J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Albert Einstein and Universal Spirituality

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor is not only a religious work, but a spiritual one. In other words, it transcends the theology of Christianity on which it is based and applies itself to a broader category of feeling that we call ‘spirituality’. This is what the eminent music scholar Yoshitake Kobayashi meant when he affirmed that Bach’s Mass in B Minor had great spiritual significance to him even as a Buddhist. But what do we mean by spirituality, and how is it distinct from religious belief?

Einstein and Spirituality

Einstein spirituality

Spirituality is a concept that is difficult to pin down, so to avoid being ambiguous let’s look to science for some direction. The famous physicist Albert Einstein was very clear that he didn’t believe in a personal God or any accepted theology. He denied any belief in the immortality of the individual, and considered ethics to be an exclusively human concern without any superhuman authority behind it. However, he did have a spiritual side, which he often expressed. To him it was characterised thus:

To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.

The letter Einstein wrote late in his life to the Queen of Belgium, who was suffering a great grief, is full of this sense of spirituality.

And yet, as always the spring-time sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding, and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is after all something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and all human delusions, and such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.

Einstein’s spiritual side often expressed itself in his love of music. After hearing the 13-year-old Yehudi Menuhin with the Berlin Philharmonic he was heard to exclaim ‘Now I know that there is a God in heaven.’ He once said, ‘I often think about music, I live my daydreams in music, I see my life in the form of music’. He particularly worshiped WA Mozart and JS Bach: ‘I have this to say about Bach’s works: listen, play, love, revere – and keep your trap shut.’

Bach’s Mass in B minor


Bach was probably the greatest composer to be exclusively focused on his spirituality – it has been said that every composition Bach wrote was dedicated to God. The Mass in B Minor is seen by many as his greatest work, and although it is clearly a document of Christianity, related specifically to the Lutheran liturgy, a close analysis suggests that Bach’s intentions were broader. Indeed, the circumstances of its creation suggest this.

Just before his death, Bach edited and compiled the Mass in B Minor from various pieces of music that he’d composed throughout his career. It was probably the last project that he ever undertook, and there seems to have been no intention, or even possibility, of having the whole piece performed. His intention was to summarise his entire life’s work with this one enormous missa tota.

Although each of the four sections that Bach used to structure the Mass in B Minor relate to occasions within the Lutheran liturgy, grouping them altogether also creates a complete mass in the Roman Catholic tradition. There has been much speculation about whether anything was meant by this coincidence. Some commentators have called the formation of the Roman mass out of Lutheran elements fortuitous, in order to avoid the idea that Bach had a late conversion to Catholicism. But many more agree with John Butt’s conclusion, in his book Bach: Mass in B Minor:

Perhaps the most useful means of summing up its meaning and content is to consider its ‘universality’, as the complete work unites Catholic and Lutheran confessions.

This sense of the universal is not limited to the theological implications. Stylistically, the Mass in B Minor pulls together an unprecedented range of musical styles and approaches. One of the most striking is his adoption of the so-called Stile Antico – the strict contrapuntal style associated with church music from the 16th Century – which is found particularly in the Credo in unum Deum and the Confiteor. This style is distinguished by a certain objectivity, as John Butt explains:

The surface of the music is coloured by a specific repertory of contrapuntal devices: those concerned with dissonance and passing notes, and those relating to the combining of the subjects (double counterpoint, stretto, augmentation etc.). Although this gives the music a particular flavour and generates onward movement, the music is – in terms of the eighteenth century – emotionless, lacking the standard affective devices that permeate most music in the tonal system. When such a style is viewed from the historical standpoint of Bach’s age it is not difficult to perceive how clearly these examples are suited to ‘ancient’ and established texts (such as those of the Creed), those associations with ‘timeless truths’ which are not subjected to the whims of each succeeding generation.

In the B Minor Mass the ‘studied neutrality’ of the Stile Antico is combined and contrasted with profoundly expressive music, such as the chromatic ostinato that symbolises the tragic in the Crucifixus, and the sighs and laments expressed through the pairing of notes in minor keys, such as in the Kyrie, the Qui tollis and the Agnus Dei.

Butt goes on to demonstrate that there are also many elements of secular dance music throughout, including the Gigue and Passepied (Gloria in excelsis Deo, Osanna and Et in Spiritum sanctum), Passacaglia/Chaconne (Crucifixus), Courante (Et resurrexit) and the Bourée (Et expecto). Perhaps most obviously the Qui sedes ‘…opening as it does with a four-bar phrase and repetitive rhythms, immediately evokes a dance style. Indeed it could well be compared with the opening of the Polonaise, in the same key, from the second Ouverture, BWV 1067.’ (John Butt). See the video below for a complete performance of the Qui sedes.

[Above] JS Bach, Mass in B Minor, Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, performed by the Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter (conductor) and Hertha Töpper (alto)

In summary, the Mass in B Minor may be the greatest unifying work by any composer, and this appears to be a conscious attempt by Bach to depict the sense of universality behind his spirituality. Albert Schweitzer described the work as ‘one in which the sublime and intimate co-exist side by side, as do the Catholic and Protestant elements, all being as enigmatic and unfathomable as the religious consciousness of the work’s creator.’

The Unifying Principle of Spirituality

A final quote from Einstein might help to clarify this mysterious unifying principle. In 1930 Einstein published an essay on Religion and Science in the New York Times magazine, in which he described his own inclination towards a ‘cosmic’ religious sense, and discerned kindred glimpses of this feeling in such diverse figures as the prophets and psalmists of the Hebrew Bible, St Francis of Assisi and the Buddha. In this he said the following:

It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who does not experience it. The individual feels the vanity of human desires and aims, and the nobility and marvellous order which are revealed in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence strikes him as a sort of prison, and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling. In my view it is the most important function of art and science, to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.

Bach’s Mass in B Minor certainly fulfils this function.

3 responses to “J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Albert Einstein and Universal Spirituality”

  1. Very interesting – this whole concept of “spirituality” I’m finding hard to pin down as we work through our texts, architecture and film this time round. In everything we’re looking at this month I keep feeling that one of the purposes behind the works is to celebrate the human condition: Rilke’s passionate outbursts, the desire for the angels in Wings of Desire to be able to live through sensual experience, even Hesse’s Siddharta seems to be finding fulfilment through self discovery. Maybe it is impossible to define – but the fact we are human gives us the unique opportunity to give meaning to a world outside our consciousness.

  2. The notion of spirituality is, of course, non-controversial and in today’s vernacular, “politically correct. Bach, however, would no doubt completely disagree that his theology had anything whatever to do with the pagan religions. Anyone who has done even a small amount of reading about Bach’s theological beliefs would agree that he was a devout Lutheran whose object of faith was Christ Alone through the scriptures alone (scriptura sola). His life and work are a magnificent testimony pointing to salvation in none other than Jesus Christ. This seems more likely to be the “universal” theme uniting protestants and catholics.

  3. Nice article. Great music makes for rewarding listening even if you disagree with the politics or religion of the writer. I remember reading a (silly) review of “Stairway to Heaven” claiming that the lyrics were really about Christian conversion. If anyone could believe that Led Zeppelin could be interested in converting people to Christianity, who am I to fault Einstein for seeing some universal spirituality in Bach’s Mass?

    A good case could be made for Bach’s “St Matthew’s Passion” as being his greatest work, rather than the Mass. The Passion was performed multiple times in Bach’s lifetime, completely. It is every bit as epic in scale as the Mass. Leonard Bernstein claimed that listening the the St Matthew’s Passion was what inspired him to become a composer.

    It’s interesting, though: while the ordinary of the Mass as a libretto leaves us with a work that elevates the listener, there are a number of documented cases of the St Matthew’s Passion actually converting its listeners to Christianity, Leonard Bernstein notwithstanding. To me, this is a greater achievement–for many works of music elevate the listener, but very few have actually converted anyone. No one likes being preached to by an artistic work, and I don’t think that the Passion preaches, but the spirituality, pathos, and portrait of a God dying for His creation apparently can compel simply on the strength of their witness.

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