On 1 February 1733, Augustus II the Strong, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania and Elector of Saxony, died. Five months of mourning followed, during which all public music-making was suspended. Bach used the opportunity to work on the composition of a Missa, a portion of the liturgy sung in Latin and common to both the Lutheran and Roman Catholic rites. His aim was to dedicate the work to the new sovereign Augustus III, a Catholic, with the hope of obtaining the title "Electoral Saxon Court Composer”. Upon its completion, Bach visited Augustus III and presented him with a copy of the Missa, together with a petition to be given a court title, dated July 27, 1733; in the accompanying inscription on the wrapper of the mass he complains that he had "innocently suffered one injury or another” in Leipzig. The petition did not meet with immediate success, but Bach eventually got his title: he was made court composer to Augustus III in 1736.
In the last years of his life, Bach expanded the Missa into a complete setting of the Latin Ordinary. It is not known what prompted this creative effort. Wolfgang Osthoff and other scholars have suggested that Bach intended the completed Mass in B minor for performance at the dedication of the new Hofkirche in Dresden, which was begun in 1738 and was nearing completion by the late 1740s. However, the building was not completed until 1751 and Bach's death in July 1750 prevented his Mass from being submitted for use at the dedication. Instead, Johann Adolph Hasse's Mass in D minor was performed, a work with many similarities to Bach's Mass (the Credo movements in both works feature chant over a walking bass line, for example). In 2013, Michael Maul published research suggesting the possibility that instead, Bach compiled it for performance in Vienna at St. Stephen's Cathedral (which was Roman Catholic) on St. Cecilia's Day in 1749, as a result of his association with Count Johann Adam von Questenberg. Other explanations are less event-specific, involving Bach's interest in 'encyclopedic' projects (like The Art of Fugue) that display a wide range of styles, and Bach's desire to preserve some of his best vocal music in a format with wider potential future use than the church cantatas they originated in (see "Movements and their sources" below).
The chronology of the Mass in B minor has attracted extensive scholarly attention. Recent literature suggests:In 1724, Bach composed a Sanctus for six vocal parts for use in the Christmas service. Bach revised it when he reused it in the Mass, changing its initial meter from ₵ to C, and its vocal scoring from SSSATB to SSAATB.
As noted above, in 1733 Bach composed the Missa (Kyrie and Gloria) during the five-month period of mourning following the February 1st death of Elector Augustus II and before July 27, when Bach presented the successor, Augustus III of Poland, with the Missa as a set of instrumental and vocal parts. It is possible that the Kyrie was meant as mourning music for Augustus II, and the Gloria as celebratory of the accession of Augustus III.
In the mid-1740s (c. 1743–46). Bach re-used two movements from the Gloria in a cantata for Christmas Day (Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191). Gregory Butler argues that at the same service (which he dates to Christmas 1745, to celebrate the Peace of Dresden), Bach also used the 1724 Sanctus, and that this revisiting of the 1733 Missa suggested further development to the composer.
In the "last three years or so" of his life, Bach wrote/assembled the Symbolum Nicenum and the remainder of the work; many scholars, including Christoph Wolff, believe he did so in 1748–49. This dating in part reflects the scholarship of Yoshitake Kobayashi, who dates the Symbolum Nicenum section to August –October 1748 based on Bach's increasingly stiff and labored handwriting. Wolff among others argues that the "Et incarnatus est" movement was Bach's last significant composition. The words had been included in the preceding duet, but then Bach decided to treat them as a separate movement for the choir, giving the words extra weight and improving the symmetry of the Credo. John Butt argues that a definite final date of August 25, 1749 can be given, in that on this date C. P. E. Bach completed a setting of the Magnificat with an "Amen" chorus that "shows distinct similarities" to the 'Gratias' from the Missa and the 'Ex expecto' from the Symbolum Nicenum." C. P. E. Bach later reported that he performed this Magnificat (Wq 215) in 1749 in Leipzig "at a Marian festival ... during the lifetime of his now-deceased father".
Bach did not give the B minor Mass a title. Instead, he organized the 1748–49 manuscript into four folders, each with a different title. That containing the Kyrie and Gloria he called "1. Missa"; that containing the Credo he titled "2. Symbolum Nicenum"; the third folder, containing the Sanctus, he called "3. Sanctus"; and the remainder, in a fourth folder he titled "4. Osanna | Benedictus | Agnus Dei et | Dona nobis pacem". John Butt writes, "The format seems purposely designed so that each of the four sections could be used separately." On the other hand, the parts in the manuscript are numbered from 1 to 4, and Bach's usual closing formula (S.D.G = Soli Deo Gloria) is only found at the end of the Dona Nobis Pacem. Further, Butt writes, "What is most remarkable about the overall shape of the Mass in B Minor is that Bach managed to shape a coherent sequence of movements from diverse material." Butt and George Stauffer detail the ways in which Bach gave overall musical unity to the work.
The first overall title given to the work was in the 1790 estate of the recently deceased C.P.E. Bach, who inherited the score. There, it is called "Die Grosse Catholische Messe" (the "Great Catholic Mass"). It is called that as well in the estate of his last heir in 1805, suggesting to Stauffer that "the epithet reflects an oral tradition within the Bach family". The first publication of the Kyrie and Gloria, in 1833 by the Swiss collector Hans Georg Nägeli with Simrock, refers to it as "Messe" Finally, Nageli and Simrock produced the first publication in 1845, calling it the "High Mass in B Minor" (Hohe Messe in h-moll). The adjective "high", Butt argues, was "strongly influenced by the monumental impact of Beethoven's Missa solemnis." It soon fell from common usage, but the prepositional phrase "in B Minor" survives, even though it is in some ways misleading: only five of the work's 27 movements are in B minor, while twelve, including the final ones of each of the four major sections, are in D major (the relative major of B minor). The opening Kyrie, however, is in B minor, with the Christe Eleison in D major, and the second Kyrie in F-sharp minor; as Butt points out, these tonalities outline a B minor chord.
The piece is orchestrated for two flutes, two oboes d'amore (doubling on oboes), one natural horn (in D), three natural trumpets (in D), timpani, violins I and II, violas and basso continuo (cellos, basses, bassoons, organ and harpsichord). A third oboe is required for the Sanctus.
Bach conducted the Sanctus, in its first version, at the 1724 Christmas service in Leipzig, and re-used it in Christmas services in the mid-1740s. Scholars differ on whether he ever performed the 1733 Missa. Arnold Schering (in 1936) asserted that it was performed in Leipzig on April 26, 1733, when Augustus III of Poland visited the town, but modern scholars reject his argument for several reasons:
1) the proposed date fell during an official period of mourning "when concerted music was forbidden in Saxon churches";
2) the extant parts (on which Schering based his hypothesis) are written on a paper found only in documents in Dresden, so were probably copied in Dresden when Bach went there in July; and
3) the copyists were not Bach's usual ones, but Bach and immediate family members who traveled with him to Dresden: his wife Anna Magdalena, and sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. It also appears that the Bach family employed a copyist in Dresden to assist them.
Scholars differ, however, on whether the Missa was performed in July in Dresden. Christoph Wolff argues that on July 26, 1733 at the Sophienkirche in Dresden, where Wilhelm Friedemann Bach had been organist since June, it "was definitely performed... as evidenced by the extant Dresden performing parts and by the inscription on the title wrapper" given to the king the next day. Hans-Joachim Schulze made this case by pointing to the use of the past tense in the wrapper's inscription: "To his royal majesty was shown with the enclosed Missa... the humble devotion of the author J. S. Bach." However, Joshua Rifkin rejects the argument, pointing out that the past-tense wording was typical of formal address often not related to performance. Also skeptical is Peter Williams, who notes that "there is no record of performers being assembled for such an event, and in August 1731 Friedemann reported that the Sophienkirche organ was badly out of tune." However, there is evidence of an organ recital by Bach at the Sophienkirche on 14 September 1731, and Friedemann Bach was only chosen as Organist for the institution on 23 June 1733. He would again perform a 2-hour Organ recital on 1 December 1736 at the Frauenkirche Dresden to inaugurate the new Gottfried Silbermann organ.
Scholars agree that no other public performances took place in Bach's lifetime, although Butt raises the possibility that there may have been a private performance or read-through of the Symbolum Nicenum late in Bach's life.
The first public performance of the Symbolum Nicenum section (under the title "Credo or Nicene Creed") took place 36 years after Bach's death, in Spring of 1786, led by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach at a benefit concert for the Medical Institute for the Poor in Hamburg.
As recounted by George Stauffer, the next documented performance (not public) in the nineteenth century was when Carl Friedrich Zelter—a key figure in the 19th-century Bach revival—led the Berlin Singakademie in read-throughs of the "Great Mass" in 1811, covering the Kyrie; in 1813 he led read-throughs of the entire work. The first public performance in the century—of just the Credo section—took place in Frankfurt in March, 1828, with over 200 performers and many instrumental additions. In the same year in Berlin, Gaspare Spontini led the Credo section, adding 15 new choral parts and numerous instruments. A number of performances of sections of the Mass took place in the following decades in Europe, but the first attested public performance of the Mass in its entirety took place in 1859 in Leipzig, with Karl Riedel and the Riedel-Verein.
The Bach Choir of Bethlehem performed the American premiere of the complete Mass on March 27, 1900, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, though there is evidence that parts of the Mass had been performed in the USA as early as 1870.
From early in the century, authors such as Albert Schweitzer, Arnold Schering, and Frederick Smend called for smaller performance forces, and experiments with (relatively) smaller groups began in the late 1920s.
The first complete recording of the work was made in 1929, with a large choir and the London Symphony Orchestra led by Albert Coates. As of 2013, a database lists over 200 recordings with many different types of forces and performance styles. The work has played a central role in the historical performance movement: Nikolaus Harnoncourt made the first recording with period instruments in 1968 (his second Bach choral recording), and won High Fidelity's best record of the year award. Joshua Rifkin's first recording using the one-voice-per-part vocal scoring he proposes was made in 1982, and won a 1983 Gramophone Award.
The Mass in B minor is widely regarded as one of the supreme achievements of classical music. Alberto Basso summarizes the work as follows:
The Mass in B minor is the consecration of a whole life: started in 1733 for "diplomatic" reasons, it was finished in the very last years of Bach's life, when he had already gone blind. This monumental work is a synthesis of every stylistic and technical contribution the Cantor of Leipzig made to music. But it is also the most astounding spiritual encounter between the worlds of Catholic glorification and the Lutheran cult of the cross.
Scholars have suggested that the Mass in B minor belongs in the same category as The Art of Fugue, as a summation of Bach's deep lifelong involvement with musical tradition—in this case, with choral settings and theology. Bach scholar Christoph Wolff describes the work as representing "a summary of his writing for voice, not only in its variety of styles, compositional devices, and range of sonorities, but also in its high level of technical polish... Bach's mighty setting preserved the musical and artistic creed of its creator for posterity."
The Mass was described in the 19th century by the editor Hans Georg Nägeli as "The Announcement of the Greatest Musical Work of All Times and All People" ("Ankündigung des größten musikalischen Kunstwerkes aller Zeiten und Völker"). Even though it had never been performed, its importance was appreciated by some of Bach's greatest successors: by the beginning of the 19th century Forkel and Haydn possessed copies, and Beethoven made two attempts to acquire a score.
Two autograph sources exist: the parts for the Kyrie and Gloria sections that Bach deposited in Dresden in 1733, and the score of the complete work that Bach compiled in 1748–50, which was inherited by C.P.E. Bach (the autograph has been published in facsimile from the source in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. However, for his 1786 public performance of the Symbolum Nicenum, C.P.E. Bach, as was typical practice in the era, made additions to the autograph score for performance by adding a 28-bar introduction, replacing the now-obsolete oboe d'amore with newer instruments (clarinets, oboes, or violins) and making other changes in instrumentation for his own aesthetic reasons. C.P.E. also wrote in his own solutions to reading some passages made nearly illegible by his father's late-life handwriting problems. For this and other reasons, the Mass in B minor poses a considerable challenge to prospective editors, and substantial variations can be noted in different editions, even critical urtext editions. When the Bach Gesellschaft edition was published in 1856, textual problems were so evident that the society published a revised edition the next year which was, however, eventually recognized to be even less accurate. Similarly, the 1954 edition by the Neue Bach-Ausgabe was shown to be severely faulty within five years.
Recent decades have seen the publication of two new scholarly editions: those of Christoph Wolff, published by Peters in 1997, and Joshua Rifkin, published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 2006. Wolff uses two copies of the 1748–50 manuscript made before C.P.E. Bach's adulterations to try to reconstruct Bach's original readings, and seeks to recover performance details by using all available sources, including cantata movements that Bach reworked in the B minor Mass. Rifkin, too, seeks to remove the C.P.E. Bach emendations, but differs from Wolff in arguing that the 1748–50 work is, to quote John Butt, "essentially a different entity from the 1733 Missa, and that a combination of the 'best' readings from both does not really correspond to Bach's final (and virtually completed) conception of the work"; Rifkin's version seeks to adhere to this final version.