Friday, September 30, 2016

The Ordinary of the Mass

No. 231 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


The Mass (Latin: Missa), is a choral composition that sets portions of the Eucharistic liturgy (principally that of the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and Lutheranism) to music. Most Masses are settings of the liturgy in Latin, but some are written in spoken languages - in English for the Church of England for instance.

Masses can be a cappella, 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 – take, for example, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass which interweaves Latin (and common English) Mass text with “performance” sections.

We won’t spend time in discussing the liturgical text and its part in the Mass ritual. Suffice it to say that a distinction is made between texts that recur for every mass celebration (ordinarium, ordinary), and texts that are sung depending on the occasion (proprium, proper) – a good example being for the Requiem Mass.

A Missa tota ("full Mass") consists of a musical setting of the five sections of the ordinarium: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

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). In the early 14th century, composers began writing polyphonic versions of the sections of the Ordinary and the musical setting of the Ordinary of the Mass became the principal large-scale composition of the Renaissance. Claudio Monteverdi composed Masses in stile antico (“the old style”), the Missa in illo tempore was published in 1610 and it opens our trio of “mass examples”.

The 18th-century Viennese mass combines operatic elements from the cantata mass with a trend in the symphony and concerto to organize choral movements. Many of Mozart's masses are in missa brevis (brief mass, or short mass) form, as are some of Haydn's early ones.
As an example of the classical era, I retained one of Mozart’s most popular masses, which likely acquired the nickname "Coronation" at the Imperial court in Vienna in the early nineteenth century, after becoming the preferred music for royal and imperial coronations as well as services of Thanksgiving.

Pope St. Pius X (1835-1914) 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. Stravinsky’s Mass exhibits the austere, Neoclassic, anti-Romantic aesthetic that characterizes his work from about 1923 to 1951 and also happens to be a fine example of a work that achieves Pius’ aims.

I think you will love this music too.

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