The B-Minor Mass, unlike most of Bach's vocal works, was not written at a specific time but in several discrete periods. As a result, the curious history and chronology of the Mass becomes an interesting subject for study.
Most scholars share the view that the B-Minor Mass comprises four independent movements which together constitute a complete Mass Ordinary. The earliest part to be completed was the "Sanctus", composed in 1724 and first performed on Christmas Day of that year. The "Missa", including the setting of the "Kyrie" and "Gloria", was composed in 1733. Towards the end of his life, Bach completed the Mass cycle by adding the missing movements; the "Credo" (in Bach's Lutheran terminology Symbolum Nicenum), and settings of the "Osanna", "Benedictus", "Agnus Dei" and "Dona nobis pacem". Spitta suggests that they may have been written between 1734 and 1738. There is, however, some evidence to show that the remaining parts were performed between 1743 and 1748.
The settings differ from corresponding settings of the Roman missal. This is simply because they use sung texts in common use in the Lutheran Church in 18th-century Saxony. More than that, the Mass transcends the religious will to the glory of mankind, the joy of the spirit, in a broader sense. The B-Minor Mass, which was composed in a universality of style and idiom, can appeal to all peoples.
The varied sources of the musical settings of Bach's Mass are also worthy of mention. Much of the music was adapted from already-existing Cantatas which Bach had previously composed. This practice is known as "parody", though without any connotation of satire. Bach certainly took his time garnering materials composed at various times of his life, rewriting them, fusing them with newly-composed music. For example, the "Gratias agimus" and "Dona nobis pacem" movements are based on Cantata No. 29, "Wir danken dir, Gott", composed in 1731. The "Crucifixus" is adapted from the Passacaglia that opens the early Cantata No. 12, "Weinen, Klagen", of 1714. The "Agnus Dei" is based on an aria in the Cantata "Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen", dated 1735.
Although adaptation of earlier compositions caused extreme complexity both in musical and theological terms, Bach's selections related the sections of the Mass thematically, rhythmically and tonally, thus stating his meaning precisely. He rewrote them so subtly and extensively that they often became as if new music. Thus the B-Minor Mass became the summation of Bach's life-work.
The last, but not least, aspect worthy of mention here is the infiltration of Baroque dance forms into the church style. Although there is no movement in the Mass which contains explicit features of a specific dance, Bach used them to provide a stable framework within which to elaborate various ideas and processes. For instance, the opening of the "Gloria in excelsis Deo" is derived from the Gigue and Passepied. In an analogy to the closing movement of a typical concerto, which must have been composed during Bach's period in Cöthen (1718-23), the antiphonal style and the binary pairing of bars helps the regularity of phrasing. Another Gigue-related form is the "Et in Spiritum Sanctum". A prominent Passacaglia ground bass is found in the "Crucifixus". The brilliant "El resurrexit" displays the characteristics of the Courante, while the "Et expecto" suggests the Bourée. The "Qui sedes" is derived from the Polonaise, as seen in its structural irregularity. Evidence for this is not only the metre and rhythmic articulation of phrases or sections, but also in the mood evoked. The evocation of mood through the choice of particular standardized forms and gestures was a feature of much Baroque music, including that of Bach. This infiltration of the dance into the church style reflects Bach's capacity for transforming secular subjects to serious, even religious ones.
Its curious historical and theological backgrounds, its adaptations of excerpts from both secular and sacred cantatas composed earlier, and the infiltration of the dance into the church style, may bring one to ask what kind of Mass the B-Minor truly is. The entire Mass shows a sublime quality which is its most outstanding characteristic, and which reflects its composer's universality. Bach's achievement in the B-Minor Mass is not only gigantic and remarkable; one can say that its objective is to transcend the cultural limitations of geography, history and religion, of place and time. In the brilliant and utterly majestic choruses, the graceful, melodious and lyrical solos and duets, and the varied orchestral colours of his Mass, Bach created a truly universal artwork.
- Yau Shek Fung, Henry -