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FastNotes

  • Bach compiled this massive work in Leipzig in 1748-1749, bringing together music composed in different times for different places.

  • The earliest music in it, for the “Crucifixus” section of the Credo, for example, was taken from an Easter cantata Bach wrote in 1714; the largest integral portion, the Kyrie and Gloria, was composed in 1733.

  • Bach wrote new music – likely the last that he composed before his death – and made revisions to the old as suggested by the new texts and/or creative imperatives. He brought it all together into a rigorously constructed whole, a complete setting of the “ordinary” portions of the Catholic mass.


Almost all the traditional “five Ws” of news style and police reports have waffling answers in regard to this monumental work. Only “who” – J.S. Bach – is without doubt, though even that affirmation has to be qualified by the fact that the principal manuscript source for the work was heavily edited by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach after the composer’s death.

Three of the other interrogatories – “what,” “when,” and “where” – are interrelated. The title is a matter of tradition and misleading convention, in that J.S. Bach did not name it himself (C.P.E called it “Die Grosse Catholische Messe”) and most of it is not in the key of B minor. He compiled this massive work in Leipzig in 1748-1749, bringing together music composed in different times for different places. The earliest music in it, for the “Crucifixus” section of the Credo, for example, was taken from an Easter cantata Bach wrote in 1714 in Weimar; the largest integral portion, the Kyrie and Gloria, was composed in 1733 in an application to be named court composer in Dresden for the new Elector of Saxony, Friedrich Augustus II. (He did get the title – largely honorary – but not until 1736.) Bach wrote new music – likely the last that he composed before his death – and made revisions to the old as suggested by the new texts and/or creative imperatives. He brought it all together into a rigorously constructed whole, a complete setting of the “ordinary” portions of the Catholic mass (those that do not vary with changing feast days).

“Why” is the hardest question to answer. Almost all music in this era was composed with a specific purpose in mind, and so it has been suggested that Bach compiled this Mass for the dedication of the new High Church then under construction in Dresden, or possibly even for a St. Cecilia’s Day celebration in Vienna. This is speculation, however, further complicated by the fact that the Mass text as Bach sets it is not technically suitable for liturgical use, and the work is much too long in any case.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Bach showed a keen interest in gathering, refining, and preserving the best of his music, as well as in encyclopedic projects such as the books of the ClavierÜbung, The Art of the Fugue, and The Musical Offering. In that sense, this Mass collects some of his best vocal music in a definitive, integrated context.

It also seems that Bach regarded composing a complete Mass ordinary as the summit of musical work, and wanted to place himself in the centuries-old line of masters whose most ambitious works were Mass settings. The Mass was – paradoxically for a denominational religious rite – a universal platform for examining dualities of life and death, joy and suffering, sin and redemption, subject and object. Bach responded to the challenge with a teeming musical universe of light and darkness, mixing every style and genre he knew, archaic and current alike, into an astonishingly organic creation that does not hint at the motley origins of its basic materials.

— John Henken