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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Bach's Mass in B minor

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

In November 2008 I presented a series of three Keys To Music programs on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) covering one of the “Everests” of western music. Known to us today as the Mass in B minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, this magnificent opus is truly one of the pieces of music I could not live without. I wanted to talk about it, to share its story, and to make it more approachable to the average music lover. But with the B minor Mass, I decided that, even though I could have covered it adequately in two one-hour programs, I simply couldn’t live with myself if I omitted a single note of the piece. For that reason, rather than surveying the work in two programs and playing extracts from the various movements (which would have necessitated fading in and out of some sections), I took my time and played every single movement complete over three episodes. One of the perks of being not only the presenter but also the producer of a radio program.

What follows here is the entire survey drawn from all three programs. For the musical examples I will link to a magnificent performance of the Mass now available on YouTube featuring the Netherlands Bach Society. This video of a live performance is thrilling, moving and beautiful; it’s possibly the finest performance of the work I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t separate the movements into single “tracks” so in each case you’ll need to find a certain time point in the complete video. Believe me, it’ll be worth it.

The video can be found here.


For a work so universally admired and widely-performed, it’s staggering to realise that we know so little about the B minor Mass’s origins or reason for existing. Scholars have argued for two centuries about much of the detail of how, when and why Bach wrote (or perhaps more accurately, compiled) this masterpiece; they still do. For this survey I am drawing mostly on the research of the highly respected musicologist and Bach specialist John Butt, primarily from his 1991 book on the B minor Mass in the Cambridge Music Handbooks series, as well as his more recent writings which can be found online.

In 1733, Bach marked ten years since his appointment as Kantor to the major Lutheran churches in Leipzig. Despite creating the bulk of his cantata repertoire in that period, it had not been a happy time, with constant disputes with church and civic authorities. To increase his prestige and “clout” in the town, Bach sought some recognition from higher up the social world.

In July of 1733 Bach presented a set of performance parts for some of his church music to the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich Augustus II, in Dresden. In an accompanying letter Bach requested an honorary court title in the hope that this would improve his lot in Leipzig. The “trifling product” (Bach’s description) of his work which he sent was an enormously elaborate setting of the Kyrie and Gloria, the texts which would normally be set in a concerted manner for a Lutheran Mass (and called a Missa in the Lutheran tradition) but which would also find a place in the Catholic worship in Dresden.

There is no conclusive evidence that this music was ever performed in this form either in Dresden or in Leipzig during Bach’s lifetime. Bach didn’t get a title from the Elector for another three years, but that’s another story.

We fast-forward now to the late 1740s, the final years of Bach’s life, when he was undertaking some extraordinary compositional activity. It has recently been shown that Bach’s final major work as a composer was the creation of a huge setting of the complete Catholic Mass, using the Kyrie and Gloria from the 1733 Missa as the starting point and adding the other movements either arranged from pre-existing works or freshly-composed.

The Mass in B minor as we know it is a missa tota, a full setting of the five sections of the ordinary of the Catholic Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. In order to create this work Bach compiled (in the late 1740s) right at the end of his life music from across his composing career. The 1733 Missa for the Elector of Saxony was just the start. The Credo - numbered as part two of the final score - was called Symbolum Nicenum by Bach. This means “Nicene Creed” and is the formal name for this statement of Christian belief which sets it apart from other two major creeds of the western church, the Apostle’s Creed and the Athanasian Creed. Some of the music in the Credo was new, some was adapted from pre-existing cantata movements.

The Sanctus (without Osanna and Benedictus) was a text sung in Lutheran churches at Christmas and Bach’s D major setting of 1724 was adapted for the missa tota. Bach called this section part three. The remaining texts - Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem - were then compiled in a separate score called part four, and again, earlier music was adapted to fit at least some of these texts.

What Bach ended up with, then, was a massive work lasting nearly two hours in performance which summarised his life as a composer of church music. Scholars now date the final work on the piece to have been carried out in October 1749, less than a year before Bach’s death. Thus the B minor Mass - and not The Art of Fugue as is usually supposed - was most likely Bach’s last major work as a composer.

There is no convincing evidence that the whole Mass as finished in 1749 was intended for any actual performance, and there's no solid evidence that any performance took place in Bach’s lifetime. Most scholars these days seem to agree that this music was written for posterity, a summation of a life’s work, in the same way as The Art of Fugue summarises Bach’s life as a master of fugue. This complete Mass is nothing less than a compendium of Bach’s finest work as a composer of church music, covering every conceivable style from the most austere and learned counterpoint to music inspired by dance and even opera.

The majority of the choral movements are scored for voices in five parts: two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass. This was a feature of the choral practice in Dresden and a marked departure from Bach’s usual four-part choral writing in Leipzig. Still, some of the music known or assumed to be based on pre-existing works is in four parts. The choral and orchestral textures are constantly changing in this work, which in part contributes to its reputation as a grand compendium of Bach’s church music from virtually his entire career.

Haussmann: Johann Sebastian Bach (1746)

The six words of the Kyrie are divided into three movements. Each of the movements is in a different key, the tonic notes of which outline the notes of a B minor triad: B, D and F sharp. The first Kyrie (the words mean “Lord have mercy”) is a monumental fugue for five part chorus with an independent orchestral part. It is also the longest movement in the entire Mass, an overwhelming introduction to Bach’s skill in making counterpoint which is academically staggering in its complexity simultaneously engaging and powerful on an emotional level.

Video: 0’05 to 11’06

For the text “Christe eleison” (Christ have mercy), Bach embraces a completely different style, writing a sensuous, operatically-inspired duet for two sopranos. Some scholars believe that this was adapted from one of Bach’s earlier works which is now lost, a supposition which is supported by the appearance of Bach’s manuscript and other details, and a view which is held about many of the movements in the Mass.

Video: 11’07 to 15’55

The second Kyrie is set by Bach to an austere four-part fugue in F sharp minor which the orchestra does not have an independent part. In this movement the orchestra only doubles the voice parts.

Video: 15’56 to 19’42

The complete Mass is known as the Mass in B minor because the first Kyrie is in that key, but the tonal centre of the remainder of the work is in B minor’s relative major key, D major. The Gloria, the second main text in the ordinary of the Mass, follows. Bach divides the text into nine movements, a number which is significant giving it is three times three, the number of the trinity. Such numerological issues were clearly part of Bach’s creative world and part of his thought processes. Some writers go completely overboard in finding bizarre numerological correlations in this and other music by Bach, in my opinion, but there are certainly times when the numbers of parts and instruments bear a direct relation to the text and the doctrines being expressed. Dividing the Gloria into nine movements is probably one of them.

The Gloria opens with a pair of connected movements. The first is a joyous and dance-inspired setting of “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Glory be to God on high) in which the trumpets and timpani are heard for the first time. The second follows without a break, a slower but no less impressive setting of “Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis” (And on earth peace, goodwill towards men). In both these movements the five voice parts work in stunningly involved counterpoint.

Video: 19’43 to 26’05

The exclamations of praise which follow - we praise thee, we bless thee, and so forth - are set as an aria for the second soprano soloist. Bach is most meticulous in calling for five soloists in this work, five voices which match the five parts of the choir. Modern performances often give the second soprano and alto solos to a single mezzo soprano soloist, but in these programs I’ll use the allocations as notated by Bach.

This amazingly florid aria has two soloists - a solo violin shares the “stage” with the second soprano - with the rest of the strings accompanying. It’s fascinating to conjecture the singer Bach might have had in mind when he wrote this for the Dresden court chapel. Could it have been Faustina Bordoni? Bach would almost certainly have heard this famous singer in Dresden 1731 singing in an opera by her husband, Johann Adolphe Hasse, whom she had married the year before. Before this Faustina had been one of the sopranos who sang for Handel in his operas in London in the 1720s. She was certainly one of the most famous singers of the age and an aria like this, which could but for the words have almost come straight off the stage of the latest opera, seems tailor-made for her.

This aria seems to hint at the possibility of it being based on a lost original which was in da capo form. Bach often used da capo form in his German-language arias. This is a form in which the entire first section of the aria is repeated verbatim after a contrasting middle section. Interestingly though, he never used da capo form in setting Latin texts and there are many examples such as this aria where we are left wondering if we’re hearing a reworking of a lost original in da capo form.

Video: 26’06 to 30’08

Bach’s structure in this Gloria is not only framed in nine movements but there is a clear balance to the way in which these movements are arranged. The Gloria started with a pair of linked movements and it will end with a pair of linked movements. The intervening five movements are balanced in a palindrome pattern: solo-chorus-duet-chorus-solo. The first solo in this sequence is the aria we just heard; the chorus which follows sets the text “Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam” (We give thee thanks for thy great glory).

This is a four-part fugue which, like the second Kyrie, has the two soprano parts in unison, and no independent part for the orchestra apart from some of the trumpet figurations near the end. It’s also the first movement of the Mass which we know was definitely based on a pre-existing piece. In this case it’s the first chorus from Bach’s Cantata BWV29, which was first performed in Leipzig in 1731. The German text of the original, Wir danken dir, Gott, is almost the same sentiment as the Latin text to which it is adapted here, although Bach had to rework some of the music to make it fit.

Video: 30’09 to 33’18

The next two movements of the B minor Mass are also linked. We are now right in the centre of the Gloria section, and the text describing the various attributes of Christ as God is set by Bach in an exquisite duet for the first soprano and tenor soloists. A solo flute is juxtaposed against the singers, and the accompanying strings have the violins and violas muted and the cellos and basses playing pizzicato. The unity of the first two persons of the trinity - God the father and God the son - is suggested by the fact that the soloists sing different texts at the same time. One soloist sings of the father, the other of the son, and the lines are intertwined in such a way as to make it impossible to miss the significance of the musical setting.

This is one of two occasions in the B minor Mass where Bach deviates from the prescribed Catholic text of the Latin ordinary. After “Jesu Christe” he adds the word “altissime”, meaning Jesus Christ the most high. This was in accordance with accepted Lutheran practice of the day, and we do well to remember that even in the 18th century Latin texts such as the Gloria were permitted and freely used in Lutheran worship.

Although no original model survives, it seems likely that this duet also was based on a lost work which was originally in da capo form. Here, though, Bach deals with this by omitting any reprise and instead moving on to the next part of the text in a new movement sung by the chorus in four parts (the first sopranos are silent). This chorus movement is in B minor, the first time we have been in this key since the first Kyrie. It sets the prayer for mercy (Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us; thou that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer). The flute from the duet is joined by a second flute and these entwine the music with tendrils of delicate aural beauty. The upper strings remain muted but the cello and bass now take up their bows rather than play pizzicato.

The choral movement is Bach’s adaptation of a movement from his cantata BWV46, a movement which in the original talks about Christ dying for the sins of the world. Again, the sense of the original cantata movement is maintained in the Latin text from the Mass, although Bach had to exert quite a bit of musical surgery on the movement to make it fit the new words.

Video: 33’19 to 41’38

That music ends on the dominant - a chord of F sharp major. This leads perfectly to the next movement (the seventh movement of the Gloria) which is also in B minor. The text “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris”, the final prayer for mercy in the Gloria text, is set by Bach in a mellifluous aria for alto voice accompanied by a solo oboe d’amore and strings. The oboe d’amore is an alto oboe which became obsolete after Bach’s lifetime but its warm and sensuous tone was often used by Bach is his cantatas and Passion settings.

Some scholars believe that this aria - which appears in Bach’s score with little evidence of corrections and with the voice part added after the instrumental parts - is an adaptation of a pre-existing aria which is now lost. Regardless of its origins, the aria shows Bach’s unerring sense of balance with the interplay between the alto oboe and the alto voice.

Video: 41’39 to 50’32

The Gloria ends with two of the most extraordinary movements not only in the whole Mass - which is full of extraordinary movements - but in all music of the 18th century. Like the “Gloria” and “Et in terra” movements at the start of this large structure, the “Quoniam” and “Cum sancto spiritu” movements are connected, but the here the first is scored for a solo voice, and the second involves the full orchestra and choir.

The text of the aria describes the uniqueness of Christ - “thou alone art holy, thou only art the Lord, thou only art most high” - and there are many theories behind the origin of this unique movement. It is scored for bass voice with the seemingly bizarre combination of a solo horn, two solo bassoons, and continuo. In other words, Bach is describing the most high with some of the lowest sounds possible.

The musicologist Klaus Häfner has suggested - with considerable evidence from Bach’s corrected errors in the score - that this music might have been originally scored with trumpet and oboes rather than horn and bassoons. In the baroque scheme of affekt this would be a far more appropriate scoring for such a text. However the presence at the Dresden court (for which this music was originally written) of the horn virtuoso Johann Adam Schindler (whom Bach probably heard) might have influenced the decision to provide a solo for the horn here. This would suggest a lower accompaniment, hence the use of bassoons. This is just conjecture, but it goes part of the way to explaining this seemingly unique combination of instruments. This is the only movement in the entire B minor Mass to require a horn.

The aria leads without a break into the great chorus which concludes the Gloria, setting “Cum sancto spiritu” (With the holy spirit, in the glory of God the father, Amen). Regardless of the origins of this music - and the theories abound - there is no doubting that Bach has provided one of the most dazzling and technically challenging pieces of music for his performers. The five parts of the chorus are required to sing with incredible agility, accuracy, stamina and breath control, and the orchestral writing is sensationally varied and exciting.

Thinking back to the origins of the Missa sent to Dresden in 1733, I couldn’t think of a better way to end a request for a court title. The fact that the music seems not to have been used at all either there or anywhere else is a poignant reminder of the fact that in his lifetime Bach’s genius was not universally appreciated.

Video: 45’50 to 54’10

So ends the original Kyrie and Gloria of 1733 which Bach used as the starting point for the Mass he compiled in the 1740s. The next text is the Credo, the Nicene Creed, which in usual Lutheran practice of the late 17th and early 18th centuries was either chanted in Latin by the choir or sung in a hymn paraphrase by the congregation. There was no precedent for an elaborate, multi-movement setting of the Credo in Bach’s regular church requirements, so in compiling the B minor Mass he set about creating something which was - for him - unique.

The Credo as it stands now is, like the Gloria, in nine movements. This triple trinity numbering is no accident, but it’s instructive to note that Bach originally planned the Credo with eight movements. Still, the final nine movement plan is, again, perfectly balanced. It begins and ends, like the Gloria, with pairs of connected choruses. At the centre is a set of three choral movements which are themselves framed by movements involving soloists. The central movement of the Credo describes the crucifixion of Jesus, which places the central tenet of the Christian faith as the fulcrum for a perfectly balanced musical structure.

Credo (Bach's manuscript)

In traditional Catholic practice up to and beyond Bach’s day, the opening line of the Credo was not usually set to music by the composer but intoned in Gregorian chant by the priest. The musical setting then began at the words “Patrem omnipotentem”. Bach reflects this in the B minor Mass by setting the opening line in a fugue in which the subject is the Gregorian chant for this line. The number seven is accepted by some Christians as a number reflecting divine completeness in the Bible, and this would not have been unknown to Bach. The five parts of the choir and the two violin parts perform a seven-part fugue on words which mean “I believe in one God”, and the Gregorian chant melody itself contains seven notes on seven syllables. The only other part of the orchestra involved is the continuo line, which does not take part in the fugue. Rather, it provides an incessant “walking” bass line of crotchets moving up and down the scale in wave-like patterns.

Video: 54’14 to 56’12

This leads directly into the Credo’s second movement, setting the text which is translated “the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible”. The chorus goes from five parts to four (the sopranos combine) and the full orchestra is involved with the exception of the flutes.

Essentially, this music is a four part fugue for the voices, starting from the bass and working up through the parts, but each of the first three entries are accompanied by the other parts singing the words from the preceding movement (“Credo in unum Deum”). Mid-way through this movement there exists one of the most notoriously difficult trumpet solos in the entire repertoire, the effect of which is to crown this glorious affirmation of belief in an omnipotent God.

Video: 56’13 to 58’14

It is at this point in the Credo that we encounter something most unusual. The next movement is a duet for the first soprano and the alto and it exists in two versions. Composers like Bach only usually wrote different versions of pieces to reflect different performing conditions when a work was repeated. If there is no record of this music ever having been performed, why did Bach make two versions of the duet?

The answer is made clear by a close examination of Bach’s score. I said earlier that Bach had originally planned for the Credo to consist of eight movements. In order to do this he had to divide up the text and decide which words would go into which movements. His original plan was to cover a very large amount of the text in this duet, so that it covered the whole section of the Credo which deals with Christ’s nature and birth (that is, up to and including “et homo factus est”). This would have led straight into the movement describing the crucifixion (“Crucifixus”), which originally had no introduction but started at the voice entry.

Bach decided to alter this by having the duet cover less text and inserting a new movement after it, a chorus which begins with the words “Et incarnatus est”. He rewrote the voice parts of the duet with the new text underlay (and some alteration to the music) and inserted the page with the new chorus which then led into the Crucifixus which was at that stage given the short introduction we now know. Thus eight movements became nine.

Therefore, in my opinion, the only version of the duet which should be performed if Bach’s final wishes are to be respected is the second version, unless one is seeking to recreate his first thoughts on the sequence, but who would want to omit the divine “Et incarnatus” chorus?

The duet is almost certainly based on a lost earlier work and the accompaniment requires two oboes d’amore and strings. The two voice parts (and the upper instrumental parts too) have a great deal of close imitation. This appropriately reflects the unity of Christ with God the father, something which is stressed very strongly in the Nicene Creed.

Video: 58’15 to 1h02’37

The three central choruses of the Credo follow, which I’ll link here without a break, as intended by Bach. The descent of the holy spirit on to the Virgin Mary seems to be clearly suggested in the next movement, a chorus describing the incarnation of Jesus and the fact that he became human. Not only do the violins play a motif which seems to float downwards but the voice parts all enter in a descending sequence. Interestingly, this movement is scored for exactly the same forces as the opening movement of the Credo - five-part voices and two violins (making seven, although there’s no fugue this time) and the continuo line which here pulses in a way which creates a feeling of awe.

Et incarnatus est (Bach's manuscript)

At the words “et homo factus est” (and was made man) we move into the second chorus, the central movement of the entire Credo. This is the famous Crucifixus, the text of which is translated “he was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried”. This movement is Bach’s adaptation of a movement from an early cantata dating back to 1714. In that work the text speaks of weeping and wailing so the connection with the Latin text describing the death of Jesus is of course appropriate. The original’s four-part voice layout is maintained (in the Mass the first sopranos are silent) but in the new version Bach adds some important details. Two flutes are added to the string accompaniment, their notes speaking in between those of the strings. Flutes had a long association with funerals and lamentation in Bach’s day and their inclusion here is a colour which audiences of the day would have immediately connected with.

Most fascinating of all is the addition of a pulsating ground bass in crotchets in the continuo line. This four-bar pattern falls by semitones - an affect which was often associated with death in the Baroque period - and is repeated over and over under the rest of the music until the very last few bars of the movement. In fact, the fact that it’s heard a total of thirteen times is thought by some to be significant although I’m not sure if Bach was superstitious in that sense.

Those searching for all sorts of number symbolism in Bach have also pointed out the fact that the Crucifixus contains 53 bars. Some feel that this is the composer’s deliberate reference to the 53rd chapter of the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, which most Christians interpret as speaking of the sufferings of Christ.

Right at the end the music changes from the E minor which has prevailed for almost the whole movement to the relative major, G major. This incredible couple of bars - which takes place at the end of the thirteenth playing of the ground bass - sets up the final chorus in this central block of three.

This glorious movement, involving the full orchestra and choir, speaks of the resurrection: “and he rose again on the third day according to the scriptures”. Almost every important vocal entry in this chorus ascends, especially later in the movement where Jesus’ ascension into heaven is mentioned. A bass solo sings of Jesus coming to judge the living and the dead, whereupon the choir concludes this massively powerful movement with the lines “cujus regni non erit finis” (whose kingdom shall have no end).

Video: 1h02’38 to 1h12’55

The Nicene Creed is a long text. It was written in the early centuries of the Christian era originally to counteract various perceived heresies which had sprung up to challenge the religious mainstream. The Creed is in clearly discernible sections, but the major focus on the nature of Christ in the middle is a reflection of the desire of its original authors to counter heresy and state very clearly the orthodox view of Christ in the trinity.

Bach is clearly aware of the weight of history in his setting of the Creed; not only musical history but church history. The B minor Mass - and especially the Credo - simultaneously addresses the past as well as the present. Great doctrines from centuries before are clothed music of revered longevity (complex counterpoint) and the latest fashion (dance forms and opera). What is perhaps most miraculous is that Bach makes it all sound unified and coherent. There is not the slightest sense in the B minor Mass that we have a patchwork or a jumble of pieces. The whole is very definitely is greater than the sum of its not-insubstantial parts.

So having dealt with the great doctrines of the father and the son, Bach now turns to doctrines of the holy spirit and the life of belief. In the seventh movement of the Credo Bach has to set the section of the text which is generally regarded as being the least-obviously musical. Writing music to portray the glory of the father or the death and resurrection of the son is one thing, but writing about the holy spirit and the nature of the church means a composer is not presented with obvious musical inspiration.

Bach covers this “difficult” section of the text in an aria for the bass soloist in which the accompaniment is limited to two oboes d’amore and continuo. The lightness of the texture is an appropriate balance to the hugely powerful chorus which precedes it, but in one respect there is a feature in common between the resurrection chorus and this aria. Both are clearly inspired by dance. The minuet tempo of the “Et resurrexit” chorus is supplanted in the aria by a delicate slow jig; to our modern ears it might almost be a waltz but for the fact that it’s in 6/8 time.

The quasi-worldly nature of the music is also evident in the sheer voluptuousness of the colour of the two alto oboes. Their intertwining lines are incredibly sensuous, making this potentially dry theological text anything but.

It’s interesting that the bass solo voice envisaged by Bach for this aria is of a very different nature to the bass solo heard in the Quoniam aria near the end of the Gloria. In the earlier aria the range was much lower - a true bass - whereas here the tessitura (the range in which most of the aria sits) is quite high. Bach clearly had in mind a higher bass voice, the sort of voice we’d now call a baritone. The term baritone is known to have been used in the sense that we use it (a voice range between tenor and bass) as early as the 17th century; Monteverdi describes a singer as being “a baritone and not a bass” in one of his letters in 1627. But the term was not widely used in opera until the 19th century; even Mozart in the late 18th century called his baritone singers (in roles like Figaro and the Count) basses. In using the term “basso” to describe the solo part in the Et in spiritum aria, Bach is simply using it in wider context than we would do so these days. The fact remains that in many if not most performances today the two bass arias in the B minor are sung by different singers.

Video: 1h12’56 to 1h18’12

We now come to the final pair of choruses which conclude the Credo, and what a staggering pair of choruses they are. Bach picks up on the visionary aspect of the texts here; the first of the two movements manly consists of a very strict fugue for the five-part choir and continuo alone on the part of text which is translated “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins”. In setting this in such an archaic sounding musical language, Bach is clearly referring to the eternal and timeless nature of the doctrine of baptism as he sees it; an ancient article of faith clothed in ancient-sounding music. It’s interesting also that Bach here uses the key of F sharp minor, a key usually avoided in his day because of intonation issues with unequal temperament. This is the same key he used for the equally strict and archaic-sounding music of the second Kyrie.

This “ancient-ness” in this movement, the Confiteor, is further enhanced by the use of fragments of plainsong (Gregorian chant) woven into the musical texture. Referring in this way to plainsong takes the musical landscape back even further into the past, and the way he uses it is truly astounding. You’ll first hear it is at 1h19’47 in the linked video. The bass voices sing the chant melody, only to have the alto voices sing the same music in canon a bar behind them and a fifth higher, while the other three parts continue with the fugue. It’s this mastery of contrapuntal writing which is typical of Bach’s compositional flair.

But wait, there’s more. After the bass-alto dialogue concludes, the tenors take over the chant line, but in augmentation. That is, they sing it at half the speed, and still it fits seamlessly within the fugue which is continued in the other four voices.

Once this is done the tempo slows and Bach hurls us into a totally different musical world. The text here is translated as “and I look for the resurrection of the dead”. The music takes on hushed, almost fearful tones as it passes through the most extraordinary harmonies. The result a complete loss of tonal foundation, as if the believer is momentarily stunned by the prospect of death and not truly convinced of the resurrection.

Before long though, the music enters the second of the two choral movements, wherein the entire orchestra reinforces a complete change of mood, from doubt to confidence. When this happens, the choir is singing exactly the same words as in the fearful section but now it is clear that they really are expecting the resurrection of the dead. Only now does Bach include the final words of the Credo - “et vitam venturi saeculi” (and the life of the world to come) - and the Creed ends, as did the Gloria, in a blaze of Baroque D major splendour.

The stunning final chorus of the Credo is Bach’s adaptation of some of his earlier music, an enormous chorus from his cantata BWV120, performed in 1729. The rising, rocketing arpeggio figure in this music - not unlike a trumpet fanfare - is totally appropriate for the Latin text here which speaks of the resurrection of the believer.

Video: 1h18’13 to 1h24’29

In compiling the score of the full missa tota or complete Mass near the end of his life, Bach grouped four scores together. He numbered as “1” the Missa (or Kyrie and Gloria) he had written for Dresden in 1733. The Symbolum Nicenum (the Credo) he numbered as “2”. We’ve now reached the shortest of these four scores, the one he numbered as “3”. This is a single movement, a setting of the Sanctus, and with this text Bach was back on familiar Lutheran territory again.

The Sanctus (in Latin) was a regular part of Lutheran services on Christmas Day in Leipzig, and Bach set the text at least six times in all. One of these, a D major setting first performed on Christmas Day in 1724, was adapted by Bach for inclusion in the B minor Mass.

The translation of the text is “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of his glory”. The Lutheran form of the text varied in one respect from the Catholic form; the Lutheran form ends with the words “gloria ejus” (his glory) whereas the Catholic form ends with “gloria tua” (thy glory). Bach uses the Lutheran form, of course, and retains it in the Mass version.

It’s a stunning piece of work and it’s an example of Bach clearly shaping his music to reflect not only the liturgical text but the passage from the Bible which inspired it. In the sixth chapter of the book of Isaiah, the prophet describes a vision of heaven:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the lord sitting upon a throne, high and exalted, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim. Each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet and with two he flew. And they cried to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory”.

Bach clearly wants us to think of these angels when hearing his music. The phrases arch rapturously in cascades of triplets, and Isaiah’s vision, once cited, is impossible to dissociate from this music. But beyond that, the fact that the word Sanctus (holy) is expressed three times in the text, in the context of the obvious reference to the triune Christian God on his throne, makes the all-pervading use of three-note patterns - triplets - all the more appropriate.

But this is just the start of Bach’s indulgence in number symbolism here. The numbers three and six (remember the angels’ wings) are everywhere. The orchestra has three trumpets and (for the only time in the entire Mass) three oboes. The upper three string parts (first and second violins and violas) work as a separate three-part choir as well, often against the three oboes.

For the only time in the Mass the choir is in six parts: two sopranos, two altos, tenor and bass. Often they divide into two groups of three, singing antiphonally to each other as suggested by the prophet’s vision. Finally the bassline in the orchestra (sometimes in tandem with the choral bass part) span great descending octaves, as if God were somehow reaching down to Isaiah with this rare glimpse of the eternal.

The second part of the text starts at “Pleni sunt coeli” (Heaven and earth are full of his glory) and this suddenly metamorphoses into a dance in which the six vocal parts indulge in the most staggeringly complex counterpoint. It’s music like this which makes you realise that Bach really was the master.

Video: 1h24’30 to 1h29’18

The Lutheran liturgical use of the Sanctus had the text end there. The Osanna and Benedictus, which are part of the same text and known from their use in the Catholic Mass, were not used in Lutheran worship in Bach’s day. Thus part 3 of the final Mass in B minor contains just that single - albeit stunning - movement.

For the rest of the texts Bach created a score he numbered as “4”, and this contains settings of all the remaining movements required to complete a full setting of the ordinary of the Mass.

How to follow that amazing Sanctus? The Osanna (a cry of praise, “Hosanna in the highest”) is set by Bach on an even grander scale. The six choral parts of the Sanctus expand into eight; that is, two four-part choirs. The third oboe disappears but the two flutes, silent in the Sanctus, return.

The Osanna is derived from music Bach wrote for a cantata in 1734 but it seems likely that the cantata version was itself a reworking of a lost original written two years before that. In context it seems certain that Bach intended the Osanna to follow on from the Sanctus without a break. There is no orchestral introduction, but a rather long orchestral ritornello (or “play out”) at the end. In any case, the music is Bach in his full blaze of glory, again inspired by the dance. You can hear him revelling in juggling eight independent vocal lines and a totally independent orchestral part which sometimes adds up to half a dozen more independent musical lines to the texture.

Video: 1h29’19 to 1h31’58

The Benedictus which follows returns us to the operatic stage, and suggests a quieter, more introspective mood. From the full orchestra and double choir we have here a mere three independent lines. The solo tenor is accompanied by the continuo line and a solo instrument which Bach did not specify in his score. The old complete Bach edition of the 19th century (known as the Bach-Gesellschaft) allocated the solo part to a violin, but the music doesn’t go on to the violin’s lowest string at all. In fact it perfectly fits the range of the flute of Bach’s day and these days this is the solution which is usually adopted. The fact that the aria is in B minor draws obvious comparisons with Bach’s orchestral suite in the same key for flute and strings.

The words here are translated as “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. Whilst it’s likely that this gentle aria is a reworking of an earlier composition, there are no surviving earlier versions of this music; scholars are divided as to its possible origins.

Benedictus (Bach's manuscript)

In the Ordinary of the Mass the Osanna is repeated after the Benedictus and Bach opts for a complete reprise of the Osanna chorus after the aria, rather than writing a new setting of the words.

Video: 1h31’59 to 1h39’04

Part 4 of Bach’s scores which make up the B minor Mass continues to include settings of the texts required in the Agnus Dei, the final section of the Ordinary of the Mass. Bach takes a minimalist option here, because taken literally the Agnus Dei should, at the very least, set two different prayers. The first is “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us). This first prayer should actually be set twice as it is repeated in the missal, but most composers set it once, especially if the style of the music (like Bach’s) repeats the words a lot. Bach covers this prayer in an alto aria, accompanied by unison violins and continuo, and there are clearly two distinct sections which enable the prayer to be stated twice.

The second prayer starts the same but ends differently: “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem” (Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, give us peace). Bach only sets the different words at the end - dona nobis pacem - as a chorus - to conclude the entire work.

The alto aria for the Agnus Dei is most definitely a reworking of earlier music. An earlier version of this appears in Bach’s Ascension Oratorio, performed in 1735, but scholars believe that both these versions are themselves reworkings of an aria in a lost wedding cantata dating from 1725. In the Mass, the aria is one of Bach’s most beautiful and heartfelt musical prayers. The anguish of the troubled sinner is reflected in the violin and voice parts, which intertwine beautifully.

Video: 1h39’05 to 1h45’16

And so to the final chorus, setting “Dona nobis pacem” (Give us peace). I can just imagine Bach, looking back on his entire career as a church composer (and much else) wondering how to conclude this compendium of his life’s work in sacred music. The text clearly didn’t inspire in him the need for jubilant music such as we heard in the closing section of the Gloria and Credo or in the Sanctus, but similarly, it should use the whole orchestra, including trumpets and timpani. It should look upwards, not only at the end of a Mass but specifically after the penitent, eyes-cast-downwards affect of the Agnus Dei.

Bach’s solution was as simple as it is appropriate. He used music that was not only pre-existing but pre-existing in this very Mass. Using the “Gratias agimus tibi” chorus from the Gloria, Bach made almost no alterations to the music at all, simply substituting the “Dona nobis pacem” text. In so doing he provided a totally satisfying, noble, upward-looking conclusion to this, his final sacred work. The ascending lines, the gradual addition of the trumpets and the climactic addition of the timpani make it all clear that Bach felt rather confident that this prayer for peace would be answered.

Video: 1h45’17 to end

Fortunately for posterity, the score of the B minor Mass was inherited by Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, who performed some parts of the work in the years after his father’s death in 1750. But the Mass as a whole was by and large deemed unperformable until well into the 19th century. It didn’t appear in print until 1845 and despite there being performances of sections of the work in Germany in the first half of the 19th century, the first documented performance of the complete work didn’t take place until 1859.

The publisher of the first edition of Bach’s B minor Mass, Hans Georg Nägeli, called it “the greatest musical artwork of all times and peoples”. Even for those of us who love and adore the B minor Mass, such hyperbole today can feel uncomfortable. But even if it’s not possible to give such a label to any piece of music, the B minor Mass comes close.

This article is based on three Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November, 2008.

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