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Mass in B Minor (Bach)

The Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) is a work of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. As its name implies, it is a musical setting of the Latin Mass. Although parts of the Mass in B Minor date to 1724, the whole was assembled in its present form in 1749, just before the composer's death in 1750.

Table of contents
1 Background and Context of the Mass in B Minor
2 Structure of the Work
3 Recordings
4 More information

Background and Context of the Mass in B Minor

Interestingly, Bach did not give the work a title; instead, 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 Santus, 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. However, the Mass presents a powerful and unified musical experience. Due to its length--over two hours of music--it was never performed as part of a church liturgy. The first performance seems to have been after Bach's death, when his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach performed the Gloria section (but not the entire Mass) in Berlin. Large-scale performances of the entire Mass in B Minor were not staged until the 19th century.

Some have questioned why Bach, a Lutheran, would put such effort into creating a Latin Mass of this magnitude. After all, the Latin Mass is part of the traditional liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, and the historical record does not point to any commissioner of the work, leaving us to believe that Bach wrote this Mass for personal reasons. First, the 18th century Lutherans often used the Latin Mass as part of their liturgy, especially the Kyrie and Gloria sections, which the entire congregation probably sang. Second, the aging Bach, having spent his life seeking musical excellence, may have began to think that the German cantatas he had spent so much of his professional life writing were something of a fad in music, restricted to the German Lutheran churches and, as he correctly predicted, the 18th century, whereas the Latin Mass was almost universal and timeless as a form of church music. Thus, the Mass in B Minor represents Bach's effort to place his music in a more abstract context.

Bach composed what would become the Gloria of the B Minor Mass for Christmas Day, 1724, and added, in 1731, a Kyrie so that he could present an abbreviated Mass (Kyrie plus Gloria, BWV 232a) to the Saxon Elector Fredrich Augustus II as part of a request to add the title, "Electoral Saxon Court Composer," to his name, a political move he hoped would bolster his standing in Leipzig, where he was having minor political skirmishes with the town council. The score sat on Bach's, and the Elector's, shelves, unperformed, until 1737, when Bach revisited it. He began making small revisions to the Kyrie and Gloria and added the Credo and Sanctus over the next two years. In 1749, Bach was struck ill and spent several months in bed; the manuscript of these last parts of the Mass in B Minor, especially the Hosanna section of the Sanctus, are written in a wobbly, uneven hand, indicating that Bach wrote these passages while he was sick and surely contemplating his own death.

In the 1730s, when he may have been toying with the idea of expanding the initial Kyrie-Gloria Mass, Bach studied and performed Palestrina's Missa sine nomine, which he then copied with revisions, and Antonio Lotti's Misse sapientiae. Other works with direct bearing on the Mass in B Minor include an unnamed Mass in F major by Giovanni Baptista Bassani, to which Bach added a setting of Credo in unum Deum (BWV 1081) and Antonio Caldara's Magnificat, the Suscepit Israel portion of which forms the basis for Bach's contrapuntal study BWV 1082. Notably, Bach's only other five-part choral work is his D major setting of the Magnificat. Many older cantatas by Bach himself are incorporated into the Mass in B Minor, which not only adds to accuracy of the work as a picture of Bach's creative genius but also preserves some of these older works, as the original scores of some of them have been lost.

Structure of the Work


More information

A Closer Look at the Individual Movements of Bach's B Minor Mass