The text of the Mass in B minor, and a commentary on the music to aid listening

Text  of the Latin Mass 


I. Missa 

(Kyrie Eleison)

Kyrie eleison.

Lord have mercy.

After an arousing 4 bar opening “call to worship”, in an arresting and declamatory fashion, the orchestra gently begins a lengthy fugal section. The voices join in (T/A/S1/S2/B) and perpetuate the fugal counterpoint. Two choral sections are separated by a short orchestral episode. When the voices rejoin the texture after this they do so in pitch order from the basses upward. (This, along with the Christe eleison, are the only movements of the mass to have a Greek text.)

Christe eleison.

Christ have mercy.

A movement for soprano duet (soprano and counter-tenor on this occasion) in the Galant style, accompanied by first and second violins in unison and continuo. (Here Bach may have been trying to impress the Dresden authorities by displaying his grasp of the emerging  new style.) The music features much imitation between the vocal parts and the violins. Passages in parallel thirds and sixths are also a feature of the music, as is the flattened seventh in a harmonic context. Christoph Wolff, in his Pulitzer Prize book on Bach, likens this movement to a secular operatic duet in the Italian style.

Kyrie eleison.

Lord have mercy.

A fugue for SATB in the old (stile antico) style, with the voices again entering the counterpoint in pitch order from lowest to highest. In this movement there is no orchestral embellishment – the instruments merely double the voices. The melodic shape of the subject, which from its starting point rises a semitone, then falls by a tone before returning to the starting note is perceived by many to outline the musical shape of a cross; it is a motif which is used heavily in both passion settings by Bach as a symbolic leitmotiv to represent the crucifix. The movement is in F# minor, an angular key which Bach reserves for moments of greatest poignancy, but ends with a tierce de picardie (a major chord), as if the sins for which mercy is being asked are finally atoned for.


Gloria in excelsis Deo, 

Glory be to God on high,

The music for this D major fugal movement is taken from an earlier secular cantata. It is a fulsome movement, featuring trumpets and timpani and the momentum is unrelenting until its final cadence when it leads, without a break, into the next movement.

et in terra pax,

 hominibus bonae voluntatis.

and in Earth peace,

goodwill towards men.

The vocal parts are syncopated in this movement, and unfold from one another like waves lapping gently at a shore. The brass and percussion are dropped and the voices imitate the instruments in an antiphonal way. Two different musical ideas persist in this movement; a motif with repeating notes phrased as couplets, and a running semiquaver figure requiring vocal dexterity.