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The World of Bach's Mass in B Minor
Genesis, Style, and Performance
James A. Brokaw II

In 1818, Hans Georg Nägeli, the Swiss music publisher, and the first person outside the Bach family to own the holograph manuscript of the B-minor Mass, announced his intention to publish the work for the first time. In his advertisement, he termed Bach's Mass the "greatest work of all nations and all peoples." Nägeli would undoubtedly choose his words differently in today's multicultural milieu. Even so, it is often said that, had Bach not lived, the music of the second half of the eighteenth century would be scarcely changed at all, while the music of the nineteenth century would hardly be recognizable. In particular, it is hard to imagine choral masterpieces such as those by Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Verdi, and Brahms sounding as they do without the example set by Bach's Mass in B Minor. To paraphrase Nägeli in contemporary terms, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is fundamental to the Western musical canon, and the B-minor Mass is Bach's central masterpiece.

The Genesis of Bach's B-minor Mass

In writing the B-minor Mass, Bach was engaging with what is surely the most ancient and extensive genre in Western music. Guillaume de Machaut composed the earliest complete setting of the Mass Ordinary at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris in 1350. Thus the tradition was already nearly four hundred years old when Bach decided to compose his mass, or even older, if one considers the Gradual and Alleluia settings by Leonin and Perotin at Notre Dame in the twelfth century. Even within this broad context, Bach's Mass is absolutely unprecedented in size, in scope, and in complexity, so much so that many have questioned whether Bach had either the resources or the occasion to actually perform the entire work.

Given that, it is truly astonishing how many fundamental questions about Bach's singular masterpiece remain open. Let's begin by enumerating some of the issues that have occupied Bach scholars during the last half-century:

1) When did Bach write the Mass in B Minor?

2) Did Bach actually intend this vast and complex work to be performed? If so, by whom? Or, was Bach's Mass an abstract work such as the Art of Fugue or the Musical Offering, composed without a specific performance in mind?

3) Did Bach intend the B-minor Mass to be understood as a single, unified whole?

4) What was Bach's title for the work?

5) What are the appropriate forces for performing the Mass?

6) Why did Bach write the Mass in B Minor?

Some of these questions have been resolved decisively, while others remain open to this day. We'll touch on all of them in the scope of this essay—but before going further, let's briefly consider a more fundamental issue: What is a Mass?

It is, of course, the most important service of the Roman Catholic rite, deriving from a ritual commemoration of the Last Supper. It is an eclectic collection of texts in Greek and Latin that were assembled over a period of ten centuries. Some parts of the Mass—the Introit, Gradual, and Alleluia, for example—vary from week to week, depending on the church calendar. Since these are proper to specific occasions, they are collectively referred to as the Mass Proper. Other parts do not vary at all: the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. These are called the Mass Ordinary, and they are the texts Bach set when he created the Mass in B Minor.

The Kyrie is a solemn supplication in Greek with each verse sung three times: "Lord have mercy upon us"; "Christ have mercy upon us"; "Lord have mercy upon us."

The Gloria is "an exuberant hymn of praise written in imitation of the Psalms." It opens with a hymn (Luke 2:14), continues with petitions and acclamations, and concludes with a doxology. It is generally associated with Advent and the birth of Christ and is omitted during Lent.

The Credo, or Nicene Creed is a statement of faith formulated by a council of bishops summoned by Constantine at Nicaea in the fourth century. It was used in the Carolingian Mass mandated by Charlemagne in 798, and became part of the Roman rite in the eleventh century.

The Sanctus joins a Hebrew Bible vision of God (Isaiah 6:30) with a New Testament affirmation of the sovereignty of Christ (Matthew 21:9).

The Agnus Dei is a succinct supplication to accompany the breaking of bread during the Eucharist. The text is derived from John 1:29—"Behold the lamb of God. Behold the lamb who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us." The petition is repeated three times; the last time "grant us peace" replaces "have mercy upon us."

In the Lutheran practice of Bach's day, the Mass cycle included only the Kyrie and Gloria. A setting of the entire Ordinary, in a Catholic context, was called a Missa tota.


Let’s return to the first of the six questions I listed a moment ago: When did Bach write the B-minor Mass? The simplest answer is that Bach assembled the work during the last two years of his life. This has been firmly established only within the last few years by the Japanese scholar Yoshitake Kobayashi, who conclusively linked the composer's handwriting in the Credo and Agnus Dei (which clearly shows the composer's failing eyesight) with other documents written by Bach between August 1748 and October 1749—when Bach seems to have lost his eyesight altogether. Bach died in July 1750.

This question is, in fact, much more complicated, for Bach did not compose the B-minor Mass from nothing; rather, he incorporated several existing works. He wrote the earliest of these, the Sanctus, in Leipzig for the Advent season in 1724, and Bach wrote the Kyrie and Gloria in 1733 to accompany his petition for appointment as Court Composer to the Elector of Saxony in Dresden. Bach incorporated the Kyrie and Gloria, called the 1733 Missa, in the Missa tota of 1748 without change, while he altered the chorus in the Sanctus from three sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass to two sopranos, two altos, tenor, and bass.

The question "When did Bach write the Mass?" is still more complicated because not only these works but also the newly created sections in 1748–49 were largely based on still earlier music, but with different text—in other words, they are parodies. (For music historians, the word "parody" generally means only the reuse of an earlier musical structure with new words; it does not usually have the sense of mockery or satire the word carries in literary contexts.) The Crucifixus chorus in the Credo, for example, is a parody of the opening chorus from Cantata 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen of 1714. The extraordinary demands upon Bach virtually required his re-use of earlier music, but in no other large-scale work does Bach rely so extensively on parody. Scholars have identified models for eleven of the twenty-seven movements of the B-minor Mass, and strongly suspect that two more are based on now-lost works. Indeed, some scholars—notably George Stauffer and Joshua Rifkin—believe that virtually all the music in the B-minor Mass is based on earlier works by Bach.


But let’s skip back for just a moment. Bach spent the prime of his creative life as Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, from 1723 when he was thirty-eight years old until his death in 1750 at the age of sixty-five. But Dresden, the court of the Elector of Saxony, was clearly an object of great fascination and attraction for him. By 1730 Bach had grown impatient with the limitations of the musical establishment at Leipzig, and he wrote a famous memorandum to the city fathers, now known as "A Short But Most Necessary Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music." In it, he detailed his complaints about the number and quantity of the singers and instrumentalists available to him. In closing, he pointed to Dresden where, in Hans David's translation, "musicians there are paid by His Royal Majesty [and] are relieved of all concern for their living, free from chagrin, and obliged each to master but a single instrument: it must be something choice and excellent to hear."

Indeed, there was much to admire at Dresden. At mid-century, the court boasted one of the largest and most distinguished ensembles in all of Europe. Chief among the several court composers was Johann Adolf Hasse, whose immensely successful operas in the Neapolitan style made Dresden a musical center of the first rank. Concertmaster Johann Pisendel studied composition with Vivaldi, and his violin sonatas and concerti are important examples of the Pre-classical style. Flautist Johann Joachim Quantz was not only a famous virtuoso but an authority as well. His treatise on playing the flute remains an important source of performance practice today. Other leading virtuosos included viola da gambist Carl Friedrich Abel, who, with Johann Christian Bach, would later organize the famous Bach-Abel concert series in London, the flautist Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin, and the oboist Johann Christian Richter. Among the vocalists in Dresden were the most famous opera singers of the day, including Hasse's wife Faustina Bordoni, the castrate Giovanni Bindi, alto Margherita Ermini, countertenor Nicolo Pozzi, and bass Cosimo Ermini.

Given its location in Lutheran Saxony, it is remarkable that the Dresden court was Catholic. Friedrich August I (called August the Strong), Elector of Saxony, had converted to Catholicism in 1697 in order to extend his dominion to Poland. Powerful alliances with Vienna and Rome allowed the acquisition of large quantities of Latin-texted church music for the court library, supplementing the extraordinary musical establishment developed by Friedrich August I and his son, the Prince Elector.

In February of 1733, the Elector died and was succeeded by his son, Friedrich August II. In July of the same year, Bach presented the new Elector with his request for a title as court composer, together with the Kyrie and Gloria. Because August II was occupied with events in Warsaw, Bach's request was not granted until three years later, in 1736.

Even though the 1733 Missa was presented to the Elector in Dresden, scholars have disagreed on the question of where the work might have been performed and, indeed, whether it was performed at all. The continuo part, which Bach would have played, contains the strongest evidence on the question, and it points directly to a Dresden performance.

Notice the cues for vocal entrances that appear in the music (Tenor, Alto, Soprano, etc.). These cues would certainly not be necessary had the composer himself intended to play the continuo part. But the key of the notated part is stronger evidence yet. It is notated in B minor: notice the two sharps in the key signature. Had the parts been written for Leipzig, the continuo would most probably have been written a whole tone lower, in A minor, with no sharps or flats in the key signature. This is because the organ in Leipzig was tuned a whole tone higher than the other instruments, allowing the pipes to be shorter than they otherwise would be, and thereby saving the city of Leipzig money on copper.

There is evidence in the music as well. In the hands of the Neapolitan composers so well represented in the Dresden court library, the Mass had become highly operatic in style. The Ordinary was set as a series of large, more-or-less independent movements, often utilizing ritornello and da Capo formal procedures. The Christe eleison often appears as an amorous love duet; and the Cum sancto spiritu and et vitam venturi, which conclude the Gloria and Credo, respectively, are written as act finales.

In Bach's Mass, the movements are truly independent, and are coordinated with one another so as to create a large-scale architecture, in which the choruses "frame" larger sections much as columns define a building.


CaravaggioThe most important source for the Mass in B-minor is Bach's own autograph score. Further, it is our only source of information about the genesis of the mass. But it has not been well understood until quite recently. The manuscript, which was not bound until the nineteenth century, long after Bach's death, is a 188-page compilation of four different manuscripts, each with its own title page. The title pages were probably originally wrappers enclosing the loose-leaf individual movements. No common title page for the entire work survives today. There are titles for the 1733 Missa (the Kyrie and Gloria); the Credo (or Symbolum Nicenum); the Sanctus (but without Osanna or Benedictus); and for the remaining movements (Osanna/Benedictus/Agnus Dei/et Dona nobis pacem).

Clearly, these sectional titles do not reflect the liturgical divisions of the Mass Ordinary. This fact, together with the absence of a common title page for the work, led Friedrich Smend, the editor of the work in the New Bach Edition (1954) to conclude that the autograph contained only a somewhat haphazard sequence of independent works. In Smend's view, Bach never intended to write a Missa tota, and works in P180 in no way represented a single, unified whole. Although he agreed that the Missa was the work of 1733, he supposed that Bach wrote the Credo in 1732, the Sanctus in 1736, and the Osanna/Dona nobis portions in 1738-1739.

But Smend's view did not stand long. Just as he was finishing his edition in the mid 1950s, Georg von Dadelsen and Alfred Diirr were completing their new chronology of Bach's vocal works, based on analysis of handwriting in all available original sources, as well as new and more rigorous studies of the watermarks. Not only did they establish the profile and chronology of Bach's handwriting, but also that of every member of his family and his students, as well as the scribes he relied on at St Thomas. A radical re-ordering of Bach's vocal works resulted, confirming that Bach wrote everything after the Gloria in a relatively short period during the last decade of his life.

Just as there is no reason to doubt that Bach meant to compose a Missa tota in 1748, there is every reason to suppose that he wanted to allow for the selective and flexible performance of its components. As George Stauffer has pointed out, the Kyrie and Gloria, or the Sanctus, could be performed in a Lutheran service; or the Symbolum Nicenum or Agnus Dei could be performed in a Catholic context. Indeed, C. P. E. Bach performed the Symbolum Nicenum alone in 1786 in Hamburg.

Further, Smend had ignored powerful evidence for the unity of the Missa tota: the music of Gratias agimus tibi, in the Gloria, returns in the setting of Dona nobis pacem, at the very end of the mass. Not only is this a unifying device for Bach's Mass, it is a convention often found in the Neapolitan masses heard at Dresden.

It is not surprising that Smend's view was decisively refuted only shortly after his edition appeared. But he was entirely right to point out that we cannot know for certain what Bach's title for his Missa tota may have been. However, the 1790 estate catalog prepared after the death of C. P. E. Bach, and the auction catalog for the estate of C. P. E.'s daughter in 1809, give us a strong hint: both sources refer to "The Great Catholic Mass," pointing to an oral tradition within the Bach family.


The Style of the Mass in B Minor

Bach’s music is fascinating because of its assimilation of national styles—French and Italian—within the composer's quite original idiom. The B-minor Mass is of particular interest because the work coordinates styles of the present, the past, and the future as well: the High Baroque; the stile antico or Palestrina Style; and the Galant or Pre-classical style. All three are present in the first major section, the Kyrie. Perhaps by beginning the Mass this way, Bach meant to place before his audience a set of rubrics to be explored in the course of the work.

As we have seen, the Kyrie section is comprised of three movements: The first Kyrie, a choral fugue, is in the contemporary High Baroque style; the Christe, a duet for two sopranos, assimilates elements of the Galant; and the second Kyrie is a stile antico choral fugue. Thus the choruses are rather like pillars defining a larger architecture. In fact, this structural principal is fundamental to the entire Mass. Let's examine each of these in the context of their style.

Kyrie I: High Baroque

The Mass in B Minor begins with a brief but emphatic declamation of Kyrie eleison by the entire ensemble, followed by a massive, solemn fugue on the same text. The first Kyrie is the longest movement in the entire Mass and, as such, it prepares the listener for the scale of what is to follow.

Fugue is probably the most common formal technique in Baroque music. A fugue consists of from two to six or more independent parts, which may be actual voices in a chorus or instruments. In fugue, a brief melody, called a subject, is sounded by each of the voices in succession. This sequence of voices is called an exposition. There may be multiple expositions in a fugue, separated by free material called episodes.

Here, the subject takes the shape of a wedge: it begins with a single repeated pitch, broadening in a series of widening leaps. The harmonic context, with its minor and diminished harmonies, is quite colorful and bold, and rich with pathos. Further, the voices are independent from the instruments, creating a rich contrapuntal texture.

Christe eleison: The Galant style

Naples, which determined so many aspects of musical taste in Dresden during the first half of the eighteenth century, was a center for the emerging Galant or Pre-classical style. The Galant style might accurately be called "anti-Baroque." Indeed, the word Baroque is itself a pejorative (from the Portuguese barocco, meaning a misshapen pearl); it was coined at mid-century by an aesthetic that preferred light textures, simple and easily apprehended structures, and bright colors to the dense complexity of the earlier prevailing style. Indeed, Bach's music was criticized by his contemporary Johann Adolph Scheibe as "turgid and confused," and "darkened by an excess of art."

In particular, Naples was the home of the most important Italian exponent of the Galant style, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736). Pergolesi is well known for his comic intermezzo La Serva Padrona, which is considered the ancestor of Mozart's comic Italian operas. But Pergolesi's most famous work is his Stabat Mater, the most frequently printed musical work during the eighteenth century. In fact, contemporary advocates of the Galant style cited Pergolesi's Stabat Mater as the ideal for sacred music. Bach was quite familiar with Pergolesi's masterpiece. Indeed, he arranged the Stabat Mater in 1746-47 for the Leipzig worship service as a German-texted motet, Tilge Hochster, meine Siinden (BWV 1083).

The fourth movement ("Quae moerebat et dolebat") of the Stabat Mater is an outstanding example of the Galant style. This charming, ingratiating music has a spare texture in which a single melody predominates (this is called homophony), rather simple harmonies and a slow rate of harmonic change, and a clearly articulated and balanced phrase structure that is enhanced by snappy, dance-like syncopations.

Bach was never one for slavish imitation. Nevertheless, the Christe eleison of the Kyrie reflects the assimilation of the galant within Bach's own more contrapuntal personal idiom. In accordance with the Neapolitan masses often heard at Dresden, Bach presents the Christe eleison as a love duet. Here, the opening instrumental section features two violins in unison; the two sopranos sing in sweet, parallel thirds; strong beats feature piquant dissonances (or appoggiaturas); and the mixture of duplets and triplets merge with the rich harmonic vocabulary and imitative counterpoint of Bach's native, late Baroque personal idiom.

Kyrie II: stile antico

The Baroque era began at the start of the seventeenth century with the invention of opera, that is to say that it began with the invention of a new way of singing which was more direct emotionally and which projected and amplified language in a much more powerful manner than the prevailing musical style of the Renaissance. In the words of Claudio Monteverdi, a Second Practice or seconda prattica was introduced, to supplement the prevailing First Practice or prima prattica. Within a few generations, the new and old styles were termed stile moderno and stile antico.

This prima prattica or stile antico is epitomized, both for Bach as well as for us today, by the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1526–1594). Indeed, Bach arranged Palestrina's Missa sine nomine in six parts for a Leipzig worship service in 1742. The first Kyrie from Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli is a fine example of the stile antico.

The effect of the Palestrina style is to create a serene, meditative, and, indeed, otherworldly ambience. More specifically, five cardinal features characterize the style:

1. The style is a cappella, meaning "in the manner of the chapel": There is absolutely no instrumental accompaniment whatsoever.

2. The six parts (soprano, alto, two tenors, two basses) move independently of one another, and none predominates.

3. Each voice moves placidly in stepwise motion, for the most part. If there is a leap up or down, the voice moves immediately in the opposite direction to fill in the leap.

4. Dissonances are very carefully prepared and resolved. The result is a very smooth, even bland harmonic range.
5. The rhythm is also very subtle—there is only the barest hint of strong and weak beats.

Most of these features are present, in modified form, in Bach's second Kyrie:

Although instruments are present, they merely duplicate the vocal parts in the fashion known as colla parte.

The fugue subject moves for the most part in stepwise melodic motion.

The harmonic vocabulary is very conservative, with carefully prepared dissonances and anticipations.

The rhythmic pulse is steady and devoid of accents.

However, the harmonic vocabulary is richer than Palestrina's, with more tonic-dominant orientation; and Bach's fugue uses contrapuntal techniques such as augmentation and stretto that are more typical of the early seventeenth century than the Renaissance.


The Performance of the B-minor Mass

The differences between Bach’s performance environment and ours today are truly staggering. For example, we tend to assume that all performance information is contained within the score, so that multiple performances by different ensembles will produce similar results. But Bach generally composed not with publication for a broad audience in mind but with a single performance of a piece, on a single occasion. The score, indeed, was but a compositional device: the parts, which were copied from it, generally held the most authoritative and detailed performance indications. Even so, many details could be communicated directly to his musicians; there was no need to write them in the parts.

This understanding of the sources has been established only relatively recently. The perhaps inevitable result is an astounding range of interpretation of Bach's Mass over the past hundred and fifty years. In the nineteenth century George Bernard Shaw inveighed against gigantic performances with as many as 500 choristers. Many regard Joshua Rifkin's contemporary position that the choruses are to be sung with only one singer per part as an excess of our own time, although his view has numerous proponents.

Clearly, the sources contain invaluable and illuminating details about performance practices. Perhaps the best such example is to be found in the Domine Deus, from the Gloria section of Bach's Mass. The movement is scored for soprano, tenor, flute, strings, and continue. Bach has entered thirty-second flags in the parts for flute, second violin, and viola, in the flute at the very beginning of the movement, and later in the strings. The flags indicate that the theme is not to be played in steady rhythm but in a very slight short-long Lombard pattern. Bach has indicated the pattern for each player only once. He would normally have communicated this direction orally but, as we've seen, it is unlikely that he was involved in the performance. This pattern is clearly audible in the performance conducted by Ton Koopman, named at the end of this article.


Why did Bach write the B-minor Mass? In concluding his magisterial study of the work, George Stauffer writes:

Although we may not be able to pinpoint Bach's specific reason for writing a Missa tota, we can be reasonably sure that... he wished to devote his final energies to music that would transcend the parochialism of his German-texted vocal pieces.

To illustrate this point, Stauffer quotes Caspar Ruetz, Cantor of the Marenkirche in Liibeck, who described how a huge pile of church music he had inherited from his predecessors had been diminished by half from its use for stove fires and scrap paper: "Who will give anything for it? Other than someone who needs scrap paper, since nothing is more useless than old music."

DresdenBut simply because we have no evidence of Bach's purpose, we should not discount the possibility that Bach worked with a specific occasion in mind. And Stauffer points us to a fascinating possibility.

Here is Bernardo Bellotto's magnificent cityscape of Dresden, painted in 1748, from the bank of the Elbe. Notice the building under construction, with scaffolding clearly visible around the steeple. This is the new Dresden Hofkirche, or court chapel, whose cornerstone was laid in 1739, and which was completed in 1751, a year after Bach's death. It is indeed tantalizing to think of Bach compiling his Great Catholic Mass as the Hofkirche approached completion, with the idea of presenting his Missa tota at its consecration ceremony.


James A. Brokaw II completed his dissertation, Techniques of Expansion in the Preludes and Fugues of J. S. Bach, in 1986 at the University of Chicago. An active member of the American Bach Society as well as the Neue Bach Gesellschaft, Dr. Brokaw is well known as a reviewer and translator and is the author of several articles on Bach's keyboard and organ works.