J.S. Bach Mass in B Minor
Balance in Musical Style

Xinh's project for Mu123, spring/1996 [Bach home page]
The musical style that Bach uses in the B-Minor Mass is an aim for balance. The 4-8-part choruses are separated by intimate solo arias. Both strict counterpoint and concerto form are well represented. The vocal parts are equally matched by the instrumental forces. The key of B minor, which appears in the common title for the work, is complemented by its relative major, the key of D.

Specific examples of this idea of balance will be pointed out in the next two sections: "Symmetry in Credo" and "Closer look at individual movements". What follows is a section on orchestration and another on tonal relationships of the Mass in B Minor.


These are the instruments used in the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 1985 recording of the B-Minor Mass, performed by La Petite Bande, under the direction of Gustav Leonhardt:

  • 4 1st violins
  • 3 2nd violins
  • 2 violas
  • 2 cellos
  • 1 double bass
  • 2 traverse flutes
  • 3 oboes/oboi d'amore
  • 2 bassoons
  • 1 corno da caccia
  • 3 trumpets
  • positive organ
  • timpani

    Tonal Relationships

    The following is a list of the 7 keys that appear in different movements of the B-Minor Mass.
  • G minor (tragic consummation)
  • F#minor (transcendent suffering)
    A major (joy and grace)
  • B minor (human pain)
    D major (worldly power and glory)
  • E minor (crucifixion)
    G major (blessedness)
  • As mentioned above, the tonality of the mass is equally balanced between B minor and D major. The work begins in B minor, the key of passive suffering, in the opening movement, Kyrie eleison. Subsequent movements are based on one of the 7 keys listed above; the tonality of the work revolves about G major, key of blessedness, and moves towards G minor (tragic consummation), which appears in only one movement, Agnus Dei. Finally, the mass ends in the key of D major (worldly power and glory) of the Dona nobis pacem. Notice that the number of keys, 7, is also the holy number of the Church.
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    Last updated: June 5, 1996