known works. He did however write four other, shorter masses, known as the Shorter or Lutheran Masses. That they have been somewhat neglected can be explained partly by their being overshadowed by the B-Minor Mass, also by the fact that the shorter masses are composed almost entirely of movements from Bach's cantatas. And yet, the beauty of these shorter masses is that they represent Bach's own choice of his finest cantata movements.
Underlying the musical enjoyment however lies an interesting question: Why was Johann Sebastian Bach, a devout confirmed Lutheran working in a Lutheran city for a Lutheran Church and City Council… why was he writing Masses in Latin – and why were these Shorter Masses created almost entirely out of previous compositions?
It appears that these four Masses were written, or rather assembled, for Count von Sporck, shown above. The Count was closely connected with Leipzig, having been the High Commissioner for Bohemia in Leipzig for a considerable time, continuing subsequently as a frequent visitor. His residence at Lissa on the Elbe (Lysa-nad-Labem), stands some 150 miles from Leipzig, and at that time, 28 hours by Post Coach.
As these Masses were liturgically unsuitable for use in Protestant Leipzig, it seems likely that they were composed expressly for the Count, which would explain the 'assemblage' of previously composed cantata movements (most of which the Count would not have known) and the use of the Catholic liturgy. But the question remains: Why? There is no evidence to suppose that Bach was seeking a position of employment at the Count's Residence in Bohemia.
The answer may lie in the fascinating story of the Count himself, the religious/political conditions under which he had to live, and his friendship with Bach.
Count Frantisek Antonin von Sporck (1662–1738)
Like a series of other Bohemian clans, the Sporcks, too, were of German origin. They entered the Kingdom of Bohemia during the Thirty Years' War and military prowess was the basis of their wealth and titles. The father of Frantisek Antonin was Jan Sporck, an unusually able cavalry officer who rose to the rank of general despite his not being of noble origin. His cavalry regiments fought for three Emperors and Kings of Bohemia, and he was rewarded with the noble title of Count, together with a significant amount of land and property.
Of four children borne to Jan Sporck's second wife Eleanor, Frantisek Antonin was the eldest. He was born on March 9, 1662 in Lysa-nad-Labem or in Hermanuv Mestec, both of these towns being the centers of Sporck estates. He attended school at Hermanuv Mestec and at the age of eight began to study with the Jesuits in Kutna Hora, itself close to another Sporck estate, Malesov. In 1675 he attended lectures in philosophy and law at the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague's Clementinum. When his father Jan Sporck died in 1679 he was not yet of age, and it was in 1684 that he took over a part of his patrimony. This consisted of the Lysa-nad-Labem, Malesov, Konojedy and Choustnikovo Hradiste Estates. On the last-named estate, lying in northeast Bohemia, he later built his own residence, the Kuks Spa. He also inherited the family palace in Prague and a significant amount of money.
Prior to this, in 1680 and 1681 he had undertaken a journey through Europe, as was customary for young noblemen of that time. He departed for Italy and stayed in Rome. Through Turin and southern France he traveled to Madrid in Spain. He stayed in Paris for an extended period of time and then returned to Bohemia via London, the Hague and Brussels. He went back to Paris in spring 1682. From the Court at Versailles he made the acquaintance of the Cor de Chasse and had two of his musicians learn to play the instrument. Back in Bohemia they passed on their skills, and their instruments were soon copied by Nurnberg instrument makers.
In 1694 the Prague physician J.F. Love confirmed the salubrious qualities of the source gushing out on the left bank of the Elbe in a picturesque valley close to Choustnikovo Hradiste in the southern part of the estate; here Sporck was to build the Kuks Spa, charging the architect Giovanni Battista Alliprandi with the entire concept of construction and design. Spa buildings and a castle were to be built on the left bank, and on the right bank, beyond the hill, a hospice with the Church of the Holy Trinity for retired servicemen for which he set up a foundation.
The cultural activities of Count von Sporck were unusually multifaceted. Few noblemen of their time could take pride in the publication of almost 150 books of a religious and philosophical content, often translations from French literature. Sporck had his own engraving workshop. He conducted a rich social life, several prominent German men of letters visited him at Kuks. A chapter in itself is the story of the Sporck musical sphere, which attained a European standard. For many years he maintained a permanent operatic scene, which played at Kuks and at his Prague palace. This ensemble, made up predominantly of Italian musicians, performed the premieres, for instance, of several Vivaldi operas.
However there was a dark cloud overshadowing the Count's life, and especially his wide theological and religious interests: censorship, oppressive, and rigorously enforced.
After the Czechs lost to the Habsburgs at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, the Czechs struggled under a strict, absolutist regime; censorship was all-pervasive, and books had to be smuggled into Bohemia from abroad. In the early 1700s enforcement was in the hands of the Jesuits, reinforced in 1715 by a government order banning the publication and dissemination of all satirical books, tracts and pictures. Unofficial printing offices were to be closed down. Printing presses were allowed to operate only in university towns and towns with higher authorities.
Nevertheless, large amounts of unauthorized titles both in Czech and in German were smuggled into Bohemia. These were mostly religious publications, printed in the German towns of Zittau and Pirna. The inhabitants of Bohemia were not allowed to own heretical books; Jesuit Antonin Konias (1691-1760) published a bibliographical index of heretical books which was used as a guide when private libraries were searched, and any "heretical" books found were confiscated and replaced by catholic titles.
Count von Sporck was deeply interested in non-orthodoxy and in the teachings of non-catholic theologians, and himself published numerous theological works. He financed the printing of theses in theology, philosophy, medicine and physics. Sporck's printing office in Lysa-nad-Labem was closed by the Jesuits in 1712, so he had most of his titles printed outside Bohemia. These were then smuggled into the country in various ingenious ways. In 1725 he had a whole non-catholic library smuggled in from Silesia, although the import of such banned literature was punishable by death.
On July 26, 1729 Kuks was occupied by a military division of the Carraf regiment and Sporck was handed an Imperial decree empowering the sequestration of all of his books. Kuks had a well-endowed library, housed in a separate building of its own. Sporck was arrested and deported to Prague to be interrogated by the authorities. His library, containing 30,000 volumes, was seized and examined. This marked the beginning of a long-drawn-out court proceeding in which Sporck was finally accused of heresy and its propagation. The proposed punishment was loss of land-rights, estates, a fine of a hundred thousand gold pieces, the burning of his books and life imprisonment under strict guard. He was however, spared the worst. On March 13, 1733 von Sporck was convicted only of not respecting the Imperial prohibition on the printing books without having them pass through censorship, and was fined six thousand gold pieces and the payment of court costs.
While the verdict and fine may have been relatively lenient in comparison to the more drastic alternatives, it must nevertheless have weighed heavily on his artistic, cultured and inquiring mind. Leipzig was a relatively short journey, and this pleasant cultured lively city already familiar to Sporck, would have remained an attraction, not only as a haven of liberty and free thought, but more practically as a source of literature.
At the beginning of the 18th century Saxony was, in terms of trade and economy, by far the most developed German territorial state, with Leipzig as its economic capital. The city's tri-annual fairs brought a cosmopolitan atmosphere and a breadth of vision as merchants came from all over Europe. Leipzigers of the 17th and 18th centuries had extensive intellectual and cultural interests; their cultivation of literature and the fine arts, as well as the setting-up of libraries and rich art collections evinced a wide-ranging pursuit of entertainment and education. Many influential books and periodicals were published there. The City Library and the University Library were open to the public two days each week. Printing and publishing houses flourished and grew, that of Breitkopf being a typical example. Leipzig's public music life was borne by the Church, the City Council and above all by the student associations, the Collegia Musica. Well-known theatre groups performed during the Fairs; the Opera had already been founded by Telemann at the beginning of the century. For Count von Sporck, visits to Leipzig must have been intellectually stimulating, providing a welcome relief from the stifled atmosphere in Bohemia, not to mention the ever-present risks which inevitably accompany an active free-thinker living under strict censorship.
As a result of his official ambassadorial appontment and subsequent cultural visits, the Count would have been a familiar figure in Leipzig, well known among the intellectual and artistic circles of that city as a lover of literature, art and music. Picander had introduced his first collection of poems in 1725 with an Ode addressed to the Count. In addition, there must have been many culture- and music- based friendships formed in Leipzig. Given the Count's love of music and his considerable endowment of musical activity in Bohemia, surely it is quite conceivable that he could have been a frequent visitor at the Bach household. There must, too, have been an underlying sentiment of sympathy for the constricted intellectual atmosphere under which the Count had to live in Bohemia. The Count might well have attended Services at St. Thomas' Church, or at least heard some of Bach's cantata choruses in rehearsal. It only remained for the inventive Bach to sidestep any possibility of Bohemian censorship by presenting the Count with some of his best cantata movements cleverly disguised as Catholic liturgical music. Perhaps these "Shorter Masses" or "Lutheran Masses" might well be referred to as "Bach's Bohemian Masses".
It is generally believed that these four Masses date from around 1735/6. Count von Sporck would have had but a few short years to enjoy their performance in his Chapel at Lysa; he died in Lysa on March 30, 1738, not long after his 76th birthday. His legacy: Bach's own personal choice of some of his most moving and powerful cantata movements.