• Graham Abbott

The Mass: Agnus Dei

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

In this post we conclude our five-part series on music for the Mass. In previous instalments we’ve looked at composers’ settings of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, and Sanctus and Benedictus. Today we look at the final section of the ordinary of the Mass, the Agnus Dei.

The text of the Agnus Dei is very short but it has, as we will hear, taken on enormous significance for some composers because of its final line. The text consists of three short prayers, the first two of which are identical. It starts Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis (Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us). This is usually repeated, thus making the first two prayers. The third is similar but with a different ending: Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem (Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, give us peace). [listen]

Lamb of God mosaic in presbytery of Basilica of San Vitale (built A.D. 547) Ravenna, Italy. UNESCO World heritage site

The description of Jesus as the "Lamb of God" comes from the first chapter of the Gospel of John, where John the Baptist describes Jesus in those terms. It connects Jesus with the sacrificial lamb of earlier times and looks to the future when Jesus himself, according to Chrstian doctrine, will be sacrificed as an offering for sin.

In the sixteenth century the two major names in late Renaissance polyphony were Victoria and Palestrina, both of whom made major contributions to the Mass repertory. Victoria was Spanish but spent 20 years of his life in Rome (where Palestrina was). He later returned to Spain and maintained close connections with the centre of power - the Spanish royal family - until his death in 1611. In this setting of the Agnus Dei from one of Victoria's Masses (the Missa O quam gloriosum) the composer takes a simple option of having the music for the repeated prayer sung once (although liturgically it may have been sung twice). He then has identical music for the final prayer, simply replacing "miserere nobis" with "dona nobis pacem" at the end. [listen]

Palestrina, while externally appearing to write in the same style as Victoria, had a more transparent touch. To me - and this is just a personal observation - Palestrina's polyphony is less dense, even when writing in many parts, and there is something less-worldly about his style. Having heard Victoria’s setting the text, let’s hear the Agnus Dei from one of Palestrina’s 104 surviving Masses, the 5-part Missa sicut lilium. In this Palestrina takes the same structural approach as Victoria did in the music we just heard: the same music is sung twice, ending with "miserere nobis" the first time, and with "dona nobis pacem" the second time. [listen]

Van Eyck: Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, detail of the Ghent Altarpiece (c. 1432)

From the late 16th century we're going to jump ahead and compare the music of two near-contemporaries who wrote Masses around the start of the 19th century: Joseph Haydn and Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

We heard sections of one of Haydn’s late Masses, the “Nelson” Mass, earlier in this series, but for this post I want to play a well-known part of one of his other late Masses, the Mass in Time of War.

In 1796, Haydn, aged 64, embarked on the composition of a Mass in the midst of uncertain and troubling times. The French army, under the young Napoleon, and the Turkish army were threatening Australian territory on two fronts, and for the first time in more than a century, the heartland of Austria itself sensed imminent invasion. Haydn’s new Mass not only reflects the military upheavals of his world, but projects the strength of his Christian beliefs in this midst of this turmoil. This is my favourite Haydn Mass, one of the most sublime, moving, and ultimately uplifting settings of the Ordinary of the Mass.

Nowhere is Haydn’s approach more noticeable in this Mass than in the Agnus Dei. Starting slowly and reverently, the initial prayer for mercy is marked not long after the music starts by the timpani, playing a slowed-down version of French military drum signal. Haydn is quoted by his first biographer as saying that these drumbeats should be played “as if one heard the enemy approaching from the distance”.

The prayer for mercy becomes louder and more heartfelt, until the tempo and mood suddenly shift. The tempo becomes much faster and the volume much louder - and the words “dona nobis pacem” (give us peace) are set in the midst of trumpet fanfares that are almost terrifying, despite the bright major key. The faithful Haydn is thus reflecting not only his war-torn times but also the minds of his war-torn compatriots, but ultimately the music is full of hope. [listen]

The six Masses Haydn wrote near the end of his life were written for, and performed in the chapel of, his by then nearly nominal patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy II. A Mass setting was required each year for the Name Day of the Prince’s wife, Princess Marie Hermenegild. Even though Haydn lived until 1809, his last Mass for the Esterházys was the Harmonie Mass, performed in 1802. The responsibilities for composing, or organising, the annual Mass fell to Hummel, a composer who has largely fallen by the wayside in our memories of music history these days, but who in those days was a major figure in Viennese musical life. (An earlier post in this blog explores Hummel’s life and work.)

Five Masses by Hummel were performed for the Princess’s Name Day over the next few years, as well as two Masses by guest composers. One of these guest composers was the 36 year old Ludwig van Beethoven, whose first Mass, the Mass in C major, was written for the Esterhazy celebrations in 1807. Beethoven’s first Mass, although it is externally in the Haydn / Hummel mould, caused all sorts of consternation because of its unusual approach to the text, its unusual harmonic shifts, and its technical demands.

The year after this near-debacle, Hummel's Mass in D major was performed for the Princess's Name Day celebrations. Hummel’s Masses have one major difference between those of Haydn and Beethoven, namely that they do not use solo voices. The choir sings throughout, and this was in itself something quite unusual.

The Agnus Dei from Hummel’s D major Mass sets the three prayers for mercy with the choir accompanied by the organ alone, leaving the orchestra to enter after the voices have finished. The exultant “dona nobis pacem” which was a feature of Haydn’s Masses is shunned here. As one writer put it, "Hummel was far too gifted a composer to write pastiche Haydn". Hummel favours an ending which, despite occasional loud outbursts, is quiet and contemplative. [listen]

De Zurbarán: Agnus Dei (c. 1635-1640)

I made mention of Beethoven’s Mass in C above, but of a completely different ilk entirely is Beethoven’s other Mass, his Mass in D known as the Missa Solemnis, op. 123. The Agnus Dei of this extraordinary work contains music that no-one else around 1820 could have dreamt of. Beethoven’s setting of the Agnus Dei prayer is at times anguished and heart-rending, and his treatment of the prayer for peace - dona nobis pacem - takes the idea of militarism to great lengths: trumpet fanfares, huge choral and orchestral outbursts. After the blackest of openings, the music becomes more graceful at the introduction of the dona nobis pacem text. No more text needs to be set - after 8 minutes or so Beethoven has covered everything he is required to do liturgically. But as it turns out, he’s only half way through. About the 9 minute mark, we encounter something totally unexpected, and the rest of the music is one of those passages that make us feel as if a great mind is taking us on a journey that is completely and totally new. [listen]

The outbursts of Romanticism, depicting the plea for peace in the midst of war, have been echoed by some composers of the 20th century, but the two 20th century Masses I’ve featured in this series are very much exceptions to that. Ralph Vaughan Williams's Mass in G minor - dating from 1922 - indulges in a musical device that dates back centuries. The prayers for mercy and peace invoke the music of the Kyrie, heard at the start of the Mass, thus giving his setting a feeling of unity and completeness. This was a device used by many composers, including Mozart, and Beethoven does it in his C major Mass. In Vaughan Williams’s setting, the opening of the Agnus Dei is given to the soloists, whose chanting of the prayer seems almost to be in free rhythm. This gives the music a sense of tension and urgency which is relieved at the entry of dona nobis pacem. Here Vaughan Williams is setting the prayer for peace peacefully, and the ending is perfectly satisfying. [listen]

Of course, I can’t forget Stravinsky, whose Mass of 1948 has been a constant in our series. The Agnus Dei from Stravinsky’s Mass is structured so very simply. There are three sections of the text, each of which is introduced by the instruments but sung by the choir unaccompanied. No special emphasis is placed on dona nobis pacem - these words just take their place at the end of the movement, after which the instruments round things off. As an aside I should mention that this final rounding off contains a few notes that take the first oboe right to the top of its usual range - high F for those who are interested - and yet these high notes seem perfectly normal and natural. The air of nonchalance about this beautiful little Mass never ceases to amaze me. [listen]

It’s funny how some people find that music cold. I find it moving because of its very austerity. There’s an austerity about Stravinsky’s Mass that is still touching and moving, in a way that’s completely different to the way Haydn’s Mass is moving.

So, how to end? I've decided to go right back to the beginning. In these articles on the Mass I’ve included the simple Gregorian chant settings of each of the sections of the Mass Ordinary, which would of course be the oldest music I’ve used in this series. But I've also mentioned the work usually cited as the oldest-known setting of the entire Ordinary of the Mass by a single composer, the Mass of Notre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut. Machaut died in 1377 and his writing is of a style that gives the word austerity a whole new meaning to us 650 years later. For his day, though, he was very modern, and his Mass displays a real unity of purpose which sets it apart from Masses by his contemporaries (which may actually predate his).

This is the Agnus Dei from Machaut’s Mass. [listen]

Agnus Dei with halo and cross; medieval half-relief on the wall of the atrium of the St. Euphrasius basilica, Poreč, Croatia

Settings of the Ordinary of the Mass constitute a golden thread running through nearly 700 years of western music. One doesn't have to be a Catholic, or even a Christian, to appreciate the beauty and the creative artistry which has gone into the creation of these musical settings. They stand as art, like Michelangelo's frescoes or Gothic cathedrals, and as such they are part of the western heritage which makes us all the better for their having been created. I hope you've enjoyed this survey and have been inspired to explore more.

Interestingly, Machaut's Mass of Notre Dame, unlike most Mass settings, doesn't end with the Agnus Dei; he sets something after it which is a great way for us to finish this series of posts. In the celebration of the Mass, right at the end, the priest blesses the people and dismisses them with the words “Ite missa est” (Go, the Mass is ended) to which the congregation (or in this case, the choir) responds “Deo gracias” (Thanks be to God). Machaut sets this dismissal to music, something few composers did after the middle ages, and we'll end with Machaut's music of dismissal. Ite missa est. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in June, 2010. This was a revised version of a program first broadcast in May, 2003.

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