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Mass in B Minor

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King Augustus III of Poland

King Augustus III of Poland

The Mass in B minor (BWV 232) is a musical setting (or more formally a missa tota) of the Latin Mass by Johann Sebastian Bach. Although parts of the Mass in B minor date to 1724 (and model for one parody even to 1714), the whole was assembled in its present form in 1749, just before the composer's death in 1750. It is often ranked among the greatest Baroque compositions.

Background and context

Bach did not give the work a title; instead, in the score the four parts of the Latin Mass are each given their own title page—"Kyrie", "Gloria", "Symbolum Nicenum" (otherwise known as the "Credo"), and "Sanctus, Hosanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei"—and simply bundled together. Indeed, the different sections call for different numbers and arrangements of performers, giving rise to the theory that Bach did not ever expect the work to be performed in its entirety. On the other hand, the parts in the manuscript are numbered from 1 to 4, and Bach's usual closing formula (S.D.G = Soli Deo Gloria) is only found at the end of the Dona Nobis Pacem. Because of its length—nearly two hours of music—it was never performed in its entirety as part of a church liturgy.

Although Bach was a committed Lutheran, it is uncertain whether he composed it for the Lutheran liturgy or composed it for the Elector of Saxony who had just been elected king of Poland and therefore had to convert to Catholicism. Bach produced four short masses (comprising [these two sections] the Kyrie and Gloria only) for liturgical use.

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, dated July 27, 1733. The petition did not meet with immediate success, but Bach did eventually get his title: he was made court composer to Augustus in 1736.

Some scholars have assumed that the Missa was first performed in Leipzig in April, 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. There is, however, no proof for this assumption and no performance parts for a performance in Leipzig exist.

The performance material Bach submitted to Augustus on July 27, 1733 was written on Dresden-made paper, in the hand of Bach, his wife Anna Magdalena, sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, and a Dresden copyist. This suggests the piece was written out in Dresden by the Bach family for a July performance in the Sophienkirche (where Wilhelm Friedemann was organist), or perhaps the Hofkirche im Theater.[1]

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. [2]

Wolfgang Osthoff and other scholars have suggested that Bach assembled the Missa Tota for performance at the dedication of the new Hofkirche in Dresden, which was begun in 1738 and was nearing completion by the late 1740s. However, the building was not completed until 1751, and Bach's death in July, 1750 prevented his Mass from being submitted for use at the dedication. Instead, Johann Adolph Hasse's Mass in D minor was performed, a work with many similarities to Bach's Mass (the Credo movements in both works feature chant over a walking bass line, for example.)[3]

A very recent hypothesis by Dr. Michael Maul is that Bach composed the final version of the Missa on the request of Johann Adam von Questenberg, a Bohemian count, for Saint Cecilia's day, December 22, 1749, in the St. Stephansdom in Vienna.[4]



The first page of the "Credo".

According to Mellers, the chronology of the sections of the Mass is obscure.[5]

  • The Sanctus was composed in 1724
  • The Kyrie and Gloria were composed in 1733, the former as a lament for the decease of Elector Augustus the Strong (who had died on 1 February 1733) and the latter to celebrate the accession of his successor the Saxon Elector and later Polish King Augustus III of Poland, who converted to Catholicism in order to ascend the throne of Poland. Bach presented these as a Missa with a set of parts (Kyrie plus Gloria, BWV 232a) to Augustus with a note dates 27 July 1733, in the hope of obtaining the title, "Electoral Saxon Court Composer", complaining that he had "innocently suffered one injury or another" in Leipzig.[6] They were probably performed in 1733, perhaps at the Sophienkirche in Dresden, where Wilhelm Friedemann Bach had been organist since June,[7] though not in the presence of their dedicatees. However in 1734, Bach performed a secular cantata dramma per musica in honour of Augustus in the presence of the King and Queen whose first movement was the same music as the Osanna[8]
  • The Credo may have been written in 1732.
  • In 1747 or 1748 Bach copied out, in noble calligraphy, the whole score.

Although only a few of the pieces in the work can be specifically identified as being reused from earlier music, some scholars such as Joshua Rifkin believe, on the basis of manuscript evidence and compositional models, that the majority of the music was reused.[9] The only exceptions to this are the opening 4 bars of the first Kyrie,[10] and the Confiteor section of the Credo,[11] which both contain erasures and corrections on the manuscript. Details of the parodied movements and their sources are listed in the movement listing.


The Mass in B Minor is widely regarded as one of the supreme achievements of classical music. Alberto Basso summarizes the work as follows: "The Mass in B minor is the consecration of a whole life: started in 1733 for 'diplomatic' reasons, it was finished in the very last years of Bach's life, when he had already gone blind. This monumental work is a synthesis of every stylistic and technical contribution the Cantor of Leipzig made to music. But it is also the most astounding spiritual encounter between the worlds of Catholic glorification and the Lutheran cult of the cross."[12].

Scholars have suggested that the Mass in B Minor belongs in the same category as the Art of Fugue, as a summation of Bach's deep lifelong involvement with musical tradition - in this case, with choral settings and theology. Bach scholar Christoph Wolff describes the work as representing "a summary of his writing for voice, not only in its variety of styles, compositional devices, and range of sonorities, but also in its high level of technical polish...Bach's mighty setting preserved the musical and artistic creed of its creator for posterity."[13]

The Mass was described in the 19th century by Hans Georg Nägeli as "The Greatest Artwork of All Times and All People."[14]. Even though it had never been performed, its importance was appreciated by some of Bach's greatest successors—by the beginning of the 19th century Forkel and Haydn possessed copies, and Beethoven made two attempts to acquire a score[15]

C. P. E. Bach made annotations and corrections to his father's manuscript of the Mass, while also adding emendations and revisions of his own.[16] For this and other reasons, the Mass in B Minor poses a considerable challenge to prospective editors, and substantial variations can be noted in different editions. The manuscript is in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin[17]

Structure of the work

The work consists of 27 sections.

I. Kyrie
  1. Kyrie eleison (1st). 5-part chorus (Soprano I, II, Alto, Tenor, Bass) in B minor, marked Adagio, Largo, common time.[18]
  2. Christe eleison. Duet (soprano I,II) in D major with obbligato violins, marked Andante, common time.
  3. Kyrie eleison (2nd). 4-part chorus (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) in F# minor, marked Allegro moderato, cut-common time ("alla breve").
II. Gloria
Note the 9 (trinitarian, 3 x 3) movements with the largely symmetrical structure, and Domine Deus in the centre.
  1. Gloria in excelsis. 5-part chorus (Soprano I, II, Alto, Tenor, Bass) in D major, marked Vivace, 3/8 time. The music was reused as the opening chorus of Bach's Cantata BWV 191.
  2. Et in terra pax. 5-part chorus (Soprano I, II, Alto, Tenor, Bass) in D major, marked Andante, common time. Again the music was reused as the opening chorus of BWV 191.
  3. Laudamus te. Aria (soprano II) in A major with violin obbligato, marked Andante, common time.
  4. Gratias agimus tibi. 4-part chorus (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) in D major, marked Allegro moderato, cut-common time. The music is a reworking of the second movement of Bach's Ratwechsel Cantata BWV 29.
  5. Domine Deus. Duet (soprano I, tenor) in G major, marked Andante common time. The music is reused as the duet from Cantata BWV 191.
  6. Qui tollis peccata mundi. 4-part chorus (Soprano II, Alto, Tenor, Bass) in B minor, marked Lento, 3/4 time. The chorus is a reworking of the first half of Cantata BWV 46.
  7. Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris. Aria (alto) in B minor with oboe d'amore obbligato, marked Andante commodo, 6/8 time.
  8. Quoniam tu solus sanctus. Aria (bass) in D major with corno da caccia obbligato, marked Andante lento, 3/4 time.
  9. Cum Sancto Spiritu. 5-part chorus (Soprano I, II, Alto, Tenor, Bass) in D major, marked Vivace, 3/4 time. The music is reused in modified form as the closing chorus of BWV 191.
III. Symbolum Nicenum, or Credo
Note the 9 movements with the symmetrical structure, and the crucifixion at the centre.
  1. Credo in unum Deum. 5-part chorus (Soprano I, II, Alto, Tenor, Bass) in A mixolydian, marked Moderato, cut-common time.
  2. Patrem omnipotentem. 4-part chorus (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) in D major, marked Allegro, cut-common time. The music is a reworking of the opening chorus of Cantata BWV 171.
  3. Et in unum Dominum. Duet (soprano I, alto) in G major, marked Andante, common time.
  4. Et incarnatus est. 5-part chorus (Soprano I, II, Alto, Tenor, Bass) in B minor, marked Andante maestoso, 3/4 time.
  5. Crucifixus. 4-part chorus (Soprano II, Alto, Tenor, Bass) in E minor, marked Grave, 3/2 time. The music is a reworking of the opening chorus of Cantata BWV 12.
  6. Et resurrexit. 5-part chorus (Soprano I, II, Alto, Tenor, Bass) in D major, marked Allegro, 3/4 time.
  7. Et in Spiritum Sanctum. Aria (Bass) in A major with oboi d'amore obbligati, marked Andantino, 6/8 time.
  8. Confiteor. 5-part chorus (Soprano I, II, Alto, Tenor, Bass) in F# minor, marked Moderato, Adagio, cut-common time.
  9. Et expecto. 5-part chorus (Soprano I, II, Alto, Tenor, Bass) in D major, marked Vivace ed allegro, cut-common time. The music is a reworking of the second movement (chorus) of Bach's Ratwechsel cantata BWV 120.
IV. Sanctus, Hosanna, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei
  1. Sanctus. 6-part chorus (Soprano I, II, Alto I, II, Tenor, Bass) in D major, marked Largo, common time; Vivace, 3/8 time. Derived from an earlier, now lost, 3 soprano, 1 alto work written in 1724.
  2. Hosanna. 8-part (double) chorus (Soprano I, II, Alto I, II, Tenor I, II, Bass I, II) in D major, marked Allegro, 3/8 time. A reworking of the opening chorus of BWV 215 — although they may share a common lost model themselves.
  3. Benedictus. Aria for tenor with flute obbligato in B minor, marked Andante, 3/4 time.
  4. Hosanna (da capo). 8-part (double) chorus in D major as above.
  5. Agnus Dei. Aria for alto in G minor with violin obbligato, marked Adagio, common time. Derives from an aria of a lost wedding cantata (1725) which Bach also re-used as the alto aria of his Ascension Oratorio (BWV 11) but as the two different surviving versions are markedly different, it is thought they share a common model.
  6. Dona nobis pacem. 4-part chorus in D major, marked Moderato, cut-common time. The music is the same as "Gratias agimus tibi" from the "Gloria".


In 1786, thirty-six years after Bach's death, his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach performed the Symbolum Nicenum section (under the title "Credo") at a charity concert in Hamburg.[19] Scholars believe the Mass was not performed in its entirety until the mid-19th century; according to Bach scholar John Butt, there is "no firm evidence of a complete performance before that of the Riedel-Verein in Leipzig in 1859".[20]

The Bach Choir of Bethlehem performed the American premiere of the complete Mass on March 27, 1900 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, though there is evidence that parts of the Mass had been performed in the United States as early as 1870.[21]

Notable recordings

On modern instruments

Munich Boyd Neel Orchestra
Soloists: Suzanne Danco, Kathleen Ferrier, Peter Pears
Munich Bach Choir, Munich Bach Orchestra
Soloists: Maria Stader, Hertha Töpper, Ernst Haefliger, Kieth Engen, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart / Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
Soloists: Sopranos: Sibylla Rubens, Juliane Banse; Alto: Ingeborg Danz; Tenor: James Taylor; Basses: Andreas Schmidt, Thomas Quasthoff

On period instruments

Taverner Players, Taverner Consort
Soloists: Emma Kirkby, Emily van Evera, Panito Iconomou (boy alto), Christian Immler, Michael Kilian, Rogers Covey-Crump, David Thomas
Concentus Musicus Wien, Chorus Viennensis
Soloists: Rotraud Hansmann, Emiko Iiyama, Helen Watts, Kurt Equiluz, Max van Egmond
Collegium Musicum van de Nederlandse Bachvereniging, La Petite Bande
Soloists: Isabelle Poulenard, Guillemette Laurens, René Jacobs, John Elwes, Max van Egmond, Harry van der Kamp
The English Baroque Soloists, The Monteverdi Choir
Soloists: Nancy Argenta, Michael Chance, Elizabeth Wilcock, Stephen Varcoe, Carol Hall, Mary Nichols
Netherlands Chamber Choir, Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century
Soloists: Nico van der Meel, Harry van der Kamp
Rias Kammerchor, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Soloists: Hillevi Martinpelto, Bernarda Fink, Christoph Prégardien, Matthias Görne, Franz-Josef Selig
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir
Soloists: Barbara Schlick, Kai Wessel, Guy de Mey, Klaus Mertens
Collegium Vocale Gent
Soloists: Johannette Zomer, Véronique Gens, Andreas Scholl, Christoph Prégardien, Peter Kooy, Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Les Musiciens du Louvre/Grenoble
Soloists: Nathalie Stutzmann (Alto), Luca Tittoto (Bass), Joanne Lunn (Soprano), Terry Wey (Countertenor), Christian Immler (Bass), Lucy Crowe (Soprano), Markus Brutscher (Tenor), Blandine Staskiewicz (Mezzo Soprano), Colin Balzer (Tenor), Julia Lezhneva (Soprano)


  1. George F. Stauffer, Bach, the Mass in B Minor: The Great Catholic Mass, Yale University Press, 2003, ISBN 0300099665, ISBN 9780300099669, p. 34.
  2. Aylesbury Choral Society, March 2004, Mass in B Minor.
  3. Stauffer, pp. 258–59.
  4. This hypothesis is circulating on the web. However, no scholarly paper is to be found on the web, except a brief abstract that alludes to this hypothesis:
  5. The following bases on Mellers, p. 161.
  6. An English translation of the letter is given in Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, W. W. Norton & Company, 1945, p. 128. (Also in "The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents" revised by Christoph Wolff, W. W. Norton & Co Inc, 1998, ISBN 9780393045581, p. 158.)
  7. The details added in this section are from Christoph Wolff "Bach", III, 7 (§8), Grove Music Online ed., L. Macy. . Last accessed August 9, 2007.
  8. The Bach Reader, p. 132.
  9. John Butt, Bach: Mass in B Minor (Cambridge Music Handbooks), Cambridge University Press, 1991, ISBN 9780521387163, p. 42.
  10. Butt, p. 44.
  11. Butt, p. 56.
  12. "The 'Great Mass' in B minor" in the booklet to the recording by Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent, released from Harmonia Mundi, HML5901614.15, 1999. [1]
  13. Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, W. W. Norton & Company, 2000, ISBN 0393322564, pp. 441-42.
  14. 'Markus Rathey, 'Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor: The Greatest Artwork of All Times and All People The Tangeman Lecture delivered April 18, 2003
  15. John Butt Mass in B Minor — Bach’s only complete setting of the latin ordinary of the mass
  16. Butt, Bach: Mass in B Minor, p. 26.
  17. Facsimile Announcement
  18. Bach's notation C—common time—indicates the modern 4/4, and split C (letter C with vertical line through it) "alla breve", the modern 2/2. This notation was commonplace in that time.
  19. Butt, Bach: Mass in B Minor, p. 27.
  20. Butt, p. 29
  21. Butt, p. 31.

External links

hu:H-moll miseja:ミサ曲 ロ短調pt:Missa em Si menor ru:Месса си минор simple:Mass in B minor fi:H-mollimessu (Bach) sv:Mässa h-moll (Bach) zh:B小调弥撒

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