J.S. Bach, Mass in B Minor — May 2011

For this concert program: Details | Translations | Notes

Program Notes

J.S. Bach (Eisenach 1685–Leipzig 1750) never wrote a mass in B minor. Though this statement may surprise, 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 not a 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 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. The name by which it is known, “Mass in B Minor,” was attached to the composition in 1845 by its first publisher, Hermann Nägeli, 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 time, 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 restarted in 1747), the Clavier-Übung 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 a 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 had been compiled in 1748–49, and its original intended use is unknown. Since then, a few of Smend’s theories have been proven wrong (see below), but he was a pioneer in the study of the piece. 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. Recently it was shown that Bach was working on this piece, not on the Art of the Fugueas previously assumed, just 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 day. The 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 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. It was probably around 1747 that he composed the most magnificent, majestic, and architecturally and stylistically perfect section—the Credo, or Symbolum nicenum (Nicene Creed). 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 some certainty to be original compositions, though the models for only seven of the remaining 17 movements have been identified. Based on a study of both the manuscript sources and of Bach’s compositional techniques and style, scholars have postulated that those movements without identifiable models were probably based on pieces that have been lost. While in modern times this would be considered a lesser artistic practice, it was commonly accepted during Bach’s time. We can speculate about the reasons behind Bach’s parody model choices. To Bach, the B-Minor Mass represented a compendium and apotheosis of his art. Perhaps he chose models that he felt were his best work—pieces that showed the diversity of his compositional style, while also perfectly expressing the affect of the text.

The table below 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).

Movement T
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Solo
Parts
Chorus
Parts
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 29/2
Domine Deus 1 2 1 1 ST Parts of Cantata 193a
Qui tollis 2 2 1 2 SATB Cantata 46/1
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 171/1
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 12/2 & 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 120/2
Sanctus 3 1 3 2 1 1 SSAATB None, original work
Osanna 3 1 2 2 2 1 1 SATB SATB Lost Cantata 215/1
Benedictus 2 1 T Unknown model
Agnus Dei 1 1 A Lost serenata, Cantata 11/4
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 respects 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 of the style of the late Renaissance masters’ Latin motet. This older a capella style is referred to as stile anticoand contrasts with the concertato style which made use of both voices and instruments.

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 (or da capo) 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 note that this is one of the earliest instances of music calling for transverse flute instead of 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 faithfuls’ 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 Symbolum Nicenum, or, Credo. If the latest scholarship is correct, then the Credo of the Mass was Bach’s last significant composition, perhaps his very last altogether. In the Credo, Bach deliberately combines archaic with modern styles, 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"). 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 solo movements, and the three central movements, all choral, have in the middle the 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 testimony to Bach’s unsurpassable art: while some voices declaim the Gregorian melody, the others engage in a double fugue against it (thus making threeindependent 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, timpani, three oboes, strings, bassoon and organ. After the opening section on the first line of text ("Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth"), there 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 a single 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 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. 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.

The critical edition of the works of J. S. Bach—the Neue Bach-Ausgabe or NBA—was begun in 1954 with the purpose of publishing all of Bach’s works according to the latest scholarship, going back to the original sources and indicating all corrections, emendations, and suggestions to distinguish them from original markings, as well as providing a critical apparatus. The B-Minor Mass was one of the earliest volumes in the NBA (No. 2, 1954, edited by F. Smend) and is now over 50 years old. Discoveries and technological advances have made that venerable volume in many respects obsolete. Moreover shortly after it appeared it came under criticism for several reasons, including Smend’s thesis that the Mass was only a collection of independent pieces of church music, various mistaken identifications of scribes, and mistaken evaluations of sources. In 2005 some of the early versions of the Mass that Smend had ignored were published in a volume of the NBA, but not a complete score. Late in 2010, the Neue Bach-Ausgabe Revised Edition published a revised score of the Mass, taking into consideration all sources available, including the “Dresden parts” (the 1733 orchestral parts of the Kyrie and Gloria) and the autographs. This new score also marks the distinction between the original J. S. Bach version and the additions and changes by his son C. P. E. Bach. These were not distinguishable before since the hands are nearly identical, but can now be identified by x-ray fluorescence analysis of the ink. Listeners familiar with the Mass might notice minor differences here and there. Some movements are radically different from the older version, particularly in the text underlay; this is true, for example, of Et in unum Dominum. The greatest virtue of the new score is to restore the Mass to Bach’s intended shape, as a work that, though it adapts some movements composed previously, is a coherent whole, a missa tota and not a patchwork. The San Francisco Bach Choir is pleased to be among the first to perform the B-Minor Mass from this new score.

The B-Minor Mass, with its broad palette of styles and sonorities, offers new discoveries, surprises and endless riches to the dedicated student or attentive listener even after years of performance or study. In all choral literature, there is no work that can be at once as satisfying, encyclopedic, pleasing, challenging, complex, and rewarding as the B-Minor Mass for both performers and listeners alike—a masterpiece indeed, that may be enjoyed by all.

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., 2011

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