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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Mass: Kyrie

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Whatever one's personal opinions regarding religion, it can't be denied that the Christian church has given to western civilisation some of the greatest art ever conceived by the human mind. Remove the religious content from the last two thousand years of painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and (of course) music and you're left with some great art, but you've also lost more than we could ever imagine.

Frequently in concerts and on networks like ours we encounter musical settings of the Mass. The Mass is the form in which many composers have made some of their greatest musical statements. But what is a Mass, and why did composers set these particular texts to music? This post is the first in a series of five in which we'll explore the Mass, what it is, and how some of the greatest musical minds have clothed it in some of the greatest music in the western tradition.

The Mass is the principal form of worship in the Catholic church. The term “Mass” is used in other Christian traditions too, and much of this description applies to them as well. It is a form of worship that culminates in the worshippers partaking of bread and (sometimes) wine which not only symbolise but are deemed to have mystically become the actual body and blood of Christ. The Mass, in a way, re-enacts the last supper, a Passover meal which (according the Christian gospels) Jesus ate with his disciples the night before he was crucified. In this meal he took bread and wine and distributed it among the disciples, drawing parallels between the bread and wine on the one hand and the impending sacrifice of his own body and blood on the other.

Leonardo: The Last Supper (c. 1495)

In the traditional form of the Catholic Mass there are texts which do not change from day to day throughout the year. Regardless of whether it’s Christmas Day, St Bartholomew’s Day or just next Thursday, there are texts which are used virtually every day a Mass is held. Called the Ordinary of the Mass, these are the texts that are set to music by composers.

Interspersed around the Ordinary are texts - readings, special prayers and the like - which change depending on what day it is. These are called the Proper of the Mass, and these are usually not set by composers, otherwise their Mass could only be performed in a church setting on only one particular day every year.

In most cases, a composer sets the Ordinary of the Mass to music with the intention of it being used in a liturgical context - that is, in an actual worship service. In other words, the composer is expecting the music to be interspersed by other things - prayers, readings, special prefaces, a sermon... When we perform the Mass in the concert hall we are hearing it not only in a very different physical environment from that envisaged by the composer but also in a very different musical context. It’s fascinating to hear a Mass we know well from the concert hall or from recordings in a liturgical context with Gregorian chant and/or speaking in between the movements.

So what are the sections of the Ordinary of the Mass set to music by composers? There are five main sections, and each text is named after its first word(s):

Kyrie: A short, six-word text which is a prayer for mercy.

Gloria: A longer text in three paragraphs which starts and ends with words of praise, and which has at its centre a prayer for mercy.

Credo: The Nicene Creed, a summary of Christian belief, written in the 4th century of the Christian era. This was formulated after deliberations at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea (a Greek city in Anatolia, now part of modern Turkey). It’s longer than the so-called “Apostle’s Creed” but shorter than the great “Athanasian Creed”.

Sanctus: A hymn of praise which mixes texts from the old and new testaments. It contains a section called the Benedictus, which some composers set as a completely separate movement.

Agnus Dei: a three-fold prayer for mercy and peace.

I’m going to devote one post to each of these five sections, so today we’re going to look at different composers’ settings of the Kyrie.

Before the Second Vatican Council, which was held between 1962 and 1965, it was the usual practice for the Catholic Mass to be said or sung in Latin the world over. The Second Vatican Council laid the foundation for the use of the vernacular language in Catholic worship, thus relegating Latin very much to the sidelines. The historical Mass settings therefore are almost always in Latin, but having said this, the point should be made that the first movement of the Ordinary - the Kyrie - is actually not in Latin at all. It’s an ancient text in Greek, and it remained in Greek even when the rest of the Mass was said or sung in Latin.

The Kyrie text is short, a mere six words: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison. (Lord have mercy on us, Christ have mercy on us, Lord have mercy on us.) In this Gregorian chant version each pair of words is sung twice, solo followed by choir, just one of a number of traditional ways of performing this short text. [listen]

The earliest Masses, when sung, were sung to one or other of the plainchant traditions which grew up in the first centuries of the Christian era. So-called Gregorian chant is only one of a number of chant traditions, but it is the one that became the standard for the western (that is, the Roman) church by the end of the first millennium of the Christian era. Possibly the earliest setting of the Ordinary of the Mass by a single composer is the Mass of Notre Dame, written by Guillaume de Machaut probably around the year 1340. In the centuries that followed, the practice of a single composer setting the five movements of the Ordinary to music became well-established. This is the Kyrie from Machaut's Mass, in a performance which alternates the composer's polyphonic setting with Gregorian chant in a symmetrical pattern thus:

Kyrie I: Machaut-chant-Machaut

Christe: chant-Machaut-chant

Kyrie II: Machaut-chant-Machaut [listen]

Guillaume de Machaut as shown in a French miniature of the fourteenth century, "An allegorical scene in which Nature offers Machaut three of her children - Sense, Rhetoric, and Music."

In Italy by the late Renaissance or Mannerist period - that is the 16th century - the style was to write Masses (and church music in general) in an austere, restrained manner, in immaculate counterpoint. By counterpoint I mean the interplay of different parts on an equal footing. No one voice part is more important than another. It was often the practice to set these works for voices without instruments - thus the use of voices without instruments became identified with the chapel, or, in Italian, “a capella”.

This is the Kyrie from a Mass by the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria, who worked in Rome and Spain in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. This Mass was published in 1583. [listen]

The six words of the Kyrie text were usually broken up into three shorter sections, which were then set to music as completely discrete sections. Kyrie eleison was set as one section, Christe eleison as the next, and Kyrie eleison - usually to completely different music and not a repetition of the first section - followed. Victoria’s setting was typical of the Roman style, of which he, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and Orlando di Lasso were the greatest exponents in the second half of the 16th century. However, elsewhere in Italy there were often far more opulent settings and local practice varied greatly, nowhere more so than in Venice. Venice was the serene republic, serenely going its own way and often at variance with the decrees of the Pope, but when you had a church like St Mark’s to play with, then why wouldn’t you add a few instruments...?

Interior of St Mark's, Venice

This lavish setting of Christe eleison is by Andrea Gabrieli and was designed for performance in St Mark's, Venice. It was published two years after Victoria's music we just heard. [listen]

Roughly a century and a half later, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote five Masses. One was a setting of the complete Ordinary of the Mass which we now call the Mass in B minor. In addition to this there are four other short Masses - settings of the Kyrie and Gloria only - which still were sung in their original languages (and not in German) in Lutheran communion services, even 200 years after Luther. The Mass in B minor is one of the great monuments of western music, but it overshadows the beauties of the other four shorter works. Here is the Kyrie from his Mass in A major, BWV 234. [listen]

In the later 18th century Mozart and Haydn each wrote many Masses for their various employers. Mozart’s Masses are often short and to the point; the Archbishop of Salzburg decreed that the whole Mass - including music - should last no more than 45 minutes, so Mozart had to be quick! The great tragedy of Mozart’s contribution to the world of sacred music is that his two greatest works for the church - the “Great” Mass in C minor and the Requiem - were left unfinished. Haydn on the other hand, had the opportunity to make a lasting contribution to the world of sacred music, most notably near the end of his life when he wrote six wonderful Masses for the Esterhazy court. These include the Mass in Time of War, the “Nelson” Mass, the “Creation Mass”, and others. Haydn’s Masses above all others established the form of the so-called Viennese Mass. Rather than breaking the text up into a dozen or more movements (such as Bach and the Italian Baroque composers did), the five or six main sections were set as large single movements, although the Gloria and Credo often had smaller subsections within them. There was invariably a four-part choir, four solo voices, and an orchestra.

Haydn’s “Nelson” Mass was composed in 1798 and from the outset it sets a dark tone. The Latin title given to it by the composer was Missa in angustiis or “Mass in difficult times”, because it was written during the years of Napoleon’s threats against Austria. The connection with Horatio Nelson is actually quite unclear, although one school of thought suggests that it was given its nickname when it was performed for Nelson when he visited Haydn’s patron in 1800. Reports are that Nelson was impressed, and with music like this it’s not hard to imagine why. [listen]

Hardy: Joseph Haydn (1791)

Beethoven wrote his first Mass, in C major, in 1807 and it is – outwardly at least – very much in the Haydn mould, although internally it pushes the boundaries of harmony and choral writing to such a degree that it elicited puzzled responses when it was first heard.

Twelve years later Beethoven embarked on the composition of another Mass, and this turned out to be a very different work indeed. A lot had happened to Beethoven in those intervening years, not the least of which was the development of his style beyond merely pushing Classicism in new directions. Beethoven in the last decade of his life wrote more and more for himself, and for the people who were important to him. When he started on a new Mass for the installation of his friend Archduke Rudolf as Cardinal-Archbishop of Olomouc, he was writing from his heart for a man who was a dear friend and not just a member of the nobility. The Mass was not finished in time for this celebration - Beethoven’s muse took him on a journey not even he anticipated - and the work which resulted, the Missa Solemnis Op 123, ranks as one of the greatest, most stupendous and most challenging in all western music. The Kyrie alone takes more than 10 minutes. [listen]

Composers in the later 19th century tended to write less large-scale church music, such was the tenor of the times, although there are exceptions. Franz Schubert died the year after Beethoven and he left to posterity a number of Masses. Most are fairly small-scale works but the last two, the Masses in E flat and A flat, are gigantic works approaching the scale of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Emotionally, though, they are much more lyrical and song-like, clearly reflecting Schubert’s affinity with art song.

The last great Germanic flowering of the Viennese Mass was left to Anton Bruckner, who wrote a large number of church works. Primarily remembered today for his nine magnificent symphonies, the devout Bruckner left the world three large-scale Mass settings, the last of which, the “Great” Mass in F minor, was completed in 1868, around the same time as his first symphony. Bruckner suffered from serious bouts of depression and by 1867 had developed a condition then called neuromania, a compulsive urge to count objects for no apparent reason. After being admitted to a sanitorium and undergoing treatment for several months, he emerged with his metal state greatly improved. The F minor Mass was written as a mark of his gratitude to God for his recovery.

Anton Bruckner (1886)

It’s scored for a four-part choir and four soloists, and uses an orchestra slightly smaller than that which Beethoven uses in the Missa Solemnis. However, it is clearly the spirit of Beethoven which provided Bruckner with his starting point in this Mass. The Kyrie is a magnificent setting of the text, with the central Christe section imbued with light, in contrast to the darkness of the Kyrie sections before and after. [listen]

In the 20th century, the composition of Masses became more and more personal, as befitted the general move in art of all forms throughout the twentieth century. Composers who wrote church music in the 20th century often looked to forms and styles other than those of the Viennese model when setting the Ordinary of the Mass, and often they looked backwards to other traditions. In 1922 the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams composed a setting of the Mass, his Mass in G minor, which looks back to the austere a capella style of Victoria and Palestrina, and of the English Renaissance masters Tallis and Byrd. It's scored for four soloists and double choir (that is, two choirs singing antiphonally) but no instruments, although the score includes an organ part to assist the singers to stay in tune if required. Vaughan Williams' Mass happily revels in the glories of a cathedral acoustic, and in reminiscences of the past. [listen]

To finish we’re going to come up to 1948 and one of the shortest of all Mass settings. Igor Stravinsky’s Mass is a delicate, austere miniature of great beauty and vibrancy. It’s scored for a four part choir, five soloists, and what the composer calls a “double wind quintet”. This is an ensemble of ten instruments, five woodwind (2 oboes, cor anglais and 2 bassoons) and five brass (2 trumpets and three trombones). Stravinsky aimed for an austerity, as did Vaughan Williams, but in using ten wind and brass instruments he replaces the organ, an instrument he is reputed to have hated because it allegedly never breathes! As in the Masses of Victoria and Palestrina, the Kyrie and Christe sections are clearly separated and the text is always audible. The entire Mass takes less than twenty minutes, the Kyrie less than three. [listen]

Igor Stravinsky (1920s)

That concludes our brief survey of Kyrie settings, and in future posts we’ll look at composers’ settings of the other movements of the Mass. It’ll be quite a journey!

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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