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The Mass, a form of sacred musical composition, is a choral composition that sets the fixed portions of the Eucharistic liturgy (principally that of the Roman Catholic Church, and also the Anglican Church) to music. Most Masses are settings of the liturgy in Latin, the traditional language of the Roman Catholic Church.

Masses can be a cappella, for the human voice alone, or they can be accompanied by instrumental obbligatos up to and including a full orchestra. Many masses, especially later ones, were never intended to be performed during the celebration of an actual mass.


Form of the Mass

Generally, for a composition to be a full Mass, it must contain the following six sections, which together constitute the Ordinary of the Mass:

I. Kyrie

The Kyrie is the first movement of a setting of the Ordinary of the Mass:

Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison (Κυριε ελεησον; Χριστε ελεησον; Κυριε ελεησον)
Lord have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.

Kyrie movements often have a structure that reflects the concision and symmetry of the text. Many have a ternary (ABA) form, where the two appearances of the phrase "Kyrie eleison" are comprised of identical or closely related material and frame a contrasting "Christe eleison" section. Famously, Mozart sets the "Kyrie" and "Christe" texts in his Requiem Mass as the two subjects of a double fugue.

II. Gloria

The Gloria is a celebratory passage praising God and Christ:

Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te, gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam, Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will. We praise You, we bless You, we adore You, we glorify You, we give thanks to You for Your great glory, Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God the Father.
Domine Fili unigenite, Iesu Christe, Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis; qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram. Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.
Lord Jesus Christ, only begotten Son, Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, You who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us; You who take away the sins of the world, hear our prayers. You who sit at the right hand of the Father, have mercy upon us.
Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus Altissimus, Iesu Christe, cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. Amen.
For You are the only Holy One, the only Lord, the only Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father, Amen.

III. Credo

The longest text of the Mass, this is a setting of the Nicene Creed:

Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem,
factorem caeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium.
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty
Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible:
Et in unum Dominum Iesum Christum,
Filium Dei unigenitum, et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula.
Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero,
genitum non factum, consubstantialem Patri;
per quem omnia facta sunt. Qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de caelis.
Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est.
Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, passus et sepultus est,
et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas,
et ascendit in caelum, sedet ad dexteram Patris.
Et iterum venturus est cum gloria, iudicare vivos et mortuos,
cuius regni non erit finis;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds;
God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God;
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father,
by Whom all things were made;
Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven, and became man.
and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man:
And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried:
And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures:
And ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father:
And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead:
Whose Kingdom will have no end;
Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem,
qui ex Patre (Filioque) procedit.
Qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur:
qui locutus est per prophetas.
Et unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam.
Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum.
Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum,
et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, and Giver of Life,
Who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son]
Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified,
Who spake by the Prophets.
And I believe in One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,
I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.
And I look for the Resurrection of the Dead:
And the Life of the world to come. Amen.

The Credo movement presents unique challenges to the composer due to its length.

IV. Sanctus

The Sanctus is a doxology praising the Trinity:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Domine Deus Sabaoth; pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts; Heaven and earth are full of Your glory.
Hosanna in excelsis
Hosanna in the highest.

V. Benedictus

The Benedictus is a continuation of the Sanctus:

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord

Hosanna in excelsis is usually repeated after the Benedictus section, often with musical material identical to that used after the Sanctus, or very closely related.

In Gregorian chant the Sanctus (with Benedictus) was sung whole at its place in the mass. However, as composers produced more embellished settings of the Sanctus text, the music often would go on so long that it would run into the consecration of the bread and wine. This was considered the most important part of the Mass, so composers began to stop the Sanctus halfway through to allow this to happen, and then continue it after the consecration is finished. This practice was forbbiden for a period in the twentieth century.

VI. Agnus Dei

The Agnus Dei is a setting of the "Lamb of God" litany:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
give us peace.

In a Requiem Mass, the words "dona nobis pacem" are replaced by "dona eis requiem" (grant them rest).

Other Sections

In a liturgical Mass, there are other sections that may be sung, often in Gregorian chant. These sections, the "Proper" of the Mass, change with the day and season according to the Church calendar, or according to the special circumstances of the mass. The Proper of the Mass is usually not set to music in a Mass itself, except in the case of a Requiem Mass, but may be the subject of motets or other musical compositions. The sections of the Proper of the Mass include the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia or Tract (depending on the time of year), Offertory and Communion.

Mass Compositions of the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Prior to individual composers composing music for the Mass, the music of the Mass was purely Gregorian chant. Gregorian chant offered many Mass music options which were supposed to be sung on certain days. In these different forms (such as the Missa Angelis), the melodies were specificed for many other sections besides the ones shown here. However, individual composers only wrote music for the Sanctus, Gloria, etc. So a composers Mass would "override" those sections which the composer composed, but the rest of the parts sung in Gregorian chant would remain according to the rules of gregorian chant.

These sections of the Mass as a musical composition have been standard since the Middle Ages; the very earliest Masses may include other parts, and omit some of the standard ones. The first complete Mass we know of whose composer can be identified was the Messa de Nostre Dame (Mass of Our Lady) by Guillaume de Machaut in the 14th century. Many masses by Guillaume Dufay and others in the 15th and 16th centuries used melodies from popular songs, such as L'homme armé as cantus firmus, scandalizing the conservative-minded. Such a practice was of great antiquity, however; it had been attributed to the 4th century heretic, Arius, that he allowed his sacred songs or hymns contained in his book Thaleia to be set to melodies with infamous associations.

The mass as a musical form flourished during the Renaissance, where it served as the principal large-scale form of composition for most composers. Many important masses were composed by Josquin des Prez. At the end of the 16th century a cappella choral counterpoint reached an apogee in masses by the English William Byrd, the Castilian Tomas Luis de Victoria and the Roman Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose Mass for Pope Marcellus is credited with saving polyphony from the censure of the Council of Trent. By the time of Palestrina, however, the mass had already been replaced by other forms, principally the motet and the madrigale spirituale, as the most significant outlet for expression in the realm of sacred music; composers such as Lassus wrote relatively few masses, preferring the greater latitude for expression offered by the other forms.

Baroque through present day

After the Renaissance, the mass tended not to be the central genre for any one composer, yet some of the most famous of all musical works of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods are masses. Many of the most famous of the great masses of the Romantic era were Requiem masses. In the 20th century, composers continued to write masses, in an even wider diversity of style, form and function than before.

Among the Masses written for the Ordinary of the Mass are:

The Mass in B Minor by Bach (coincidentally a staunch Lutheran)
The Mass in C minor and 18 others by Mozart
The masses of Joseph Haydn, including Nelson Mass and Mass in Time Of War
The Mass in C major and Missa Solemnis by Beethoven
Missa Choralis and Hungarian Coronation Mass by Liszt
Mass in G Major and 5 others by Schubert
Mass in F minor and 2 others by Bruckner
Messe Solennelle and Caecilienmesse by Gounod
Petite Messe Solennelle (1863) by Gioacchino Rossini
Mass of Life by Frederick Delius
Mass in G Minor by Ralph Vaughan Williams
The Mass by Igor Stravinsky
The Mass by Leonard Bernstein
The Mass by David Maslansky
The Mass of the Children by John Rutter

Musical reforms of Pius X

Pope St. Pius X initiated many regulations to the mass music in the early 20th century. He felt that most of the masses composed by the famous composers were not appropriate for a church setting, and advocated primarily gregorian chant and polyphony. He was primarily influenced by the work of the Abbey of Solesmes Some of the rules he put forth include the following:

  • That any Mass be composed in an integrated fashion, not by assembling different compositions for different parts
  • That all percussion instruments should be forbidden
  • That ideally the choir should be all male
  • That the congregation itself should ideally be trained to sing along with the Gregorian chant.

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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