J.S. Bach Mass in B Minor
Closer Look at Individual Movements

Xinh's project for Mu123, spring/1996 [Bach home page]
The following is a brief description of each individual movement in Bach's B-Minor Mass. Here I discuss the interplay between voices and instruments, the structure of each movement, and musical gestures that help convey the meaning of the text. W. Mellers' book was a major source of reference.



Kyrie eleison (1st)

5-part chorus in Bm, marked Adagio, Largo 4/4 time
This opening movement begins with a 4-bar prelude that sounds like a prayer as the 5 vocal parts sing in homophony. The rising soprano line "Kyrie eleison" means "Lord, have mercy upon us." This movement is set in B minor, key of passive suffering, which will be balanced by the key of D major in later movements. The entire mass is centered on these two keys. After an instrumental prelude, marked Largo, that features flute and oboe in a fugue, the voices come in one after another with the same fugal theme. First tenor, then alto, soprano 1, soprano 2, and then bass enter with this theme that remains unchanged throughout the fugue. This movement contains the first example of balance between voices and instruments, as the vocal bass parts are doubled by strings and bassoon, while the upper voices are doubled by flutes and oboes in unison or by strings, or, at climactic points, by both strings and woodwinds. The entire movement has a polyphonic texture.

Christe eleison

Duet for sopranos I,II in D with obbligato violins, marked Andante 4/4 time
This movement is centered on D major, key of worldly power and glory. It begins with two obbligato violins playing in unison, perhaps alluding to the identity of Father and Son, in a concerto style. Then sopranos 1 and 2 enter in parallel thirds invoking God as Christ in the words "Christe eleison" which mean "Christ, have mercy upon us." In the first 23 bars, the two voices, which may symbolize Christ and Father, alternate between parallel movement and canonic duet. The obbligato violin part, if considered a symbol for the Holy Ghost, completes the Trinity. The movement ends with a repetition of the original ritornello. Notice how the solo violins tend to balance the solo sopranos.

Kyrie eleison (2nd)

4-part chorus in F#m, marked Allegro moderato 4/4 time alla breve
This second Kyrie movement is a strict fugue for 4-part chorus. The fugal subject starts with the B-A-C-H motive inverted. The key of this movement, F# minor, together with the keys of the other two movements of the Kyrie, rotate on a B-minor triad.


Gloria in excelsis

5-part chorus in D, marked Vivace 3/8 time
This movement, whose text "Gloria in excelsis Deo" means "Gloria be to God on high" is appropriately set in D major, the key of glory. This key is identified with glory because it allows the maximum number of open strings on the violin, for a bright sound, and is also the natural key of the trumpet, which is thus capable of reaching high in its range. 3 trumpets, violins, flutes, oboes, and timpani are scored for this movement in which fugal passages are interspersed with homophony.

Et in terra pax

5-part chorus in D, marked Andante 4/4 time
Gloria in excelsis leads without break into this movement, which is faster in tempo. It begins with a subject consisting of stepwise moving quavers set to the text "et in terra pax" which means "and peace on earth." After this, soprano 1, alto, tenor, bass, and then soprano 2 enter in a fugue.

Laudamus te

Aria for soprano II in A with violin obbligato, marked Andante 4/4 time
To contrast with the 3 choral movements preceding this one, Bach shaped the Laudamus te into an intimate operatic aria for soprano. The movement is set in A major, the key of grace. In the opening ritornello, which is a dialog between violin obbligato and string quartet, the violin rises in melody and concludes with a 32nd-note run. Throughout this movement a constant stream of quavers in the bass line moves the melody forward. The movement continues as a free canonic dialog between solo voice and solo violin, in the form of a da capo aria. In the da capo section, the violin melody rises again, this time to stratospheric heights up to the high A, which was rarely seen in the Baroque period. Once again, as in previous movements, in Laudamus te vocal and instrumental forces are in balance. It was common for Bach to match a soprano solo with an obbligato violin, as found in this movement and also in Christe eleison, where 2 sopranos are accompanied by 2 obbligato violins.

Gratias agimus tibi

4-part chorus in D, marked Allegro moderato 4/4 time alla breve
In the first 3 measures of this movement, the voices each enter with the theme one after another, first the basses, then tenors, then altos, and finally sopranos. Each voice enters before the last voice has fully sung the theme, which consists of a rising part, "Gratias agimus tibi" or "We thank thee Lord," and a falling countersubject, "propter magnam gloriam tuam" or "for thy great glory." Counterpoint is achieved throughout the entire movement. The voices are doubled by strings, oboes, and bassoon. Trumpets enter with the theme as a 5th part. Toward the end of the movement, drums are also heard.

Domine Deus

Duet for soprano I and tenor in G, marked Andante 4/4 time
The key of this movement is G major, key of benediction. In the instrumental prelude obbligato flute and muted string trio are accompanied by pizzicato continuo bass. The tenor and soprano 1 then enter in cannon, in which the tenor sings "Domine Deus rex coelestis (Lord God, heavenly King)," while soprano 1 sings Domine Fili unigenite (O Lord, the only begotten Son)"; the tenor continues with "Deus Pater omnipotens (Father Almighty)," while soprano 1 sings Jesu Christe altissime (Jesus Christ Highest)." Thus, the tenor part concerns the Father, while the soprano part is about the Son. The two voices then alternate between singing in cannon and in parallel 6ths and 10ths, until the instrumental ritornello is resumed. Finally, soprano and tenor enter together in the phrase "Domine Deus, agnus Dei, Dei Filius Patris (Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father)." This section sounds like the middle passage of a da capo aria, and just when the da capo section is expected, the music goes instead without break to the next movement.

Qui tollis peccata mundi

4-part chorus in Bm, marked Lento 3/4 time
The altos enter first with a descending B-minor triad, followed by tenors, then 2nd sopranos, and finally basses, with the phrase "Qui tollis peccata mundi" which means "That takest away the sins of the world." The 2nd syllable of the world peccata is stress by being held longer than the other syllables. In a similar way, the phrase "misere nobis (have mercy upon us)" is emphasized by being stretched out in time. Two obbligato flutes accompany the voice parts. Notice that 1st sopranos are left out of the scoring to give the music a darker tone. Excruciating dissonances appear throughout this movement, which ends on a Picardy 3rd, an F#-major triad.

Qui sedes ad dexteram patris

Aria for alto in Bm with oboe d'amore obbligato, marked Andante commodo 6/8 time
The solo alto part and solo oboe alternate with the melody, with accompaniment from the strings. This is another example of the instrumental forces balancing the vocal forces. The rich dark tone of oboe d'amore helps set the mood of this movement as a sad one.

Quoniam tu solus sanctus

Aria for bass in D with corno da caccia obbligato, marked Andante lento 3/4 time
In the instrumental prelude, obbligato corno da caccia sings the melody with accompaniment from two bassoons. The bass soloist then enters and stresses the first syllable of the word "Dominus," which occurs on an extended 16th-note passage. The obbligato corno keeps returning with a nagging repeated 8th-note figure. Once again, Bach maintains a sense of balance, this time by pairing the deep bass part with the obbligato corno da caccia. This movements leads directly into the next and final movement of the Gloria.

Cum sancto spiritu

5-part chorus in D, marked Vivace 3/4 time
In this movement, 3 trumpets, 2 oboes, 2 flutes, and bassoon are included in the scoring. The chorus enters in homophony with accompaniment from the strings. The 1st syllable of the word "gloria (glory)" is stressed by occuring on 4-measure 16th-note run. The 1st syllable of "Patris (Father)" is emphasized by being held for 4 measures. The next major section is a chorus fugato accompanied only by continuo in which tenors enter first, followed by altos, then 1st sopranos, then 2nd sopranos, and finally basses. From there until the end, homophony and counterpoint alternate in the choral parts, while trumpet and timpani come in at high points. The figure containing repeated quavers from the previous movement is still present in the bass line.



Credo in unum Deum

5-part chorus in mixolydian A, marked Moderato cut time alla breve
The structure of this movement is characterized by counterpoint. The theme, which consists of long notes set to the words "Credo in unum Deum" or "I believe in one God," is sung first by tenors, then basses, then altos, then 1st sopranos, and finally 2nd sopranos. The 2 violin parts also contain thematic material, and throughout the fugue the strings serve as accompaniment to the voices. The continuo bass line has rising and descending scales in quarter notes that drive the music forward. This movement is marked with 2 sharps and is in the key of mixolydian A, but it ends on an A-major triad. Notice that the numerological equivalent of the word CREDO is 43; Bach had this in mind when composing exactly 43 entries of the melody.

Patrem omnipotentem

4-part chorus in D, marked Allegro 4/4 time
This movement has a homophonic texture. It opens with the basses singing the new text "Patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terra (The Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth)," while the other 3 parts are still singing the phrase from the last movement "Credo in unum Deum." This passage is repeated 3 times, and each time an extra voice comes in with the new words, so that there are 3, 2, and then only 1 voice left singing the old text. The chorus is accompanied by oboes and violins, a quavered bass, and trumpets and drums that enter later on. The words "invisibilium" and "visibilium" stand out as the chorus chants the syllables vi-si-bi in rapid succession. The number of bars in this movement, 84 = 7 (holy number of the church) x 12 (number of apostles). Furthermore, the preceding movement Credo in unum Deum had 45 measures, yielding a total of 129 measures for the two movements combined; in fact, 129 = 3 (number of times the Credo is repeated in the liturgy) x 43 (lexico-numeric equivalent of the word CREDO). Clearly, Bach had these facts in mind during the composition of this section and intended for these two movements to be regarded as a pair.

Et in unum Dominum

Duet aria for soprano I and alto in G, marked Andante 4/4 time
This is the first aria of the Credo, and it has many similarities with the Domine Deus movement of the Gloria. Both movements are in G major, both are duets, and both are marked Andante 4/4 time. This is yet another example of how Bach introduces balance into the mass, by composing very similar movements for the Gloria and Credo, the two major sections of the work. In the prelude, 2 oboi d'amore and 2 violins sing in a free cannon, where the 2 oboes and 1st violin are set against the 2nd violin alone. They enter as two voices in a cannon 1 beat apart. When the soprano and alto finally come in, they also enter 1 beat apart. They are accompanied by a cannon in the instruments which are now divided evenly: 1st oboe and 1st violin against 2nd oboe and 2nd violin.

Et incarnatus est

5-part chorus in Bm, marked Andante maestoso 3/4 time
This movement introduces the Christ story, being about Christ incarnate. His descent from heaven to earth is reflected in the melody which begins with 4 falling notes. The chorus sings in fugato in 5 parts, then in 2 parts, and then in unison. They are accompanied by obbligato strings which play eighth notes, while the bass line has repeated quarter notes. The movement ends on a Picardy third, a B-major triad. This movement has 49 bars = 7 (holy number of the church) x itself. In comparing the Credo with the Gloria, this movement is most closely identified with the Gloria's Qui tollis, which is also a piece for chorus in B minor, also in 3/4 time. Both movements also begin on a descending B-minor triad.


4-part chorus in Em, marked Grave 3/2 time
This is the second movement whose text is based on the story of Christ, being about the crucifixion of Christ. It is a fugato chorus, with obbligato parts for 2 flutes, 2 violins, and viola. Flutes and strings play half notes throughout, while the continuo bass line has repeated quarter notes. The bass line is in fact a passacaglia with a 4-measure ostinato that descends chromatically and is repeated 13 times (13 = 12, number of apostles, + 1, Christ). In the beginning, the vocal parts enter in descending order: 2nd sopranos, then altos, then tenors, and then basses. First sopranos are left out to give the music a darker tone. In the last 5 measures, the flutes drop out, leaving only the continuo to accompany the voices; the tonality of this movement E minor, key of crucifixion, changes to G major (blessedness) in these last few measures to end on a G-major chord.

Et resurrexit

5-part chorus in D, marked Allegro 3/4 time
This movement completes the Christ story, being about the ressurection of Christ. The 5 choral parts enter in homophony and then sing in fugato. The 3rd syllable of the word "resurrexit" is stressed as it lies on a run of 16th notes. The chorus is accompanied by strings, trumpet, and drum. The hammering motive of repeated 8th notes appears in the strings and bass. The exultant mood of this movement reflects the meaning of the text, which, after all, deals with how Christ arose from the dead.

Et in spiritum sanctum

Aria for bass in A with oboi d'amore obbligati, marked Andantino 6/8 time
This solo aria for bass with 2 accompanying oboi d'amore takes on the structure of a formal da capo aria. The bass soloist sings a flowing melody. Here is yet another example of a movement from the Credo which has a counterpart, the Laudamus te, in the Gloria. Both movements follow immediately after 3 choral movements, both are in A major, key of joy and grace, and both are da capo arias. The similarities between the Gloria and the Credo discussed here and earlier lend unity and balance to the mass as a whole and support the claim that Bach viewed the mass as one work, rather than as just a compilation of 4 separate sections.


5-part chorus in F#m, marked Moderato 2/2 time
Confiteor is a fugue in which the voices enter with a cantus firmus theme in the following order: 1st soprano, 2nd soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Towards the end of the movement the tempo slows down to Adagio and leads without pause into the next movement.

Et expecto

5-part chorus in D, marked Adagio, Vivace ed allegro 2/2 time
The chorus sings in fugato accompanied by strings and trumpet. The final passage highlights the 1st syllable of "Amen" by holding it over a long note or setting it to a series of slurred eighth notes. This final movement of the Credo ends on a D-major chord.



6-part chorus in D, marked Largo 4/4 time, Vivace 3/8 time
The instrumental forces consist of 3 trumpets, 3 oboes, strings, and timpani. The 6-part chorus is split into 2 sections: 1st soprano, 2nd soprano, and 1st alto set against 2nd alto, tenor, and bass. The bass line consists of octaves jumping up and down the staff. The tempo marking and key signature change in the second half of the movement, in which the text "Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria ejus (Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory)" is sung in fugato. The word "gloria" occurs on an extended 16th-note run for emphasis. This movement is appropriately written in D, the key of worldly power and glory.



8-part double chorus in D, marked Allegro 3/8 time
In the opening bars, the 8 parts of the double chorus sing the words "Osanna, osanna" in unison. For the rest of the movement, one chorus sings together the words "Osanna in excelsis" in eighth notes, while the other chorus sings in fugato, with a long 16th-note phrase on the word "osanna." They are accompanied by flutes, trumpets, oboes, and strings.


Aria for tenor in Bm with violin obbligato, marked Andante 3/4 time
Written in B minor, the key of passive suffering, this movement features a tenor soloist in dialog with an unspecified obbligato part and accompanied by basso continuo. The obbligato part, which gently floats upwards througout the movement, is within the range of both flute and violin. After the ritornello is repeated at the end of this movement, the Osanna is repeated.

Agnus Dei

Aria for alto in Gm with violin obbligato, marked Adagio 4/4 time
The violins enter in unison with a syncopated melody. Then alto solo sings the words "Agnus Dei" which mean "Lamb of God," followed by a syncopated section on the phrase "qui tollis peccata mundi (that takest away the sins of the world)." Eighth notes separated by eighth rests mark the beat in the bass line. This movement is the only one in G minor, key of tragic consummation, and appropriately ends on the violins' low G.

Dona nobis pacem

4-part chorus in D, marked Moderato cut time alla breve
The last movement of the B-Minor Mass contains the same music as Gratias agimus from the Gloria. Adaption of music from an earlier movement gives the work a sense of unity. Furthermore, there is a parallel between the text of Gratias agimus tibi, "We give thanks unto Thee for Thy great glory" and the text of Dona nobis pacem, "Give unto us Thy peace." One is an offer of thanks and the other is a supplication for peace.
[Back | Bach home page | Next]
Last updated: June 5, 1996