Bach, B Minor Mass. T. Herbert Dimmock introduces B Minor Mass and then discusses several examples from the work. BDP #269.

(music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1)

Late in Bach’s life, Bach became interested in summarizing his life’s work in music. Perhaps no result of those efforts was more compelling and effective than those that resulted in the B Minor Mass. Musicologists often assert that the B Minor Mass is more complied than composed. I agree; in many ways that is accurate. But just what does that mean? Bach wrote about 300 cantatas during his lifetime. Late in his life he must have said to himself, “Out of each of the more than 300 cantatas that I wrote, what is the one, absolutely best movement that unequivocally expresses the idea that each individual portion of the mass text calls for. Bach was seeking music which married the music itself with the central idea of each text.  For example, in the Kyrie— he looked for something which pleaded for mercy. In the Gloria he focused on music which the joyful expressed praise. The Laudamus text if the mass called for a nuanced kind of praise within the larger Creed of the mass. Bach went through his life’s work and found all of those existing vocal/instrumental pieces and put them together and edited text for the mass. Wherever he thought that he had not exactly captured the exact nuance of what he wanted, he wrote the new music. The final result was the B Minor Mass, one of the greatest achievements of Western civilization. Period.

In the B Minor Mass Bach made comprehensive use of every musical form and every musical instrument known at that time. As noted above, he combed through the 300 cantatas that he had written in search of the perfect music to go with the texts he had to set in the mass. In addition to using every instrument that was available, Bach also selected or composed music in every musical form. Bach’s B Minor Mass calls for flutes, oboes, oboe d’amores, French horns, trumpets, timpani, bassoons, strings, all solo voice parts and a double choir.

I just can’t say enough about the love I feel for the B Minor Mass. When I think of the Gloria, for example, the exuberance (singing) is powerfully energizing. The effective repetitions in the melody further enhance the effectiveness of the movement. The piece features the choir joined by the three trumpets blazing away, two flutes and two oboes. It is just beyond my ability to express in words how unbelievably beautiful it is.

You might say, “That does it, right?” But the next phrase in the text is Laudamus, “We praise you.” After the amazingly effective setting of the Gloria, what could Bach do for an encore?  He must have thought that a strong contrast was called for. Whereas he used the full orchestra in the Gloria and in the Laudamus he featured a virtuoso solo violin. It will be virtuosic with interesting musical ideas. It will be flying up and down with praise of this kind in Laudamus. The Laudamus is effervescent, flowing ceaselessly forward.

Later in the mass more plaintive texts arise.  As in the earliest texts within the mass, here too Bach’s musical choices are very effective. Take for example: Qui tollis peccata mundi, “Who takes away the sins of the world.” (music) In its simplicity that music is very beautiful. The “tollis” is like bells – and is reminiscent of a church. (music) Miserrere nobis, “Have mercy on us.” Here Bach’s (singing) a sighs and conjures up a plaintive request for mercy. It is the work of a musical genius.

Bach also imbues the B Minor Mass with many symbolic elements. In the setting of the creed he does two things which I find particularly interesting. First, he opens with a melody that many folks living today often do not recognize. (music) You may think that it sounds like an ordinary melody. In fact, this melody is a Gregorian chant. It was the chant used in Bach’s church when the congregation joined together to sing the creed in worship services. Thus Bach’s congregation and Bach’s audience would have immediately recognized this (music) as being associated with their statement of faith, the creed. Underneath the melody, Bach wrote a bass line (music) which flows ceaselessly on and on. (music) Music of this sort is typically labeled as a “marching – or walking – bass line.”


Bach chose that stylized form of composition to link the creed to faith. Theological creeds are not something you prove through science; rather one chooses to believe by taking a leap of faith. Bach is underlining the creed by saying we must walk through life in faith. The Gregorian chant tune is the statement of faith which, if accepted, cannot be proven. Bach weds the three:  text, melody and bass line to making his point of what to believe and how to live out that belief.

I had the honor of studying the B Minor Mass with Helmuth Rilling, the first person in the world to record the complete works of Bach. Maestro Rilling finished that monumental project just in time for the tri-centennial of Bach’s birth. Bach was born in 1685; Rilling finished his recordings in 1985. I remember a comment he was made to me about the text in the middle of the creed “et in unum.” At this place in the creed authors are asserting that the two members of the triune God are one. They are at once the same and different. God the Father and God the Son: the same yet one – that is a difficult concept to explain. I remember that Rilling saying, “If you heard a preacher preach about that, it would take them many words: perhaps an entire 20-minute sermon. And when he was done, you still might not understand it. But Bach does it in just a couple of notes.” He takes two oboe d’amores and has the first one play this (music). And immediately the second one plays (music). One plays the musical line staccato (music) and the other legato—[smooth] (music).

Et Unum

The music is the same, yet different. Here we have a quintessential Bach touch. Bach’s point is exclusively made in his music – it is not contained in the text.  Like so many things in the B minor Mass, we find that added meaning and beauty comes from the music which forms a kind of theological commentary on the overall text.

The Sanctus in the B Minor Mass has a plethora of symbols from Isaiah 6: 2-3.  This passage focuses on the host of heavenly creatures worshiping God. [Isaiah 6: 2. “Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”] Bach depicts all the imagery in that passage with the musical choices that he makes. At this spot there are two choirs, each who sing in six parts. The music itself rises and falls in patterns that call to mind the hovering of angels and cherubim. At the bottom of the score, the lowest voices sing in octaves – the “most perfect interval” which depicts the “most perfect being – God.” It is to God that the heavenly host directs their joyful, ecstatic dance as they proclaim that God is holy.

The mass ends with Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world have mercy on us.” Here Bach does something unexpected – again. He adds an entire movement of music for the closing phrase of the Agnus Dei:  Dona nobis pacem. (music).

What can one say about that final part of the B Minor Mass? In actuality, these final pages contain two melodies. The first is smooth; the music moves by steps (music).

Dona Nobis opening

The notes tend to be half notes and whole notes. That is important because Bach’s forefather, Palestrina, the great church music composer in the whole generation before Bach and Handel, wrote music in that exact style. Palestrina’s melodies typically were written in half notes and whole notes with a few quarter notes thrown in for the motion. Thus Bach writes his first melody as Palestrina might have. Bach’s first tune hearkens back to the music of our forebearers. The prayer for peace, the human longing for peace, goes back through time to the generations that preceded us.

Once all the sections of the choir have sung that first melody, Bach introduces a second melody. (music)

Dona Nobis

This new melody is played by both the orchestra and the choir. It reminds one of the music contemporary to Bach’s time. It easily could have been excerpted from one of the “Brandenburg Concertos.” Thus this second tune is understood to be modern. It is the language of Baroque music of Bach’s present day.  The two melodies each pray for peace. Each tune moves upward towards heaven. The first in the old style of Palestrina; the second transformed into the modern style of Bach’s contemporary world. Bach’s point is made through his music – again!  The music thus asserts that the human longing for peace spans time. It traverses forward and backward in time. The search for peace is, in fact, timeless. The search for peace is universal. The search for peace in our world and in our lives continues to this day. For me, this concluding movement of the B Minor Mass music is so powerful, so compelling and so worthy that if Bach had never written anything else, we would still be compelled to call him a great musical genius. I share that longing for peace; I am sure that you do too. I am grateful that Bach’s music does such a superb job in reminding us all of that shared aspect of our humanity.
Dona nobis pacem starts with just one voice, the bass, then the tenors come in, altos join, sopranos, and then the strings, the winds, the trumpets, the timpani, unit finally everyone in the entire ensemble are all blazing away in a fervent prayer that ends the B Minor Mass.

What a wonderful piece! Don’t miss your chance to hear it. It is one of the greatest achievements that we have ever had in our Western civilization.

(music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1)