Mass (music)

Mass (music)

The Mass, a form of sacred musical composition, is a choral composition that sets the invariable portions of the Eucharistic liturgy (principally that of the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and the Lutheran Church) to music. Most Masses are settings of the liturgy in Latin, the liturgical sacred language of the Catholic Church's Roman liturgy, but there are a significant number written in the languages of non-Catholic countries where vernacular worship has long been the norm. For example, there are many Masses (often called "Communion Services") written in English for the Church of England. Musical Masses take their name from the Catholic liturgy called "the Mass" as well.

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 sections, which together constitute the ordinary of the Eucharist:

I. Kyrie

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

Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison (Κύριε ελέησον. Χριστέ ελέησον. Κύριε ελέησον)
Lord have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.

This is from the ancient (Biblical New Testament) Greek language, unlike the rest of the mass which is Latin.

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" consist of identical or closely related material and frame a contrasting "Christe eleison" section. Or AAABBBCCC' form is also found later on. 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
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
propter magnam gloriam tuam, Domine Deus, Rex caelestis [coelestis], Deus Pater omnipotens.
to You for Your great glory, Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God the Father.
Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe, Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris, qui tollis peccata mundi,
Lord Jesus Christ, only begotten Son, Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, who taketh away the sins of the world,
miserere nobis; qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram. Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.
Have mercy on us; You who take away the sins of the world, hear our prayers. Who sits at the right hand of the Father, have mercy upon us.
Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus Altissimus, Jesu 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.

In Mass settings (normally in English) composed for the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer liturgy, the Gloria is commonly the last movement, because it occurs in this position in the text of the service. In Order One of the newer Common Worship liturgy, however, it is restored to its earlier place.

III. Credo

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

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

Since the Second Vatican Council composers have mostly ignored writing melodies for the Credo in vernacular languages. Today, the Creed is usually recited by the congregation.

Organizers of international celebrations, such as World Youth Day, have been encouraged by Rome to familiarize congregants in the Latin chants for the Our Father and the Credo, specifically Credo III (17th century, Fifth Mode) from the Missa de Angelis (the Mass of the Angels). The purpose of singing these two texts in Latin is to engender a sense of unity in the faithful, all of whom thus sing the prayer of Jesus and the shared belief of the universal Church in the same language.

IV. Sanctus

The Sanctus is a doxology praising the Trinity:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus 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.

A variant exists in Lutheran settings of the Sanctus. While most hymnal settings keep the second person pronoun, other settings change the second person pronoun to the third person. This is most notable in J.S. Bach's Mass in B minor, where the text reads gloria ejus ("His glory"). Martin Luther's chorale Isaiah, Mighty in Days of Old, and Felix Mendelssohn's setting of the Heilig! (German Sanctus) from his Deutsche Liturgie also use the third person.

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 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 forbidden for a period in the 20th century.

VI. Agnus Dei

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

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

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

Other sections

Following the distribution of the Sacrament, it is customary in most Lutheran churches to sing the Nunc Dimittis.

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.

Musical settings

Middle Ages

The earliest musical settings of the Mass are Gregorian chant. The different portions of the Ordinary came into the liturgy at different times, with the Kyrie probably being first (perhaps as early as the 7th century) and the Credo being last (it did not become part of the Roman mass until 1014).[1]

In the early 14th century, composers began writing polyphonic versions of the sections of the Ordinary. The reason for this surge in interest is not known, but it has been suggested that there was a shortage of new music since composers were increasingly attracted to secular music, and overall interest in writing sacred music had entered a period of decline.[2] The non-changing part of the mass, the Ordinary, then would have music which was available for performance all the time.

Two manuscripts of the 14th century, the Ivrea Codex and the Apt Codex, are the primary sources for polyphonic settings of the Ordinary. Stylistically these settings are similar to both motets and secular music of the time, with a three-voice texture dominated by the highest part. Most of this music was written or assembled at the papal court at Avignon.

Several anonymous complete masses from the 14th century survive, including the Tournai Mass; however, discrepancies in style indicate that the movements of these masses were written by several composers and later compiled by scribes into a single set. The first complete Mass we know of whose composer can be identified was the Messe de Nostre Dame (Mass of Our Lady) by Guillaume de Machaut in the 14th century.


Main articles: Cyclic Mass or Cantus firmus Mass, Paraphrase Mass, Parody Mass

The musical setting of the Ordinary of the Mass was the principal large-scale form of the Renaissance. The earliest complete settings date from the 14th century, with the most famous example being the Messe de Nostre Dame of Guillaume de Machaut. Individual movements of the Mass, and especially pairs of movements (such as Gloria-Credo pairs, or Sanctus-Agnus pairs), were commonly composed during the 14th and early 15th centuries. Complete Masses by a single composer were the norm by the middle of the 15th century, and the form of the Mass, with the possibilities for large-scale structure inherent in its multiple movement format, was the main focus of composers within the area of sacred music; it was not to be eclipsed until the motet and related forms became more popular in the first decades of the 16th century.

Most 15th century Masses were based on a cantus firmus, usually from a Gregorian chant, and most commonly put in the tenor voice. The cantus firmus sometimes appeared simultaneously in other voices, using a variety of contrapuntal techniques. Later in the century, composers such as Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem, and Jacob Obrecht, used secular tunes for cantus firmi. This practice was accepted with little controversy until prohibited by the Council of Trent in 1562. In particular, the song L'homme armé has a long history with composers; more than 40 separate Mass settings exist.

Other techniques for organizing the cyclic Mass evolved by the beginning of the 16th century, including the paraphrase technique, in which the cantus firmus was elaborated and ornamented, and the parody technique, in which several voices of a polyphonic source, not just one, were incorporated into the texture of the Mass. Paraphrase and parody supplanted cantus-firmus as the techniques of choice in the 16th century: Palestrina alone wrote 51 parody masses.

Yet another technique used to organize the multiple movements of a Mass was canon. The earliest Masses based entirely on canon are Johannes Ockeghem's Missa prolationum, in which each movement is a prolation canon on a freely-composed tune, and the Missa L'homme armé of Guillaume Faugues, which is also entirely canonic but also uses the famous tune L'homme armé throughout. Pierre de La Rue wrote four separate canonic masses based on plainchant, and one of Josquin des Prez's mature Masses, the Missa Ad fugam, is entirely canonic and free of borrowed material.[3]

The Missa Sine nomine, literally "Mass without a name", refers to a Mass written on freely composed material. Sometimes these Masses were named for other things, such as Palestrina's famous Missa Papae Marcelli, the Mass of Pope Marcellus, and many times they were canonic Masses, as in Josquin's Missa Sine nomine.

Many famous and influential masses were composed by Josquin des Prez, the single most influential composer of the middle Renaissance. At the end of the 16th century, prominent representatives of a cappella choral counterpoint included the Englishman William Byrd, the Castilian Tomás Luis de Victoria and the Roman Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose Mass for Pope Marcellus is sometimes credited with saving polyphony from the censure of the Council of Trent. By the time of Palestrina, however, most composers outside of Rome were using other forms for their primary creative outlet for expression in the realm of sacred music, principally the motet and the madrigale spirituale; composers such as the members of the Venetian School preferred the possibilities inherent in the new forms. Other composers, such as Orlande de Lassus, working in Munich and comfortably distant from the conservative influence of the Council of Trent, continued to write Parody Masses on secular songs. Monteverdi composed Masses in stile antico, the Missa in illo tempore was published in 1610, one Messa a 4 da cappella in 1641 as part of Selva morale e spirituale along with single movements of the Mass in stile concertato, another Messa a 4 da cappella was published after his death, in 1650.

Baroque through Romantic

The early Baroque era initiated stylistic changes which led to increasing dispartity between masses written entirely in the traditional polyphonic manner (stile antico), whose principal advancements were the use of the basso continuo and the gradual adoption of a wider harmonic vocabulary, and the mass in modern style with solo voices and instrumental obbligatos. Composers such as Henri Dumont (1610–1684) continued to compose plainsong settings, distinct from and more elaborate than the earlier Gregorian chants.[4]

A further disparity arose between the missa solemnis and the missa brevis, a more compact setting. Composers like Fux in the 18th century continued to cultivate the stile antico mass, which was suitable for use on weekdays and at times when orchestral masses were not practical or appropriate, and in 19th century Germany the Cecilian movement kept the tradition alive. The Italian style cultivated orchestral masses including soloists, chorus and obbligato instruments, spread to the German-speaking Catholic countries north of the Alps, and used instruments for color and created dialogues between solo voices and chorus that was to become characteristic of the 18th century Viennese style. The so called “Neapolitan” or “cantata” mass style also had much influence on 18th century mass composition with its short sections set as self-contained solo arias and choruses in a variety of styles.[5]

The 18th century Viennese mass combines operatic elements from the cantata mass with a trend in the symphony and concerto to organize choral movements. The large scale masses of the first half of the century still have Glorias and Credos divided into many movements, unlike smaller masses for ordinary churches. Many of Mozart’s masses are in missa brevis form, as are some of Haydn’s early ones. Later masses, especially of Haydn, are of symphonic structure, with long sections divided into fewer movements, organized like a symphony, with soloists used as an ensemble rather than as individuals. The distinction between concert masses and those intended for liturgical use also comes into play as the 19th century progressed.[5]

Major works

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.

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

20th and 21st century

By the end of the 19th century composers were combining modern elements with the characteristics of Renaissance polyphony and plainchant, which continued to influence 20th century composeres, possibly fueled by the Motu Proprio (1903) of Pope Pius X. The revival of choral celebration of Holy Communion in the Anglican Church in the late 19th century marked the beginning several liturgical settings of Mass texts in English, particularly for choir and organ.[6] The movement for liturgical reform has resulted in revised forms of the Mass, making it more functional by using a variety of accessible styles, popular or ethnic, and using new methods such as refrain and response to encourage congregational involvement.[6] The requirements of a pastoral liturgy offered little opportunity for musical creativity at the end of the 20th century, creating a seemingly permanent tension between the liturgical purpose and creative treatment of the texts of the Mass Ordinary.

Major Works

20th century

In the 20th century, composers continued to write masses, in an even wider diversity of style, form and function than before.

21st century

Masses written for the Anglican liturgy

These are more often known as 'Communion Services', and differ not only in that they are settings of English words, but also, as mentioned above, in that the Gloria usually forms the last movement. Sometimes the Kyrie movement takes the form of sung responses to the Ten Commandments, 1 to 9 being followed by the words 'Lord have mercy upon us and incline our hearts to keep this law', and the tenth by 'Lord have mercy upon us and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee'. Since the texts of the 'Benedictus qui venit' and the 'Agnus Dei' do not actually feature in the liturgy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, these movements are often missing from some of the earlier Anglican settings. Charles Villiers Stanford composed a Benedictus and Agnus in the key of F major which was published separately to complete his service in C.

With reforms in the Anglican liturgy, the movements are now usually sung in the same order that they are in the Roman Catholic rite, leading, according to some, to the musical integrity of the settings being somewhat compromised.[citation needed] Choral settings of the Creed, the most substantial movement, are rarely performed in Anglican cathedrals now.

Well known Anglican settings of the Mass, which may be found in the repertoire of many English cathedrals are:

Musical reforms of Pius X

Pope St. Pius X initiated many regulations reforming the liturgical music of the Mass in the early 20th century. He felt that some of the Masses composed by the famous post-Renaissance composers were too long and often more appropriate for a theatrical rather than a church setting. He advocated primarily Gregorian plainchant 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 percussive instruments should be forbidden
  • That ideally the choir should be all male
  • That the congregation itself should ideally be trained to sing the various modes of Gregorian chant along with the choir.

These regulations carry little if any weight today, especially after the changes of the Second Vatican Council. Quite recently, Pope Benedict XVI has encouraged a return to chant as the primary music of the liturgy, as this is explicitly mentioned in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, specifically Sacrosanctum Concilium 116.[7]

Missa Brevis (Short Mass)

In addition, a number of composers wrote shorter masses, Missae Breves, shorter in words or duration.

See also


  • Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0-393-09530-4
  • Harold Gleason and Warren Becker, Music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Music Literature Outlines Series I). Bloomington, Indiana. Frangipani Press, 1986. ISBN 0-89917-034-X
  • Lewis Lockwood, "Mass." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2
  • The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Randel. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-674-61525-5
  • M. Jennifer Bloxham, "Masses on Polyphonic Songs", in Robert Scherr, ed., The Josquin Companion. Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-19-816335-5
  • McKinnon, James W. et al. “Mass.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.
  •  "Music of the Mass". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  • Roche, Elizabeth and Alex Lingas. “Mass.” The Oxford Companion to Music. Ed. Alison Latham. Oxford Music Online.


  1. ^ Harvard Dictionary of Music, p. 472.
  2. ^ Lockwood, "Mass", Grove (1980)
  3. ^ Bloxham, p. 196
  4. ^ Benjamin van Wye, Review of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Messe pour le Port-Royal, in Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music 1999
  5. ^ a b Roche, Elizabeth and Alex Lingas. “Mass.” The Oxford Companion to Music. Ed. Alison Latham. Oxford Music Online.
  6. ^ a b McKinnon, James W. et al. “Mass.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.
  7. ^ Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium

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