In this post I will list the Renaissance and post-Renaissance mass compositions I’ve listened to, which include some 20th century neo-Renaissance pieces. All the compositions I’ve listened to are linked to my post for Research Point 1.1 here.
Polyphonic Renaissance Mass Pieces
Josquin des Prez – Missa Pange Lingua (c. 1515)
Josquin wrote around 20 cyclic masses, making a compendium of all techniques of mass composition from his time, while introducing several new ones. As listening to all of them would take up too much time, I decided to focus on one of them. While I wanted to take a look at the new technique of solmization syllables, such as in his famous Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae, where the cantus firmus is based on the syllables of the Duke’s name, in the end, I decided to take a look at Missa Pange lingua. Beside the use of imitation, what I found the most interesting is the way the Gregorian hymn Pange lingua has been transformed under the paraphrasing hand of Josquin, with the work completely organized around its melodic material, each movement with the motto beginning, being a type of variation and fantasy on the hymn. I was really absorbed to comparing the original hymn to its modified treatment, especially in Agnus Dei – the movement I enjoyed the most. I believe Josquin really put the Gregorian melody into the contemporary context of his time. In this sense, this Ordinary mass cycle shows how polyphonic techniques at the time weren’t used just as showcases of preferred musical taste with a set of compositional rules, but also a tool by which musicians could engage with the now detached old gems of music, under the new consideration that is supplied with novel techniques. I truly enjoy this type of historical interactions when studying the stylistic approach to music.
Orlando di Lasso – Missa super ‘Osculetur me’ (1582)
Although Palestrina is known as the hallmark of the Renaissance polyphonic mass compositions, I decided to also check out Lasso’s output of mass music, especially since he wrote around 60 of them. What I found very interesting about this mass is its use of the double-choir antiphonal music, reminiscent of the Venetian style of polychoral techniques, perhaps even being its precursor. I really tried to have my ears spot the differences in sonority between passages for one choir and those with both. However, I found this very difficult to accomplish, probably because my ears, used to the modern music, aren’t sensitive enough to spot these as contrasts, but only as barely-noticeable dissimilarities.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli (c. 1562)
Palestrina, of course, made the biggest achievements in the field of mass composition, writing for all types of masses, influencing many future generations with his technical accomplishments. I have heard several of his mass pieces, and here decided to finally to listen to Missa Papae Marcelli, as it was historically significant when the Council of Trent raised the concerns over polyphonic music. The mass is based on the freely composed new material. What enjoyed the most was the contrast between the Credo and Gloria movements in the homophonic and declamatory style with block chords, and Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei in the florid, imitative style. Used here for the first time, this is a feature that will appear in all Palestrina’s subsequent masses.
Claudio Monteverdi – Missa in illo tempore (1610) and Gloria a 7 voci (1640/1641)
I chose these two mass compositions by Monterverdi to compare the two styles of music that have appeared in Baroque music – stile antico and stile moderno. Indeed, the difference is gigantic. Missa in illo tempore is truly reminiscent of Palestrina’s style, with much everything the same, only organs added and clearer cadences, while Gloria a 7 voci, sounds very baroque, with many instrumental flourishes and continuo. It is interesting how one genre of music, in this case, the mass, can survive both as the practice that is preserving the old traditions, and as the practice that looks into the future.
Johann Sebastian Bach – Mass in B minor (1749)
Continuing from above and what I stated about the two styles of mass music, I found it very interesting how Bach united the stile antico and stile moderno in a single composition, Mass in B minor – unique in the history music. This is why I really enjoyed this enormous piece, whose structure is like a huge mosaic of stile antico and stile moderno, Palestrina and concertato, choral and instrumental, as well as, solo and ensemble writing. Truly incredible!
Franz Liszt – Missa Solennis, S. 9 (1855-58)
I didn’t listen to much mass music from other periods, but decided to look at one of Listz’s mass compositions, largely because, for some reason, I would have expected him the least to have attempted to write in this genre. I really liked the colossal nature of this large-scale choral piece, and also the addition of a new and different kind of cyclical gesture to the ones used before – the recapitulation of Credo and Gloria, followed by the opening of Kyrie returning at the end of Agnus Dei. In reading about it, I also found out that in the melodic sense, there is a strong influence from verbunkos – the Hungarian dance and music genre. Along this way, Liszt also added culture identity to his mass.
Francis Poulenc – Mass in G major (1937)
This is one of the neo-Renaissance mass compositions written in the 20th century. I really liked the modern sound, tonality, harmony, rhythm and changing time signatures, with certain parts resembling, while others completely remote from the old Renaissance tradition. Once again, it is interesting how mass as a musical genre presented a distinct frame for composers to interact with the music of other historical periods, being quite a unique field of intertextuality in music. In this case, I found the interaction to be one of the most captivating, probably because I never imagined that a 20th century composer could approach the mass in the same way as the Renaissance composers, especially in the sense of spirituality, with the Avant-garde music pushing our perception to its limits with more and more bizarre sonorities – something that I would even refer to as anti-spiritual.
In conclusion, I believe I have done a great range of listening for mass music – from the earliest monophonic instances to the 20th century neo-Renaissance compositions. I have truly learned a lot, and feel like my ears are getting more and more in-tune with recognizing and analyzing different styles of music from different historical periods, even all the way to the more sophisticated listening, as I’ve noted in the first part of the mass compositions I’ve listed. Lastly, I really enjoyed this genre and hope to perhaps compose at least one movement of mass item in the future, since in the contemporary world, unfortunately, the composing of mass music has been largely abandoned and rarely taken up.