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  • Graham Abbott

The Mass: Credo

In the last two posts we have looked at the way in which composers have set the first two sections of the ordinary of the Mass to music. These sections are the Kyrie and the Gloria; here we’ll look at the longest and most vibrant text in the Mass - the Credo.

The Credo is a long text: a creed, or statement of belief. In the early centuries of the Christian era it was thought necessary to formulate statements of belief to fight so-called heresies which arose against the prevailing orthodoxy. The creed in the Mass is the Nicene Creed, so called because it was based on statements formulated by the early church fathers at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, and it apparently reached its more or less final form at (or shortly after) the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. It is, like most Latin texts, known by its first word. The text in Latin starts “Credo in unum Deum”, or “I believe in one God”.

Oldest extant manuscript of the Nicene Creed, dated to the 6th Century

You’ll find a detailed summary of the background to the Nicene Creed here and an English translation of the Credo here.


The Credo is trintarian in content and structure, meaning that it addresses each of the three persons of the trinity in mainstream Christian doctrine: God the father, son and holy spirit. Because it was written to address particular variations in Christian belief that had arisen regarding the person of Jesus, the Nicene creed focuses most of its attention on God the son. In fact, about two-thirds of the text is about Jesus.

This is one of the Gregorian chant settings of the Credo. Note carefully the first seven notes as they’ll come up again later. [listen]


Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine, accompanied by the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea (325), holding the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381

The Credo text provides composers with vivid images to portray in music, although the Renaissance Roman composers, writing in their pure polyphonic style, avoided any display which might be seen as unseemly (unlike the painters such as Michelangelo and Caravaggio who decorated the walls of the churches in which they sang…). One of the 104 surviving settings of the Mass by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is his so-called Missa Brevis. The title, which means “short Mass”, was not given to it by the composer, and the Mass is really no shorter than the majority of the composer’s other Masses.

In this performance of the Credo from this setting, you’ll hear a single voice sing the opening words, “Credo in unum Deum”, which are not in the score and not set to music by the composer. This is called intoning, and both the Gloria and Credo were traditionally begun in this way, intoned by the priest or cantor. The actual notes sung are taken from one of the Gregorian chant settings of the creed; the one heard here (from the Gregorian setting linked above) is the most common but by no means the only one used.

Once the music gets underway, you’ll hear that Palestrina starts a new section at the text “Et incarnatus est…”. This is traditionally where composers set a reflective mood after the opening section which deals with God the father and the nature of God the son. The new section deals with Jesus’s birth and death and so composers usually take this as a cue to set the text more reverently. Palestrina starts a new section within this at the word “Crucifixus”, which is talking about Jesus’ crucifixion. The tempo immediately picks up at the words “Et resurrexit…” which describes Jesus’s resurrection and ascension. The text then goes on to talk about the last judgement, the holy spirit and basic tenets of belief such as the nature of the church, baptism and eternal life. [listen]


A century and half later, when writing the massive Credo section of his Mass in B minor, Johann Sebastian Bach decided to take the seven notes of the traditional Credo intonation as the starting point for his extraordinary mind to set the same text. Bach devised a fugue subject based on these same seven notes, accompanied by a walking bass line - so called because the bass line seems to walk up and down the scale.

This develops into a complex setting of those seven syllables - a seven-part fugue over an independent bass line. The seven parts of the fugue are the five choir parts (first and second sopranos, altos, tenors and basses) plus the two violin parts. The independent bassline (which plays no part in the fugue) is played by the cello, double bass, bassoon and organ. And yes, there can be no doubt that the soul of the faithful Christian Bach and the mind of the great scholar Bach meet in this music - the use of the number seven is clearly deliberate. The use of seven in the Bible, and in particular in the later new testament, is seen by some scholars to signify divine completion, or the presence of God. Bach’s music is full of numerical symbolism, and it’s seldom more obvious than here. [listen]


After this chorus another follows, in a faster tempo and using the full orchestra available to Bach (including trumpets and timpani), setting the remainder of the text which deals with God the father: “I believe in one God, the father almighty; maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible”. The fugue subject in this second chorus contains the interval of a major seventh. I don’t think that was accidental either! [listen]


Council of Nicaea in 325, depicted in a Byzantine fresco in the Basilica of St. Nicholas in modern Demre, Turkey

Composers occasionally set the Credo of their Masses using interesting and often complicated musical devices, in a seeming attempt to describe the nature and unity of God in sound. In his “Nelson” Mass of 1798, Joseph Haydn took the extraordinary step of using a canon in the first section of the Credo. “Canon” is the musical term for what might more commonly be called a “round” - two or more parts perform exactly the same music but some time apart: that is, one part starts and the other part or parts follow in due course. In the first section of this Credo, Haydn writes a two-part canon: the sopranos and tenors are one part and they start. The altos and basses are the other part and they sing exactly the same music one bar later and in another key. The orchestra part is largely independent of what goes on in the voice parts, with the result is an extraordinary testament to Haydn’s musical skills, and to the fact that even in his mid 60s he was still breaking new ground.

Haydn’s setting of the Credo goes on in the usual three-section plan that was the norm in the Viennese Classical Mass, and the middle section begins at the same point as it did in Palestrina’s Mass - with “Et incarnatus est…”, the section which describes the birth of Jesus. Here Haydn abandons his canonic writing and writes sublimely beautiful music in a slower tempo.

The tempo picks up at the words “Et resurrexit…” which describes the resurrection. In the last section of the Credo it's interesting that he omits a few words. For some reason he didn’t set the words “qui ex patre et filioque procedit", a passage referring to the holy spirit proceeding from the father and the son. Did he just forget those words by mistake, or was he trying to make some personal point? It’s hard to say exactly, because he omitted those same words in other Mass settings, but included them in others. [listen]


Someone who was clearly more radical in his views, though, was Schubert, who in his Mass settings was clearly trying to make a point by what he didn’t set to music.

In all six of his settings of the Mass Schubert there is an interesting omission in the Credo. After the section of the text that deals with the Holy Spirit there is a line which is translated “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church”. The word “catholic” here is of course used in its literal and older sense of “universal” - a worldwide church or body of believers - and the term “apostolic” clearly refers to the apostolic tradition, handed down from Jesus’ disciples. This line is omitted in Schubert’s Mass settings, and most pointedly in his great Mass in A flat, composed near the end of his life. It’s just left out and not referred to at all, and in the A flat Mass he also mangles the line which follows. It’s supposed to say “we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”. Schubert leaves out the reference to the resurrection, so the text which remains says, “we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of the sins of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” It’s bizarre, and inescapable. Schubert clearly seems to be saying that he doesn’t believe in the authority of the church - amongst other things - but the Credo from his A flat Mass is no less powerful or beautiful for that… [listen]


There’s no doubt in my mind that, musically, Schubert’s successor in the realm of sacred music was Anton Bruckner. As far as fiddling round with the text is concerned, though, they were poles apart. Bruckner’s Catholic faith was deeply traditional and deeply rooted in his being; it informed his entire life, musical and otherwise. Bruckner’s last setting of the Mass, written around the time of his first symphony, was the great Mass in F minor, composed in the 1860s. This is the Mass Bruckner wrote as an act of gratitude to God for his recovery from mental illness.

The central section of the Credo of this Mass (starting at 2’35 in the following link, but listen to all of it!) is of exquisite beauty, revealing the heart of Bruckner’s mystical faith. Speaking of Jesus, this section is translated: He was incarnate by the holy spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death, and was buried. [listen]

17th-century Russian icon illustrating the articles of the Creed

As I have done in earlier posts on the Mass, I’m leaving the 20th century to be represented by two very different and very beautiful works - the Masses of Vaughan Williams and Stravinsky. Vaughan Williams’s 1922 Mass in G minor is scored for unaccompanied voices - a double choir and four solo voices - and the Credo, like the rest of the Mass, exudes an air of reflection based on music of the past. [listen]


Using completely different means in his Mass from 1948, Stravinsky achieves an austerity and purity all his own. The four part choir is accompanied by ten wind and brass instruments, and the Credo is completely homophonic, meaning that the sections of the choir all sing the same words at the same time in the same rhythm. This has two results. Firstly, the text is always completely clear, and secondly the text is covered very quickly. This is the entire Credo - and it takes less than five minutes. You'll notice also that Stravinsky - like Vaughan Williams above - has the Credo intoned at the start in the traditional way. [listen]


The Credo is the longest text which a composer needs to tackle is setting a complete Ordinary of the Mass, and it provides the possibility of highly dramatic settings - like Schubert's and Bruckner's - or more restrained approaches - like those of Palestrina or Stravinsky. (And the Credo of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis here is stupendous!) Whatever approach a composer takes, it has the potential to provide music of true greatness.

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


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