Viennese Classical Masses?

By Mahrt, William | Sacred Music, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Viennese Classical Masses?

Mahrt, William, Sacred Music

The present issue includes several articles touching upon the sacred music of Viennese classicism. This provides an opportunity to reflect upon questions that arise concerning that repertory. These have been persistent questions, asked in their own time, in succeeding generations, and even in the present.

The fundamental question is one that pertains to the church music of our own time as well: to what extent can the music of the church adopt the idioms and procedures of the surrounding secular musical world? We read complaints from the eighteenth century that the church music had become too operatic, that it did not respect the conventional distinctions between music of the church, chamber, and theater. Yet masses of Haydn and Mozart particularly, but also of other composers--Schubert, Michael Haydn, Weber, and even Beethoven--have had a stable place in the repertories of certain large city churches, particularly in Europe, but also in the United States; so it will be useful to consider the issues surrounding these works to come to an understanding of their use in the sacred liturgy.

The focus should be upon the normative works, not the curious exceptions. For example, there are certain masses of the type missa brevis in which the texts of the longer movements, particularly the Credo, are "telescoped," the text is divided among the four voice parts, which then sing four successive lines of text simultaneously, resulting in a very brief setting of the complete text, but one for which it is difficult for any listener to discern just what is being sung. At the opposite extreme are extended compositions with ample space for the development of each movement; perhaps the most obvious example is the Missa solemnis of Beethoven, a work whose music alone totals a duration of well over an hour. (Recordings show durations of about seventy-two minutes; contrast this with nineteen minutes for Mozart's Missa brevis, K. 275, or his Missa longa, K. 262 at twenty-seven minutes.) The liturgy which included such a work would be quite long, but more important, the music would most likely dwarf the other parts of the liturgy. Whether such works are remotely conceivable for liturgical use is not the point here; rather the question is, are the standard works often sung for the sacred liturgy appropriate for this use?

To take a contrasting example: my choir frequently sings masses of Orlando di Lasso; these are mainly parody masses--masses based upon the polyphonic materials of a pre-existing piece, a motet or a chanson. I usually choose a mass based upon a motet, since the borrowed material is more securely sacred. Some of Lasso's masses use a borrowed chanson so transparently as to raise the question of whether their sacred character is compromised by it. Yet, others show striking differences from the secular piece. For example, Lasso's Missa Il me suffit: the chanson is a simple piece, very homophonic with considerable repetition. The mass uses the tune of the chanson, but incorporates it into a relatively complex contrapuntal texture. For anyone who knows the chanson, the difference between the secular and sacred versions is quite clear; the elements of the secular have been transformed into a sacred work, have been set aside to sacred purposes and distinguished from the secular by a remarkable change in musical style. (1)

The questions are similar for the Viennese classical masses: are there distinguishing features that set off the style of orchestrally accompanied solo, vocal, and choral music sufficiently to maintain the sacred character needed for use in the liturgy? First, a fundamental issue should be cleared up. These works are often called "concert Masses," placing them in a category of works such as the War Requiem of Benjamin Britten or the Mass of Leonard Bernstein, implying that they were composed for performance in a concert rather than in a Mass.

Nothing could be farther from the truth; they were composed for and regularly performed for the liturgy. …

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