The Story of the Mass in B minor

When considered against the above context the Mass in B Minor is, on the face of it, something of an oddity, in more than one way. To start with the setting is in Latin – a language largely shunned by the Lutherans for its inaccessibility to the common man. Secondly, unlike the other major works mentioned above, each of which was written over a short but intensive period of time for a specific occasion, and with a date already chosen for performance, the Mass in B Minor was written, re-written and gradually assembled in bits and pieces over the course of several decades; the various movements being composed separately and to fulfil different purposes. The work was not performed in one sitting in Bach’s lifetime, and therefore not directed by him in the way that the Passions were. That having been said, the Mass in B Minor is a setting of the mass which, at the time of its completion, was unprecedented both in its scale and density, and also in its complexity. It is written in oratorio style, with the text being separated out into twenty-seven different movements; some for choir, variously of 4, 5, 6 and 8 parts, and some for soloists, or as duets, with instrumental obbligati. Significantly, Bach never assigned the work its current title, and there is no record of him ever having referred to it collectively as a mass, although that is undoubtedly what it is. Instead he groups the twenty-seven consecutive movements of the work (which take the text sequentially from a liturgical point of view) into four divisions, which he titled Missa (Kyrie and Gloria), Symbolum Nicenum (Credo), Sanctus (Sanctus and Pleni sunt) and Osanna (Osanna, Benedictus, Osanna again, Agnus Dei, Dona nobis). Sir John Eliot Gardiner (in his book Music in the Castle of Heaven) describes the final opus as one of “sobriety, symbolism and majesty”. Constructed, as it was, over a number of years, the compositional process nevertheless portrays a unity, despite having been interrupted frequently and for lengthy periods. The musicologist Nicholas Kenyon (in his book simply called Bach) describes the Mass in B Minor as being “exultantly direct in its communication”. The first seeds of the work were germinated during Bach’s time at the Ducal Palace at Weimar where, still a teenager, he was employed as a court musician on and off from 1703 – 1717; an early version of the Crucifixus movement was written as a stand-alone piece in Weimar. The final bars of the completed mass were not to be composed until just days before his death, some four or five decades later. 

The tonality of the work by Bach’s standards is somewhat limited, and is centred around the key of B Minor and a handful of closely related keys: D Major, G Major, A Major, E Minor and lastly F# Minor, which he reserves for the most poignant and sin-burdened moments. These keys are all closely related to one other, having only one, two or three sharps, and therefore being only one or two steps apart from each other in the circle of fifths (the recognised pattern which links the twelve major and twelve minor keys together in a logical way). Keys with flats in them are not used except, inexplicably, for the Agnus Dei.  

Apart from the aforementioned Crucifixus, the first complete movement to be composed was the Sanctus, which was written as a hymn of praise for Christmas Day in 1724 (Bach’s second Christmas in Leipzig). At this time we can imagine Bach to have been mature, though youthful, still full of enthusiasm for his relatively new position in Leipzig, and anxious to impress his employers, his staff of salaried musicians and the Leipzig public. The work is a shimmering setting of the words where Trinitarian symbolism is rife and difficult to ignore. It uses a 6 part chorus of SSAATB, the preponderance of upper voices being helpful in the setting of the text. The word Sanctus comes three times in the original text and this movement makes extensive use of triplet figures, and groups of three voices and three instruments which call back and forth to one another antiphonally. The second section, Pleni sunt cœli, is in triple time. With trumpets and timpani ever present, and the florid vocal texture with its incessantly high tessitura, this youthful and joyous writing has a certain Byzantine or Venetian quality to it and surely owes a certain amount to the early seventeenth century flamboyancy of composers such as Monteverdi and Gabrieli, as well as to the early Baroque Italian operatic genre. 

Moving forwards some nine years from the 1724 Sanctus to 1733, we now encounter a more jaded Bach, who had become somewhat dissatisfied with his lot in Leipzig. He had been in post for ten years by now, and had produced a huge amount of music for the instant and ongoing gratification of his employers and the church-going public. He had recently fallen out with the newly appointed Burgomeister (Senior Town Clerk) who had complained that he was regularly neglecting his teaching duties at the Thomasschule and had tried to have him dismissed. We can see from contemporary documentation that there is indeed evidence that Bach’s enthusiasm for this side of his appointment had waned significantly, although there is no reason to suggest that his creative genius had suddenly become dormant; instead a new outlet for it was needed. (As we shall see, there is evidence to suggest that at this time Bach was quietly paving the way for his own transfer to a senior musical appointment in Dresden.)