More on Bach's Mass in B Minor

I just posted recently about Bach’s Mass in B Minor (BWV 232), but I had to post again after discovering my favorite recording of this work on YouTube!

Here is a recording by the Taverner Consort and Players directed by Andrew Parrott in which  historically informed performance (HIP) practices are used. The alto parts are sung by boys, and the choir is all boys, no girls, just as Bach would have used when this piece was written. Also the tempi are markedly faster than those used in most performances in the 19th and 20th centuries. Also Baroque original instruments, or reproduction copies are used instead of modern instruments. This makes for a fresh and lively performance. And the vocal lines are beautifully clear and distinct and more readily convey Bach’s counterpoint and harmonies. This recording features my all time favorite soprano of Early music and Baroque music the incomparable Dame Emma Kirkby. David Thomas is also outstanding as bass, and one of my favorite bass singers. And, I must mention that the tenor soloist Rogers Covey-Crump is phenomenal.

This stellar, groundbreaking recording from 1985, used one voice per part and a set of ripieno singers for the forte sections.  Taverner Consort and Players, conducted by Andrew Parrott.

  • Emma Kirkby – soprano
  • Emily van Evera – soprano
  • Panito Inconomou – alto (child)
  • Christian Immler – alto (child)
  • Michael Kilian – alto (child)
  • Rogers Covey-Crump – tenor
  • David Thomas – bass

Recorded in 1984 in St John’s Smith Square, London.

The recording is in 2 parts.

Part 1

Part 2


Kyrie eleison (Chorus)
Lord, have mercy upon us

Christe eleison (Duet – Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano)
Christ, have mercy upon us.

Kyrie eleison (Chorus)
Lord, have mercy upon us.


Gloria in excelsis Deo. (Chorus)
Glory be to God on high.
Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. (Chorus)
And on earth peace to men of good will.
Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te. (Air – Mezzo Soprano)
We praise thee, we bless thee, we worship thee, we glorify thee.
Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam. (Chorus)
We thank thee for thy great glory.
Domine Deus, rex coelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens. Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe, Altissime, Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris. (Duet Soprano and Tenor)
Lord God, heavenly King, Father Almighty. O Lord, the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ Highest, Lord God, Lamb of God, son of the Father.
Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram. (Chorus)

Thou who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou who takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer.
Qui sedes ad dextram Patris, miserere nobis. (Air – Mezzo Soprano)
Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us.
Quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe. (Air – Bass)

For thou only art holy, thou only art the Lord, thou only, Christ, art most high.
Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. Amen. (Chorus)
With the Holy Ghost in the glory of God the Father. Amen.



(Credo in unum Deum) Patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium. (Chorus)

(I believe in one God) The Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
Et in unum Dominum, Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum, et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula, Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero, genitum, non factum, consubstantialem Patri, per quem omnia facta sunt, qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis. (Duet – Soprano, Mezzo Soprano)
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by who all things were made: who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven.
Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria virgine, et homo factus est.(Chorus)
And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, passus et sepultus est. (Chorus)
And was crucified also under Pontius Pilate, suffered, and was buried.
Et resurrexit tertia die secundum scripturas, et ascendit in coelum, sedet ad dexteram Patris, et iterum venturus est cum gloria judicare vivos et mortuos, cujus regni non erit finis. (Chorus)
And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father: and he shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem, qui ex Patre Filioque procedit, qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur, qui locutus est per prophetas. Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam. (Air –Bass)
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life, who prodeedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spake by the Prophets. And I believe in one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum. (Chorus)
I acknowledge baptism for the remission of sins.
Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen. (Chorus)
And I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.


Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth. Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria ejus.(Chorus)
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.


Osanna in excelsis. (Chorus)
Glory be to Thee, O Lord most high.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. (Air-Tenor)
Blessed is he, who cometh in the name of the Lord.
Osanna in excelsis.
Glory be to Thee, O Lord most high.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. (Air-Mezzo-soprano)
O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Dona nobis pacem. (Chorus)
Grant us peace.

Almost all Bach’s works were composed for specific functions: the instrumental works for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen and for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, the cantatas and Passions for religious services at Weimar or Leipzig. The exceptions are the works written for keyboard and the Mass in B minor. This gigantic work was not intended to be sung in its entirety at any specific liturgical ceremony. As Roland de Candé says, “listening to it is not compatible with the duration of the liturgy, not even as part of the most solemn ceremony.” While several of its movements are borrowed from previously written cantatas, it remains a free-standing gratuitous religious work, without specific liturgical function. In this, it is unique not only among Bach’s works, but indeed in the history of music.

Let us look at the circumstances and events of its genesis. Bach, from the first, had in mind a very precise goal. He was annoyed by the numerous vexations to which he was subjected by the authorities in Leipzig where, for nearly ten years, he had been working as Thomaskantor. The ‘most wise’ city council insisted more on his teaching Latin at the St. Thomas school than on the quality of music he was required to prepare for Sunday and holy day services at the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches.

On the other hand, the court of Dresden — the capital of Saxony, the state in which Leipzig was located — possessed one of the best orchestras in Europe. Musicians such as Weiss, Zelenka, Pisendel, Hasse Heinichen, plus Italians on tour (including Veracini and Lotti) assured the city a musical life of very high quality. Bach would have loved to add his name to this long list. Thus it was that, on July 27, 1733, he dedicated to the Elector of Saxony a Kyrie and a Gloria — the equivalent of a Lutheran mass — in a bid to obtain the post of court composer. The Saxon court had been Catholic since 1697, when Elector Augustus I converted so as to gain the throne of Poland, becoming King Augustus II. However, except for the question of religious obedience, there was in principal no problem of liturgical usage, for the standard texts were common to both religions. Luther had rejected neither the respective parts of the mass nor the numerous Latin texts: the Kyrie was sung on the first Sunday in Advent, the Gloria and the Magnificat on Christmas, and the Sanctus on all major feasts.

Just as Bach was dedicating his work, Augustus II died and his successor, Augustus III, was crowned King of Poland in 1734. The first two parts of what would be the B-minor Mass were probably first performed during the ceremonies in which Augustus III swore the oath of fidelity, or possibly when he came to Leipzig. Some commentators have seen the Kyrie as funeral music for the dead Elector, and in the Gloria a wish for good portents for the new one. Still with the same goal in mind, Bach was unstinting in writing homages. Within two years he had composed and directed the Leipzig Collegium Musicum in several secular cantatas composed in honor of the Elector: for the birthday of the sovereign, for that of his royal consort, for the birth of an heir, and for his coronation as King of Poland in Krakow. Despite all these efforts, it is highly unlikely that the 1733 Kyrie and Gloria were ever played in Dresden. At last, in 1736, Bach obtained the coveted post at the Dresden court; but he had to remain in Leipzig, for the post turned out to be more an honorary title than a real job. In the opinion of musicologist L.A. Marcel, the position was not a feather in Bach’s cap.

Perhaps at the request of some Dresden friends, Bach decided at the end of the 1740s to finish the B-minor Mass by setting the texts of the mass for which he had not yet written music — with the exception of the Sanctus, which he had set to music for Christmas, 1724. Thus between 1747 and 1749 — certain musicologists prefer an earlier date, however — all the sections were completed. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach reassembled them a bit later under the name of Große Katholische Messe (Great Catholic Mass), and arranged for the Credo to be performed in Hamburg in 1786. Between 1833 and 1845 Nägeli and Simrok published the first edition of the mass in Bonn. It was entitled Hohe Messe in h-moll (High Mass in B Minor), and described as “the greatest masterpiece of all time and all people.” It was not until 1859, though, that the work was first performed in its entirety — but in a modified version, ‘improved’ according to 19th-century standards and translated into German!

Although it had not been composed in one stroke, the B-minor mass shows formidable unity. Sumptuously orchestrated — and far more often in a gleaming D major, ideal for trumpets, than in B minor, the key of the Kyrie — it is like a gigantic cantata with neither recitatives nor chorales. Only in the Credo, and there only in a few places, did Bach utilize a Gregorian cantus firmus. He recycled pieces, choruses and arias, from a dozen cantatas, but these borrowings are always rethought and reworked both as settings for Latin texts and for their general sense; and by adding a fifth voice to some four-voice choruses, Bach made them almost more perfect than the originals.

The genre of the mass demands a different and more objective treatment than that appropriate for a motet or a cantata. The emotion that Bach breathed into his mass may not have the intensity of that in his Passions, but it is more intense than the masses of his predecessors, whose polyphonic compositional techniques he used. His choral writing is contrapuntal and expresses the full range of emotions, from affliction to triumph, registered in the text, while the airs and duos are more modern and lighten the work’s general texture.

Musical symbolism, so prominent in the Passions and cantatas, is present too in the B-minor Mass. However, it serves more to underline the general sense of a section than to illustrate a specific word or expression. For instance, the violin motifs in Et incarnates est evoke the grace of the Virgin; the consubstantial nature of Father and Son is represented by imitation at the unison of the two voices in the duo Et in unum Dominum; the six-voice chorales of the Sanctus symbolize the six wings of the seraphims as described by the prophet Isaiah; and the change of tonality on the words homo factus est represents the change of being associated with the Incarnation.

But the reasons pushing Bach to write this Mass, the only religious vocal work of his not tailored to the needs of a specific function, remain an open question. Because of its dimensions, because of certain words not acceptable to the Catholic liturgy (for instance, altissime after Jesu Christe in the Gloria), it suits neither the Lutheran rite, in which nothing is sung after the Sanctus, nor the Catholic. Bach must have known that his work could not be played, at least in his lifetime. Maybe he wanted to rival or surpass composers, such as Caldara, Lotti, or Zelenka, who had written similar grand masses; or perhaps in the evening of his life, he wanted to propose, through his musical art, a rapprochement between the Christian churches, a musical solution to their quarrels, so contrary to the spirit of the Gospels. The two oboes d’amore in unison on unam sanctam catholicam ecclesiam would seem to suggest this.

Built on an architecture worthy of its subject and to the high standards of Bach’s genius; expressive of his personal idealism; distilling in the form of a testament the quintessence of his religious opus — many consider the Credo of the B-minor Mass to be Bach’s very last composition, later even than The Art of Fugue: the confluence of all these factors make this monumental work one of the absolute summits of Western music.

– François Filiatrault – English Translation by Douglas Kirk

The following is taken from Dr. Uri Golomb’s PhD dissertation at King’s College,Cambridge. Expression and Meaning in Bach Performance and Reception: An Examination of the B minor Mass on Record. It discusses this 1984 recording by Andrew Parrott which you are listening to.

Parrott’s recording

Andrew Parrott recorded the Mass in 1984. In an interview with Christopher
Cook (for BBC Radio 3’s Bach Year series), he says that he initially planned to use
the Taverner Choir, as he had done in previous live performances (see p. 129 above).
However, as he became convinced by Rifkin’s arguments, he decided to re-shape his
performance accordingly. He consulted directly with Rifkin (who allowed him to use
his edition), and with Hugh Keyte, his erstwhile musicological advisor.
Parrott’s forces still differ from Rifkin’s on three issues:

Ensemble size: Rifkin uses ripienists only when they are explicitly called
for in the manuscript sources (i.e., in the Dona nobis); Parrott makes
selective use of ripienists in several choruses. [25] As far as I could tell, only
the Second Kyrie, Gratias, and Dona nobis are doubled throughout, but
many other movements featured selective doubling. Parrott also employs a
larger string section.

Continuo scoring: Keyte (1985: 11) enumerates two deviations from a
strict adherence to the parts (in the Missa) or the score (in the rest): adding
bassoons throughout, despite their being specified only in the Missa parts;
and using a double-bass throughout, despite its absence from the parts.

Vocal scoring: Rifkin is convinced that Bach used counter-tenors in
Leipzig; Parrott is convinced that he did not. Having disqualified Rifkin’s
solution, Parrott decided to use boy altos as his concertists, and a mezzo-
soprano for the ripieno.

The first two decisions resulted in a richer, more solid and cohesive sonority
than Rifkin’s. The cohesion was partly undermined by the third decision: the boy altos
– especially Panito Iconomou – have a distinct timbre which dominates part of the
texture. Parrott did not retain this idea in his later recordings: in his Johannes-Passion,
he scored the alto for female concertists and boy ripienists; in subsequent Bach
recordings, he used female mezzo sopranos only.

[25] Keyte (1985: 10) justified this by claiming that “the Mass gradually floated clear of practical
restraints […] so we are scarcely obliged to re-impose them”. I doubt if Parrott would feel comfortable
with this rhetoric today. Rifkin describes Parrott’s recording as “an arrangement […] openly
acknowledged as such” (2000: 66n). Notwithstanding his own avoidance of such arrangements, he
considers them a legitimate option – one that could actually “bring us closer to eighteenth-century
practices than does the modern all-or-nothing use of the chorus” (ibid: 39).

– 142 –
On the whole, however, Parrott’s forces project a firmer sonority (probably
affected by the recording as well). The voices form a more closely blended group
(even in passages scored for concertists only), and the orchestra is more dominant.
Parrott also projects a firmer rhythmic profile, with more solid underlining of metric
accentuation and more incisive articulation. His tempi are usually close to Rifkin’s;
when they differ, Parrott is usually faster (notable exceptions include the Sanctus, and
central triptych of the Symbolum Nicenum). Parrott’s rendition thus features few of the
attributes which led me to associate Rifkin’s version with Renaissance church music;
indeed, it is sharper than Parrott’s own performances of earlier repertoires.

Parrott is, generally speaking, the more “interventionist” of the two conductors
(notwithstanding their similar philosophies of interpretation). This tendency is,
however, revealed more consistently elsewhere in Parrott’s discography (e.g.,
Johannes-Passion, Oster-Oratorium) than in his Mass. In some movements (see p.
140 above), Rifkin’s performance is more nuanced and shaped, as he encourages (or
at least allows) greater freedom to his singers. In several orchestrally-dominated
movements, however, Parrott’s interpretation is more detailed: in Cum sancto spiritu,
Sanctus and Osanna, for example, Parrott reveals more local polyphonic detail, and
projects the movements with clearer directionality.

Parrott (2000: 151) cites the ease of achieving flexible phrasing as one of the
main advantages of employing a smaller vocal ensemble; again, the best illustrations
in Parrott’s own discography can arguably be found outside the Mass (most notably
his 1997 Trauer-Ode and funeral motets). Interestingly, several movements in the
Mass seem to acquire greater flexibility (i.e., an increasing range of dynamics and
articulation, with more local inflections within phrases) as the performance proceeds
(e.g., Et in terra, Laudamus, Incarnatus, Et in spiritum, second Osanna). It is not easy
to tell to what extent this reflects a deliberate interpretive decision, rather than the
dynamics of the recordings sessions.

These features also affect directionality in both performances. Rifkin and Parrott
alike believe that performers should be sensitive to patterns of tension and resolution,
underlining them without being too intrusive. In practice, Rifkin is rarely active in this
direction. His performance features local directionality in individual phrases, but he
does not seem to direct the ensemble with this goal in mind. Parrott projects these
patterns more firmly in later recordings, but his Mass already features several

– 143 –
instances (the clearest being the build-up of tension in the fugal expositions of Cum
sancto spiritu, esp. bars 112ff).

The combination of clearer directionality and sharper articulation also makes
several movements in Parrott’s recording seem more distinctly light-hearted or dance-
like than Rifkin’s – notable examples being their readings of Christe eleison, Domine
deus (especially the respective shaping of the bass line) and Qui sedes (see also my
discussion of Parrott’s shaping of the First Kyrie’s subject, pp. 172f below). In this
sense, while Rifkin reveals some commonalities with Herreweghe, Parrott sometimes
approaches Koopman’s stylistic priorities.

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