The Mass

Research notes

The musical mass is a setting of a church service to choral music. A full mass sets music to all the texts used in an ‘Ordinarium’ mass:

  • Kyrie
  • Gloria
  • Credo
  • Sanctus
  • Agnus Dei
  • Missa est / Benedictamus

The Latin words include celebratory offers of praise to God (e.g. “Gloria in excelsis deo”), and prayers such as “Kyrie Eleison” (“Lord have mercy”). They contain many examples of melisma, where a single syllable of a word is sung over several notes.

Other types of mass also exist, such as:

  • Requiem – a mass for the dead, often performed at funerals
  • Missa brevis – a subset of the full mass
  • Missa solemnis – a mass for special occasions

The earliest masses were based on Gregorian chant, named after Pope Gregory. The single line monophonic chants then moved to a form known as organum, where a second parallel line was added either a fourth or fifth below. The first known polyphonic setting of the Ordinary mass was composed by Guillaume du Machaut (c.1300-77). Each movement was typically based on a cantus firmus (fixed song). In the 15th century imitation began to be a common feature, and masses were written that had the different choral parts entering in turn on the same word.

In the early 17th century, choral masses were frequently accompanied by basso continuo and orchestral masses also started to be written. They sometimes involved solo and ensemble singing, taking influence from the Italian opera. Mozart and Haydn both wrote masses in this style.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, masses have continued to be written, often with the intention of being performed in a concert hall rather than for a church service. Sometimes they are written to celebrate or commemorate events, such as Karl Jenkins’s “The Armed Man”, commissioned by the Royal Armouries museum and dedicated to war victims in Kosovo.


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