A mass is a musical setting of the five movements of the Mass Ordinary: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. The tradition of setting all five movements as a single composition emerged in the fourteenth century and quickly gathered steam, becoming the most significant large-scale musical genre of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Though its prominence declined somewhat in subsequent centuries, Mass composition has continued uninterrupted to the present day, its style changing along with changes in compositional style more broadly. In the nineteenth century it became primarily a ceremonial and concert genre, rather than a liturgical one, but it retains strong liturgical associations.

Biblical Texts in the Mass Ordinary.

The text of the Mass Ordinary makes limited use of the Bible. The Kyrie, drawn from a Greek litany, and the Credo (Nicene Creed) include no biblical text at all. The Gloria opens with the words of the angels upon the Annunciation to the Shepherds in Luke 2:14: “Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis” (Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors). The Sanctus opens with a quotation of the angels from Isaiah 6:3, transformed into second-person praise of God: “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth. Pleni sunt caeli et terra Gloria tua” (Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory). It continues with a quotation from Matthew 21:9: “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. Hosanna in excelsis” (Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest). The Agnus Dei, with its plea “Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis / dona nobis pacem” (Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us / grant us peace), alludes to John the Baptist’s description of Christ in John 1:29.

Medieval Origins.

Mass composition traces its origins to the chants of the medieval Catholic liturgy. The medieval Mass ceremony included sung items that were grouped into the Mass Proper (movements with texts that changed daily) and the Mass Ordinary (movements with unchanging texts). The late seventh-century Ordo Romanus I describes the order of the Roman Mass as it was then celebrated. It contained both the Gloria and a Litany that included the Greek words later extracted to form the Kyrie. The Credo traces its origins back even earlier, to the Council of Nicaea (425), though it was not incorporated into the Mass until much later. The chants of the Mass Proper were largely standardized at the time of Charlemagne (Holy Roman Emperor, 800–814), who implemented a campaign of literacy in his Frankish kingdom, musical and otherwise, that produced the first written sources of liturgical music. The five movements of the Mass Ordinary became standardized during the compilation of Frankish liturgical books that took place from the ninth through the eleventh century. Melodies for the Kyrie, Gloria, and Credo, by then all ancient texts, were first written down at that time, many apparently newly composed. It was in the same period that the Sanctus and Agnus Dei became standardized both textually and musically. Specific melodies for the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, intended for particular liturgical occasions, were often paired together, as were Kyries and Glorias. It was not until the thirteenth century, in the reformed Gradual (book containing music for the Mass) of the newly formed Franciscan order, that cycles of all five Mass Ordinary movements were grouped together for particular liturgical occasions.

The Late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The Mass became a clearly defined compositional genre in the late Middle Ages (ca. 1350–1425) and Renaissance (ca. 1425–1600). Significant repertoires of polyphonic music for the Mass Proper had been composed in the twelfth century, the largest of which was the Magnus liber organi (Great Book of Organum) of Notre Dame of Paris, a collection of two- to four-voice settings for the high feasts of the church year by the composers Leonin (fl. 1150s–ca. 1201) and Perotin (fl. ca. 1200). Polyphonic Mass Ordinary compositions emerged in the fourteenth century, but they were usually single movements or movement pairs. The first setting of the entire Mass Ordinary by a single composer is the Messe de Nostre Dame (Mass of Our Lady, ca. 1360) by Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300–1377), the leading poet and composer of fourteenth-century France (see Robertson, 1992). A handful of other anonymous settings of the complete Mass Ordinary exist from the late fourteenth century.

It was in the second quarter of the fifteenth century that the Mass took firm shape as a genre. Though some settings of the Mass Proper continued to be composed, full settings of the Mass Ordinary, characterized by large-scale structural planning, became the norm. The major stylistic innovation of this period was the cyclic Mass, in which all movements are musically unified. In the fifteenth century compositional unity was provided primarily by a cantus firmus (borrowed melody) that is quoted in the tenor voice of each movement. Compositions took their name from their cantus firmus; thus the Mass (Lat Missa) by the English composer Leonel Power (d. 1445) built on the Marian antiphon Alma redemptoris mater was called the Missa Alma redemptoris mater. All major composers of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance produced numerous cantus firmus Masses—including Guillaume Du Fay (1397–1474), Gilles Binchois (ca. 1400–1460), Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1410–1497), Jacob Obrecht (1457/8–1505), and Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450/55–1521). Nineteenth- and twentieth-century music historians saw in the development of the cyclic Mass in these generations the emergence of the composer as a true artist, freed from the confines of liturgical function, an idea that continues to influence music historiography to the present day (Kirkman, 2010).

In the sixteenth century, cyclic Masses continued to be composed in large numbers. Rather than cantus firmus Masses, however, they more often were paraphrase or parody Masses. In a paraphrase Mass the chant model is not simply quoted in the tenor voice but rather taken up in all voice parts through imitative counterpoint. In a parody Mass the model is not a monophonic chant but a polyphonic composition, usually a chanson or a motet, quoted in modified form in each movement. Numerous Masses of both types were composed by the leading sixteenth-century Catholic composers, including Adrian Willaert (ca. 1490–1562), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/6–1594), Orlando di Lasso (1532–1594), and Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611). The Englishman William Byrd (1543–1623) composed three Masses—for three, four, and five voice parts—that are not cylic; instead, Byrd composed each movement freely, carefully setting the words of the Mass Ordinary. In the later sixteenth century and beyond, a distinction is often made between the Missa Solemnis or High Mass, a long and elaborate composition, and the Missa Brevis, a short and simple Mass composition.

In late medieval and Renaissance cyclic Masses, the musical model could superimpose additional biblical texts onto those quoted in the Mass Ordinary itself. For example, Ockeghem’s Missa Ecce ancilla Domini, a cantus-firmus Mass, is built on a chant that quotes Luke 1:38, in which the Virgin Mary, having received the Annunciation from the Archangel Gabriel, responds: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Similarly, Palestrina’s Missa Dum complerentur, a parody Mass, is built on Palestrina’s own motet Dum complerentur, which draws its text from the description in Acts 2:1–2 of the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Apostles on the day of the Pentecost. Interactions between the Mass Ordinary text, the text of the compositional model, and other visual and ceremonial elements of the Mass service could create a sort of biblical exegesis (see Bloxam, 2011, for an especially detailed example). After the Renaissance this sort of biblical allusion slowly disappeared from Mass composition, the emphasis shifting exclusively to the text of the Mass Ordinary itself.

Baroque Era (ca. 1600–1750).

The Baroque era was characterized by the emergence of a new compositional style radically different from that of the Renaissance. Whereas the predominant Renaissance musical texture was a choir of equal voice parts, that of the Baroque was stratified, dominated by a high solo voice or melodic instrument accompanied by basso continuo (figured bass). The Mass in the early Baroque era, however, remained conservative, often employing the Renaissance style, which became known as the stile antico (old style). One prominent example is the Missa da cappella by Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), a parody mass based on the motet In illo tempore by Nicolas Gombert (ca. 1495–1560) that was published in the same 1610 collection that included Monteverdi’s Vespro della beata Virgine, a musical Vespers service almost entirely in the modern Baroque style.

Gradually, elements of the Baroque style were incorporated into Mass composition. These included instrumental ensembles that either doubled the voice parts or played their own parts, solo movements that resembled opera arias, and mixed ensembles of voices and instruments. Scholars sometimes refer to a “Neapolitan” or “canata” Mass, which denotes a composition in Baroque style for orchestra, chorus, and soloists. This is something of a misnomer, since very few such compositions from Naples survive, but Neapolitan opera of the late seventeenth century was highly influential, serving as the model of opera seria composition from Italy to England in the early eighteenth century. Ironically, the most influential Neapolitan opera composer, Alesssandro Scarlatti (1660–1725), composed all of his Masses in the stile antico. Still, Neapolitan operatic style influenced virtually all musical composition in the early eighteenth century, including the best-known Mass that could be said to be in the Neapolitan style—Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685–1750) Mass in B Minor. Bach composed this work over the last three decades of his life, finishing it in 1749, but it was never performed in full during his lifetime. He appears to have composed individual movements for Lutheran worship, where complete Mass settings were uncommon, gradually filling out the complete Mass Ordinary.

Classical Era (ca. 1750–1800).

Whereas the Neapolitan Mass tended to subdivide its movements into shorter sections, especially the longer ones like the Gloria and the Credo, the Classical era saw the emergence of a new type of Mass with longer movements. Sometimes referred to as the “Viennese” style—Vienna was the epicenter of the Classical style—this type of Mass featured fewer formal subdivisions and movements conceived in forms derived from the symphony, the predominant large-scale instrumental genre of the Classical era. Soloists are often treated as an ensemble, providing contrast with the choir and the orchestra, rather than as operatic soloists, as they had been in the Neapolitan Mass.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), in the early part of his career, are the best-known composers of the Classical era, and all composed Masses in the Viennese style. Mozart and Haydn, however, also composed masses in older styles earlier in their careers. The stile antico continued to be cultivated through the eighteenth century in Vienna, partially as the legacy of the Viennese composer and music theorist Johann Joseph Fux (1660–1741), whose Gradus ad Parnassum (1725), an extremely influential treatise on stile antico composition, was studied extensively by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and others. Haydn in fact wrote one stile antico Mass, the Missa Sunt bona mixta malis, but most of his Mass compositions are in the emerging Viennese style, as were, ironically, most Masses by Fux himself. Many of Mozart’s Masses are in the Missa Brevis tradition, largely because that is what was called for by the court of Salzburg, where Mozart was employed until 1780, when he broke with the Salzburg court and moved to Vienna. Haydn’s Masses for the Esterhazy court and Mozart’s for the Salzburg court are among the last by major composers intended for regular liturgical use.

Nineteenth Century.

In the hands of nineteenth-century Romantic composers, the Mass became largely a ceremonial and then a concert genre. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (1819–1823), probably the most celebrated Mass of the entire century, was originally intended for the installation of Archduke Rudolph of Austria as Archbishop of Olmütz in Moravia in 1820, but was not completed in time. It was performed in Beethoven’s lifetime largely as individual movements in concert settings, though it was considered appropriate for liturgical use on important ceremonial occasions. Although largely in the modern symphonic style, Beethoven’s Mass is full of allusions to the stile antico, demonstrating the composer’s awareness of the liturgical origins of the genre. Later Masses by Franz Schubert (1797–1828), Franz Liszt (1811–1886), and Anton Bruckner (1824–1896) in the Germanic tradition continued to combine contemporary symphonic forms and styles with references to historical styles—this was especially true of Bruckner, who was himself a church organist fluent in the stile antico.

Concert Masses by Italian composers displayed operatic influence, the best example being Gioachino Rossini’s (1792–1868) Petite messe solonelle (1864), which includes instrumental accompaniment by piano and harmonium, rather than a full orchestra. Though composed and performed in Paris, where Rossini was living in retirement at the time of composition, the work features Italianate elements that had characterized Rossini’s operas. The great opera composers Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) and Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) also composed Mass movements that employ elements of Italian operatic style. In France, the study of stile antico counterpoint at the Conservatoire kept a tradition of orchestral Mass composition with conservative elements alive in the compositions of Charles-François Gounod (1818–1893) and Hector Berlioz (1803–1869).

Twentieth Century and Beyond.

Mass composition from the twentieth century to the present is characterized by wide stylistic diversity that mirrors the stylistic fracturing of art music composition more broadly. One connecting thread is that composers almost always show a keen awareness of the long history and liturgical origins of the genre. Some settings, like those by the French organist-composers Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) and Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986), though thoroughly modern in style, are of a scale that is appropriate for liturgical performance. Others, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams’s (1872–1958) Mass in G Minor (1920–1921) for double choir, invoke the sound and modal harmonies of the stile antico. Still others, such as the concert Masses by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) and Paul Hindemith (1895–1963), provide innovative takes on the nineteenth-century concert Mass tradition. Stravinsky’s Latin Mass (1944–1948) retains the vocal soloists and choir of earlier Mass compositions but replaces the orchestra with 10 wind and brass instruments, while Hindemith’s Latin Mass (1963) self-consciously refers back to Bach’s counterpoint. Leonard Bernstein’s (1918–1990) Mass (1971), commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is perhaps the most ambitious twentieth-century Mass composition, paying tribute to the liturgical history of the genre while placing it in radically new contexts. A grand musical theater piece for soloists, choir, instrumentalists, and dancers, it combines the Latin texts the Mass Ordinary with English-texted interpolations, featuring a theatrical enactment of liturgical Mass celebration and a dizzying array of musical styles from simple melodies reminiscent of liturgical music to experimental modernist composition and contemporary vernacular styles such as rock, jazz, marching band music, and Broadway song.



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David J. Rothenberg