A Brief Musical History of the Mass

Throughout the Renaissance period, compositions of the mass fell into a series of sub-genres. There were Parody Masses, where a familiar secular melody was used as the melodic basis for composition (e.g. Taverner’s Western Wynd Mass). There were Cantus Firmus Masses, where a sacred plainsong melody was used as a basis for metrical composition (e.g. Palestrina’s Missa Æterna Christi Munera), and there were Tenor Masses where the cantus firmus (plainsong melody) was presented in the tenor part throughout, thus concealing it in the musical texture. Amongst the great exponents of these genres in this rich age of sacred music were Dufay, Palestrina, Byrd, Taverner, Lassus and Victoria. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the advance of solo singing, and the increased possibilities for instrumental accompaniment, led to great changes in the musical styles of mass settings. The large oratorio style masses such as Bach’s setting in B Minor and Beethoven’s Mass in D were contrasted by shorter and more liturgically suitable settings by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert. Whilst effective liturgically, these works do perhaps lack some of the devotional and reverential qualities to be found in the mass settings of the Renaissance masters.

Haydn wrote some more substantial settings of the mass in the decade or so from 1796, as a result of new duties required of him by his patron and employer at Esterházy. These included the Nelson Mass and the Theresienmesse. All are solemn masses and were more dramatically and fully orchestrated than the earlier classical settings. Other significant early nineteenth century mass settings included Beethoven’s Solemn Mass, or Missa Solemnis, Cherubini’s Mass in C Major, and settings in E flat and A flat by Schubert. In the second half of the nineteenth century the mass began to divide into two categories. Those settings conceived for use in liturgical worship, contrasted with the larger scale, extended settings conceived for the concert hall. Later romantic composers, spurred on partly by the founding of many amateur choral societies at this time (certainly in Britain and Germany), and also by the decline of private royal chapels after the French Revolution, as a consequence of which composers of significance had fewer opportunities to write music for liturgical performance, exploited this emerging genre of the “concert mass”. In 1864 Rossini (1792-1868), following his retirement from writing operas, produced his Petit Messe Solennelle. Other mass settings destined for the concert platform, and richly orchestrated, were produced by Berlioz (1803-1869), Liszt (1811-1886), Gounod (1818-1893), Bruckner (1824-1896), and Puccini (1858-1924). By 1900 the mass was clearly a different genre, with fully orchestrated settings, complete with operatic-style arias for soloists, and the repetition of many portions of the text in a way which is liturgically inappropriate, and which makes no attempt to provide music suitable for worship.

In the early twentieth century, these grand settings stood shoulder to shoulder with more modest settings by composers such as Charles Stanford (1852-1924), Charles Wood (1869-1944) and Basil Harwood (1859-1949), designed for parish church and cathedral choirs to use on Sunday mornings. The 8 part, a cappella, highly modal, mass setting by Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) in G Minor, is a wonderful attempt to recreate the ethereal settings of the Reformation. Other prominent British twentieth century composers have also made valuable additions to the repertoire, in the shape of the Missa Brevis for boys voices by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), and the Missa Sabrinensis and the setting in English for King’s College, Cambridge (Collegium Regale), both by Herbert Howells (1892-1982). Significant non-British contributions to the repertoire, which have endured both in the Church and on the concert platform, are by Stravinsky (1881-1971) for SATB and ten solo wind instruments, Poulenc (1899-1963), Duruflé (Missa cum Jubilo), and Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). (Bernstein does not set the text liturgically but creates a musical theatre piece, in the Broadway vernacular, with additional secular lyrics based around the Tridentine text of the Roman Catholic mass.) The settings in this evening’s concert were definitely written to be sung liturgically, and to exploit the vast Cavaillé-Coll organs in the Parisian churches of Notre Dame, Ste Sulpice and Ste Clotilde, where the respective composers held the post of organist. The title Messe Solennelle (or Missa Solemnis) refers to the Solemn Mass of the Roman Catholic Church. The advent of the second Vatican Council in 1963, coupled with various reforms in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches in recent decades, and the growing trend since the Second World War to involve members of the congregation more actively in worship, have led to a large number of unison congregational settings being written in recent decades. Some of these are skilful and effective, but a significant number of them could justifiably be described as banal and trivial, especially given the incredibly rich heritage which lies behind them.