Mass in B Minor- J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

In April 1723 Bach was appointed Cantor of the St Thomas Choir in Leipzig in succession to Johann Kuhnau (1701-1722), generally recognised as a gifted teacher although not an outstanding musician. At the time Kuhnau himself was no match for the young Georg Philipp Telemann, who was the musical director of the Neue Kirche which had been reopened in 1699. Twenty years on Telemann, by then the leading church composer in Germany was unanimously elected to the post at St Thomas Church. However, he decided to remain in Hamburg where he had more opportunities to work as an opera composer.

Even then Bach was not the first choice of the city council, since he had no higher academic qualifications to enable him to carry out his duties in the St Thomas School and despite his work in Weimar and Anhalt-Cöthen had few compositions to his name. Nevertheless, after submitting two Cantatas BWV22 and BWV23, Bach officially took up the post as Cantor of St Thomas on 30th May 1723 - the first Sunday after Trinity, with a performance of his cantata Die Elenden sollen essen BWV 75 in St Nicholas Church.

On 1st February 1733 the Elector Friedrich August 1 of Saxony died and following a period of national mourning Bach presented the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass in B Minor to the new Elector Friedrich August II in Dresden, along with a letter asking to be appointed Court Conductor. On September 27 1736 Bach submitted a second petition to the Elector and this time was granted the title of Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer.

The original Missa was later expanded into a work of gigantic proportions, indeed the Credo or Symbolum Nicenum as Bach called it, the Agnus Dei and the Dona nobis pacem may have been added as late as 1747-1749; but the title Die hohe MesseThe High Mass” did not appear in Bach’s original manuscript nor in contemporary copies but was attributed to the work at the time of its first printed edition in 1833, a hundred years after the Missa was sent to the Elector-King of Saxony-Poland.

Page last updated 26 April, 2009 by Ian Downie