Posted in Project 2: Palestrina and the Mass

Research Point 1.1, Part A3: Post-Renaissance Mass

This is the final section of the first part of the research, the task of which is to write about mass music in its historical, stylistic and other contexts. While the first post was dedicated to the early monophonic mass, and the second to the polyphonic mass, here, I will describe how the Renaissance mass affected the music of subsequent generations, tracing its legacy from Baroque to Modern period. While I followed the chronology rather strictly in the previous two posts, here the ordering will be very loose, due to my predominantly stylistically-driven considerations.

At the beginning 17th century, the music began transitioning from Renaissance to Baroque, and Italy took the lead as the place of both the preservation of the old and the creation of the new practices, with three distinct traditions of mass writing taking hold. (Atlas, 2006: 119) The preservation of old, contrapuntal a capella conventions associated with Palestrina was named stile antico, while the music composed in the new practice was named stile moderno, and this stylistic awareness paved way for the development of the concept of style consciousness, which became a defining premise of Baroque music. (Buelow, 2004: 41)

Stile antico, with its controlled treatment of dissonance, was primarily based in Rome (Fig. 1), the center of musical conservatism, continued by composers such as Bernardi, Draghi and Lotti. (Apel, 1969: 509) However, it still filtered Palestrina’s style through ‘seventeenth-century ears’, where the music now showcased a clearer sense of tonality and cadences, surface and harmonic rhythm. (Atlas, 2006: 119) Not only that, but as Arnold and Harper (2001) stated, although the mass compositions are frequently designated as a cappella, this does not imply unaccompanied performance, but rather, the organ frequently supported the voices, further emphasizing the harmonic elements of the composition.


Fig. 1. View of Rome with Saint Peter’s and the Castel Sant’Angelo Seen from Tiber (Marlow, c. 1721–67)

The contrapuntal a capella stile antico continues to exist in music to this day, with the successive generations considerably varying their understanding of Palestrina’s style (Randel, 2003: 629), which as Taruskin (2010) indicated, has been ‘timelessly embalmed’, stepping out of history into eternity. Stylistically, although some composers from the Naepolitan School continued writing mass music in stile antico (many though wrote in a new style called stilus mixus) (Arnold and Harper, 2001), it existed mostly in the periphery, being briefly brought back into the spotlight in the 19th century Romanticism, when Guiseppe Baini’s (Fig. 2, left) almost hero-like worship of Palestrina sparked the attention of the musicians and general public, and also the Caecilian movement, that emphasized the revival of old church music (Apel, 1969: 638), with stile antico considered as “an effective and immediate means of signifying religiosity”. (Atlas, 2006: 119-120) This Romantic nostalgia continued even at the beginning of 20th century, when Pope Pius X (Fig. 2, right) issued motu proprio, criticizing the current state in church composition, and Palestrina became the focus of neo-Renaissance movement (Shrock, 2017: 56-57), with composers such as Howells, Williams, Poulenc and Hindermith writing their neo-Renaissance masses.

Fig. 2. Guiseppe Baini (left) and Pope Pius X (right)

However, as Taruskin (2010) points out, stile antico assumed a more central role as an important aspect of the study of counterpoint by Joseph Fux (Fig. 3, left), who published a treatise called Gradus ad Parnassum in 1725, reducing the style to a concise set of rules and diving it into five species, which the exercises in this part of the course are based on. In this sense, more than being artificially preserved style of Roman School music, stile antico became the basic training for composers. More recently, in 20th Century, Knud Jeppesen (Fig. 3, right) gave a fresh description of Palestrina’s style, becoming a standard point of reference in the music conservatories across the world.

Fig. 3. Joseph Fux (left) and Knud Jeppesen (right)

Back to the 17th century, at the time, there was also a development of the polychoral tradition – the masses with multiple choirs called cori spezzati. Roman school, in writing the polychoral mass turned, of course, to Palestrina’s polychoral motets and his use of antiphonal writing even within a single choir. (Atlas, 2006: 120) The use of multiple choirs with identical scoring, separated spatially, following the stile antico procedures, developed into what was called ‘Colossal Baroque’, a monumental style, in which the number of voices was sometimes increased to as many as forty-eight. Although the Roman composers, such as Orazio Benevolo, were skilled contrapuntists, in sustaining the massive number of voices in the polychoral setting, the Roman composers tended toward a more homophonic, block-chord sonority that also served to demonstrate the grandeur of the post-Tridentine Church.

On the other hand, in Venice (Fig. 4), the mass used to be a secondary form to the grand, multi-choir motet. In composing the polychoral mass, Venetians turned to the Renaissance composer Giovani Gabrieli (Fig. 5), who wrote only two mass compositions, setting parts of the Ordinary in the sonorities of the Venetian School, with “the floating lines of Netherlandish style for a concertato-like mixture of colors – antiphonal choirs, solo voices, and instruments – rugged rhythms, sharply etched motives and a basso seguente for the organ.” (Atlas, 2006: 115) Above all, the Venetians favored the dramatic and affective contrasts of sonorities in the polychoral setting, what became the new concertato tradition in stile moderno, which was to Venice, what the monumental polychoral stile antico mass was to Rome. At first, the sense of contrast was limited to a group of solo voices against a ripieno choir with the basso continuo. Soon, however, the mixed concertato mass with added instruments took over, being the first to show idiomatic writing for instruments, virtuoso soloists and a less skilled choir (Arnold and Harper, 2001), with the instruments taking obbligato role, often with sinfonia-like ritornellos. For example, Monoteverdi’s Gloria a 7 voci written for Mass of Thanksgiving, contains transitions between soloistic and tutti, choral and instrumental writing. (Atlas, 2006: 120).


Fig. 4. Bucentaur’s return to the pier by the Palazzo Ducale (Canaletto, c. 1727-1729)

Compared to the Venice, where the mixed polychoral concertato style led to the ideas that will contribute to formation of many baroque forms, such as chorale cantata, concerto grosso and sonata, there was certain ‘inexpressiveness and divorce’ (Arnold and Harper, 2001) from the contemporary musical practice in the Roman School, however, this doesn’t mean that concertanto masses never appeared, but rather, despite the small-scale extent, Rome indeed had its own, brief experimentation with the mass with new musical devices, such as basso continuo, and even ostinato bass, where the cori spizzata came to exist for smaller number of voices, resulting in a few-voice concertante mass called concertato alla Romana (Carver, 1988: 124-125), and there is also archival evidence of instruments being used with voices on occasion in Roman churches, although it never reached the independent role of the Venetian School. (Arnold and Harper, 2001)

It is the German and Austrian composers that continued all the mass types that were invented in Italy, with stile antico cultivated in Southern Germany and Austria in particular. (Atlas, 2006: 122) It is only the few-voice conceretante style, that had no considerable mass repertory, being used instead for motets (Arnold and Harper, 2001), while both types of polychoral tradition – Venetian concertante and Roman colossal mass, were further expanded ; the example of former being Kerll’s Missa a 3 chori, constituted of voices with pairs of clarinos, cornetts, three trombones, strings and continuo (Atlas, 2006: 122), and the example of latter being Biber’s Missa Salisburgensis, with a massive number of 53 voices. All these forms opened the road for Bach’s Mass in B minor, which shows an incredible mixture of all aforementioned styles with his own, novel musical idioms, and already in Kyrie, Bach juxtaposed the opening grandiose concertato style choral movement with the stile antico in the closing choral movement, while the central part of Christe lies a duet for two sopranos with violin accompaniment.

Although many subsequent composers experimented with the mass, including Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, and the 20th-century composers I’ve mentioned before among others, each adding unique novelties from their contemporary musical climate, yet as Arnold and Harper (2001) proposed, the high tension between the liturgical purpose and creative treatment of the texts of the Mass items, apparent since the 16th century, may have ‘fractured permanently’ the mass music that has reached the contemporary setting. However, I would propose that the future of mass music still remains to be seen, as this type of tension existed long before, perhaps ever since the inclusion of music into the Eucharist celebration, but managed to produce a rich history and tradition, which highly influenced the development of Western music as a whole, inextricably intertwined and tangled with the evolution of the musical notation, polyphony, different stylistic genres and forms, etc., among many other things.

In conclusion, I believe I have offered quite an extensive and in-depth research on the history of mass music, its origination, expansion and its main musical forms through these three blog posts, with a particular focus on the polyphony and Renaissance, as the two were the chief topics this chapter of the course was centered on. To see the mass compositions I’ve listened to, see my listening log. Lastly, this research point is concluded with the second part – a short article regarding the interplays between music and religion. Click here to read it.

List of Illustrations:

Figure 1. Marlow, W. (c. 1721–67) View of Rome with Saint Peter’s and the Castel Sant’Angelo Seen from Tiber. Private Collection, from the Estate of Christian B. Peper. At: (Accessed on 23rd April 2018).

Figure 2. Guiseppe Baini (left), n. a. (c. 1830) [Wikimedia commons, public domain] At: (Accessed on 24th April 2018), and Pope Pius X (right), Bain News Service (1910) Bain Collection, Library of Congress. At: (Accessed on 24th April 2018).

Figure 3. Joseph Fux (left), Buck, N. (1717) Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Wien. [Wikimedia commons, public domain] At: (Accessed 24th April 2018), and Knud Jeppesen (right) [Website, public domain] At: (Accessed on 24th April 2018).

Figure 4. Canaletto  (c. 1727-1729) Bucentaur’s return to the pier by the Palazzo Ducale. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. [Online] At: (Accessed on 23rd April 2018)


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

Arnold, D. and Harper, J. (2001) ‘1600-2000’ In: Mass. [Online] Grove Music Online. At: (Accessed on 20th April 2018)

Atlas, A. W. (2006) ‘Music for the Mass’ In: Haar, J. (ed.) European Music, 1520-1640. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. pp. 101-129.

Buelow, G. J. (2004) A History of Baroque Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Carver, A. F. (1988) Cori Spezzati: Volume 1, The Development of Sacred Polychoral Music to the Time of Schutz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Randel, D. M. (ed.) (2003) The Harvard Dictionary of Music. (4th ed.) Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Shrock, D. (2017) Choral Monuments: Studies of Eleven Choral Masterworks. New York: Oxford University Press.

Taruskin, R. (2010) ‘Cryogenics’ In: Taruskin, R. The Oxford History of Western Music. [Online] Oxford University Press. At: (Accessed on 20th April 2018)

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