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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Mass: Gloria

This post continues our journey through the texts of the Ordinary of the Mass, and how these have been set to music by composers over the centuries. In our last instalment the focus was on the Kyrie; now we look at the second part, the Gloria.

In the new testament, in the second chapter of the Gospel of St Luke, the writer describes the appearance of the angel of the Lord to shepherds outside Bethlehem, announcing to them the birth of Christ. The writer goes on to say, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men!”

Rembrandt: The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds (1634)

In the early years of the Christian era, as various forms of liturgy were being devised, this hymn of the angels became the opening of a part of the Gloria movement of the Mass. [listen]

The text of the Gloria as it appears in the Mass falls into three paragraphs. The first is a hymn of praise, the Latin text beginning with, “Gloria in excelsis Deo”. The whole of the first paragraph is translated: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men. We praise you, we bless you, we worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks for your great glory, Lord God, heavenly king, God the father almighty; O Lord the only-begotten son, Jesus Christ the most high, Lord God, lamb of God, son of the father.

The second paragraph is much more sombre, being a prayer for mercy, and this contrast provides composers with the scope to write music of a more reflective nature. In Latin it begins, “Qui tollis peccata mundi” and is translated: Who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Who takes away the sin of the world, receive our prayer. Who sits at the right hand of the father, have mercy on us.

The final paragraph returns to the jubilant mood of the first, and begins, “Quoniam tu solus sanctus”: You alone are holy, you alone are the Lord, you alone are most high, Jesus Christ, with the holy spirit, in the glory of God the father. Amen.

In his famous Mass of Notre Dame, written around 1340, Guillaume de Machaut set the Gloria like this. [listen]

Two centuries after Machaut wrote this music - in the days of late Renaissance Roman polyphony - restraint was very much the order of the day. In this Gloria from a six-part Mass by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the composer does not mark any change in the tempo or volume for the central paragraph, but it is traditional in music of this sort to reflect the meaning of those words - the prayer for mercy - by singing a little softer and slower. The performers in this recording observe that tradition and you’ll reach that point about 2 minutes and 20 seconds in. [listen]

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

As always, the Venetians were blind to the rules laid down in Rome, and in the sumptuous surrounds of St Mark’s basilica, did their own thing, with multiple choirs of instruments and voices, multiple organs, and an acoustic that still sends shivers down the spine. Andrea Gabrieli composed a setting of the Gloria which was published in 1587. It is in 16 parts - using voices and instruments in four four-part choirs. While there’s not a great deal of difference in the mood of the paragraphs, it is interesting note that at the last line - “Cum sancto spiritu in gloria Dei patris, Amen” - Gabrieli changes the meter to a bouncy triple time. This is an embryonic form of something that developed enormously in the centuries to follow. [listen]

JS Bach’s Mass settings in the early 18th century are cast in what is known as the “cantata” style. That is, a large text like the Gloria is broken up into smaller units, and each of these units is set as a completely separate movement. In the well-known Mass in B minor, Bach breaks the three paragraphs of the text into nine movements.

In the shorter, so-called "Lutheran" Masses the Gloria is always set in five movements: an opening and closing chorus with three movements for voices in between.

Hausmann: Johann Sebastian Bach (1746)

Already by Bach's day the final line of the Gloria text was taking on new importance in musical settings. Setting the line beginning, "Cum sancto spiritu..." as a fugue to end the Gloria became a tradition by the late 18th century and it's evident in all of Bach's settings from the 1730s that when he came to setting this line, a major fugue was called for in his mind as well.

This is the final movement, setting these words, from Bach's Mass in F BWV233. [listen]

In the Classical Viennese Mass, exemplified in the late Masses of Haydn, the Gloria developed into a single large movement comprising three contrasting sections or sub-movements. The outer sections were fast, as befitting the more joyful sentiments of the text, and the central prayer for mercy was slower. And it was almost unheard of not to write a fugue at the end for all or part of the last line of the text.

Haydn's Harmonie Mass was the last of his six late Masses, written in 1802 when the composer was 70. The nickname is derived from the prominence given to the wind section of the orchestra, called Harmonie in German. It's a bright, exuberant work which is sadly not known as much as some of the other late Masses. This is the complete Gloria movement. [listen]

The Mass which blew all others before it out of the water, though, was Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, written between 1819 and 1822. This is written on such a vast scale that it is more appropriate to the concert hall than the church (despite it being originally intended for liturgical use), and it makes such demands on the performers - the chorus especially - that performances are rare and good performances even rarer. The Gloria is overwhelming and exhausting - and awe-inspiring. Beethoven doesn’t rejoice before God, he hurls thunderbolts of praise towards heaven. He doesn’t ask for mercy, he falls as if dead before the throne of God. The fugue Beethoven conceived for the final line is on a scale unprecedented in settings of the Mass. It's not only staggeringly complex and utterly original, but it’s also unbelievably theatrical, exciting, terrifying... It requires choral singers and soloists to go into territory they rarely, if ever, explore, both technically and emotionally, and the orchestral writing is as big and as demanding as any of his symphonies. [listen]

Waldmüller: Ludwig van Beethoven (1823)

As a foil to the overwhelming power of Beethoven's heavenly vision, we have time to move into the 20th century and briefly look at the two Masses from which I extracted Kyrie settings in the previous post. The Gloria of Vaughan Williams' 1922 Mass in G minor makes all sorts of references to the past - an a capella setting like Palestrina, harmonies that directly refer to Monteverdi’s setting of the same words, and choral antiphony that reminds us of Gabrieli and the Tudor composers. The austerity and purity of the music - with no fugue at the end - avoid any showiness or bombast, but the effect is no less moving for that. [listen]

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1922)

The other 20th century Mass I drew on in our survey of settings of the Kyrie was that of Stravinsky, dating from 1948. The Gloria of this Mass is very short - less than 4 minutes long - and the composer is at great pains to make the text clear at all costs. There is no real attempt at deep emotion; the attitude is somewhat arm’s length but the result is still very beautiful. Stravinsky achieves a completely different solution to the problem of restraint than that achieved by Vaughan Williams. [listen]

From simple plainsong, to a capella polyphonic settings, to complex orchestral settings and then back to more restrained, cool approaches... the Gloria is one of the two large texts in the Ordinary of the Mass which provide composers with the greatest emotional scope, and of course the settings we've touched on here are only the tip of an enormous iceberg. The other large text, even more potentially emotional and theatrical, is the Credo, and that is the subject of our next instalment.

Wtewael: The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1606)

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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