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2008 Midnight Christmas Mass, St. Peter's

The Roman Catholic Mass takes its name from the words spoken in Latin at the end of the ceremony:

Ite, missa est. (Go, it is the dismissal.[1])

From the first millennium of the Common Era various texts from the Mass have been sung, first as plainchant (including Gregorian chant, Ambrosian chant, Mozarabic, and so on) and, beginning with the motets of Magister Leoninus and Perotinus, increasingly as homophonic music.

It was soon recognised that certain texts were more suitable for setting to music, since they were frequently recited on numerous occasions in the Church calendar, or in virtually every ceremony; these texts became known as the Ordinary, differentiating them from the Propers, which were items specific to the season, hour or the day.

Ordinary of the Mass

Latin.png Latin text

The Ordinary is usually understood to consist of the first five of the following texts, of which the Kyrie, introduced to the west by Pope Sergius in the 8c., is in Greek rather than Latin:

  1. Kyrie eleison
  2. Gloria in excelsis Deo – sometimes called the Great Doxology
  3. Credo in unum DeumSymbolum Nicenum, i.e. the Nicene Creed.
  4. SanctusBenedictus
  5. Agnus Dei
  6. Ite missa est

Separate musical settings of these movements were regularly composed as stand-alone movements, or as linked pairs (e.g. a pair of KyrieGloria or SanctusAgnus Dei). The first composer to compose an entire cyclic mass setting, was the great Burgundian composer Guillaume de Machaut, writing in the middle 1300s. Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame (Mass of Our Lady) includes all six movements listed above, including a setting of Ite missa est.

The forms of Mass settings have varied hugely up to the present day. At various times in different countries, certain texts have been included or excluded according to the favour of church custom. Since the time of Machaut the vast majority of mass settings omit Ite missa est, though it is found in some modern settings, for example, the Missa brevis of Zoltán Kodály. Replacing this text with a different musical setting, such as Domine, salvum fac regem nostrum or Domine, salvam fac ecclesiam nostram (Lord, save our King/Church…) has occasionally been sanctioned, and the Mass of the Dead ends not with a dismissal but with chants to accompany the procession to the burial place.

The division of the text occasionally differs from the numbering above: the Agnus Dei having traditionally been recited three times, was often set in through-composed fashion, or in two or three separate movements. Sanctus and Benedictus each finish with the exclamation Hosanna in excelsis! (Osanna in the highest!), which has often led composers to recapitulate their musical ideas, or treat each text as separate movements with different musical ideas; for economy, some Mass settings will instruct the singer upon reaching the end of Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini to return to the Sanctus for the final Hosanna.

Likewise, it is rare for composers to have written completely uninterrupted music for the long texts of the Gloria or Credo, especially as these texts incorporate a variety of moods and subjects, and clearly lend themselves to cyclic as well as varied musical ideas. The penitential text of the Kyrie eleison traditionally invokes the Father (Kyrie), then the Son (Christe), and then God the Father again; but each petition may be repeated a number of times, so that a composition may be described as a 3-fold, 6-fold, or even a 9-fold Kyrie. The Missa in Tempore Paschali of Nicolas Gombert unusually divides the Kyrie into four movements, including two central Christe sections; but this seeming anomaly is resolved when plainchant is introduced for the remaining five repetitions in a 9-fold Kyrie, so that the chant and Gombert's polyphony alternate.

In a Missa brevis, one or more of the movements, most often Credo, and next most often (especially in Advent and Lent) the Gloria in excelsis Deo, are omitted. Mass cycles in 15th and 16th century England often omitted the Kyrie. After the Reformation, most the Lutheran composers omitted all but the Kyrie and Gloria, and in the Church of England after the reformation, the name "Kyrie" was given to responses to the commandments, which the Book of Common Prayer provided was to be used at every service. After the first nine commandments was to be sung [or said], "Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law"; after the ninth was sung [or said] "Lord have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee." English usage after the reformation also moved the "Gloria in excelsis" to the position of a Post communion canticle, and provided for the "Sanctus" but no "Benedictus", and omitted the "Agnus Dei". The Missa was taken by Lutheran composers to refer to just Kyrie and Gloria, from Mass cycles.

Proper of the Mass

Interspered in the ceremony of the Mass are the texts that change daily or seasonally, which are known as the Propers. The Major propers are 3 collects of the day (following the Gloria, the prayer over the gifts, and communion), and the readings. The Minor propers include the the benediction and preface as well as the following antiphons sung by the choir:

Introitus: the Introit is sung as the procession of clergy enter the church at the start of the Mass. The Kyrie and Gloria follow on, and then (on Sundays and solemnities) two lessons, the first usually from the Old Testament (or the Acts of the Apostles during Eastertide) and the second, the Epistle, from the New Testament.

Graduale: The Gradual is in responsory rather than antiphon form, and hence occasionally called the Responsorium. In the 1970 Ordinary Form it may be replaced with a Responsorial Psalm (which otherwise is sung or recited between the First Lesson and the Epistle). It is sung after the Epistle as the Gospel book is taken to the centre of the church, followed by the

Gospel acclamation, usually an Alleluia verse but a tractus during Lent, sung as the book is incensed. On important feasts this is followed by the

Sequentia (or Prosa): Of over a thousand sequences in use before the Council of Trent, only 4 were retained in the 1570 missal: "Victimæ Paschali" at Easter; "Veni Sancte Spiritus" at Pentecost; "Lauda Sion", for Corpus Christi; and the "Dies Iræ" during the Mass of the Dead (Requiem); "Stabat mater dolorosa" was restored in 1727. In 1970 the Second Vatican Council eliminated Dies irae and made all but the first two optional; the sequence's position was also moved in front of the Gospel Acclamation.

Offertorium: after Credo and intercessions, the Offertory is sung as the elements of bread and wine are brought to the altar, leading to the prayer of consecration known as the Canon, sung by the priest(s) (con-)celebrating the Mass, which incorporates the Sanctus and Benedictus. The celebrant then re-enacts the last supper, reciting the words with which Christ shared the bread and wine with the apostles, leading to the Agnus Dei.

Communio: the Communion text is then sung as the bread and wine are shared amongst the congregation. After the communion is finished and closing prayers concluded, the Ite missa est concludes the Mass.

The Vatican II reforms added a third Old Testament lesson to the Epistle and Gospel, separating the Gradual from the Alleluia. Nowadays the Latin Gradual is usually replaced by the gradual psalm, a sort of 'fourth lesson'.

Other items associated with the Mass

Besides the Ordinary and the Proper, there were at various times and in some places, other texts associated with the Mass which also occasionally received musical treatment. These included certain items always said before Mass by the Priest; in some places it was a custom to bless water and sprinkle it upon the congregation, accompanied by an antiphon "Asperges me" – "Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow", and Psalm verse, "Have mercy upon me O Lord, according to thy great goodness", both drawn from Psalm 50 (51 V). During Easter time, this was replaced by a different antiphon, drawn from Ezekiel 47, the "Vidi aquam", "I beheld water proceeding from the temple, form the right side thereof, alleluia: and everything, whithersoever the waters of life shall come, shall be healed, and they shall say, alleluia, alleluia", and a verse from Psalm 118, (119 V) "O give, give thanks unto the Lord for He is gracious, because His mercy endureth forever." In either case, the Psalm verse was followed by the "Gloria Patri", and the antiphon was repeated.

It has also been also customary for the Mass to be preceded by a rite of confession, one of the prayers of which is a confession deriving called the "Confiteor"; the "Confiteor" has been occasionally set to music, for a choir, as first the Priest celebrating confesses to the servers, and then the servers repeat the confession with minor changes to the Priest.

An Antiphon is very often an introduction to another item; for example, the Introit consists of an Antiphon, one or more Psalm verses, the "Gloria Patri", and a repetition of the Antiphon. However, there are proper texts associated with processions which are appended to Mass on special days, and these are also known as antiphons. These processions include the Procession with Palms, on Palm Sunday. Palestrina and Victoria both provided choral itmes of some of these, one of which is the "Pueri Hebraeorum". (The children of the Hebrews, bearing branches of Palm and Olive, went out to greet the Lord, saying "Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.); Gibbons and Weekes both composed settings of another Procession text, "Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord."

Another day with proper antiphons is Maundy Thursday, where it is the custom in some places for the superior to wash the feet of some of the members of the congregation, accompanied by antiphons, "'A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you', says the Lord" accompanying the verse from Psalm 118 (119 V) "Blessed are those that are undefiled and walk in the way of the Lord". Another antiphon associated with Maundy Thursday is "Ubi caritas", "Where charity and love are, there is God".

One other group of choral music often associated with Mass are antiphons associated with the Mother of God

Settings by composers

The Choral Public Domain Library has editions of upwards of 400 masses, either complete settings or mass sections, which are listed in the Mass category, including works by the following composers:

Mediæval and Renaissance composers

Baroque composers

Classical composers

Romantic composers

Early 20th century and modern composers

Other languages

CPDL also has a number of masses set in the vernacular language of various countries: see Category:Vernacular Masses.

Other links

See the Wikipedia articles Mass (liturgy) and Mass (music).