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 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.


Whilst Italy, and in particular Rome, Florence and the wealthy sea port of Venice, was the focus for the musical creativity of the Renaissance, Vienna was the European home of eighteenth-century classical music.  The focus of music in earlier centuries in Vienna centred on St Stephen’s Cathedral – the huge medieval building consecrated in 1147, whose 448 ft spire and glorious high-pitched medieval tiled roof still dominate the Viennese skyline today.  Whilst the early musical history of Vienna is poorly documented, it can be assumed that sacred music was also played in the churches and monasteries of St Ruprecht and St Peter.   There are records of sacred hymns dating from the Habsburgs’ reign in the thirteenth century.  Education was in the hands of the clergy and a choir school was attached to St Stephen’s. “The singing of schoolboys” is mentioned as an established custom as early as 1310.  The University of Vienna was founded in 1356 and had strong links with the school, sharing many of the same teaching staff.  Music was an obligatory subject in both institutions.  In 1446 provision was made for the salaried position of Kantor, and in 1460 the first mention of polyphonic music is made.  (An organ was installed in St Stephen’s from 1334, and so we can assume that polyphonic music was actually present in the city much earlier than this date.)  

The rise of the Imperial Hofmusikkapelle under the patronage of Maximillian I (1493 – 1519) during the early sixteenth century was highly significant.  The Hofmusikkapelle was a body of musicians (both composers and performers) employed by the Imperial Court to provide music for chapel, state and secular occasions.  There are records of large-scale performances under Maximillian’s reign, some including drama.  Maximillian was also responsible for founding the Vienna Boys’ Choir, which still exists today.  The Hofmusikkapelle was given further encouragement under the patronage of Emperors Ferdinand I and II. The latter, who ascended the throne in 1619, had a predilection for Italian musicians, and with this came the appearance of Baroque ideals.  It was these Italians who introduced instrumental music to Vienna as an independent genre in the form of polyphonic ensembles, trio sonatas and solo sonatas.  These were readily accepted by the Viennese and so Vienna began to establish itself as an important European musical centre.  Ferdinand II made it his official place of residence, and pupils of prominent Italian masters, such as Monteverdi and the Gabrielis, as well as musicians from the courts of Mantua, Florence and Rome, came to Vienna.  There was a performance of a Monteverdi opera in 1628, and, in 1631, the Hofmusikkapelle employed its first female singer. A number of Ferdinand’s successors, between 1619 and 1740 (Ferdinand III, Leopold I, Josef I and Charles III), all had musical training and were able to compose, perform and direct musical performances of operas, oratorios and other musical genres. The wedding festivities of Ferdinand III were accompanied by spectacular musical events, including an equestrian ballet – a surprisingly popular form of entertainment in the seventeenth century.  

At the same time Vienna was attracting composers from France, Germany and the Netherlands and foundations were being laid for a long tradition of excellent keyboard music in a succession of very able organists at St Stephen’s. (This tradition would eventually reach its heyday in the hands of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert and Brahms and the newly invented pianoforte.) During the Baroque period in Vienna, church music was characterised by the coexistence of the old and the new.  Masses by the Italian masters, such as Palestrina, were performed liturgically throughout the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, but more modern compositions by contemporaries such as Johann Fux (1660 – 1741), Antonio  Caldara (1670 – 1736) and Francesco Conti (1681 – 1732) were performed during the rest of the year.  (All three composers died in Vienna, having been born in Italy or Germany but later gaining employment in the Viennese court.)