The grouping of the musical movements in the Osanna section is unusual. Whilst they appear in the correct order liturgically, albeit with a truncated Agnus Dei rather than the usual threefold structure, they are not linked in this way from a continuity point of view, with the giving and receiving of the sacrament falling between the second Osanna and the Agnus Dei at the Eucharist. A full antiphonal 8-part double choir is required for the Osanna, and the gradual expansion of the choral texture from 4, 5, and 6 parts to 8, as the mass proceeds when taken as a whole, seems natural as we progress to the central part of the liturgical purpose. There is also a full complement of instruments required at this point with three oboes, three trumpets and timpani added to the instrumental core of strings, flutes, bassoons and continuo. (Bach failed to nominate an obbligato instrument in his manuscript for the Benedictus, so conductors are free to choose for themselves.) Each of the movements in this final section of the work is a parody from earlier music.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner makes the point that Bach’s energy, expended on the Latin Mass in such a complete and intense way, might have been a final rebellion against the authorities which employed (and possibly stifled) him. We know that, at the end of his life, Bach was still dissatisfied with his lot in Leipzig, and had made a number of attempts over the years to escape to pastures new, not all of which are documented here. We also know that he was the subject of ongoing criticism from the people of Leipzig as the new Galant style took hold, and his music began to be regarded by many as turgid, boring, old-fashioned and unappealing. Despite the hundreds of cantatas, pieces of sacred music and organ music written by him during his Leipzig period, he must have realised that the days when they would be performed were nearing their end. Indeed, even his own son, C.P.E. Bach, chose not to perform a single piece written by his father during a twenty one year period from 1767-1788 which he spent holding a position in Hamburg very similar to his father’s in Leipzig. In this Mass though, the final statement of his work, Bach seems deliberately to have contrasted the new and old styles side by side. Maybe this was a belligerent statement, although it is interesting to note that, in the Mass in B Minor, he dispensed entirely with the Da Capo aria, which was so freely used in the passions and cantatas, but which had largely gone out of fashion by the mid eighteenth century.

From the extensive library of cantatas, passions, motets, chorales and other sacred music, in the final years of his life, it is possible to regard the Mass in B Minor as a coming together, or a distilling of all of Bach’s achievements in the field of sacred music. 

The first public performance of the Symbolum Nicenum, the final section of the work to have been written, took place 36 years after Bach's death, in the spring of 1786 at a benefit concert for the Medical Institute for the Poor in Hamburg. The next documented performance (not in public) comes in the nineteenth century when Carl Friedrich Zelter, a minor composer, but along with Mendelssohn, a key figure in the 19th-century Bach revival, led the Berlin Singakademie in private ‘sing-throughs’ of the Kyrie in 1811, and the entire work in 1813 using manuscripts plundered from C.P.E. Bach’s library, in whose catalogue it was ominously listed as The Great Catholic Mass. The first known public performance of the Missa section took place in Frankfurt in March 1828, with over 200 performers and instrumentalists. A number of performances of sections of the Mass are documented in the following decades across Europe, but the first attested public performance of the Mass in its entirety took place in 1859 in Leipzig. 

I will leave the last comment in my programme notes to Professor John Butt. In one of his books on Bach, entitled The Mass in B Minor, he states; In summary [the B Minor Mass] may be the greatest unifying work by any composer and this appears to be a conscious attempt by Bach to depict the sense of universality behind his spirituality.