A Brief Musical History of the Mass

Chanting has surely been central to spiritual practice since our ancestors gathered in caves to summon the spirits favorable to the upcoming hunt. So when early Christiansformerly or descended from Jewsset out to establish a new religion, it is believed that they drew on traditions of Hebrew ritual chants.

As Christianity spread across the Levant and westward as far as Rome, liturgical textsin Greek and, later, Latinwould slowly evolve into a proscribed set of prayers and proclamations that would come to be known as the mass.    

The original mass is said to echo the words spoken by Jesus at The Last Supper, the Passover meal he ate with his disciples just before his arrest, trial, and execution. The word missa (or Mass) derives from his final entreaty to his disciples: 'Ite missa es': you are dismissed, as in: go out to spread the (good) word.

That, we know, they did. And with the new religion growing in popularity and numbers, its liturgy (not unsurprisingly) also grew in complexity and length. Certain texts would be reserved for different seasons or holy days, while others remained constant, to be delivered at each and every service.

This set of unchanging texts made up The Ordinary (think order, not mundane) as in the sections of the liturgy we're familiar with in masses that have been set to music.

The Ordinary is comprised of the Kyrie: Lord have mercy, and the sole vestige of liturgy recited in Greek; Gloria: Glory to God in the highest; Credo: the Nicene Creed, i.e., I believe in one God; Sanctus and Benedictus: Holy, Holy, Holy, and Blessed is He, delivered individually or rolled into one; and the final capitulation of Agnus Dei—Lamb of God.

During the first centuries of Christianity, texts of The Ordinary were delivered in call-and-response chants that varied widely from region to region. The fifth and sixth centuries saw attempts to unify both the liturgy and how prayers should be sung across the Christian world. To that end, the fifth century Schola Cantorum—the biggest papal choir during the Middle Ages, although not the first of its kind— was founded in Rome.

Four centuries later, music-loving Pope Gregory reorganized the Schola both to train church musicians and as a means of further unifying regional tradition. Enter the eponymous Gregorian chant: sacred music sung one note at a time, without harmony.

By then, a primitive form of music notation capable of suggesting at least the contour of a melody was already in use. Around 1000 A.D., Guido D'Arezzo, of the city that continues to honor him, improved upon it with the invention of staff (of four, not five lines), time signatures, and the do-re-mi notes that form the tonal building blocks that are still in use today.

Parchment texts that could be transported made it possible to fulfill St. Gregory's wish of standardizing sacred singing across the Christian world. Over time, the Gregorian chant would evolve into polyphonic four-part "choral" music written for four individual voices.

By the early 15th century, the Church began to commission composers to write polyphonic masses— probably to contain the public's rising appetite for secular music, to rein in composers unmotivated to produce anything else, and (most importantly) to make the Mass more appealing for, well, the masses.

Aware of the visual impact of churches with soaring arches, life-size sculptures animated by flickering candlelight, and heavenly light streaming in through clerestory windows, it's likely that church leaders also appreciated the emotional impact of great music. Throughout the Renaissance hundreds of composers—Dufay, Des Prez, and Monteverdi (above), to name a few—composed masses that have stood the test of time.

Around the beginning of the 16th century, instrumentation would enter the scene. As the orchestra evolved in size and sophistication, so would church singing. A number of masses were written for two or more choirs, creating a polyphonic wall of sound intended to inspire faith and awe.

By the 18th century, when Bach wrote his soaring B-Minor Mass, composers were combining a more symphonic structure with operatic elements calling for both soloists and a choir. Talk about what today we'd call "high production values."

It's a long, long way from Gregorian plainchant to Bach's B-Minor Mass, and the many more that followed. For that, we can be grateful to the Church for giving music lovers everywhere — regardless of faith or lack thereof —sublime works that transcend liturgical significance to embody the epitome of artistic expression.

Carolyn Swartz, ACO Communications

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