Mass in B Minor - Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)


The Mass in B Minor is such an established part of the choral repertoire that it may come as a surprise to learn that it is also an enigmatic work. For example, at what point did Bach, a Lutheran Protestant, plan to write a full Roman Catholic Mass? And did Bach himself really intend the full work to be performed on a single occasion?

By 1733 Bach had been in the Saxon town of Leipzig for ten years. That decade had seen the composition of five complete cycles of church cantatas, the St. John and St. Matthew Passions and many instrumental works and orchestral pieces. But despite this musical productivity, Bach was clearly feeling unappreciated and was often in disputes with his employers over his fees.

Early in 1733 Augustus II, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, died. Five months of mourning followed, during which all public music-making was temporarily suspended. Bach used the opportunity to work on the composition of a Missa, a portion of the liturgy sung in Latin and common to both the Lutheran and Roman Catholic rites. His aim was to dedicate the work to the new sovereign Augustus III, a Catholic, and by doing so to hope to improve his own standing. On its completion, Bach visited Augustus and presented him with a copy of the Missa, together with a petition to be given a court title. The petition did not meet with immediate success, but Bach did eventually get his title: he was made court composer to Augustus in 1736.
The Missa was first performed in 1733 during the festival of the Oath of Allegiance to Augustus III. It consisted of settings of the Kyrie and Gloria that now comprise the first part of the Mass in B Minor.
At what point Bach decided to expand the Missa into a full-blown setting of the Catholic Mass is not known. Some researchers believe that the Symbolum Nicenum (or the Credo) was composed between 1742 and 1745, but others think it predates the Missa and was first heard in 1732. The remaining parts (Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus and Agnus Dei et Dona nobis pacem) were all added in the late 1740s.
The Mass in B Minor did not assume its final form until Bach's last years, perhaps by 1748. It may be that Bach wished the Mass in B Minor to be regarded as a monument of his skill, for it is a work based much upon his earlier music, which he adapted and refined to meet a sacred purpose. In choosing to reuse earlier material he may have felt himself to be selecting his finest work, laying it out for inspection, and putting it to the service of praising God.
Bach never heard the Mass in B Minor performed in its entirety. It is possible that he only intended that parts of the Mass be used when appropriate. Such was the case when his son C.P.E. Bach first performed the Credo in 1786. Although various other sections of the Mass were performed over the next sixty years, it was not until 1859, more than a century after Bach died, that the entire work was performed at a single sitting.
What is most remarkable about the overall shape of the Mass in B Minor is the fact that Bach managed to shape a coherent sequence of movements from diverse material, whether he intended it or not. When he presented the Missa in 1733 he clearly viewed it as a complete and independent work. The original manuscript shows that Bach divided the Mass in four major sections, similar to the sections in the Roman Catholic Mass Ordinary. The first section is the Missa, and includes the Kyrie and Gloria. The second is the Symbolum Nicenum (or the Credo). The third consists of a single movement, the Sanctus, and the fourth is entitled Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei et Dona nobis pacem.
The magnificence of the work is signalled at the very outset with the mighty adagio five-part setting of the words Kyrie eleison succeeded by a fugal section of architectural grandeur and complexity. The Christe eleison is a gentle duet for sopranos with a charming ritornello for strings. The second Kyrie, for four-part choir, has an intense, chromatic fugal subject.
The first part of the Gloria, a joyous outpouring, was probably reworked from a now lost instrumental movement. The setting of Et in terra pax was grafted on to it without a break. The Laudamus te, with its beautiful soprano solo balanced by an equally beautiful violin obligato, has all the hallmarks of having originally been a violin duet. The Gratias is a fairly straight copy of the opening chorus of Cantata No. 29 (1731), the words of which 'Wir danken dir, Gott' ('We thank Thee, O God') represent a literal German translation of the Latin text set here with such solemn nobility and assurance. The Domine Deus is a duet for tenor and soprano, with accompaniment for flute and muted strings. It leads directly into the Qui tollis, a revision of part of the opening chorus of Cantata No. 46 (1723), 'Schauet doch und sehet' ('Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow'). In Qui sedes, the alto solo is matched by the instrument of corresponding pitch, the oboe d'amore. The Quoniam, with its dark tones of horn obligato and well-rounded bassoon duet figurations, provides an impressive vehicle for the bass soloist, and leads straight into the gloriously jubilant Cum Sancto Spiritu, complete with agile choral fugue, marking the end of Bach's original Missa.
Like the Missa, the Symbolum Nicenum has its own cohesive structure. It is a superlative example of Bach's concern with symmetry: Crucifixus is the central pivot and the centre of the trinity of movements concerning Christ's incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.
The Credo bursts forth with two vibrant fugal choruses. The first, in antique style, is based upon the plainchant associated with the words 'Credo in unum deum' and symbolises strength of faith; the second is adapted from a chorus of praise from Cantata No. 171 (1729) 'Gott, wie dein Name, so ist ouch dein Ruhm' ('God, Your fame is as Your name'). The duet Et in unum Dominum is set for soprano and alto with oboe and strings. The chorus Et incarnatus est depicts an intense awe, an emotion that is deepened into despair in the Crucifixus, reworked from a chorus in a youthful Weimar Cantata, No. 12 (1714) 'Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen'. The Mass springs from the depths of hopelessness with the jubilant Et resurrexit, again apparently reworked from an instrumental movement. The symmetry is apparent as the bass aria, Et in Spiritum, recalls in tone Et in unum Dominum and the fugal Confiteor, like the first movement of the Credo, harks back to the older church style and uses plainsong to underpin the firmness of the belief it represents. It is linked to the final joyous Et expecto by a passage of the strangest, most haunting quality - quite a contrast with the exuberant chorus that ends the Credo.
Bach's magnificent Sanctus, with its exultant fugue, was written originally for Christmas Day, 1724. The choir for this piece is divided into six parts. But a double (eight-part) chorus is required for the sprightly Osanna, based an the opening chorus of the secular Cantata No. 215 (1734) 'Preise dein Glucke, Gesegnetes Sachsen' ('Praised be your fortunes, ye most blessed Saxons'), a piece performed in honour of the coronation of Augustus III as King of Poland. As one critic has observed, "In a society which regards Kings as divinely appointed by God, he [Bach] would have seen no incongruity in using the same music to praise the King of Poland and the King of Heaven".
The Benedictus, apparently the vestige of a lost tenor aria, with its slow, long, graceful vocal and instrumental lines is an evocation of serene love and longing. The Agnus Dei, which follows a straight reprise of the Osanna, is scored for alto solo matched to a low-lying ritornello for strings. It uses almost the same music as 'Ach bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben' ('Oh, stay with me, my dearest life'), from Cantata No. 11 (The Ascension Oratorio). The Dona nobis pacem reprises the Gratias, bringing the Mass in B Minor to a triumphant close and linking majestically the concepts of peace, praise, and gratitude to God.

With grateful thanks to Making Music for their assistance in preparing these notes.

Aylesbury Choral Society, March 2004

[Note to other societies: you are welcome to use the whole or parts of this text in your own programmes, but if you do please (i) let us know, and (ii) include an acknowledgement to the Aylesbury Choral Society and this website in your programme.]