Mass in B Minor

   Composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, the Mass in B minor (BWV 232) is one of the largest and most outstanding concerted settings of the Roman Catholic mass ordinary in the entire Western tradition. Scored for five-voice chorus, vocal soloists, strings, flutes, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, timpani, and continuo, the work consists of 27 movements and requires about two hours to perform. Bach did not compose the mass all at once. He wrote the Sanctus in 1724 for the Christmas liturgy at St. Thomas Lutheran church in Leipzig, where he was cantor. The Kyrie (three movements) and Gloria (nine movements) were sent in 1733 to petition Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony, for an honorary court title. (A mass consisting only of the first two Latin ordinary prayers was common Lutheran practice.) In the late 1740s, Bach completed the mass by adding the movements of the Credo, Osanna, and Agnus Dei, mostly parodies of previously composed movements dating as far back as 1712. Since no performance of the entire mass in Bach’s lifetime is known, some critics believe it to be a "speculative" composition, a retrospective summary of what he judged to be his life’s best work. The Mass in B minor exhibits a great range of compositional form and color, from the intimate Benedictus aria for solo flute, tenor, and continuo to tremendous festal choruses requiring every instrument. Much of Bach’s revising seems to have been directed at integrating the individual movements into large-scale compositions, particularly in the case of the Gloria and Credo. He removed or truncated many of the articulating ritornellos so that one movement demands the next, and in fact Bach indicates many links explicitly in the score. The work is both an encyclopedia and tour-de-force of compositional technique: cantus firmus, strict canon, ostinato bass, stile antico, and chromatic fantasy merely head the list of devices displayed. Virtuoso solos for every instrument lend great timbral variety and the difficulty of all the vocal parts make the Mass in B minor one of the most challenging of choral projects.
   Despite the interest of his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714– 1788), Franz Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig van Beethoven, the first complete performance did not occur until 1859 in Leipzig, owing perhaps to the lack of a suitable performing edition. The most recent critical edition, edited by Christoph Wolff, was issued by C. F. Peters in 1994. The Mass has been a touchstone of authentic historical performance practice and its attendant controversies over the last halfcentury.

Historical dictionary of sacred music. . 2006.

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