J.S. Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” is the summation of his life’s work and one of the supreme masterpieces of Western classical music. Yet mystery surrounds the work. What was its purpose, how did it come to be written, and how was it intended to be performed?

No work of Johann Sebastian Bach is more critically revered than the Mass in B Minor, BWV 232. Completed in 1749, a year before Bach’s death, the B-Minor Mass is the summation of his life’s work and one of the supreme masterpieces of Western classical music—perhaps even the “greatest musical artwork of all times and all people,” as one nineteenth-century commentator put it. Yet mystery surrounds the work. What was its purpose, how did it come to be written, and how was it intended to be performed? The B-Minor Mass is an assemblage of music written throughout Bach’s career which he recycled, revised, and reworked into a magnum opus. It is a retrospective and encyclopedic work, summing up not only Bach’s career as a church composer but the entire heritage of sacred music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance to Bach’s day.

The title by which we know the work today is somewhat of a misnomer. While it’s true that the Mass begins in B minor, it spends precious little time in that introspective key; it is in fact organized around the triumphal, victorious key of D major. The title Mass in B Minor became attached to the piece only in the nineteenth century, and some musicologists today would have us restore the title that Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emmanuel gave it: “The Great Catholic Mass.”

But the most glaring mystery of all is: Why did Bach, a staunch Lutheran, write a Roman Catholic Mass? To begin with, some parts of the Latin Mass Ordinary (those prayers of the Catholic Mass which are unvarying from Sunday to Sunday) were accepted in the Lutheran liturgy, particularly in the conservative Leipzig area where Bach worked. Musical Mass settings consisting only of the Kyrie (Lord, Have Mercy) and Gloria (Glory to God in the Highest) were in accordance with Lutheran practice; Bach in his earlier years wrote several short Masses of this type. (Martin Luther, let’s not forget, was an avid polyglot and believed firmly in having Latin, Greek, and even Hebrew as integral parts of the liturgy.)

Yet the B-Minor Mass in its complete form is unquestionably a Roman Catholic rather than a Lutheran work, containing all five of the sections of the Mass Ordinary in Latin. Why did Bach produce such a work?

Music history has numerous examples of composers who lived in religiously-divided countries and who wrote music for both Catholic and Protestant use. Think of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd—English Catholics who during the Renaissance wrote for both the Roman Catholic and Anglican services. The fact is that composers were happy to lend their services wherever they could find work, regardless of confessional differences. So what were the circumstances that might have led Bach to write a Catholic Mass?

The city of Dresden was the musical capital of Germany in the mid-eighteenth century and its court, home of the Electors of Saxony, has been described as “a Catholic diaspora in the middle of the Lutheran heartland.” Dresden would come to play an important role in Bach’s life.  In 1733 the Elector Augustus the Strong died and was succeeded by Augustus III, a Catholic.  Bach presented the new ruler with his new Missa (the Kyrie and Gloria of what we now know as the B-Minor Mass) in hopes of receiving an appointment as court composer. Bach was eventually accorded this honor in 1736.

During the remaining years of his life, Bach expanded the Missa into a complete Catholic Mass Ordinary. Precisely why he did this is not clear. Some scholars conjecture that he intended to have the work performed at the dedication of the new Catholic cathedral in Dresden, which was nearing completion in the late 1740s. Others theorize that he hoped to have it performed at the Catholic cathedral of Vienna for a St. Cecilia’s Day celebration.

Other scholars ascribe more philosophical motives to Bach. By composing a Latin Catholic Mass he may have been making a more universal statement of faith, transcending the more provincial nature of his German church music. A German Lutheran cantata would be understood only by the local circle in which Bach worked. A Catholic Mass could travel far and wide: to Vienna, Venice, Rome. While there is no evidence to support the notion that that Bach actually converted to Catholicism, we know that he adhered to a “High Church” brand of Lutheranism which was more closely oriented toward Catholic traditions and practices. Perhaps as he grew older Bach desired to make his mark in a wider Christian arena, comprehending a broader range of Christian experience.

The B-Minor Mass was not performed in its entirety until 1859, when the Bach revival spearheaded by Felix Mendelssohn was in full force. Parts of it (especially the Credo) had been performed earlier, including by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel. It’s not hard to see why the whole work remained untried for so long. The B-Minor Mass requires solo and choral singers of high technical capacity and a skilled orchestra. It is of giant dimensions—nearly two hours in length—making it seemingly impractical for use in an actual liturgy. Some scholars—especially those of a Romantic bent—have theorized that Bach intended the B-Minor Mass as an abstract, Platonic work demonstrating what he could achieve as a composer rather than a work for actual performance. Few scholars today take this theory seriously, however; there is nothing introverted or abstract about this Mass, which seems designed to resound in the ears and hearts of listeners.

As mentioned, the B-Minor Mass appeared in Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s catalog of his father’s works under the title “the great Catholic Mass” (“die grosse catholische Messe”).  By “great” Emmanuel probably meant big or large, which the B-Minor Mass certainly is. But he could just as well have meant “great” in the laudatory sense. Whatever its origins and background, the B-minor Mass contains some of the most exalted, soaring and exhilarating music ever composed. Who can forget the piercing plea for mercy in the Kyrie? The Quoniam tu solus sanctus for bass with its regal horn obbligato? The dolorous Crucifixus followed by the eruption of joy at the Et resurrexit? In its limning of all sides of the religious experience, the Mass in B minor richly deserves the epithet which one recent musicologist gave it: “Bach’s most universal church work.”

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