Skip to page content

About this Piece

Composed: c. 1745

Length: c. 15 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 trumpets, timpani, strings, continuo, mixed chorus, and soprano and tenor soloists

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

In 1733 Bach sent the King-Elector of Dresden a petition asking to be appointed Royal Court Composer. He enclosed an elaborate setting of the Kyrie and Gloria, the first two prayers of the "Ordinary," which is the part of the Catholic Mass that never varied (as opposed to portions like the Scripture reading, which changed weekly). For centuries, Catholic church composers produced complete Ordinary settings, since the music could be used every week, and the Ordinary became a familiar multi-movement musical form. The Lutheran mass retained the Kyrie and Gloria but eliminated the rest of the Catholic Ordinary. Dresden was officially Catholic (the king had to convert before taking the throne) but had a large Lutheran population, so Bach's choice of a Lutheran Mass, usable in both services, was politic. He eventually got the appointment.

The 1733 "Missa" had two spinoffs. In 1748 Bach added the remaining sections of the Catholic Ordinary to form what we now call the B-minor Mass. At some earlier point in the 1740s, Bach extracted the cantata Gloria in excelsis Deo from the Missa. The cantata's first movement is the opening movement of the Missa's Gloria with no notable changes. The second and third movements are essentially the Missa's "Domine Deus" and concluding "Cum Sancto Spiritu," with the words of the "Gloria Patri" or Doxology (Glory to the Father…), which was normally appended to psalms and canticles, substituted for the Mass text. Bach made many changes in the wind and violin parts in the final movement, but the only change likely to be noticed by someone familiar with the B-minor Mass is the removal of a prominent first trumpet obbligato from some passages.

It is not known exactly when or why Bach did this extraction. One theory is that he needed a festive work in a hurry because of some newsmaking event, and adapting existing music was faster than composing something new. Latin cantatas were used in Lutheran services only when such major events were celebrated. Another theory is that he simply wanted to get some use out of music he had sent to Dresden and which would not otherwise be heard in Leipzig.

- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.