On Radio 3 Now

In Tune

16:30 - 17:30

Sean Rafferty presents a selection of music and guests from the arts world.

Next On Air

17:30 Opera on 3

View full schedule


Pianist Alex Taylor recording the keyboard pieces in the Radio 3 In Tune studio
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750

Mass in B minor (assembled c1747-9)

Download the text and translation as a .pdf file

1 Missa (Kyrie, Gloria)
2 Symbolum Nicenum (Credo)
3 Sanctus
4 Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Dona nobis pacem

'The greatest musical work of art of all times and nations.' Few people today would disagree much with the view of Hans Georg Nägeli, the first publisher of Bach's B minor Mass, despite the almost 200 years of musical history that have passed since he put it forward. To Hubert Parry this was 'the mightiest choral work ever written', while for Albert Schweitzer it was 'as enigmatic and unfathomable as the religious consciousness of its creator'. All this for a Mass compiled and adapted by a sexagenarian composer with failing health and eyesight, largely from the music composed during 40 years of providing for the Lutheran liturgy; a work whose diverse origins have prompted some commentators to doubt its claim to the status of a unified whole, and others to criticise it for unevenness; a work, above all, whose very reason for existence remains a tantalising mystery.

Tantalising, because the fact is that when Bach prepared the score of the Mass in the late 1740s, adding a Credo, Benedictus, Osanna, Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem to an already-existing Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus, there can have been no prospect of its receiving a complete performance. True, the Lutheran liturgy did allow for the use of the Latin Mass; Luther's original purpose in advocating the use of the vernacular in church had not been to banish Latin, but simply to ensure that an alternative was available where that language was not understood. Latin settings continued, therefore, to be heard in Lutheran churches until well into the 18th century, but usually it was only the Kyrie-Gloria unit or the Sanctus that would receive a concerted setting, and even then not on the same occasion.

Bach, it seems, cannot have intended his complete Mass for use in Leipzig , or indeed in any other Lutheran centre. And although Lutheran composers (Bach included) did write Masses for Catholic patrons, at well over 100 minutes in length this huge piece is simply too big to be included in any service. Lutheran or Catholic, no liturgy can contain it.

Numerous other theories, variously plausible, have been put forward: that Bach compiled the Mass for (though never actually presented it to) Frederick the Great of Prussia, the recipient in 1747 of the Musical Offering; or that he prepared it as a presentation to the learned Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences, for whom he had earlier composed a number of contrapuntal test-pieces. But the more one looks at it, the more the answer to the question 'Why did Bach write the B minor Mass?' appears to be that he did it purely for his own satisfaction. Or, to put it more romantically, he wrote it for posterity.

The image of the composer before Beethoven's time is often that of the resourceful pragmatist providing music to meet specific needs or circumstances. It is easy to view Bach, who during the 1720s speedily produced cycles of cantatas to cater for at least three entire Leipzig church calendars, often happily reusing material from earlier works in its process, as an especially skilful example of the composer writing primarily to order. Yet in his 50s and 60s, when his duties as Leipzig Kantor had become less demanding, he increasingly directed his activities towards the composition and organisation of cycles of works displaying great musical erudition but no discernible practical usefulness other than to demonstrate his own skill in a particular musical field. Placed in the context of works such as The Art of Fugue, then, the giant, liturgically unwieldy B minor Mass begins to look more and more like a final statement of Bach's abilities as a composer of sacred vocal music, and perhaps of his Christian faith as well.

By rescuing from all periods of his career music that would otherwise have remained rooted to its original, distinctly earthbound circumstances - a monarch's nameday, or the election of a town council - Bach was leaving his musical testament; by linking it to a sacred work that could not be performed as part of a service, he was producing what has been called a 'universal Christian artwork', a Mass which - though, for all the composer knew, it might never be heard - was nevertheless public, for all and about all. It is a breadth of vision which makes the requirements of the Leipzig town council or of the Elector of Saxony look small indeed.

Yet it was to that same Elector, Friedrich August II, that, in 1733, Bach sent a copy of the Kyrie and Gloria which were later to become the first two main sections of the B minor Mass. The Elector's court in Dresden was one of the most prestigious musical establishments in Europe, and Bach, whose relations with his Leipzig employers had recently been under strain, was hoping with this carefully prepared Missa to win the honorary title of Court Composer. Many of its features - five-part choral writing, florid solo vocal lines, even the use of a solo horn in the Quoniam - appear calculated to satisfy Dresden 's musical preferences. Yet it must be remembered that, like Bach's other settings of the Kyrie and Gloria (the four short, so-called 'Lutheran' Masses of the 1730s), it was constructed from pre-existing material; although known models exist only for the Gratias and the Qui tollis, there is sufficient internal evidence to suggest that each and every one of the other movements is an adaptation of some lost original. This is not necessarily as cavalier as it sounds; the Gratias, for example, uses a chorus from a German cantata which sets the words 'We give you thanks, God, and proclaim your wonders', while the model for the Qui tollis is part of a chorus from another cantata carrying the text 'Look now and see whether any pain be like unto my pain'.

The Credo (or Symbolum Nicenum, as Bach entitled it) was almost certainly compiled at the same time as the complete Mass in the late 1740s, and some of it may even have been composed specially. The choruses Credo in unum Deum and Confiteor unum baptisma both show the skills in classical or antico polyphony - here based on Gregorian plainchant melodies - which Bach perfected after assiduous study during the late 1730s and early 1740s. And the layout of the entire section also matches the organisational rigour demonstrated by such late works as the Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue. With the Crucifixus as its focal point, the section pans out symmetrically with two further choruses, two solo numbers and two linked pairs of choruses, and it is a mark of Bach's adaptive genius that the central panel of three choruses - in which even the Crucifixus is borrowed from a cantata composed in 1714 - is perhaps the most moving and dramatic sequence of the entire Mass.

The Sanctus was originally written for performance on its own on Christmas Day 1724; for many people it is the highlight of the B minor Mass. A sumptuous and magisterial movement for six-part chorus, it is tempting to suggest that this is what Shaw was referring to when he wrote of 'the stupendous march of Bach's harmonies'. After such a climax, the remainder of the Mass brings something of a relaxation: the Osanna is an uncomplicatedly joyful movement for double choir which Bach adapted from the opening chorus of his 'dramma per musica' Preise den Glücke, taking care as he did so to preserve momentum by omitting its orchestral introduction; the Benedictus is a lyrical still-point of great beauty; and the Agnus Dei (borrowed from the Ascension Oratorio of 1735) evokes the sacrificial lamb with warmth and nobility. The Mass is then brought to its dignified but inexorable close with a reprise for Dona nobis pacem of the music of the Gratias.

This concept of a prototype super-denominational Mass is an attractive one, especially for those who long for the best Baroque music to be understood as being about life, death, love, pain, faith, the individual - all the things most great music is about. To learn of Bach's extensive reuse of earlier music in the B minor Mass might dent that ideal for some, but that is to ignore the degree to which the art of recycling extant music formed part of the technical armoury of the Baroque composer. For Bach, at least, it certainly was an art, a procedure which appears to have been not so much an expedient as an aim in itself, perhaps even a system of self-reference every bit as consciously applied as that of a Shostakovich or a Strauss. For those for whom a masterpiece must be sanctified by originality, the extensive recycling found in the B minor Mass is no doubt problematic, especially given the work's spiritual flavour. But for those who relish the skill, care and discernment with which Bach selected and reworked his material to produce both a personal manifesto of his faith and a compendium of his choral-orchestral art, the piece is a never-ending source of wonder.

Programme note © Lindsay Kemp

        A Bach Blog

        Bach Blog

        BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

        This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.