Notes: Bach B Minor Mass

J.S. BACH: Mass in B minor

J.S. Bach (Eisenach 1685–Leipzig 1750) never wrote a Mass in B minor. Though this statement may seem a bit extreme and particularly out of place in the present context, it is, strictly speaking, correct. The piece you will hear today is in fact not what was intended by the word missa (“mass”) in Lutheran Germany, it is a not complete composition that Bach wrote to be performed in toto, and it is not in B minor. Though it does start in that key, a very rare and difficult key at the time, the main key is D major. The “Mass in B minor” is actually a later compilation of separate parts of the Latin mass (technically called a missa tota) that Bach had mostly composed previously over a period of decades. In the autograph manuscript he simply called it with the names of its parts, i.e. “No. 1 Missa; No. 2 Symbolum Nicenum [the Credo]; No. 3 Sanctus; No. 4 Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei et Dona nobis pacem.” It is known that he made use of the four parts separately even after having collected them together. In fact, in Lutheran Germany there would not have been any occasion in which Bach could have had a mass like this performed, for in the rare cases in which the choir was allowed to sing the Kyrie and the Gloria, the congregation would have had to sing the rest of the ordinary. The name by which it is known, “Mass in B minor,” was attached to the composition in 1845 by its first publisher Hermann Nageli, undoubtedly making a connection with Beethoven’s Missa solemnis.

Towards the end of his life, the great Leipzig Chapel Master apparently felt an urge towards completeness, towards writing pieces that explored and exhausted all the possibilities of a certain compositional technique or style. This desire resulted in some of the greatest compositions of all times, such as the unfinished Art of the Fugue (an exploration of all possible contrapuntal uses of a single theme or subject, started first in 1740 and again restarted in 1747), the Clavier-Ubung IV, known since the 19th century as the “Goldberg variations” (a compendium of all possible ways of varying a single theme, 1747), the Musical Offering (also from 1747, an exhaustive exploration of all that could be done with one single musical idea, the ’royal’ theme written by Frederick the Great of Prussia, and used in two ricercares for keyboard in three and six parts; a trio sonata for flute, violin and continuo; and various canons for flute, violin and continuo with harpsichord obbligato), and the variations on “Vom Himmel hoch” (1747), besides the Mass in B minor (1748–49).

In 1954, the eminent Bach scholar Friedrich Smend edited the mass and showed that it had originated from different parts of Bach’s life. The full autograph score was compiled in 1748-49, and its original destination is unknown. Helmuth Osthoff has suggested that Bach may have compiled it for the dedication of the chapel of the Dresden court (for which the Kyrie and Gloria—the Missa—had been composed in 1733), which was scheduled to be completed in 1748 but was not completed until 1751, one year after Bach’s death. There is no evidence that the mass as you will hear it today was ever performed during Bach’s lifetime. It has been recently shown that Bach was working on this work, and not on the Art of the Fugue, as previously assumed, in the period immediately before his death.

What we usually intend by the word “Mass” is a setting of the ordinary of the mass, that is, of those parts of the liturgy that remain the same throughout the year, regardless of the feast of the day. These feast-specific parts are known as the proper of the mass, and they change every day of the year. The ordinary of the mass sung every day in Catholic churches consists of the following five parts: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus (which includes also the Benedictus framed by two repetitions of the Osanna), and Agnus Dei. In the Lutheran tradition, a Missa is a setting of just the Kyrie and Gloria, which together are called “mass” because they are the only two parts of the ordinary that are sung at Sunday service. In 1724, the second year of his tenure in Leipzig, Bach composed a six-voice Sanctus for the Christmas service (because the Sanctus, without Benedictus or Osanna, is sung only on high feasts in the Lutheran church). Then, in 1733, he wrote a Missa for the Catholic Dresden court, as part of his application for the post of court composer, which he obtained only in 1736.

Bach completed the rest of the mass at the end of his life. It is probably around 1747 that he composed the most magnificent, majestic, and architecturally and stylistically perfect section—the Credo, or Symbolum nicenum. Finally, when he compiled all of the music into a full score, he added the last movements of the ordinary (Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Dona nobis pacem), adapting music he had previously written in a widespread Baroque technique known as “parody,” whereby a composer adapts and partially rewrites existing music to a new text. In fact, most of the mass is a "parody"—according to present knowledge, only eight out of the mass’s 25 movements can be considered with certainty to be original compositions, though only the models for seven of the remaining 17 movements have been identified so far. The following table lists all the movements, the performing forces, both instrumental and vocal, and the models from which the mass movements were “parodied,” or the indication that the model is unknown. Notice the great variety in instrumentation, both within the orchestra and as obbligato (solo instruments that usually accompany vocal soloists).

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Parody model
Kyrie eleison       2 2 1 2 1 1   SSATB None, original work
Christe eleison             2   1 SS   Unknown model
Kyrie eleison       2 2 1 2 1 1   SATB None, original work
Gloria 3   1 2 2 1 2 1 1   SSATB Unknown model
Et in terra pax 3   1 2 2 1 2 1 1   SSATB None, original work
Laudamus te             2 1 1 S   Unknown model
Gratias agimus 3   1 2 2 1 2 1 1   SATB Cantata 29
Domine Deus       1     2 1 1 ST   Parts of Cantata 193a
Qui tollis       2     2 1 2   SATB Cantata 46
Qui sedes         1   2 1 1 A   Unknown model
Quoniam   1       2     1 B   Unknown model
Cum Sancto Spiritu 3   1 2 2 2 2 1 1   SSATB None, original work
(parody for Cantata 191)
Credo in unum Deum             2   1   SSATB None, original work
Patrem omnipotentem 3   1   2   2 1 1   SATB Cantata 171
Et in unum Dominum         2   2 1 1 SA   Lost duet
Et incarnatus est             2   1   SSATB None, original work
Crucifixus       2     2 1 1   SATB Cantata 12 & Vivaldi
Et resurrexit 3   1 2 2   2 1 1   SSATB Lost concerto?
Et in spiritum sanctum         2       1 B   Unknown model
Confiteor                 1   SSATB None, original work
Et expecto 3   1 2 2   2 1 1   SSATB Cantata 120
Sanctus 3   1   3   2 1 1   SSAATB None, original work
Osanna 3   1 2 2   2 1 1   SATB SATB Lost Cantata 215
Benedictus             2   1 T   Unknown model
Agnus Dei       1         1 A   Lost serenata, Cantata 11
Dona nobis pacem 3   1 2 2 1 2 1 1   SATB Same as Gratia agimus

 

Kyrie: The first part of the mass, the Kyrie, is divided into three sections—Kyrie I, Christe, and Kyrie II. Traditionally the Kyrie was a ninefold invocation, the text of each of the three sections being repeated three times. Bach does respect this tradition in his three movements, of which the outer two are choral and the central is an enchanting duet for two sopranos with violin accompaniment. While the first Kyrie is a grandiose concertato piece with the first of a great number of fugues to be found in the whole score, the second Kyrie is a four-part chorus in a more ancient style, with no independent instrumental parts: flutes, oboes, bassoon and strings all double the vocal parts. The second Kyrie is one of the movements that shows Bach’s love for the old Latin style, that of the late renaissance masters. This older a capella style is referred to as stile antico and contrasts with the concertato style which made use of both voices and instruments and more homophonic texture.

Gloria: The second part of the “Missa” is the Gloria, the section that lauds and glorifies the Lord. This section is subdivided by Bach into nine movements of different character. The opening movement is a happy, glorious concertato movement, the first that features brass and percussion together with woodwinds and strings. The second movement, “Et in terra pax,” is not separated from the first though it differs in flavor. It is a pastoral movement in D major, but not as peaceful a movement as Catholics would have expected it—there is an element of Lutheran ’passion’ in it. The third movement of the Gloria is an ABA aria for solo soprano accompanied by strings and a solo violin (violin "concertato"). The fourth movement, “Gratias agimus,” is again a grand choral movement in D major with the same instruments as the “Gloria” but with an ancient feel, slow, and with all instruments except the trumpets playing the same notes as sung by the voices. The “Domine Deus” that follows is a lovely ABA duet for soprano and tenor accompanied by flute and strings. It is interesting to notice that this is one of the earliest instances of music which calls for transverse flute, as opposed to the recorder. Movement six of the Gloria, “Qui tollis peccata mundi,” follows without break. The four choral voices engage in a dark fugue in B minor, fitting the faithful’s plea for mercy. Two ABA solo movements follow. The alto sings the gorgeous “Qui sedes ad dextram Patris,” competing, dialoguing, agreeing, and arguing with the accompanying oboe d’amore (an oboe with a warmer sound, larger than the regular oboe and pitched a third below). The alto aria is followed by the bass’s lovely aria, accompanied this time by two bassoons and a corno da caccia (hunting horn). This section concludes with the greatest concertato movement of the missa—the choral “Cum sancto spiritu,” which includes a fugue.

Symbolum nicenum (Credo): To better understand Bach’s concern with symmetry and balance, and to catch a glimpse of his compositional techniques and ability, let us take a closer look at the largest section of the mass—the Credo, or, in Bach’s words, the Symbolum nicenum. If the latest scholarship is correct, then the Credo of the Mass was Bach’s last significant composition, perhaps his very last. In the Credo, Bach deliberately combines archaic with modern style, in a striking succession that blends effortlessly. Conspicuously missing, however, is the operatic style, which is evident in the absence of any da capo arias (i.e., ABA arias). The Credo comprises nine movements, but the fourth, “Et incarnatus,” was added as an afterthought. Of the nine movements only two, “Et in unum Dominum” and “Et in spiritum sanctum Dominum,” are solos. Of the seven choral movements “Credo in unum Deum,” “Et incarnatus,” “Crucifixus,” and “Confiteor in unum baptisma” are in stile antico, the style that refers back to Palestrina’s time, while “Patrem omnipotentem” and “Et resurrexit” are in the modern concertato style. The central movement, “Crucifixus,” is the oldest part of the whole mass, since it is adapted from the opening chorus of cantata 12, which Bach had composed in Weimar in 1714 and which he adapted from a piece by Vivaldi—“Piango, gemo, sospiro e peno” ("I weep, moan, sigh, and suffer"). “Et in unum Dominum” is probably a parody of a lost duet, “Patrem omnipotentem” is modeled on the opening chorus of cantata 171, “Et in spiritum” is from an unknown model, and “Et expecto” is from the opening chorus of cantata 120 of 1728. Because of its character, there is a suggestion that “Et resurrexit” may also be a parody of the first movement of a lost instrumental concerto. Most importantly, the Credo is symmetrically arranged: at the upper and lower end are a pair of choral movements, one in ancient style and one in the newer concertato style; in third and third-to-last position are the two movements for solos, and the three central movements, all choral, have in the middle the fabulous “Crucifixus,” with its excruciating dissonances, and its chromatic passacaglia bass. The chart below shows this symmetry and provides some additional information:

B Minor Mass Chart

Though the later addition of the “Et incarnatus” did not change the symmetry (in the center there had been two instead of three choral movements), there is a suspicion that Bach may have added it to make the movements add up to nine—three times three, a number with a very important theological meaning, and with a very strong presence in the mass (three movements in the Kyrie, each with three invocations, nine movements in the Gloria, three invocations in the Agnus Dei, and so forth).

Fugues are found in most movements. Interestingly, both the “Credo” and the “Confiteor” include a gregorian melody as a cantus firmus. The latter movement, where the cantus firmus is first heard in canon between alto and bass, and then in longer notes in the tenor, is another living testimony of Bach’s unsurpassable art: while some voices declaim the gregorian (cantus firmus) melody, the others engage in a double fugue against it (thus making three independent melodies fit harmonically, melodically, and contrapuntally, with each other).

Sanctus: Of the four traditional sections of the Sanctus—Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus, Osanna—only the first was composed in 1724, while the others were added during the final compilation. The Sanctus is the only section for six voices (with the addition of one alto part), and it is among the most majestic and festive, requiring three trumpets, kettledrums, three oboes, strings, bassoon and organ. After the opening section on the first line of text ("Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth") follows a lilting second section (at "Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria ejus") with a fugal theme and a plethora of quick runs.

The following three parts of the “Sanctus” in the ordinary of the mass belong compositionally with the “Agnus Dei” and the “Dona nobis pacem,” both temporally and stylistically (they are all parodies). The Osanna is the only movement for two four-voice choirs and the whole orchestra (that of the Sanctus minus one oboe and plus two transverse flutes). It is a glorious movement of exultation, which includes antiphonal treatment of the choirs and a fugue. This is followed by the sweetest movement for tenor solo, the “Benedictus.” This ABA aria is accompanied by one instrument—the original source has no instrument indication; it could be either a violin (the instrument traditionally used) or a flute, though the flute is the most likely since the obbligato part does not make use of the G string, an occurrence which is found nowhere else in Bach’s output. The Osanna is repeated after the Benedictus.

Agnus Dei: The Agnus Dei of the ordinary is similar to the opening Kyrie in that it is a threefold section, i.e., a section including three invocations (in the case of the Kyrie each of the three is repeated three times, but not in the Agnus Dei). The three invocations of the Agnus Dei are almost identical, except for the last three words of the third ("dona nobis pacem"), which Bach chose to set separately. The first two invocations are heard in a solo movement for alto and two violins in unison, which was taken from the fourth movement of Cantata BWV 11, known as the Ascension Oratorio, which was itself a parody of a lost serenata of 1725 “Entfernet euch.” The choir then concludes the piece with the “Dona nobis pacem,” which is the same music as “Gratias agimus” in the Gloria section, but with new words.

There isn’t a more satisfying, encyclopedic, pleasing, challenging, complex, and rewarding work in the choral literature to match the B minor mass, regardless of its compositional history. It is all of the above for both performers and listeners, rewarding arduous and dedicated study, as well as attentive listening, with endless riches. Even after years of study, performance, or listening, this masterpiece offers everyone, with its wide palette of styles and sonorities, something new and previously unnoticed. And this in and of itself is a treat, to be enjoyed at will.

For further information refer to:

  • Marshall, Robert, “The Mass in B Minor: The Autograph Scores and the Compositional Process” in The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach: The Sources, the Style, the Significance (New York: Schirmer Books, 1989), pp. 175-189
  • Wolff, Christoph, “Origins of the Kyrie of the B Minor Mass” and “The Agnus Dei of the B Minor Mass: Parody and New Composition Reconciled” in Bach: Essays on His Life and Music (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 141-151 and 332-340 respectively
  • Wolff, Christoph, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000)

—Copyright © Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D., 2005

Please do not distribute or use these notes without the express written permission of the San Francisco Bach Choir.