Johann Sebastian Bach

Mass in B minor

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: Approx. 110 Minutes
Genre: Missa solemnis
Time of Creation: 1724–1749
World Premiere: Unknown (first secured performance in 1834/35 in Berlin)

Table of Contents

Bach's Mass in B minor in 5 Sentences

Johann Sebastian Bach worked for almost half his life on his Mass in B minor: After composing a “Sanctus” for Christmas Day in 1724, he wrote a “Kyrie” and a “Gloria” for the Dresden court in 1733. In 1748 and 1749, he finally combined these three individual parts into a mass and created the remaining movements (“Credo,” “Sanctus,” and “Agnus Dei”), for which he largely used existing music from his cantatas (so-called “parody procedure”). Bach found models for Latin mass compositions in the Italian composers Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Francesco Gasparini, whose works he studied intensively, copying them for days and nights. The dimensions of Bach’s Mass in B minor go far beyond his usual liturgy, so that a complete performance during Bach’s lifetime is unlikely, but not inconceivable.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Bach's Mass in B Minor

Highlight 1: Kyrie

The Kyrie in Bach’s Mass in B minor follows the traditional three-part form: Two “Kyrie-eleison parts” frame the “Christe-eleison part.”

Highlight 2: Opening chorus of the Gloria

Here Bach presents the heavenly King musically through two aspects: First, the timpani and trumpets, which provide the majestic sound, are heard here for the first time; second, the movement is in triple time. The triple time, the so-called “tempus perfectum”, stood in Bach’s time analogously for the Trinity:

Highlight 3: Symmetry in the Credo

The Credo is an architectural work of art. It is strictly symmetrical in structure: In the center are three choral movements about the crucifixion of Christ. At the beginning and at the end of the Credo, there are two choral movements each in which the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ are thematized. And between the choral movements there is a duet and an aria. The overall structure is thus 2-1-3-1-2:

Highlight 4: Dona nobis pacem

Bach emphasizes the word “pacem” (“peace”) in the final movement of the Mass in B minor by combining two musical themes with different textual orders: In the first theme, the text reads “dona nobis pacem“; in the second theme, “pacem dona nobis.”

3 Questions and Answers about Bach's Mass in B minor

Question 1: Does the key of B minor have any meaning?

B minor is a special key. It always stands for something otherworldly, something intangible, for something that inspires awe. The music writer Johann Mattheson (a contemporary of Bach) described B minor as “bizarre, unfunny, and melancholy.” It is striking that other more emotionally “somber” works of classical music are in B minor: Schubert’s Symphony in B minor (the “Unfinished”) and Franz Liszt’s B minor Sonata should be mentioned in particular.

Question 2: Why did Bach combine several individual works to form the great Mass in B minor?

It is striking that Bach strove to create cyclical works from the mid-1730s onward. These include, for example, the Goldberg Variations, the Christmas Oratorio, and Die Kunst der Fuge. Therefore, one could at least assume that Bach created his B minor Mass in the context of interest in cyclical works.

Question 3: What effect did Bach's Mass in B minor have on later generations?

Bach’s reputation, and especially the reputation of his B minor Mass, was subject to great fluctuations. For example, when the Mass was first printed in 1818, it was touted as “the greatest musical work of art of all times and peoples.” Later in the 19th century, on the other hand, the work was virtually despised, mainly because Bach had used parody so extensively. During the Romantic period, however, people were much more interested in “originals,” not in “recycling” earlier works. Today, the Mass in B minor is Bach’s most frequently performed composition (even ahead of the St. Matthew Passion).

2 Recommended Recordings of Bach's Mass in B minor

Recording 1: Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, Choir and Soloists, Thomas Hengelbrock (Live, 2020)

Conductor Thomas Hengelbrock here first accomplishes the remarkable feat of memory of conducting the entire Mass in B minor from memory, and second leads the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble in this performance at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie through an interpretation that convinces with balanced sonority:

Recording 2: Netherlands Bach Society, Jos van Veldhoven (Live, 2016)

The Netherlands Bach Society, conducted by Jos van Veldhoven, has also produced a very finely articulated recording of Bach’s Mass in B minor:

1 Quote about Bach's Mass in B Minor

The greatest work of art the world has ever seen.

Carl Friedrich Zelter

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