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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > M > Music of the Mass

Music of the Mass

Under this heading will be considered exclusively the texts of the Mass (and not, therefore, the Asperges, Vidi aquam, Litanies, Prophecies, etc., which in the Roman Missal are found more or less closely associated with the Mass in certain seasons of the Church Year), which receive a musical treatment. These texts comprise those which are sung (that is, recited in musical monotone with occasional cadences or inflections) by the celebrant and the sacred ministers (who will be referred to as priest, deacon, and sub-deacon) and which are styled "Accentus"; and those which are assigned to the choir and which are styled "Concentus".

For the sake of convenience of reference the Concentus may be divided into the following classes:

The "Graduale Romanum" (together with the Missal) provides plainsong melodies for all the texts styled Accentus or Concentus. The Accentus must be plainsong, and must be that plainsong which is found in the present typical edition, styled the Vatican Edition, of the "Roman Gradual". The Concentus, if sung to plainsong melodies, must also be in the approved form found in the Vatican Edition of the "Gradual"; but these texts may employ "modern" (as opposed to "medieval") music, provided the musical treatment is in every way appropriate as indicated in the "Instruction on Sacred Music", commonly styled the "Motu Proprio", issued by Pius X on the Feast of St. Cecilia, Patron of Church Music (22 Nov., 1903). This "modern" or "figured" music is customarily styled in Church decrees simply musica, and the plain chant or plain song is styled cantus (chant). The serviceable distinction will be employed throughout this article: chant, chanting, chanted, will refer to plainsong melodies; music, musical, to figured music.

The Accentus

These chants should never be accompanied by the organ or any other instrument. The priest intones the Gloria (Gloria in excelsis Deo) and the Credo (Credo in unum Deum). The choir must not repeat these words of the intonation, but must begin with Et in terra pax, etc., and Patrem omnipotentem, etc., respectively. The priest also sings the Collects and post-Communions and the Dominus vobiscum and Oremus preceding them. Amen is sung by the choir at the end of these prayers, as also after the Per omnia saecula saeculorum preceding the Preface, the Pater noster and the Pax Domini . . . vobiscum. The choir responds with Et cum spiritu tuo to the Dominus vobiscum preceding the prayers, the Gospel, and the Preface. Both of these choir responses vary from the usual monotone when occurring before the Preface; and the Amen receives an upward inflection before the Pax Domini, etc. Indeed, the Dominus vobiscum and its response vary in melody for all the three forms of the Preface (the Tonus Solemnis, the Tonus Ferialis, the Tonus Solemnior found in the "Cantus Missalis Romani"), as do also the chants and responses of the Sursum corda, etc., preceding the Preface. It would be highly desirable that choirs be well practised in these special "tones" since exact correspondence with the form used by the priest is not only of æsthetic but of practical value; for any deviation from one of the "tones" into another may easily lead the priest astray and produce a lamentable confusion of forms which ought to be kept distinct.

At the end of the priest's chant of the Pater noster the choir responds with Sed libera nos a malo. The sub-deacon chants the Epistle, the deacon the Gospel. The respective responses (Deo Gratias and Laus tibi Christe) are merely to be said by the ministers of the Mass, and are not to be sung or recited by the choir. This is clear from the fact that the "Roman Gradual" does not assign any notation to these responses. To the deacon's chant of the Ite missa est (or Benedicamus Domino) the choir responds with Deo gratias. A Decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites permits the organ to supply for this response wherever this is customary, provided the response be "recited" in a clear voice. The chant melodies for all these choir-responses are given in the Vatican "Gradual" under the heading "Toni Communes Missae". It is customary in many churches to harmonize the chant-responses and even to depart in some details from the melodies officially assigned to the chant-responses. In summing up the legislation in this matter, the "Motu Proprio" says (No. 12):

With the exception of the melodies proper to the celebrant at the altar and to the ministers, which must be always sung only in Gregorian chant, and without the accompaniment of the organ, all the rest of the liturgical chant belongs to the choir of Levites, and, therefore, singers in church, even when they are laymen, are really taking the place of the ecclesiastical choir. Hence the music rendered by them must, at least for the greater part, retain the character of choral music.

But while the choir is thus permitted to respond in music or in harmonized chant, good taste might suggest the desirability of responding in unharmonized chant according to the exact melodies provided in the "Toni Communes Missae".

Inasmuch as the Vatican "Gradual" is meant merely for the use of the choir, the complete Accentus of the celebrant and ministers will not be found there. The Missal contains these chants in full (except, of course, the chants for the prayers, prophecies, etc., which are to be recited or sung according to certain general forms which are indicated in the "Toni Com. Mis.") However, a number of changes made in the Missal melodies by order of the Vatican Commission on Chant were comprised in a separate publication entitled "Cantus Missalis Romani" (Rome, Vatican Press, 1907), which was edited in various styles by competent publishers of liturgical books. After that no publisher was permitted to print or publish an edition of the Missal Containing the melodies in use prior to that, but were to insert the new melodies according to the scheme found in the "Cantus Missalis Romani". Some of the newer forms were to appear in the places occupied, in the typical edition of the Missal (1900), by the forms previously used, while some were to be placed in an Appendix.

The Decree of 8 June, 1907, contains the following clauses:

In the midst of the perplexities inevitably associated with such modifications of or additions to the former methods of rendering the Accentus, Dom Johner, O.S.B., of the Beuron Congregation, has come to the assistance of clerics, by collecting into one conveniently arranged manual ("Cantus Ecclesiastici iuxta editionem Vaticanam", Ratishon, 1909: 146 pages. 12 mo.) all of the Accentus (including the responses found in the "Toni Communes Missae" of the "Gradule Romanum" (1908) and in the "Cantus Missalis Romani" (1908). These he has illustrated with appropriate extracts from the "Rubriae Missalis Romani", and has added comments and explanations of his brackets in order to distinguish them from official matter (e.g. pp. 14, 15, when discussing the festal tone of the Oratio). While such a volume is appropriate for the study or the class-room, the intonations of the priest and deacon have been issued for use in the sanctuary, in various forms. At Tournai Belgium, is published "Intonationes celebrantis in Missa ad exemplar editionis Vaticanae" (containing the Asperges, Vidi aquam, Gloria and Credo, Ite Missa est, Benedicamus Domino, for all the masses contained in the "Kyriale") on seven cards of Bristolboard which are enclosed in a case and also in form of a pamphlet bound in cloth. At Düsseldorf is issued a collection of the intonations (under the title of "Tabula Intonationum") of the Gloria (15), Credo (4), Ite Missa est and Benedicamus (17), and Requiescant in pace, pasted on thin but strong cardboard (cloth-covered) of four pages. These are given here merely as illustrations of the practical means at hand for actually inaugurating the reform of the Accentus; other publishers of the official editions of the chant books may be consulted for other forms for use in the sanctuary.

Some of these forms of chant-intonations are for use ad libitum. The various intonations of the Gloria and Credo bear a close relation to the succeeding chant of the choir, with those of these Missa est or Benedicamus are frequently in melody with the chant of the Kyrie eleison. Nominally, these chants and intonations are assigned to definite seasons of the Church Year or to peculiar kinds of rite (solemn double, semi-double, ferial, etc.), but in as much as permission has been given to use the chants of the "Kyriale" indifferently for any rite or season, the requirement to be met by the priest is the artistic one, of singing the intonation of the Mass which the choir will actually render in chant. Thus it will be seen that the many intonations furnished do not represent an obligatory burden but merely a large liberty of choice. The chant of the Ite missa est by the deacon would seem similarly to be a matter of artistic appropriateness rather than of liturgical law.

The Concentus

These texts may be sung in chant or music. If chant be used, it must be either that contained in the "Vatican Gradual", or some other approved form of the "traditional melodies" (see "Motu Proprio" of 25 April, 1904, d; the Decree of the S.R.C., 11 August, 1905, VI; the decree prefixed to the "Kyriale", dated 14 August 1905, closing paragraph); if the setting be musical it must meet all the requirements summarily indicated in the "Motu Proprio" of 22 November, 1903 (see ECCLESIASTICAL MUSIC). Under the heading of Concentus must be considered (a) the Ordinary, (b) the Proper.

The Ordinary

The texts are those of the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, the Benedictus, the Agnus Dei. A collection of these, or a portion of them, is styled simply a "Mass". When several "Masses" are written by the same composer, they are differentiated numerically (e.g. Mozart's No. 1, No. 2, No. 17) or by dedication to some particular feast (e.g. Gounod's "Messe de Paques") or saint (e.g. Gounod's "St. Cecilia" Mass), or devotion (e.g. Gounod's "Messe du Sacré Coeur"), or musical association (e.g. Gounod's "Messe des Orphéonistes", Nos. I, II), or musical patron (e.g. Palestrina's "Missa Papae Marcelli"), or special occasion (e.g. Cherubini's "Third Mass in A" entitled the "Coronation Mass", as it was for the coronation of King Charles X). The title Missa Brevis is sometimes employed for a Mass requiring only a moderate time for its rendition (e.g. Palestrina's "Missa Brevis"; Andrea Gabrieli's printed in Vol. I of Proske's "Musica Divina") although the term scarcely applies, save in another sense, to J.S. Bach's "Missa Brevis" (in A) comprising in its forty-four closely printed pages only the music of the Kyrie and Gloria. In some Masses the place of the Benedictus is taken by an O Salutaris. A polyphonic Mass composed, not upon themes taken from chant melodies (as was the custom), was styled "sine nomine". Those founded upon chant subjects were thus styled (e.g. Palestrina's "Ecce Sacerdos Magnus", "Virtute magna", etc.) or when founded on secular song themes unblushingly bore the appropriate title (e.g. Palestrina's "L'homme arme"). Masses were sometimes styled by the name of the chant-mode in which they were composed (e.g. "Primi Toni") or, founded on the hexachordal system, were styled "Missa super voces musicales" (Missa Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La); or bore as title the number of voices employed (e.g. "Missa Quatuor Vocum").

This is not the place to rehearse the story of the gradual development and corruption of ecclesiastical music, of the many attempts at reform, and of the latest pronouncements of the Holy See which oblige consciences with all the force of liturgical law. An excellent summary of this history is given by Dr. Rockstro in Grove's "Dictionary of music and musians" (s.v. Mass), which may be supplemented by the recent abundant literature of the reform-movement in Church Music. It is of more immediate and practical importance to indicate the various catalogues or lists of music compiled by those who are seeking to reform the music of the Mass. It is interesting to reflect that in his earlier legislation on this subject, Leo XIII recommended a diocesan commission to draw up a diocesan Index of Repertoires, or at least to sanction the performances of pieces therein indicated, whether published or unpublished. In the later Regolamento of 6 July, 1894, the S. C. of Rites does not refer any such index but merely requires bishops to exercise appropriate supervision over the pastors so that appropriate music may not be heard in their churches. The present pope has nowhere indicated the necessity, or even the advisability, of compiling such an index or catalogue, but has required the appointment, in every diocese, of a competent commission which shall supervise musical matters and see that the legislation of the "Motu Proprio" be properly carried out.

Nevertheless, it was the stimulus of the Regolamento of 1894 which led to the compilation, in the Diocese of Cincinnati, of a highly informing "First Official Catalogue" of that commission, which was made obligatory by Archbishop Elder in a letter dated 26 July, 1899, and which was to go into operation on the First Sunday of Advent (3 Dec.) of that year. The commission requested pastors to submit the music used for inspection by the commission. The catalogue does not content itself with approving certain of these compositions but takes the trouble both to mark "rejected" after the various titles and to give, usually, the reason for the rejection. In the following year it issued its "Second Official Catalogue". Both catalogues are important as illustrating the exact musical conditions of one great diocese, and show forth more searchingly than many arguments the need of reform. These catalogues have been rendered obsolete by the more stringent recent legislation.

But, although that legislation has not prescribed the compilation of lists of approved music, many such catalogues or lists have been compiled. They all pay great attention to the music of the Mass, and should prove of the greatest assistance to choir-masters. Correct and appropriate music for Mass, for all degrees of musical ability or choral attainment and of the greatest abundance and freshness and individuality of style, can now be easily obtained.

In selecting a Mass it is always advisable to read the text in order to see that it is both complete and liturgically correct; that there should be no alteration or inversion of the words, no undue repetition, no breaking of syllables. In addition, the "Motu Proprio" specifies [No 11 (a)]: The Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, etc., of the Mass must preserve the unity of composition proper to their text. It is not lawful, therefore, to compose them in separate pieces, in such a way that each of those pieces may form a complete composition in itself, and be capable of being detached from the rest and substituted by another". It further remarks (No. 22): "It is not lawful to keep the priest at the altar waiting on amount of the chant or the music for a length of time not allowed by the liturgy. According to the ecclesiastical prescriptions the Sanctus of the Mass should be the Elevation and therefore the priest must have regard to the singers. The Gloria and Credo ought, according to the Gregorian tradition, to be relatively short."

Something remains to be said of the chant of the Ordinary which is found in the separate small volume entitled "Kyriale". It is issued by the various competent publishers in all styles of printing, paper, binding in large and small forms; in medieval and in modern notation; with and without certain "rhythmical signs". The eighteen "Masses" it contains are nominally assigned to various qualities of rite; but, in accordance with ancient tradition and with the unanimous agreement of the pontifical Commission on the Chant, liberty has been granted to select any "Mass" for any quality of rite (see the note "Quoslibet cantus" etc., p. 64 of the Vatican Edition of the "Kyriale": "Any chant assigned in this ordinarium to one mass may be used in any other; in the same way, according to the quality of the Mass or the degree of solemnity, any one of those which follow [that is, in the section styled "Cantus ad libitum"] may be taken"). The decrees relating to the publishing of editions based on this typical edition, and to its promulgation, are given in Latin and English translation in "Church Music", March, 1906, pp. 250-256. It is noteworthy that this typical edition gives no direction about singing the Benedictus after the Elevation, but prints both chants in such juxtaposition as to suggest that the Benedictus might be sung before the Elevation. In the "Revue du Chant Grégorien" (Aug.-Oct., 1905), its editor, Canon Grospellier, who was one of the Consultors of the Gregorian Commission, said that he was inclined to think that, where time allows, the Benedictus might be sung immediately at its meeting at Appuldurcombe, in 1904, unanimously accepted a resolution to this effect. The preface to the Vatican "Gradual", while giving minute directions for the ceremonial rendering of the chants merely says: "When the preface is finished, the choir goes on with the Sanctus, etc." At the elevation of the Blessed Sacrament, the choir is silent like every one else. Nevertheless, in as much as the "Gradual" does not declare that the Benedictus is to be chanted after the Elevation, the "etc." is understood to imply that it should be sung immediately after the Sanctus. The "Caeremoniale Episcoporum" however, directs that it be sung (after elevation of the chalice". The apparent conflict of authorities may be harmonized by supposing that the "Caeremoniale" legislated for the case of musically developed (e.g. polyphonic) settings of the Sanctus and the Benedictus, whose length would necessitate their separation from each other, while the "Gradual" contemplates, of course, the much briefer settings of the plainsong (see "Church Music", Jan., 1909, p. 87).

The Proper

While the texts of the Ordinary do not (with the exception of the Agnus Dei, which is altered in Requiem Mass) change, those which commonly, but somewhat ambiguously, are called the "Proper", change in accordance with the character of the feast or Sunday or ferial day. These texts are the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia-Verse, Sequence, Tract, Offertory, Communion. Not all of these will be found in any one Mass. Thus, e.g. Holy Saturday has no Introit, Gradual, Offertory, Communion; from Low Sunday to Trinity Sunday, the Gradual is replaced by all Alleluia-Verse; from Septuagesima to Easter, as well as on certain penitential days, the Allehlia-Verse which ordinarily follows the Gradual, is replaced by a Tract; in only a few Masses is a Sequence used; there is no Introit on Whitsun Eve, while the customary Gloria Patri after the Introit is omitted during Passion-tide. In Requiem Masses the Gloria Patri is omitted after the Introit, a Tract and a Sequence follow the Gradual. Nor do the texts differ for every feast, as is illustrated by the division of the Sanctorale into the "Proprium de Sanctis" and the "Commune Sanctorum", this latter division grouping the feasts into classes, such as the feasts of confessors-Bishop, confessors-not-bishops, martyrs, virgins, etc., in which the texts of the "Proper" serve for many feasts of the "Propers" in many churches. They are, however, an integral part of the duty of the choir, and must be sung, or at least "recited", in a clear and intelligible voice, the organ meanwhile sustaining appropriate chords.

In a Rescript dated 8 August, 1906, the S.R.C. answering questions proposed by the Abbot of Santa Maria Maggiore in Naples, declares that in solemn Mass, when the organ is used, the Gradual, Offertory Comunion, when not sung, must be recited in a high and intelligible voice, and that the Deo Gratias following the Ite missa est should receive the same treatment. Previous answers of the S.R.C. were of similar tenor. Thus (Coimbra 14 April, 1753): in a "Community Mass" it is always necessary to sing the Gloria, Credo, all of the Gradual, the Preface, Pater noster, so, too, a question from Chioggia in 1875, as to whether the custom introduced into that diocese of omitting the chant of the Gradual, the Tract, the Sequence, the Offertory, the Benedictus the Communion was contrary to the rubrics and decisions of the S.R.C., was answered affirmatively, and the questioner was remitted to the Coimbra decision. A specific difficulty was offered for solution by a bishop who declared that in his diocese where a single chanter was used, and where the people had to hurry to their daily work, the custom had obtained (throughout almost the whole diocese) of omitting, in stipendiary Masses, the Gloria, Gradual, Tract, Sequence, Credo. He was answered (29 Dec., 1884) that the custom was an abuse that must be absolutely eliminated. The spirit of the Church legislation is summed up in the "Motu Proprio" (22 Nov., 1903, No. 8):

As the texts that may be rendered in music, and the order in which they are to be rendered, are determined for every function, it is not lawful to confuse this order or to change the prescribed texts for others collected at will, or to omit them entirely or even in part, except when the rubrics allow that some versicles are simply recited in choir. It is permissible, however, according to the custom of the Roman Church, to sing a motet to the Blessed Sacrament after the Benedictus in a solemn Mass. It is also permitted after the Offertory prescribed for the Mass has been sung, to execute during the time that remains a brief motet to words approved by the Church.

A practical difficulty is encountered in the fact that many choirs have met the limit of their capacity in preparing the chant or music of the Ordinary, whose texts are fixed and repeated frequently. How shall such choirs prepare for a constantly changing series of Proper texts whether in chant or in music? Several practical solutions of the difficulty have been offered. There is, first of all, the easy device of recitation. Then there is the solution offered in the excellent and laborious work of Dr. Edmund Tozer, who prepared simple psalm-like settings which could be easily mastered by a fairly equipped choir. The work "The Proper of the Mass for Sundays and Holidays" (New York, 1907-1908, Vol. II, No. 2926) is reviewed in "Church Music" Jan., 1907, 127-128; Mar., 1908, 171-178; see also June, 1906, "One Outcome of the Discussion", 409-415, including a specimen-four-page of Dr. Tozer's method of treatment of the Proper text. A third volume which will comprise various local texts is in course of preparation. Another method is that undertaken by Marcello Capra, of Turin, Italy, which provides musical settings for the Proper of the principal feasts for one or two voices, and with easy organ accompaniment. Still another method is that of Giulio Bas who has compiled a volume, "Gradualis Versus Alleluia et Tractus" (Dusseldorf, 1910), of plainsong settings from the Ambrosian, Aquileian, Greek, Mozarabic chant, for Sundays and Double Feasts in order to facilitate the rendering of the more difficult portions of the Proper.

However rendered, these chants of the Proper must not be omitted or curtailed. But apart from this liturgical necessity they challenge admiration because of their devotional, poetic, æsthetic perfection: "If we pass in review before our musical eye the wonderful thoughts expressed in the Introits, Graduals, Alleluia, Verses, Tracts, Offertories, and Communions of the whole ecclesiastical year, from the first Sunday in Advent to the last Sunday after Pentecost, as well as those of the numerous Masses of the saints, apostles,martyrs, confessors, virgins, we must feel that in the Roman Church we have an anthology worthy of our highest admiration" (Rev. H Bewerunge, ("Address at London Eucharistic Congress"). It should be a part of a choirmaster's business to translate and explain these texts to his choir, that they may be recited or sung with the understanding as well as with the voice. To this end the "Missal for the Laity", with its Latin and parallel English version, might be used. The spirit of the liturgy might also be largely acquired from the volumes of Dom Guéranger's "Liturgical Year". As this is, however, such an extensive work, the much briefer and more direct treatments of the texts of the Proper with comment on the spirit, which ran serially through the issues of "Church Music", would prove highly serviceable.

With respect to the plainsong setting, two typical chants should be studied carefully (see Dom Eudine's articles in "Church Music", March, 1906, 222-235, on "the Gradual for Easter", "the Haec dies", and June, 1906, 360- 373, on "the Introit Gaudeamus", which give the plainsong notation with transcription into modern notation, rhythmical and dynamical analyses, etc.). Such a study will encourage the present day musician to acquire a greater familiarity with the plainsong of the Proper which present-day choirs should have: "First, there is the Gregorian Chant. The more one studies these ancient melodies the more one is impressed by their variety and rare beauty. Take the distinctiveness of their forms, the characteristic style which distinguishes an Introit from a Gradual, an Offertory from a Communion. Then within each class what variety of expression, what amazing interpretation of the words, and above all what sublime beauty and mystical spirit of prayer! Certainly, anyone who has tasted the sweetness of these chants must envy the few privileged places where there is high Mass every day and thus a chance is given of hearing all of these divine strains at least once a year" (Bewerunge).

There is a large body of settings of the classical polyphonic schools, and of modern polyphony, as also much illustration of modern homophonic music, of the proper texts. Care should be taken to see that the texts thus treated are verbally correct. For in the return to the traditional melodies of the chants, the commission found it necessary to restore, in very many instances, omitted portions of text, and in various ways to restore to use the more ancient forms of the texts. In the "Proprium de Tempore", for instance, there are about 200 textual changes. A summary view of their general character is given in "Church Music" (July, 1908), pp. 232-235. Since these altered texts differ from those still retained in the Missal, choirs which "recite" the texts will do so from the Vatican "Gradual", and not from the Missal. When the "Gradual" was first issued, it was noticed that the Propers of some American feasts (as also, of course, the Propers of many foreign dioceses as well) were omitted (see "Church Music," March, 1908, 138-134). Some publishers have added these Propers for America, in an appendix bound in with the volume. Doubtless a similar process will be adopted in the case of many foreign dioceses.

Many questions which touch the musical part of the services at Mass belong to the general subject of the reform movement in Church Music, and will be more appropriately treated under the heading ECCLESIASTICAL MUSIC. Such are, e.g. the long debated matter of the use of women's voices in our gallery choirs; the capabilities of chorister boys for the proper rendition of the Ordinary and the Proper, the use of chants with rhythmical signs added; the character of the rhythm to be used ("oratorical" or "measured") the character of accompaniment best suited to the chant; the use of musical instruments in chanted or musical Masses; the status of women as organists; the adoption of a sanctuary choir, whether in place of, or in conjunction with, the gallery choir. Historically the reform movement in the chant was signalized by the issuance, first of all, of the "Kyriale", which contains the Ordinary chants and then of the "Graduale", which comprises all the chants for Mass, but this matter also belongs to a more general treatment.

About this page

APA citation. Henry, H. (1911). Music of the Mass. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10001a.htm

MLA citation. Henry, Hugh. "Music of the Mass." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10001a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas. In Memory of Fr. C. Illical M.C.B.S.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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