Messe h-Moll

BWV 232 //

(Mass in B minor) for soloists, choir and orchestra

The Mass in B Minor, hailed in 1818 as the “greatest musical composition of all times and all cultures” by its first publisher, Hans-Georg Nägeli of Zurich, is today revered as one of the greatest works in the history of classical music. Not only has the composition substantially shaped the contemporary relevance of Johann Sebastian Bach, but it also underpins his standing as a pre-eminent artist of universal appeal.

J.S. Bach-Stiftung Kantate BWV 232


The sound recording of this work is available on several streaming and download platforms.






Julia Doyle

Alex Potter

Daniel Johannsen

Klaus Mertens


Lia Andres, Sybille Diethelm, Simone Schwark, Gunta Smirnova, Alexa Vogel, Lucy de Butts, Jessica Jans, Guro Hjemli, Linda Loosli, Lea Scherer, Julia Schiwowa, Lisa Weiss

Judith Flury, Katharina Jud, Stefan Kahle, Liliana Lafranchi, Francisca Näf, Damaris Rickhaus, Dina König

Marcel Fässler, Manuel Gerber, Matthias Lüdi, Tobias Mäthger, Sören Richter, Nicolas Savoy

Matthias Ebner, Fabrice Hayoz, Matthias Lutze, Valentin Parli, Retus Pfister, Philippe Rayot, Martin Schicketanz, Tobias Wicky


Rudolf Lutz

Plamena Nikitassova, Lenka Torgersen, Sonoko Asabuki, Peter Barczi, Christine Baumann, Eva Borhi, Elisabeth Kohler, Petra Melicharek, Dorothee Mühleisen, Christoph Rudolf, Ildikó Sajgó

Mariana Doughty, Martina Bischof, Matthias Jäggi, Sarah Krone

Maya Amrein, Bettina Messerschmidt, Daniel Rosin

Markus Bernhard, Alexandra Lechner

Susann Landert, Dorothy Mosher

Olivier Picon

Andreas Helm, Philipp Wagner, Dominik Melicharek

Transverse flute
Marc Hantaï, Yifen Chen

Patrick Henrichs, Peter Hasel, Klaus Pfeiffer

Martin Homann

Nicola Cumer

Jörg-Andreas Bötticher

Musical director & conductor

Rudolf Lutz

Recording & editing

Texts (CD-Booklet)
Anselm Hartinger, Rudolf Lutz

English translations
Alice Noger-Gradon

Recording year

Recording director and editor
Stefan Ritzenthaler / GALLUS MEDIA AG, Schweiz

Recording assistant
Johannes Widmer / GALLUS MEDIA AG, Schweiz

J. S. Bach-Stiftung St.Gallen, Schweiz

Radio SRF 2 Kultur

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About the work


Author unknown

First performance




Kyrie eleison.

Duett (Sopran I, II)
Christe eleison.

Kyrie eleison.

Gloria in excelsis Deo

et in terra pax hominibus
bonae voluntatis.

Laudamus te,
benedicimus te,
adoramus te,
glorificamus te.

Gratias agimus
tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam.

Duett (Sopran, Tenor)
Domine Deus, rex coelestis, Deus
pater omnipotens.
Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe.
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,
Filius Patris.

Qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
suscipe deprecationem nostram.

Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris,
miserere nobis.

Quoniam tu solus Sanctus,
tu solus Dominus,
tu solus Altissimus: Jesu Christe,

cum Sancto Spiritu
in gloria Dei Patris.



Credo in unum Deum,

Patrem omnipotentem,
factorem coeli et terrae,
visibilium omnium et invisibilium.

Duett (Sopran, Alt)
Et in unum Dominum, Jesum Christum,
Filium Dei unigentum.
Et ex Patre natum ante omnia Saecula.
Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine,
Deum verum de Deo vero. Genitum,
non factum, consubstantialem Patri,
per quem omnia facta sunt.
Qui propter nos homines,
et propter nostram salutem,
descendit de coelis.

Et incarnatus est
de Spiritu Sancto
ex Maria Virgine,
et homo factus est.

Crucifixus etiam pro nobis,
sub Pontio Pilato
passus et sepultus est.

Et resurrexit tertia die,
secundum Scripturas.
Et ascendit in coelum,
sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris.
Et iterum venturus est cum gloria,
judicare vivos et mortuos,
cujus regni non erit finis.

Et in Spiritum sanctum
Dominum et vivificantem,
Qui ex Patre Filioque procedit.
Qui cum Patre et Filio
simul adoratur et conglorificatur,
Qui locutus est per Prophetas.
Et unam sanctam catholicam
et apostolicam Ecclesiam.

Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem

Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum.
Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen.


Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

Pleni sunt coeli et terra
gloria ejus.


Osanna in excelsis.

Benedictus qui venit
in nomine Domini.

Osanna in excelsis.

Agnus Dei,
qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.

Dona nobis pacem.

Reflective lecture

Anselm Hartinger, translation by Alice Noger-Gradon

Negotiating the boundaries between liturgical composition, royal dedication and artistic legacy: on the origin and interpretation of bach’s “great catholic mass”

The Mass in B Minor, hailed in 1818 as the “greatest musical composition of all times and all cultures” by its first publisher, Hans-Georg Nägeli of Zurich, is today revered as one of the greatest works in the history of classical music. Not only has the composition substantially shaped the contemporary relevance of Johann Sebastian Bach, but it also underpins his standing as a pre-eminent artist of universal appeal.
There are pertinent reasons why the Mass in B Minor – a work for which there is no definite record of performance in Bach’s lifetime – has been singled out for such extensive posthumous acclamation. For one, the venerable Latin text of the Mass stands in stark contrast to the German libretti of Bach’s cantatas, whose polemic theological content and inconsistent poetic quality have complicated the reception of Bach’s cantatas since the 19th century. Moreover, the Mass is not coupled with the Protestant tradition of musically interpreting the liturgical texts assigned to each Sunday and feast day; indeed, once this practice was discontinued after 1800, the cantatas of Bach and other baroque masters were left homeless in the liturgical setting. And finally, the weighty ensemble scoring and broad scale of the Mass presented pleasing parallels to the largeensemble oratorios that dominated the choir and concert practices of the Romantic period.
But it is mainly the sheer quality of this massive work that best explains its enduring popularity. From its earliest performances as arrangements by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in 1786 and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy in 1841 and 1843, to studies of the score by Beethoven and Schumann and the early recordings by Klemperer and Scherchen, up to the historically informed performance practices of today: the fascination this work holds for musicians and connoisseurs has withstood the test of time. In a gesture typical of Bach, he shaped his only composition for the entire text of the Mass in a form that eclipsed all known dimensions. And in doing so, he deftly applied the parody technique, thereby giving a permanent new home to outstanding movements from his earlier sacred and secular cantatas. These parody settings, however, involved far more than simply applying new texts to older works. The “Et expecto” movement of the Mass, for example, presents a fundamental reworking of the cantata chorus “Jauchzet, ihr erfreuten Stimmen!” from the council election cantata BWV 120, while the “Crucifixus” is a highly sophisticated rescoring of the Weimar chorus movement “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” (BWV 12/1) that engenders an organic transition to the ensuing “Et resurrexit” movement of the Mass. Indeed, the textually rich “Ach bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben” from the Ascension music of BWV 11 is barely recognisable in its parody form, the touching “Agnus Dei”, and the Leipzig Sanctus from the Christmas festival of 1724 seems to soar to new heights when heard in the context of the complete Mass.
In terms of form and setting, the Mass presents an outstanding cross-section of Bach’s sacred oeuvre. Extensive fugues in both modern concertante style (Kyrie I) and traditional da-cappella idiom (Kyrie II) are alternated with movements laden with affect and mystery (“Qui tollis”, “Et incarnatus”) or choral movements replete with brilliant trumpet figures and fugal passages (“Cum Sancto Spiritu”, “Et resurrexit”). A special place is reserved for the “Crucifixus”, which is set as a Ciaccona over a descending bass, thus firmly anchoring the image of an irreversible life of suffering into the structure of the movement. The choral scoring ranges from four to fivevoice settings up to the six-voice “Sanctus” and the double-choir “Osanna”, while the solo arias, with their stark contrasts in instrumental accompaniment and dense scoring, are conceived not only for each vocal range but also as duets.
It would be a mistake, however, to view the Mass as a work of “absolute” artistic expression, a work composed for the afterworld in line with the musical aesthetic of the 19th century. Indeed, with its clear hallmarks of occasional music, Bach could hardly have intended the work as an “application dossier” for the “heavenly choir”; moreover, its glorification as Bach’s sacred legacy would only weigh upon, and complicate, every attempt at performance. Rather, the Mass should be viewed as a musical compilation, conceived with an extraordinary appreciation of both effect and affect, as well as a work that bears witness to Bach’s intensive study of the Italian and German tradition of the Mass – the works of Giovanni Bassani, Gioseppe Peranda, Antonio Lotti and Johann Hugo von Wilderer found in Bach’s extant library offer but a glimpse of how greatly the master was influenced by this tradition. Furthermore, the Mass bears such a strong relationship to the musical practices of the Dresden court that it must have been composed with a thorough knowledge of the court’s preferred musical forms, conventions and orchestration.
This influence is particularly obvious in the original version of the Mass, which was written in 1733 and comprises just a Kyrie and Gloria; a set of the original parts, written in the hand of Bach, his wife Anna Magdalena, and his sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, remains preserved in Dresden. Inscribed with the words “To his royal highness and Prince-Elector of Saxony the enclosed Missa is […] a token of the submissive devotion of the author J. S. Bach”, the set was dedicated to the new ruler Friedrich August II as a part of Bach’s efforts, rewarded in 1736, to attain the title of “court composer”. Bach’s excellent knowledge of Dresden’s musical world is mirrored in his many connections to the court, which ranged from numerous musicians (including his son Wilhelm Friedemann, who held the post of organist in Dresden’s Sophienkirche from 1733 to 1746), to personages from the highest ranks of the aristocracy. Moreover, Bach’s much-cited position paper of 1730 on the reform of Leipzig church music names the Dresden court orchestra as a role model of cultivated ensemble playing: in particular, its musicians specialised in a single instrument in contrast to the all-rounder approach traditionally adopted by town bands of Central Germany. Bach pointedly honoured this refined practice in his 1733 version of the Mass by composing a noticeably high number of instrumental soli in enchanting combinations. Ranging from a violin concertato in the “Laudamus te” to transverse flutes and muted strings in the “Domine Deus” up to a horn accompanied by two bassoons in the “Quoniam”, these compositions would have defeated even the most highly accomplished town piper of Leipzig. Whether Bach had certain virtuoso court vocalists in mind for the solo parts, however, remains a mystery, as do the exact circumstances of a possible Dresden (or perhaps even Leipzig) performance in the late summer of 1733.
On closer inspection, another pertinent Dresden connection comes to light in relation to Bach’s expansion of the Missa Brevis into a full Mass. Bach worked on the full version well into 1748/49, the year before his death, although the liturgical conventions of the day would have prevented its performance in Leipzig, where he was posted at the time. A person of note in this development appears to have been Jan Dismas Zelenka, a double bass player and church composer from Dresden, with whom Bach was already acquainted; research by Hans-Joachim Schulze indicates that Zelenka had assisted Bach with the dedication text for the Missa of 1733, ensuring its correctness with strict protocol. Bach and Zelenka shared an interest in studying the fugal masters of the 17th century and in further developing the contrapuntal compositional style of these masters – examples of which are embodied in the early draft (around 1740) of a seven- voice “Credo in unum Deum” as well as the “Confiteor”, which both cite Gregorian chorales. Moreover, Zelenka’s large church compositions – especially his incomplete cycle for the Missae ultimae of 1740/41 – appear to have inspired the formal structure of Bach’s Mass. While Bach’s reuse of a previous fugal movement (“Gratias”) for the closing “Dona nobis pacem” is typical for the concertante Mass settings of his time, the integration of no less than three consecutive, contrasting choral movements (“Et incarnatus” – “Crucifixus” – “Et resurrexit”) in the centre of the Credo is a clear nod to the multi-part “scenes” composed by Zelenka. Entirely unprecedented in Bach’s sacred oeuvre is the double setting of the text “Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum” (in the form of a Grave-Allegro set of movements that proceeds from a harmonic, visionary striding to a triumphant rushing) although dual settings of this type are a veritable hallmark of Zelenka. Indeed, Bach’s Agnus Dei shares with the parallel setting of Zelenka’s Missa Dei patris of 1740 not only the alto voicing of Zelenka’s composition, but also its unison string accompaniment and mysterious, dark timbre. Even Bach’s shorter Mass of 1733, which extended far beyond the contemporary conventions regarding length and complexity, links him to Zelenka, whose insistence on originality and expansion of form faced increasing criticism and caused his music – like Bach’s – to fall into obscurity as musical fashions took a new direction.
Despite all popular theories to the contrary, it is unlikely that Bach completed the Mass in B Minor to fulfil a mandate from Dresden – for instance, for the dedication of the new Catholic court church, which was completed in 1751 after a long building period. In addition, it is now generally accepted that Bach’s score – although each section is individually bound – is not a collection of separate compositions composed for different forms of Lutheran services (as suggested by Friedrich Smend), but is one work compiled in sections for dispatch to performances outside of Dresden. Thanks to scholar Michael Maul, we now know that Vienna may have been one place for which the Mass was intended – the city’s annual “congregation of music”, a meeting of outstanding musicians, would certainly have provided a worthy framework for the performance of a large-scale, richly orchestrated Mass. If this is the case, the dictum of the “great Catholic mass”, dating back to records of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s estate from 1790, would be just as unexpectedly confirmed as would the current ecumenical appreciation of the work. To be sure, the Mass in B Minor cannot be solely assigned to any one conceptual or performance context. Instead, it must be seen as a masterpiece that unites compositions from over four decades of Bach’s oeuvre and embodies his contemplation of the musical past and present in a timelessly inspiring spirit.

Bibliographical references

All libretti sourced from Neue Bach-Ausgabe. Johann Sebastian Bach. Neue Ausgabe sämtlicher Werke, published by the Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Institut Göttingen and the Bach-Archiv Leipzig, Series I (Cantatas), vol. 1–41, Kassel and Leipzig, 1954–2000.
All in-depth analyses by Anselm Hartinger (English translations/editing by Alice Noger-Gradon/Mary Carozza) based on the following sources:  Hans-Joachim Schulze, Die Bach-Kantaten. Einführungen zu sämtlichen Kantaten Johann Sebastian Bachs, Leipzig, 2nd edition, 2007; Alfred Dürr, Johann Sebastian Bach. Die Kantaten, Kassel, 9th edition, 2009, and Martin Petzoldt, Bach-Kommentar. Die geistlichen Kantaten, Stuttgart, vol. 1, 2nd edition, 2005 and vol. 2, 1st edition, 2007.

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