Media Room

Bach’s Mass in B Minor – Program Notes

October 5, 2016

Program notes by Martin Pearlman

Although Bach’s Mass in B Minor is revered for its overwhelming dramatic sweep and sense of unity, it was not originally created as a single work.  It is made up of music composed over a 25-year period, some of it adapted, some of it new. Its manuscript is divided into four large sections with no overall title, and it came to be called the Mass in B Minor only by later generations.  It was not performed complete until 1859, more than a century after Bach’s death.

The opening music, consisting of a Kyrie and Gloria, dates from 1733, when Bach presented it to the new Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus II.  It was, he said, “a modest example of the learning I have acquired in music.”  In that original form with only a Kyrie and Gloria, the work was a complete missa brevis of the type that was common not only in Lutheran practice but also in some Catholic areas, including at the Elector’s court in Dresden.  (No other mass by Bach has more than those two sections.)

It was not until the late 1740s, near the end of his life, that Bach began to expand this mass, already his largest and most complex, into a full Catholic mass.  Why he did so has been the subject of much discussion.  The work as we now have it is too large to be used in a normal church service.  While some sections could have been useful in services at Bach’s own church, the work was completed so late in his life — indeed at a point when he was ill and no longer actively supplying new music — that he may not have had a practical purpose in mind.  The most convincing reason may well be that, toward the end of his life, Bach wished to gather and preserve many of his finest works for the church by assembling them into a collection, much as he did in other late collections, such as The Art of  the Fugue  and the third part of the Clavierübung.  In assembling his music into a complete Latin mass, Bach turned to a form with a classic tradition and a sense of permanence, one that transcended the tastes of his day and the specific practices of his own denomination.

To complete the mass, he needed to add a Credo (Symbolum Nicenum), a Sanctus, and a final section comprising the Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Dona nobis pacem.  Most of the movements in these sections are reworkings of music he had written earlier.  For some, he borrowed and revised (often extensively) music from his own cantatas; in a few movements, he appears to have added choral parts to what may be now lost instrumental concertos.  The Sanctus, however, was originally a piece on its own, written back in 1724.  Bach’s decision to adapt these movements and include them in his Mass has doubtless not only given them a wider audience but, in some cases, may have saved them from being lost entirely.

Because the music is drawn from various sources, different sections sometimes require different performing forces.  Most of the choruses are in either 5 voices or 4.   The Sanctus is the only one to call for a 6-part chorus, as well as for a third oboe, and the final section (Osanna through Dona nobis pacem) calls for 8 voices divided into two four-voice choruses.  Yet despite these differences, the Mass has a compelling feeling of unity because of the care Bach has taken in structuring the whole.

* * * * *

Below are more details about individual movements for those who would like to follow them:

Missa (Kyrie and Gloria)

This first part of the Mass was presented to the Elector in Dresden and was probably performed as a missa brevis in April of 1733.

Gloria:  The fast opening section of this chorus is thought perhaps to have been adapted from a lost instrumental concerto.  Not only does the writing suggest a concerto, but the instrumental parts were written into the manuscript first, suggesting that they may have been copied from a pre-existing piece.

Gratias agimus tibi:  This chorus comes from the opening movement of Cantata 29, which sets essentially the same text in German.  The opening motive is   based on the Gregorian chant for this text.

Qui tollis:  Based on a chorus from Cantata 46.  The instrumental opening and middle sections have been omitted here.

Quoniam:  The unusual, extended solo for horn suggests that it was inspired by the virtuoso tradition of horn playing at the Dresden court, where Bach presented his work to the Elector.


Credo:  Written in the “old style” (stile antico), this chorus is built on a chant line that develops into 7-voice counterpoint (5-voice chorus plus 2 independent violin lines), all unfolding over a walking bass.

Patrem omnipotentem:  Adapted from Cantata 171.

Et in unum Dominum:  Bach revised this duet when he inserted the following chorus, so that their texts would not overlap.  As a result, some of the word painting by the instruments no longer falls on the words for which it was originally intended.

Et incarnatus est:  Bach inserted this chorus later, in order to make a trilogy of choruses at this point.  That put the Crucifixus at the exact center of the Credo and made the Credo completely symmetrical in its order of choruses and solo arias.

Crucifixus:  The central movement of the Credo, it has the hypnotic repeating bass line of a passacaglia.  Remarkably, the bass line, which repeats every 4 bars, is never harmonized the same way twice.  This movement is adapted from a chorus in Cantata 12 and is written in larger note values to suggest an older style.

Et resurrexit:  The style of this music suggests that it may be based on a lost instrumental concerto.  If so, considerable adaptation would have been necessary, including, of course, adding the chorus.  In the middle, an extended ornamental bass line suggests performance by a vocal soloist, rather than the choral basses.

Confiteor:  This extraordinary movement in 5 voice parts was newly composed for this mass.   About half way through, Bach introduces the simple Gregorian   chant for the Confiteor text, weaving it into the complex counterpoint. Toward the end, the music becomes slow and intensely chromatic, as it comes to the words, “I await the resurrection of the dead.”

Et expecto resurrectionem:  Adapted from Cantata 120 with various additions, cuts and revisions.  Bach adds a fifth voice to the original 4-voice chorus of the cantata.


This movement, written for Christmas of 1724, is the only part of this mass known for certain to have been performed by Bach.  It is also the only movement to require a 6-voice chorus, as well as a third oboe.

Osanna to end

Osanna:  Adapted from the secular Cantata 215, a work originally written to celebrate the Elector of Saxony’s election as King of Poland.

Benedictus:  The solo instrument for this beautiful aria is not specified.  It goes too high for a baroque oboe but could be for either flute or violin.  Since the figuration is typical of Bach’s flute writing, and since the music never goes below the bottom note of a baroque flute, it is normally played by that instrument.

Agnus Dei:  Adapted from Cantata 11, with extensive alterations.  This poignant aria is the only piece in the mass in a flat key.

Dona nobis pacem:  This closing movement of the mass repeats the music of the Gratias agimus tibi, with small adaptations to fit the new text.  As mentioned above, the opening motive of the Gratias was based on the Gregorian chant for that text; but here the motive is again appropriate,  since the chant for the Dona nobis is almost the same as that for the Gratias.

Get Involved

Participate in one or more of our membership opportunities and enjoy great benefits!

Learn More

Join the List

Stay informed of upcoming events, concerts, new recordings, tours, and more!

@ bostonbaroque