Posted in Project 2: Palestrina and the Mass, Uncategorized

Research Point 1.1, Part A1: Early Monophonic Mass

The first part of this research point is learning more about the mass, its history and musical structure. It is a very exciting topic for me, since I could link in my old research posts from composing music 1 unit, which allowed me to go over this extensive subject in much detail. As such, due to the depth of my research, I will divide this point into several posts. In this section, I will talk about the early monophonic mass, with a particular focus on the Gregorian chant.

Mass is the celebration and commemoration of the Last Supper, also called Eucharist. The name is derived from the Latin words ‘Ite, missa est’, translated as ‘Depart, the congregation is dismissed’, which appears at the end of the service as the dismissal of the assembly. However, there are some debates over the semantics of this vesicle and whether it simply designates the dismissal of the congregation or indicates a deeper meaning, as Pope Benedict XVI and the catechism referred to it in connection to the word missio – the mission. (Suerte Felipe, 2010: 90-93) In this regard, the vesicle is understood as the missionary nature of Christianity, denoting that the faithful are sent to put into practice what they have learned, and use the graces they have received during the liturgy in their daily lives.

Whichever the case, the origins of the mass is in the evening ceremonial meals, called agape or love feast. (Fig. 1) I wrote about this topic in a research for composing music 1 unit here. As I have indicated there, this type of meal was usually accompanied by singing, however, not only related to the Jewish ceremonial meals, but was also prevalent in the overall cultural context of the time, in other words, present in other religious settings, such as pagan cults. Due to some abuses described by Paul at Corinth, however, the Eucharist divorced from the evening meal, becoming a Sunday morning celebration.


Fig. 1. Fresco of Agape feast (2006)

As McKinnon (2001) indicated, the singing at the time wasn’t a discrete ritual act, and there was no uniformity in the musical practice, which was collection of geographically diverse oral traditions, calling the variety its only constant quality. Since there was a strong desire for early Christians to define themselves against the Jewish tradition, they avoided the incorporation of Davidic psalms, concentrating their text-centered and monophonic musical output instead, on the responses and spontaneous singing of newly composed and Christological hymns. However, with the rise of desert monasticism of Egypt and Palestine (which I also mention in the post linked above for agape), around second and third centuries, the psalms, which helped monks and nuns maintain a meditative state, were re-appropriated as a core set of musical texts, with the continuous psalmody forming the Monastic Office. (McKinnon, 1994: 506-507) The enthusiasm for psalmody also reached the urban centers, where it became the Cathedral Office, also influencing the celebration of the Eucharist, being incorporated in the pre-Eucharist readings and during the distribution of Eucharistic elements. (519-520)

Reaching the fourth century, Christianity became cultus publicus and then the official religion of the Roman Empire, with the mass unifying with the public Roman Rite. (McFarland, 2011: 14) As the larger size of crowds for the Sunday Eucharist emerged, this also required the invention of larger church buildings – basilicas (Fig. 2), where the mass became imperialized, adopting elements from the imperial Roman ritual, becoming more elaborate, formal and ceremonial in its new acoustical environment. These developments brought about the liturgical homogenization, where the variety was no longer the rule (Bradshaw, 1996). Not only was the mass standardized, but in the process of Romanization that began in the Carolingian period, the hegemony of the Gregorian chant tradition over the other local chant traditions, such as Gallican, Beneventan and other, was established in the West. (I wrote about this topic here.)


Fig. 2. Basilica Maxentius, 306-312 CE

In the Gregorian chant, the wave of enthusiasm for the Davidic psalms continued, and although the psalms became increasingly incorporated into the mass, this was done in a conscious, selective way. The selectivity in singing of psalmody brought about the future development of the cycle of Proper chants for the mass and the establishment of the schola cantorum. Proper of the Mass or proprium missae are a number of chant items whose texts vary from day to day. The items that have the same text every mass are called the Ordinary of the Mass or ordinarium missae. Some of these items are recited or spoken by the priest and his assistants, while other are sung by schola cantorum – the papal choir and singing school, consisted of elite group of musicians. These performers and educators gave a concentrated effort in order to create the vast repertory of Proper chants for each day of the year. (McKinnon, 2000: 62-65)

As stated above, the cycle of Proper chants were derived selectively by the schola from the psalmody, with different items, such as Introit, having previously been called psalmus ad introitum, or communion, as psalmus ad communionem, etc. Along these lines, the Proper chants weren’t only musically more interesting, but also older than the Ordinary. In fact, around 500AD, the mass consisted mostly of the proper chants. (Apel, 1969: 507) The Ordinary was gradually introduced, developing from the litany and acclamatory forms through the aforementioned process of liturgical homogenization. They were adopted in stable form and assigned liturgical positions during the Carolingian period, when the acclamations – laudes (Fig. 3), such as those in the civic ceremonials, were very popular, and together with the litanies, in the hand of Franks, was an accomplished musical form in its own right. (Crocker, 1986: 26-27) In this sense, the Ordinary chants resulted from this new enthusiasm for the composing, as well as, singing of laudes and litanies, suited for the participation of whole Frankish congregation.


Fig. 3. Example of laude in Gregorian neumatic notation

Below is a video example of laude regiae:

The ordinary items were organized into eighteen cycles called Kyriale in the 13th century, each assigned to a specific category of feasts. The categories were named after the opening trope of the Kyrie. The trope is addition of new music, a type of rhetorical flourish by the Carolingians, to pre-existing Gregorian chants. Since many Ordinary chants were also newly composed by the Franks, it is very hard to tell what is the original Gregorian chant and what is the neo-Gregorian, Frankish chant or trope addition, demonstrating the extent to which the trope, melody and text intertwined in the period. Interestingly, from all the ordinary chants, Kyrie reflected most powerfully the new developments in composition and style, what Crocker (1986: 32-33) describes as “almost equivalent to writing a free fantasy” with its elaborations and melismas. Being one of the most progressive accomplishments of Frankish musicians, it produced new musical forms in structure, such as the nine-fold ABA CDC EFE in Tibi Christe supplices. 

Even though the composing of tropes continued, with the emergence of polyphony, the monophonic forms were no longer the center of development of mass music. In the next post, I will go through this new period. Take a look at it here.

List of illustrations:

Figure 1. Fresco of Agape feast (2006) [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons] At: (Accessed on 29th March 2018)

Figure 2. Basilica Maxentius, 306-312 CE, Reconstruction (Leacroft) (EC1.33) At: (Accessed on 2nd April 2018)

Figure 3. Example of laude in Gregorian neumatic notation. In: Crocker, R. L. (1986) A History of Musical Style. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. p. 26

List of references:

Apel, Willi (ed.) (1969) Harvard Dictionary of Music. (2nd ed.) Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Bradshaw, P. (1996) ‘The Homogenization of Christian Liturgy – Ancient and Modern’ In: Studia Liturgica 26 (1) pp. 1-15

Crocker, R. L. (1986) A History of Musical Style. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

McFarland, J. (2011) Announcing the Feast: The Entrance Song in the Mass of the Roman Rite. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press.

McKinnon, J. (1994) ‘Desert Monasticism and the Later Fourth-Century Psalmodic Movement’ In: Music & Letters 75 (4) pp. 505-521. Oxford University Press.

McKinnon, J. (2000) The Advent Project: The Later Seventh-Century Creation of the Roman Mass Proper. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McKinnon, J. (2001) Christian Church, music of the early. Grove Music Online. At: (Accessed on 27th March 2018)

Suerte Felipe, V.T.J. (2010) The Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, Mass… What’s In A Name? Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse

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