Article: Antico et Moderno: The History of Bach’s Great Catholic Mass

Ky-ri-e!” The first notes thunder, and hearers today are stunned as they have been for nearly 300 years at the near perfection of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor. In the autumn of his life, Bach set all his creative power to the task of writing a Missa Tota, a full musical setting of the Ordinary of the Mass. To do so, he pulls from styles ancient and modern. He recycles the very best of his own musical pieces. Composer John Eliot Gardiner, reflects on the magnitude of this work, “We soon realise that we have been launched on one of the most epic of all journeys in music, a setting of the Ordinary of the Mass unprecedented in its scale, majesty and sobriety.”[i] This particular journey into the Mass in B-Minor, will delve into its history. Bach’s estate after his death had the B Minor Mass entitled, “The Great Catholic Mass.”[ii] What was so Catholic about this Mass and why was it thus entitled? To seek an answer to that question, this paper will look at the historical background to the late Baroque composition of Masses. Moving on from there, the history of the composition of the work itself will also be of interest. All of this, along with the actual content of the Mass itself, will tell us something of Bach’s deeply Evangelical Catholic faith.

The Ancient Style

The divine liturgy of the western Catholic Church, commonly called the Mass, contains sections which change from service to service, called the “Propers”. There are also parts which remain the same. These are called the “Ordinary”.  While the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei which make up the Ordinary of the Mass, had their origin in the early centuries of Christianity, they eventually found their way into the Ordinary over the course of the early middle ages.[iii] Beginning in the thirteenth century with the development of Polyphony at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, the Ordinary of the Mass began to set increasingly elaborate pieces of music.[iv] The first full setting of the Ordinary of the Mass we know to be composed by a single composer was Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame of 1350.[v] Bach himself performed Masses from the great master of the polyphonic Mass, Palestrina.[vi] This peculiar style is aptly described by Luther.

Here it is most remarkable that one single voice continues to sing the tenor, while at the same time many other voices play around it, exulting and adorning it in exuberant strains and, as it were, leading it forth in a divine roundelay, so that those who are the least bit moved know nothing more amazing in the world.[vii]

However, by the early seventeenth century polyphony was increasingly seen as yesterday’s news. The polyphonic Mass was thought to have been mastered and composers no longer felt challenged by the Mass. As one Bach scholar notes, “After 1600, the opera, the concerto, the sonata, and other secular genres began to supplant the Ordinary as the supreme test of a composer’s skill.”[viii] This new musical composition generated two styles Masses by Bach’s time. One style paid homage to the older a cappella Renaissance Polyphony. This conservative style was called stile antico. Another style developed which tried to incorporate the musical tastes of the time. This progressive style was called stile moderno.[ix]

The Modern Style

This stile moderno tended to divide the five Ordinary texts into sections instead of treating them as a single unit. This allowed for the emotion of the words of a particular section of the text to influence how the music was composed.[x] Some styles also turned these sections into large movements instead of inter-related sections.[xi] Prominently featured in this style was the use of choruses and soloists.[xii] The choruses and soloists became the focus, with the expressive and emotional thrust being shifted to the vocals, and the instrumental music serving in a support role.[xiii] Increasingly, operatic techniques like the aria were employed. Thus, the stile antico “moved the soul to thoughtful listening” while the stile moderno “brought the opera into the church” and thus sought to “speak directly to the emotions.”[xiv]

There were several centres of musical composition during the Late-Baroque period, each with their own peculiar style. This new music poured out from Naples, Vienna, Rome, and most important for Bach, Dresden.[xv] Dresden was the seat of the Elector of Saxony. In Bach’s time, the Court was Roman Catholic ever since Elector Friedrich August I converted in 1697. The people by contrast, were Lutheran.[xvi] Thus Dresden could be described as, “a Catholic Disaspora in the middle of the Lutheran heartland.”[xvii] Friedrich August I and his son Friedrich August II turned Dresden into a bustling musical centre with world renown musicians and composers, including Vivaldi and Lotti.[xviii] The opera house was turned into a Catholic Chapel and a new opera house was built. The Court in Dresden, “could claim to be one of Europe’s top-ranking orchestras.”[xix] The Masses composed in Dresden were influential on Bach’s own composition of the B-Minor Mass. The vocal style of the Renaissance stile antico, especially as exemplified in the Masses of Palestrina, were studied and elaborated upon. [xx] Long standing traditions of Catholic Mass writing, like prefacing the Kyrie with a musical introduction, began to be incorporated. The Dresden Masses made prominent use of the chorus. Also, the volume of music required led to a patchwork style of Mass. The Kyrie-Gloria from one Mass would be supplemented with a Sanctus-Agnus Dei from another Mass, and with a Credo from a third. A final feature of the Masses composed in Dresden is their length. The Masses sometimes exceeded forty-five minutes.[xxi]

Bach and Dresden

The importance and influence of this centre of music in Dresden can be seen in one of Bach’s letters of dispute to the Leipzig town council. Bach wrote, “One need only go to Dresden and see how the musicians there are paid by His Royal Majesty; it cannot fail, since the musicians are relieved of all concern for their living, free from chagrin, and obliged each to master but a single instrument: it must be something choice and excellent to hear.”[xxii] As Gardiner points out, “This was not so much a case of sour grapes as a simple acknowledgement that a far higher value was placed on music and its practitioners in the Saxon capital than in Leipzig.”[xxiii] Bach became acquainted with Dresden’s music scene one of his many previous visits to Dresden.[xxiv] In fact, being friendly with some of the musicians there, Bach had the feeling that his future as a musician depended somewhat on the Court.[xxv] His son, Wilhelm Friedemann, received a position as an organist at Saint Sophia’s Church in Dresden. This provided Bach with an adequate excuse to visit Dresden, and to study their methods.[xxvi]

With his son being a musician in Dresden, and fed up with the poor treatment and conditions he received as cantor of the St. Thomas Church and School, in 1733 Bach felt it was time to write to Frederick August II.[xxvii] The stile moderno was forbidden in Leipzig, so Bach was not feeling particularly challenged musically.[xxviii] Gardiner explains, “Bach, as head of the family, having directed his eldest son towards securing the organist post at the Sophienkirche, now saw a clear opening for himself in the professional employ of the Dresden Court. To this end the composition of a new Mass tailored to the talents of the court Capelle and conforming to the idioms of Mass-settings then current seemed an obvious tactic, a tactful adjunct to his request for a court title.”[xxix] Bach submitted the twenty-one parts of a Missa, in the style of the Dresden Court. This Missa contained the Kyrie and Gloria that would later be used in his B-Minor Mass for the elector’s consideration.[xxx] His Kyrie and Gloria at this point were viewed as a completed and sufficient work.[xxxi]

Bach complains in his letter that in his current position he, “has to suffer one injury or another, and on occasion also a diminution of the fees accruing to me in this office.”  What was his proposed solution? Bach wrote,

These injuries would disappear altogether if Your Royal Highness would grant me the favor of conferring upon me a title of Your Highness’s Court Capelle, and would let Your High Command for the issuing such a document go forth to the proper place.[xxxii]

Bach wanted the job of Court Capelle, that is, official composer for the elector in Dresden, and he wanted the title and the credentials that went with it. He was thus hoping to receive this title “to make an honourable exit from the drudgery of Leipzig.”[xxxiii] This biographical information is not just an interesting story, but integral to understanding the composition of the B Minor Mass. As Court Capelle he had increasing familiarity with the Dresden Court and this greatly influenced his own music. As Court Capelle he spent an increasing amount of time in Dresden studying the various musical works on file.[xxxiv] Unfortunately, there exists no conclusive evidence indicating whether or not Bach’s Kyrie and Gloria were ever played in Dresden.[xxxv] If it was performed, Bach’s son Friedemann would have been a more likely candidate to have direct the performance.[xxxvi] Over the next three years, Bach composed eight secular cantatas in the Elector’s honour. Finally, three years later, Bach got his title of Court Composer.[xxxvii] However, the solution he had desired still eluded him, as the pay was not enough to leave Leipzig.[xxxviii] For the next twelve years Bach seems to have placed the Kyrie and Gloria which he composed on the shelf.[xxxix]

However, Christmas Day 1745 provided an occasion which inspired Bach to bring his Kyrie and Gloria off the shelf. The Second Silesian war was over, and Leipzig had suffered. Gardiner notes, “For the first time in his life Bach had first-hand experience of the horrors and suffering of war, as Prussian troops occupied Leipzig in the late autumn of 1745 and devastated its surroundings.”[xl] A special service to give thanks to God for the peace was held. Bach was presented with the rare opportunity to work with choirs of both the St. Thomas and the St. Nickolas Churches.  Three of the movements from the Dresden Gloria were performed, along with a Sanctus he had composed for Christmas day 1724.  On Christmas Day, 1745, five movements from the future B Minor Mass were performed in Leipzig for what appears to be the first time.[xli] At some point around this time, it appears that Bach got the idea to take his 1733 Dresden Missa and use it as the starting point for a Missa Tota, a complete and elaborate musical setting of the Ordinary of the Mass.[xlii] The sheer scale and ambition of this work imply that he meant for this work to be performed in Dresden.[xliii] In fact, some remote chance of a performance in Dresden may have been one of the deciding factors motivating Bach to begin this work.[xliv]

Bach’s Methodology

What methodology did Bach use to compose this Mass? In the intervening years, Bach had first set out to master the stile antico techniques. In focus were the polyphonic renderings of the Credo.[xlv] Bach transcribed by hand the works of Palestrina, Pergolesi, and Bassani in order to master their technique and incorporate their style into his own. What Bach had done in mastering the stile antico, he also did in mastering the stile moderno. Bach’s technical works The Art of Fugue and the Musical Offering are pieces which show a technical and abstract mastery of the stile moderno.[xlvi] Bach’s technique of learning and mastering other musicians is called “parody”. Gardiner explains,

Bach’s was the classic method. First you study your models – transcribe them, add layers of preface or commentary to them, and then assimilate them so fully into your creative processes that, at a stroke, you have a vocabulary with a multiplicity of techniques and styles at your fingertips, all in the cause of being as comprehensive and all-encompassing as you possibly can.[xlvii]

Parody includes what we might crassly term as borrowing, reworking, and improving previous musical works. Many sections, especially in the Credo movements of the B Minor Mass bare the stamp of this technique.[xlviii] In fact, “two-thirds of the B-Minor Mass is drawn from earlier music.”[xlix] Why did Bach use this method? Wolff observes that in using this method, “Bach was able to underline what he perceived as the timeless validity of the liturgical and musical meaning of the ancient Mass.”[l] Bach’s desire was to preserve the rich musical and liturgical heritage to which he had been exposed and to do so in such a way which confessed his Lutheran faith. The parody method however did not work on the Sanctus and the movements thereafter. Lutherans had not composed material for these sections of the Ordinary on the scale that Bach wanted.[li] There were no guides to study.[lii] It was not the Lutheran practice during this period was to compose or use a Missa Tota. When Latin was used, it was preferred to use the Missa Brevis, and two part Kyrie-Gloria settings.[liii]  Despite this, the general loss of Latin and the rise of pietism led to many more vernacular Deutsche Messe services, which were a bit more abbreviated than the Latin.[liv] Faced with this problem, Bach turned to his own work, the 1724 Christmas Sanctus which he used in 1745.[lv]

However, the Parody method Bach employed was not just used for other composers. After this mastery of the stile antico and stile moderno, Bach poured over and referred to his own earlier compositions, especially his cantatas written for the ecclesiastical year.[lvi] A full thirteen of the twenty-seven movements came from Bach’s own previously composed music.[lvii] Bach does not just pick a Cantata with a nice tune that also fits in well here. He picks the music because he set a certain set of words to the music he composed. Thus, the original text that went with the music serves as a commentary on the new text to which the music has been wedded.[lviii] Hofreiter notes several examples where the music from a Cantata is reused or adapted for use in the B Minor Mass. A very basic example is the text for BWV 29, which reads in English, “We thank Thee, Lord, we thank Thee, and marvel at all Thy Wonders.” The music for this piece is used in the section of the Gloria which says, “We give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory.”[lix] In these cases not only is the music used, but the text of the Cantata is theologically similar to the section of the Mass where the music is reused.

The Mass in B Minor

It has been noted that Bach was influenced by and studied both the stile antico and the stile modern. When examining the B Minor Mass itself, the influences of both becomes apparent. The setting of the Kyrie and Gloria used the variation of stile moderno which was popular in Dresden, including solo pieces designed for talents available in Dresden.[lx] The Kyrie combined both “deliberate archaic style” with “the intimate language of a Neapolitan love-duet”.[lxi] The Gloria with its balancing of solos with choral movements, “displayed Bach’s perfect assimilation of modern Neapolitan style exported to the Saxon capital.”[lxii] Gardiner notes the Credo movements contain not only the, “Gregorian chant-derived objectivity” of the stile antico, but also a “contemporary dance-driven Baroque form” of the stile moderno.[lxiii] For the Sanctus and Angus Dei movements Gardiner notes, “The technique that Bach adopts in all four sections of the Mass – that of contrasting choruses and arias, movements in stile antico with others in a more contemporary style, is never more in evidence than here.”[lxiv] In a remarkable feat, Bach composes an Ordinary of the Mass, with the influences of the greatest composers of the Latin Mass, combined and infused with the new style from Dresden.

The B Minor Mass is a remarkable example of Bach’s own faith and beliefs. This can be shown from his choice of music in the section of the Agnus Dei which says “grant us thy peace.” The music in this section is the same music used in the section of the Gloria which says “Glory be to God on High, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” With this Bach makes a profound theological point. “For Bach, the announcement of peace in the proclamation of the heavenly host recorded in Luke 2:14 was the same peace contained in the Eucharistic activity of the Christian sacrament.”[lxv] The same peace that was announced by the Angels on Christmas Day celebrating the Incarnation is now given to us in the Lord’s Supper.  But Bach takes this a step further by also using the same music at the end of the Gloria, in the section which says “We give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory.”  Thus, Bach is suggesting that we ought to give thanks for the great glory that was displayed at the Incarnation, the same glory which is about to become present on the Altar for us to eat and drink. This great glory for which we give thanks gives us peace. This is a startling confession of Christology, the real presence, and the sacramental nature of grace.[lxvi]

The Great Catholic Mass?

However, this has leads to the question proposed at the beginning of the paper, and which has bothered some scholars. Indeed, Stauffer presents a lengthy section of scholarly debate concerning the question, “What motivated Bach to write such a suspiciously Catholic work?”[lxvii] Was Bach desiring to convert to Romanism? The question of course should not even be asked as it seems unwarranted. It is unwarranted because, as Pelikan remarks, “A Latin Mass by Bach, therefore, must not be seen as some sort of betrayal of the Reformation heritage.”[lxviii] In fact, Luther himself in his Formula Missae of 1523 wrote, “It is not now nor ever has been our intention to abolish the liturgical service of God completely, but rather to purify the one that is now in use from the wretched accretions which corrupt it and to point out an evangelical use.”[lxix] In fact Luther wrote, “For in no wise would I want to discontinue the service in the Latin language.”[lxx] Luther’s Latin Formula Missae contained all the Ordinary of the Mass, namely, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.[lxxi] Pelikan rightly points out that section of the Mass disputed between Lutherans and Catholics was the Canon. Bach, following Lutheran practice, omits the Canon of the Mass.[lxxii] Gardiner suggests one motivation for writing this Missa Tota would be “to create a definitive statement of faith comparable in scale and grandeur to his Passion-settings.” [lxxiii] So Bach was not becoming Roman Catholic, he was remaining the faithful Lutheran he had been all his life. In this case, he is reaching into the then forgotten past, back to Luther himself, and following in the Reformer’s footsteps. Bach is being an Evangelical Catholic.

More to the point though, Wolff notes that, “Since the Mass represented the only major genre in the realm of sacred music shared by Lutherans and Roman Catholics, it was the most suitable type of work that the Lutheran cantor could submit to a Catholic court, especially one in which most of the landed gentry and high society maintained their hereditary Lutheranism.”[lxxiv] The biographical information discussed earlier now becomes relevant in answering the question. Due to the difficulties in Leipzig, Bach sought a position in the court at Dresden. The problem was, while Dresden was Lutheran, the elector and the court were Catholic. The only sacred music which Catholics and Lutherans had in common was the Ordinary of the Mass. Bach desired, “to encompass within a single work an encyclopedic survey of all the styles he most cherished in the music of his own and of earlier times, and to achieve perfection in the execution of that work.”[lxxv] So, besides the theological and spiritual motivation which sees the B Minor Mass as an expression of his Lutheran faith, there was also musical one in which Bach sought to give to the next generation a lasting heritage of his musical genius.

Bach composed the B Minor Mass between August of 1748 and October of 1749.[lxxvi] His health began to decline in the late spring of 1749 due to an unknown illness.[lxxvii] He died on July 28, 1750. [lxxviii] This makes the B Minor Mass one of the final things he composed. Its composition, as has been noted stretched decades. This had given Bach the time to master the Renaissance stile antico and the new stile moderno which was popular in Dresden. In thus mastering these two styles, Bach masterfully incorporates both in his Mass.  It is not only “the greatest composition in the corpus of western art music, but it also offers the greatest statement of doctrine and faith in music history.”[lxxix] The theological brilliance of the Mass shows that Bach was offering an Evangelical Catholic statement of faith for all posterity. The B Minor Mass, for good reason, has gone down in history as, “the greatest music work of art of all times and peoples.”[lxxx]



[i] John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, (London, UK: Penguin Books, 2014), 479

[ii] George B. Stauffer, Bach, the Mass in B Minor: The Great Catholic Mass, (New York: Schirmer Books, 1997), 180.

[iii] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 1.

[iv] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 1.

[v] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 2.

[vi] Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2000), 438.

[vii] LW AE 53:324.

[viii] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 5.

[ix] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 5, 10.

[x] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 6.

[xi] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 8.

[xii] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 6.

[xiii] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 9-10.

[xiv] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 8.

[xv] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 17-18.

[xvi] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 16.

[xvii] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 17.

[xviii] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 17.

[xix] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 486.

[xx] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 19-20.

[xxi] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 20-22.

[xxii] Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel, eds., The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1945), 123.

[xxiii] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 482.

[xxiv] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 18.

[xxv] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 482.

[xxvi] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 482.

[xxvii] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 482.

[xxviii] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 482.

[xxix] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 483-484.

[xxx] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 482, 484.

[xxxi] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 480.

[xxxii] David and Mendel, The Bach Reader, 128.

[xxxiii] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 484.

[xxxiv] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 19.

[xxxv] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 486.

[xxxvi] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 37.

[xxxvii] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 19.

[xxxviii] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 487.

[xxxix] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 498.

[xl] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 499.

[xli] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 499.

[xlii] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 499-500.

[xliii] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 501.

[xliv] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 519.

[xlv] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 501-2.

[xlvi] Paul W. Hofreiter, “Bach and the Divine Service: The B Minor Mass,” Concordia Theological Quaterly, 66, no. 3 (July 2002), 223

[xlvii] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 503-504.

[xlviii] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 43.

[xlix] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 49.

[l] Wolff, The Learned Musician, 441.

[li] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 16.

[lii] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 513.

Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 45.

[liii] Wolff, The Learned Musician, 367.

[liv] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 15.

[lv] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 513.

[lvi] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 503.

[lvii] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 48-49.

[lviii] Hofreiter, Bach and the Divine Service, 227.

[lix] Hofreiter, Bach and the Divine Service, 227-229.

[lx] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 485.

[lxi] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 488.

[lxii] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 499.

[lxiii] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 508.

[lxiv] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 515.

[lxv] Hofreiter, Bach and the Divine Service, 245-246.

[lxvi] Hofreiter, Bach and the Divine Service, 246-247.

[lxvii] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 255.

[lxviii] Jaroslav Pelikan, Bach Among the Theologians, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 118.

[lxix] LW AE 53.20

[lxx] LW AE 53.63

[lxxi] LW AE 53.20-21

[lxxii] Pelikan, Bach Among the Theologians, 120.

[lxxiii] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 500.

[lxxiv] Wolff, The Learned Musician, 367.

[lxxv] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 500.

[lxxvi] Stauffer, The Great Catholic Mass, 41.

[lxxvii] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 538.

[lxxviii] Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, 555.

[lxxix] Hofreiter, Bach and the Divine Service, 253.

[lxxx] Hofreiter, Bach and the Divine Service, 253.

Published by revfenn

Canadian. Confessional Lutheran pastor. Loci Communicant. Husband. Dad. Bach enthusiast. Middle-Earthling. Nerdy interests on the whole.

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