J.S. Bach Mass in B Minor

“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.”

-Alberto Basso ("The 'Great Mass' in B minor" in the booklet to the recording by Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent, Harmonia Mundi, 1999)

Bach's Mass in B minor stands at the very pinnacle of musical, and perhaps spiritual, achievement in the composition of sacred choral music. It is a work of monumental scale, quite impractical in a liturgical context; yet its sheer vastness is surely a reflection of the depth of both the work and the composer’s spiritual devotion.

The B Minor Mass is such an established part of the choral repertoire that the listener may not always realise that it is also somewhat of an enigma. Its history is one of development rather than straightforward composition, and even the most current research has failed to assign a complete series of precise dates to the various stages of its creation. At the heart of the mystery lie two questions: first, at what point did Bach, a Lutheran Protestant, plan to write a full Roman Catholic Mass and second, did he really regard the resulting composition as a performable work at the time of its completion? Speculation on these questions continues to resound now, almost three hundred years after Bach’s death.

In attempting a description of the mass and its origins, we take the year 1733 as our starting point. Bach had been in the prosperous Saxon town of Leipzig for ten years, serving as Musical Director of the chief churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas and as cantor of St. Thomas's School. His creative genius had already produced many of the great works by which we know and adore him today. That first decade at Leipzig alone had seen the composition of five complete cycles of church cantatas appropriate to all the feasts of the Christian year, his two great Passion settings - the St. John and St. Matthew, as well as instrumental works and orchestral pieces.

In 1729, he had added to a heavy workload of musical supervision, performance, recital work and teaching by taking over direction of the Collegium Musicum, an orchestra of professional town musicians and university students that gave concerts at a local coffee house.

However, busy musician though he was, Bach was frequently at odds with his colleagues and employers at St. Thomas's School and with the elders of the town council. Often there were disputes concerning fees, which were so vital to Bach, with a large family to support. By 1733, there is some evidence to suggest that he was feeling unappreciated at Leipzig. On 1 February of that year, Augustus II, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, died, leading to a period of enforced inactivity for Bach during the following five months of mourning, when all public music-making was temporarily suspended.

Relieved of the composition and supervision of music for the Lenten services, Bach found himself with time to devote to personal projects. It is believed that he 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. The Missa comprised settings of the Kyrie and Gloria from the ordinary of the Mass. Its ecumenical qualities undoubtedly stimulated Bach to make a musical setting that he, a Lutheran, could duly dedicate to his new sovereign Augustus III, a Catholic.

In the early months of 1733, Bach's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, had secured the post as organist at St Sophia's Church, Dresden and began work there in June. In July, Johann Sebastian had a good excuse to visit Dresden, to see how Friedemann was settling in. While there, he visited the court of the new Elector Augustus and presented him with a copy of the parts of the Missa, together with a petition dated 27 July 1733 dedicating the work to the Elector and referring to the Missa as "this insignificant example of the skill that I have acquired in Musique".

The petition also included a request to be given a court title that he hoped would improve his standing at Leipzig and give him some measure of security from what he considered to be the insulting treatment meted out to him by the Leipzig authorities. The petition failed, although the Missa may well have received a performance in Dresden that year. Bach did, however, eventually get his title, he was made court composer to Augustus in 1736.

As to when Bach decided to expand the Missa into a full-blown setting of the Catholic Mass is a matter of conjecture. Most modern researchers believe that the "Symbolum Nicenum" (Bach's term for the Credo) was composed between 1742 and 1745, but there are those that think it predates the Missa and was first heard in 1732. The Sanctus, (a reworking of a setting of the same text that was already two decades old), the Benedictus, the Agnus Dei and the Dona Nobis Pacem were added in the late 1740s.

The B Minor Mass did not assume its final form until Bach's last years, perhaps by 1748. This was a period in which Bach was preoccupied with musical projects that he obviously wished to be regarded as monuments of his skill, such as The Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering. It may be that the Mass also belongs to this category, for (as will be seen from the description that follows) it is a work based almost entirely upon earlier music that Bach adapted and refined to meet a lofty sacred purpose.

We may never know why he chose to marry his music to the Roman liturgy. We do know that he admired the Italian masters of sacred music from Palestrina to Pergolesi. Perhaps he hoped, like them, to leave his own musical essay upon the subject of this timeless text. He certainly followed the Italian fashion by using a richly diverse mixture of styles, and in choosing to reuse earlier material he may have felt himself to be selecting his finest work, laying it out for our inspection, and putting it to the service of praising God. In the event, whether he intended it or not, Bach has produced a moving and, notwithstanding its disparate origins and styles, highly unified work transcending religious denominations.