Mass in B minor structure

Mass in B minor
BWV 232
front page of the autograph of the first book, listing the title, the scoring and the abbreviated name of the composer on pale paper
Autograph of the title page of the first book, Missa
RelatedMissa in B minor; several movements parodies of cantata movements
Composed1748 (1748)? – 1749 (1749): Leipzig
Movements27 in 4 parts (12 + 9 + 1 + 5)
TextLatin Mass
  • 3 trumpets
  • timpani
  • corno da caccia
  • 2 flauti traversi
  • 2 oboes
  • 2 oboes d'amore
  • 2 bassoons
  • 2 violins
  • viola
  • continuo

The Mass in B minor is Johann Sebastian Bach's only setting of the complete Latin text of the Ordinarium missae.[1] Towards the end of his life, mainly in 1748 and 1749, he finished composing new sections and compiling it into a complex, unified structure.

Bach structured the work in four parts:[2]

  1. Missa
  2. Symbolum Nicenum
  3. Sanctus
  4. Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei et Dona nobis pacem

The four sections of the manuscript are numbered, and Bach's usual closing formula (S.D.G = Soli Deo Gloria) is found at the end of the Dona nobis pacem.

Some parts of the mass were used in Latin even in Lutheran Leipzig, and Bach had composed them: five settings of the Missa, containing the Kyrie and the Gloria, and several additional individual settings of the Kyrie and the Sanctus. To achieve the Missa tota, a setting of the complete text of the mass, he combined his most elaborate Missa, the Missa in B minor, written in 1733 for the court in Dresden, and a Sanctus written for Christmas of 1724. He added a few new compositions, but mostly derived movements from cantata movements, in a technique known as parody.

The Mass is a compendium of many different styles in vocal composition, in both the "stile antico" reminiscent of Renaissance music (even containing Gregorian chant) and the Baroque concertante style of his own time: fugal writing and dances, arias and a movement for two four-part choirs. Similar to architecture of the period, Bach achieved a symmetry of parts, with the profession of faith (Credo) in the center and the Crucifixus in its center. Bach scored the work for five vocal parts (two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass, SSATB). While some choral movements are for only four parts, the Sanctus is scored for six voices (SSAATB), and the Osanna even for two four-part choirs. Bach called for a rich instrumentation of brass, woodwinds and strings, assigning varied obbligato parts to different instruments.

History and parody

The Mass was Bach's last major artistic undertaking. The reason for the composition is unknown.[1] Scholars have found no plausible occasion for which the work may have been intended. Joshua Rifkin notes:

... likely, Bach sought to create a paradigmatic example of vocal composition while at the same time contributing to the venerable musical genre of the Mass, still the most demanding and prestigious apart from opera.[3]

Title page for the Missa for Dresden from 1733

Bach first composed a setting of the Kyrie and Gloria – which were often held in Latin and Greek even in Lutheran services – in 1733, for the Catholic royal court in Dresden. He presented that composition to Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony (later, as Augustus III, also king of Poland),[1] accompanied by a letter:

In deepest Devotion I present to your Royal Highness this small product of that science which I have attained in Musique, with the most humble request that you will deign to regard it not according to the imperfection of its Composition, but with a most gracious eye ... and thus take me into your most mighty Protection.[4]

He arranged the text in diverse movements for a five-part choir and solo voices, according to the taste in Dresden where sacred music "borrowed" from Italian opera with a focus on choral movements, as musicologist Arthur Wenk notes.[5]

portrait of Bach towards the end of his life, posing in a dark outfit with a wig, holding a single sheet of music in his right hand, facing the viewer with a serious expression
Johann Sebastian Bach towards the end of his life, by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, 1746

Bach expanded the Missa of 1733 to a Missa tota from 1748 to 1749, near the end of his life.[3][6][7] In these last years, he added three choral movements for the Credo: its opening Credo in unum Deum, Confiteor and Et incarnatus est. The Sanctus was originally an individual movement composed for Christmas 1724 in Leipzig.[1]

Most other movements of the mass are parodies of music from earlier cantatas,[7] dating back as far as 1714. Wenk points out that Bach often used parody to "bring a composition to a higher level of perfection".[8] The original musical sources of several movements are known, for others they are lost but the score shows that they are copied and reworked. Bach selected movements that carried a similar expression and affekt. For example, Gratias agimus tibi (We give you thanks) is based on Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir[9] (We thank you, God, we thank you) and the Crucifixus (Crucified) is based on the general lamenting about the situation of the faithful Christian, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen[9] (Weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing) which Bach had composed already in 1714 as one of his first cantatas for the court of Weimar.

Bach quoted Gregorian chant twice, in the Credo in unum Deum as a theme and in the Confiteor as a cantus firmus embedded in complex polyphony.

The symmetrical structure of Schloss Friedrichsthal, seen through the front gate to the property
Schloss Friedrichsthal

Bach achieved a symmetry of the parts, with the profession of faith (Credo) in the center and the movement Crucifixus in its center. Markus Rathey, Associate Professor of Music History at the Institute of Sacred Music at the Yale School of Music, sees a similarity to architecture of the period, such as the Palace of Versailles. Bach knew buildings in that style, for example Schloss Friedrichsthal [de] in Gotha, built in 1710.[10] Rathey continues:

The symmetry on earth mirrors the symmetric perfection of heaven. The purpose of art at this time—in architecture, the visual arts, and music—was not to create something entirely new, but to reflect this divine perfection, and in this way to praise God. We find such a symmetric outline in many pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach,19 but only in a few cases is this outline as consequent as in the B Minor Mass.[11]

The parts Kyrie, Gloria and Credo are all designed with choral sections as the outer movements, framing an intimate center of theological significance.

According to Christoph Wolff, the Mass can be seen as a "kind of specimen book of his finest compositions in every kind of style, from the stile antico of Palestrina in the 'Credo' and 'Confiteor' and the expressively free writing of the 'Crucifixus' and 'Agnus Dei', to the supreme counterpoint of the opening Kyrie as well as so many other choruses, right up to the most modern style in galant solos like 'Christe eleison' and 'Domine Deus'".[12] Bach made "a conscious effort to incorporate all styles that were available to him, to encompass all music history as far as it was accessible".[13] The Mass is a compendium of vocal sacred music, similar to other collections that Bach compiled during the last decade of his life, such as the Clavier-Übung III, The Art of Fugue, the Goldberg Variations, the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes and The Musical Offering.[14]

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