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Mass, In Music

MASS, IN MUSIC: i. Polyphonic Masses. The composition of musical settings of the Mass plays a part in the history of music which is of special importance up to and including the 16th century. As an art-form the musical Mass is governed to a peculiar degree by the structure of its text. It so happens that the supremely important parts of the Mass are those which have the smallest number of words, namely the Kyrie, important as being the opening prayer; the Sanctus and Benediclus, embodying the central acts and ideas of the service; and the Agnus Dei, the prayer with which it concludes. The 16th-century methods were specially fitted for highly developed music when words were few and embodied ideas of such important emotional significance or finality that they could be constantly repeated without losing force. Now the texts of the Gloria and Credo were more voluminous than any others which 16th-century composers attempted to handle in a continuous scheme. The practical limits of the church service made it impossible to break them up by setting each clause to a separate movement, a method by which 16th-century music composers contrived to set psalms and other long texts to compositions lasting an hour or longer. Accordingly, Palestrina and his great contemporaries and predecessors treated the Gloria and Credo in a style midway in polyphonic organization and rhythmic breadth between that of the elaborate motet (adopted in the Sanctus) and the homophonic reciting style of the Litany. The various ways in which this special style could be modified by the scale of the work, and contrasted with the broader and more elaborate parts, gave the Mass (even in its merely technical aspects) a range which made it to the 16th-century composer what the symphony is to the great instrumental classics. Moreover, as being inseparably associated with the highest act of worship, it inspired composers in direct proportion to their piety and depth of mind. Of course there were many false methods of attacking the art-problem, and many other relationships, true and false, between the complexity of the settings of the various parts of the Mass and of motets. The story of the action of the council of Trent on the subject of corruption of church music is told elsewhere (see Music and PALESTRINA); and it has been recently paralleled by a decree of Pope Pius X., which has restored the 16th-century polyphonic Mass to a permanent place in the Roman Catholic Church music.

2. Instrumental Masses in the Neapolitan Form. The next definite stage in the musical history of the Mass was attained by the Neapolitan composers who were first to reach musical coherence after the monodic revolution at the beginning of the 17th century. The fruit of their efforts came to maturity in the Masses of Mozart and Haydn. By this time the resources of music were such that the long and varied text of the Gloria and Credo inevitably either overbalanced the scheme or met with an obviously perfunctory treatment. It is almost impossible, without asceticism of a radically inartistic kind, to treat with the resources of instrumental music and free harmony such passages as that from the Crucifixus to the Resurrexii, without an emotional contrast which inevitably throws any natural treatment of the Sanctus into the background, and makes the Agnus Dei an inadequate conclusion to the musical scheme. So unfavourable were the conditions of 18th-century music for the formation of a good ecclesiastical style that only a very small proportion of Mozart's and Haydn's Mass music may be said to represent their ideas of religious music at all. The best features of their Masses are those that combine faithfulness to the Neapolitan forms with a contrapuntal richness such as no Neapo- litan composer ever achieved. Thus Mozart's most perfect as well as most ecclesiastical example is his extremely terse Mass in F, written at the age of seventeen, which is scored simply for fourpart chorus and solo voices accompanied by the organ with a largely independent bass and by two violins mostly in independent real parts. This scheme, with the addition of a pair of trumpets and drums and, occasionally, oboes, forms the normal orchestra of iSth-century Masses developed or degenerated from this model. Trombones often played with the three lower Voices, a practice of high antiquity surviving from a time when there were soprano trombones or cornelti (Zincken, a sort of treble serpent) to play with the sopranos.

3. Symphonic Masses. The enormous dramatic development in the symphonic music of Beethoven made the problem of the Mass with orchestral accompaniment almost insoluble. This makes it all the more remarkable that Beethoven's second and only important Mass (in D, Op. 123) is not only the most dramatic ever penned but is, perhaps, the last classical Mass that is thoughtfully based upon the liturgy, and is not a mere musical setting of what happens to be a liturgic text. It was intended for the installation of Beethoven's friend, the archduke Rudolph, as archbishop of Olmiitz; and, though not ready until two years after that occasion, it shows the most careful consideration of the meaning of a church service, no doubt of altogether exceptional length and pomp, but by no means impossible for its unique occasion. Immense as was Beethoven's dramatic force, it was equalled by his power of sublime repose; and he was accordingly able once more to put the supreme moment of the music where the service requires it to be, viz. in the Sanctus and Benedictus. In the Agnus Dei the circumstances of the time gave him something special to say which has never so imperatively demanded utterance since. Europe had been shattered by the Napoleonic wars. Beethoven read the final prayer of the Mass as a " prayer for inward and outward peace," and, giving it that title, organized it on the basis of a contrast between terrible martial sounds and the triumph of peaceful themes, in a scheme none the less spiritual and sublime because those who first heard it had derived their notions of the horror of war from living in Vienna during its bombardment. Critics who have lived in London during the relief of Mafeking have blamed Beethoven for his realism.

Schubert's Masses show rather the influence of Beethoven's not very impressive first Mass, which they easily surpass in interest, though they rather pathetically show an ignorance of the meaning of the Latin words. The last two Masses are later than Beethoven's Mass in D and contain many remarkable passages. It is evident from them that a dramatic treatment of the Agnus Dei was " in the air"; all the more so, since Schubert does not imitate Beethoven's realism.

4. Lutheran Masses. Music with Latin words is not excluded from the Lutheran Church, and the Kyrie and Gloria are frequently sung in succession and entitled a Mass. Thus the Four Short Masses of Bach are called short, not because they are on a small scale, which is far from being the case, but because they consist only of the Kyrie and Gloria. Bach's method is to treat each clause of his text as a separate movement, alternating choruses with groups of arias; a method which was independently adopted by Mozart in those larger masses in which he transcends the Neapolitan type, such as the great unfinished Mass in C minor. This method, in the case of an entire Mass, results in a length far too great for a Roman Catholic service; and Bach's B minor Mass, which is such a setting of the entire test, must be regarded as a kind of oratorio. It thus has obviously nothing to do with the Roman liturgy; but as an independent setting of the text it is one of the most sublime and profoundly religious works in all art; and its singular perfection as a design is nowhere more evident than in its numerous adaptations of earlier works.

The most interesting of all these adaptations is the setting of the words: " Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum et vitam venturi saeculi. AMEN." Obviously the greatest difficulty in any elaborate instrumental setting of the Credo is the inevitable anti-climax after the Resurrexit. Bach contrives to give this anti-climax a definite artistic value; all the more from the fact that his Crucifixus and Resurrexit, and the contrast between them, are among the most sublime and directly impressive things in all music. To the end of his Resurrexit chorus he appends an orchestral ritornello, summing up the material of the chorus in the most formal possible way, and thereby utterly destroying all sense of finality as a member of a large group, while at the same time not in the least impairing the force and contrast of the whole that contrast having ineffaceably asserted itself at the moment when it occurred. After this the aria " Et in spiritum sanctum," in which the next dogmatic clauses are enshrined like relics in a casket, furnishes a beautiful decorative design on which the listener can repose his mind; and then comes [he voluminous ecclesiastical fugue, Confiteor unum baplisma, leading, as through the door and world-wide spaces of the Catholic Church, to that veil which is not all darkness to the eye of faith. At the words " Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum " the music plunges suddenly into a slow series of some of the most sublime and mysterious modulations ever written, until it breaks out as suddenly into a vivace e allegro of broad but terse design, which comes to its climax very rapidly and ends as abruptly as possible, the last chord being carefully written as a short note without a pause. This gives the utmost possible effect of finality to the whole Credo, and contrasts admirably with the coldly formal instrumental end of the Resurrexit three movements further back. Now, such subtleties seem as if they must be unconscious on the part of the composer; yet here Bach is so far aware of his reasons that his vivace e allegro is an arrangement of the second chorus of a church cantata, Colt man lobet dich in der Slille; and in the cantata the chorus has introductory and final symphonies and a middle section with a da capo I 5. The Requiem. The Missa pro defunctis or Requiem Mass has a far less definite musical history than the ordinary Mass; and such special musical forms as it has produced have little in common with each other. The text of the Dies Irae so imperatively demands either a very dramatic elaboration or none at all, that even in the 16th century it could not possibly be set to continuous music on the lines of the Gloria and Credo. Fortunately, however, the Gregorian canto fermo associated with it is of exceptional beauty and symmetry; and the great 16th century masters either, like Palestrina, left it to be sung as plain-chant, or obviated all occasion for dramatic expression by setting it in versicles (like their settings of the Magnificat and other canticles) for two groups of voices alternatively, or for the choir in alternation with the plain chant of the priests.

With modern orchestral conditions the text seems positively to demand an unecclesiastical, not to say sensational, style, and probably the only instrumental Requiem Masses which can be said to be great church music are the sublime unfinished work of Mozart (the antecedents of which would be a very interesting subject) and the two beautiful works by Cherubini. These latter, however, tend to be funereal rather than uplifting. The only other artistic solution of the problem is to follow Berlioz, Verdi and Dvorak in the complete renunciation of all ecclesiastical style.

Brahms's Deutsches requiem has nothing to do with the Mass for the dead, being simply a large choral work on a text compiled from the Bible by the composer. (D. F. T.)

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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