A Church Service in Music: The Mass

A short history of musical settings of the Mass.

Mass in this context has nothing to do with a large amount of something. What we are talking about here is a musical genre that goes back to the celebration of Holy Mass in the Catholic Church. For centuries now, the faithful have been enriching church services with singing in order to give emotional expression to their beliefs and prayers. This is where the history of musical settings of the Mass begins. The individual sung sections that formed part of the Mass 1,000 years ago had evolved by the 18th century into independent, full-length works for orchestra, choir and soloists – works that appear nowadays on nearly every concert programme. Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous »Missa solemnis« or Johann Sebastian Bach’s B minor Mass are regularly performed in concert halls all over the world. So the Mass as a musical genre has long since broken free of its original integration into a service of worship.

Notwithstanding, a look at its origins can help us understand the works in the genre. The fact that the texts used for a musical setting of the Mass are taken from the liturgy explains on the one hand why most of the texts used are in Latin or Ancient Greek, and the typical structure of such compositions on the other.

Beethoven’s »Missa solemnis« at the Elbphilharmonie in 2018 (NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra/Thomas Hengelbrock)
Beethoven’s »Missa solemnis« at the Elbphilharmonie in 2018 (NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra/Thomas Hengelbrock) © Daniel Dittus

From the Church to the Concert Hall :A history of music for the Mass

How did it happen that music originally intended to accompany a service of worship found its way with the passing of time into concert halls like the Elbphilharmonie?

Music in church

The history of music to accompany the Mass began with musical settings of individual parts of the Mass, which were integrated into the service. It’s fair to mention that this was at a time when music was only written for sacred use anyway. There were already musical settings of the Gloria and the Kyrie, in particular, as early as the sixth century. These were hymns sung without instrumental accompaniment which we refer to as »Gregorian chant« after the Pope of the time, Gregory I. No one in those days had the idea of composing an entire Mass, featuring at least all the texts of the Ordinary of the Mass, as a single work.

A first step in this direction was taken in the 13th century, when pairs of movements such as Gloria + Credo or Sanctus + Agnus Dei were set to music. The first surviving complete setting of the Mass dates from the next century: Guillaume de Machaut’s pioneering »Messe de Nostre Dame« of 1364 is composed for four voices that all sing in the same rhythm.

»The notes are the bridge that connects heaven with earthly things.«

Hans-Christian Andersen, writer

The 15th century: Music versus text?

In the 150 years after Guillaume de Machaut, the rhythms became more and more complicated: a new style of composition evolved based on a so-called »cantus firmus« – a fixed melodic part around which several parts swirl that are rhythmically and melodic in contramotion. In these complex compositions, the text is harder to understand than in older works where all the singers follow the same rhythm, and this prompted several leading churchmen in the 16th century to call for a return to greater simplicity.

But it proved impossible to turn the clock back. On the contrary: Italian composer Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina wrote his legendary »Missa Papae Marcelli«, which combines complexity with ease of understanding by using a declamatory style with several parts (polyphony) where the text is nonetheless very clearly enunciated. This work represents a milestone in the history of modern sacred music, and legend has it that the clarity and beauty of Palestrina’s music dissuaded the Vatican from its plan to prohibit complex polyphonic church music.

Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina’s »Missa Papae Marcelli« sung in the Sistine Chapel.

The 18th century: Bach’s organ was too small

For many centuries, settings of the Mass were only performed in churches as part of liturgical practice. This was fine until composers like Johann Sebastian Bach started writing large-scale settings of the Mass that were too complex and technically demanding to be accommodated by a church. Bach’s well-known B minor Mass, for example, could not have been performed in St Thomas Church in Leipzig, where he was cantor: the organ there did not have all the notes required. Bach may have had a more modern organ in mind, such as he was familiar with from Dresden; in any case, he didn’t live to hear his important composition (and his only complete setting of the Mass) performed in its entirety.

Organ in Leipzig’s St Thomas Church
Organ in Leipzig’s St Thomas Church © Wikimedia Commons

The 19th century: Masses for the masses

The years around 1800 saw the appearance of the concert Mass, which took the genre out of the church and into the concert hall. One such work was Beethoven’s famous »Missa solemnis«, which was given its first performance in 1824 by the Philharmonic Society in St. Petersburg. But this didn’t mean that no more Masses were written for church performance. Franz Schubert, for instance, composed no fewer than six Latin Masses, the first of them when he was only 17 years old. All of them were first performed in churches – and not in court chapels, either, but in parish churches. This bourgeois context was new.

In 1826, incidentally, Schubert also composed a »Deutsche Messe« (German Mass), setting German-language texts that are not simply translations of the Latin or Greek originals: the work was commissioned by a professor of physics in Vienna, one Johann Philipp Neumann, who also wrote the sung texts himself. To this day, individual numbers from the work are very popular in church use, among them the catchy opening piece »Wohin soll ich mich wenden«.

»Bach’s B minor Mass is the greatest musical work of art of all time and of all peoples.«

Hans Georg Nägeli, publisher

»Wohin soll ich mich wenden« from Franz Schubert’s »Deutsche Messe«

Among the 19th century settings of the Mass that are still significant today, mention should be made of the »Messe Solennelle« by Berlioz with texts in French, the five Masses by Bruckner and Rossini’s »Petite Messe Solennelle«, one of the most important works from the Italian composer’s late period.

The 20th century: Masses for the modern age

In the last century, too, composers wrote musical settings of the Mass. Even Stravinsky, himself of Orthodox confession, composed a Catholic Mass that was first performed in 1948 by the choir and orchestra of La Scala, Milan. Why Catholic? »I wanted my Mass to find liturgical use somewhere as well, and that wasn’t possible in the Russian Orthodox Church, where instrumental accompaniment is traditionally not allowed,« explained the composer.

A good 20 years later, Leonard Bernstein came up with a new concept: his contribution to the genre, entitled simply »Mass«, is an entertaining piece of music theatre that presents the structure of the liturgy in staged form, combining a variety of very different musical styles in the process.

»Simple Song« from Leonard Bernstein’s music theatre piece »Mass«

And today?

Contemporary composers are still writing new settings of the Mass: in the last couple of decades, the famous Finnish composer Arvo Pärt produced a popular contribution to the genre in the shape of his »Berliner Messe« (1990), while John Rutter followed suit in 2003 with his »Mass of the Children«.

Religion and music – a very old friendship whose history continues. No one expressed it better than Danish writer Hans-Christian Andersen: »The notes are the bridge that connects heaven with earthly things.«

The Structure: The Must-Haves in Any Mass :The Ordinary of the Mass

The Ordinary represents the fixed framework of the Mass, and consists of five sections:

1. The Kyrie

»Kyrie eleison« is Ancient Greek for »Lord have mercy«. Every Mass opens with the simple three lines: »Kyrie eleison / Christe eleison / Kyrie eleison«, addressing God and Jesus Christ. Despite the brevity of the text, these opening sections often attain considerable length in settings of the Mass. In his famous B minor Mass, Bach composed no fewer than three separate movements for the Kyrie’s three-part form. For the »Christe« section between the two »Kyrie« movements, he changed the instrumentation used as well as the mood, thus clearly differentiating God from His Son.

2. The Gloria

»Gloria in Excelsis Deo« – many Germans will immediately be reminded of the Christmas hit »Hört der Engel helle Lieder« (Hear the angels’ bright songs) that the congregation bellows out in church every year. And it’s true that this Latin movement goes back to the angels’ songs of praise in the Christmas story: »Glory be to God on high«. In this way, the fundamental order of the Christian world is made clear, with God in heaven and humanity on earth. The Gloria is both a tribute to God and a prayer, an entreaty in other words: »And peace be on earth to all men through His mercy«. This move from heaven down to earth in the first verses is illuminated by many composers with sudden very low notes »Et in terra pax« (And peace on earth). A typical example is the Gloria from Bruckner’s popular Mass No. 3 in F minor.

The Gloria from the Mass No. 3 in F minor by Anton Bruckner

3. The Credo

»Credo« just means »I believe«, so it’s not difficult to guess what this section of the Mass is about: a profession of faith. »I believe in God, the Father, the Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth« and so on. The text of the Credo originally formed part of baptism ritual, accompanying the acceptance of an individual into the Church. Only 1,000 years after Christ did the profession of faith became an integral part of every festive Mass.

The individual parts of the story – the Creation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion and Christ’s Resurrection – are often illustrated in settings of the Mass by changes in the underlying musical mood. In Haydn’s great »Nelson Mass«, for example, the Credo opens with a pretty choral movement, then switches to a soprano solo for the incarnation of God.

The Credo from Joseph Haydn’s »Nelson Mass«

4. The Sanctus

The central prayer of praise and thanks in the Mass is the Sanctus – the Latin word for holy. Scholars believe that this five-line prayer was already part of Holy Mass as long ago as the 4th century. The meaning of the text is subject to a wide range of interpretation. Some people think that, in addition to professing faith in the Holy Trinity (God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit), the text also emphasises the unity of heaven and earth and calls on people to lead a morally impeccable life. The Sanctus includes Benedictus (the title means blessed), which honours Jesus Christ. The scoring often changes between these two sections: in Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, for example, the powerful Sanctus is scored for two choirs, while in the Benedictus only the soloists sing.

Sanctus und Benedictus from the C minor Mass by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

5. The Agnus Dei

The last movement of the Mass, Agnus Dei (the Lamb of God), illustrates an important aspect of the Christian faith. The lamb symbolises Jesus Christ, who sacrifices his life although he is innocent. Most settings of the Agnus Dei are very stately and pensive, at least at the beginning, representing the pain involved in this sacrifice. Nonetheless, the movement, and thus as a rule the entire Mass, often ends on a celebratory and powerful note. The redemption achieved by Christ’s sacrifice appears in the music too, so to speak. The Agnus Dei in Beethoven’s famous »Missa Solemnis«, for instance, leads up to a stunning choral finale over the last line »Dona nobis pacem« (Give us peace).

The Agnus Dei from Ludwig van Beethoven’s »Missa Solemnis«

The Voluntary Additions of Any Mass :The Proper of the Mass

The variable part of the Mass, the so-called Proper, depends on the occasion. Depending on the church festival involved, texts relating to Easter or Christmas can be added. One well-known example of a special variant of the Mass is the Requiem, the Mass for the Dead. A Requiem features, among other texts, the additional introduction »Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine« (Give them eternal peace, o Lord) and, after the Kyrie, the so-called sequence of the dead »Dies irae« (Day of Wrath), which heralds the Last Judgement.

The Dies irae from Giuseppe Verdi’s »Messa da Requiem«

German text: Julika von Werder, last updated: 24 Mar 2021
English translation: Clive Williams

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