Posted in Part 1 - Listening ST

Mass Music, Part 1

In this part of the listening log, I will list the mass compositions I’ve listened to. I’ve included different historical periods and styles, which I’ve divided into two posts with several sections. In this post I will list the Gregorian mass chants and early polyphonic mass music. All the compositions I’ve listened to are linked to my posts for Research Point 1.1 here.

Gregorian Mass Chants

As I have mentioned in one of the posts linked above, the Gradual and Alleluia compositions were considered the musical high points of the mass and their sequences. Beside these Proper items, I have also listened to some chants from the Ordinary of the mass.

Christus factus est and Ecce Sacerdos Magnus

What I’ve found particularly interesting is how these two graduals, both in 5th mode, demonstrate the technique of centonization, being a kind of extreme case by having almost identical melodies, with only differences arising from the accommodating of the different texts. As can be expected from the form of gradual, they are very florid and melismatic.

Alleluia Dominus in Sina and Spiritus Domini

Like the graduals, both these chants are very melismatic, especially the alleluia sections with its jubilus. Although I really enjoyed the graduals, I find alleluias to be my favorite chants from Mass proper.

Christus hunc Diem and Veni Sancte Spiritus

What I observed immediately is how distinct the sequences sound from the graduals and alleluias. These two are direct continuations from the two alleluias I’ve listed above. Whereas before I did the research, I probably wouldn’t have noticed any difference, now I can clearly distinguish the stylistic discrepancies that arise from the age of composition coming from disparate periods – sequences being the new Frankish additions to the graduals and alleluias from the old Gregorian repertoire. Indeed, the stylistic dissimilarities, especially in the movement of the melody and the treatment of the text, are very audible once you know what to listen for, and I am glad I now know how to approach these specific areas of Gregorian chant, in a sense, gaining stylistic consciousness, despite the fact that many would consider Gregorian chant to be one uniform style of music.

Kyrie VIII and Kyrie Rex Aeterno – I found it very engaging, comparatively listening to the original Kyrie and its trope. Interestingly, this is the only Kyrie that hasn’t been grouped in the Kyriale by its trope. The reason may perhaps be the late origin of the trope. It includes both the addition of text and the melodic changes, making the original Kyrie much more complex. 

Early Polyphonic Mass

I tried to include all the polyphonic mass forms that appeared until Renaissance, including organum and the first Ordinary cycles, however organum compositions in particular were really difficult to find.

Organum Rex caeli, Domine (9th century)

The earliest organum were based on the sequences for alleluias and graduals. This one in the oblique form is based on the sequence Rex caeli, Domine. What I enjoyed the most was the drone effect that is characteristic for the oblique organum. 
LeoninViderunt Omnes (12th century)

This is the melismatic organum based on the Gregorian gradual Viderunt Omnes. While I enjoyed many other elements of this composition, such as the modal rhythm and the distortion of the old Gregorian chant into long notes, what I found most satisfying is the contrast between the organum and discant sections.

PerotinSederunt Principes (13th century)

Again, the piece is based on the gradual of the same name. I really liked the added voices that give the impression of larger sonorities comparing to Leonin’s organum, particularly in the opening, as well as the more defined discant sections.

Tournai Mass (14th century)

This is the first cycle of the mass Ordinary, which was a compilation of the polyphonic settings from different periods. Similarly to the comparing of the old-Gregorian with the newer Frankish additions, I really liked listening to the differences between the styles of Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei that use the older discant techniques from ars antiqua on one hand, and Credo, Gloria and Ite that use the newer ars nova devices, on the other. Today we are barely able to hear and might largely be unaware of these disparities, which is why I find this type of comparative listening very appealing for tuning my ear to the more sophisticated stylistic awareness. The items I found especially fascinating are Gloria, with the freedom in rhythm and hoquet technique in the amen section, and Ite, where the three voices sing three different texts – one singing ‘Ite, Missa est’, the other urging the rich to remember the poor, and the third with secular French text, displaying the development of the motet and isorhythm.

Guillaume de MachautMesse de Nostre Dame (1365)

This is the first cycle of the Ordinary of the Mass by a single composer. Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus dei and Ite all use the Gregorian chants for cantus firmus (Kyrie IV, Sanctus and Agnus dei XVII, and Ite is based on Sanctus VIII) in the motet style and isorhythm (I wrote about that here), while Credo and Gloria seem to have newly invented melodic material, but largely influenced by Credo and Gloria from the Tournai mass, which themselves (and perhaps even the full mass) seem to be based on new material, with no apparent chant as the foundation. I quite enjoyed the inclusion of the additional countertenor voice (in Tournai and other compilation masses, there would only be three voices) and the resonant tone it brings, while the use of isorhythm really fascinated me. It might be interesting to try to use isorhythm in my future compositions. Finally, this is the last mass that contains Ite, missa est, which all the subsequent cycles have dismissed.

Guillaume DufayMissa L’Homme Armé (late 15th century)

This is a strict tenor mass in which all the movements are based on the same melodic material – the 14th-century French folksong L’Homme arme as cantus firmus, showing the secularization which occurred in the mass music of the time. My favorite was Agnus Dei, since it contains a canonic riddle, which I find quite interesting as an idea. Perhaps I could do a research post in the future regarding the riddle culture in music.

Johannes OckeghemMissa Prolationum (late 15th century)

This mass cycle really got my attention because of the progressive canon technique, where the whole mass is organized around the double canons that grow successively in each movement, from unison to octave. What I find even more amazing is how the canons originate from the technique of mensuralism, in which all four voices start simultaneously, but by singing in different mensuration and varying lengths and values of the notes, the canons are created. At the moment, I can’t see myself using such a complex technique, but hopefully one day, I will reach a skill like that in composing.

In conclusion, I wanted to include more organum pieces, but unfortunately the sources are very scarce for them, the same for Power and Dunstable’s tenor masses. Still, I believe I have listened enough distinctive compositions with a range of different styles from the periods I’ve explored here. But more importantly, I believe with some pieces I’ve showcased a type of comparative listening that opened a path for more sophisticated stylistic awareness, which I hope to develop more in the future. Lastly, in the next post, I will list the Renaissance, post-Renaissance and neo-Renaissance masses I’ve listened to.

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