Mass blows in from the west

Composing a mass is a daunting task. I’ve tried. Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei – all quite manageable, but what about all the words in the Gloria and, especially, the Credo? No wonder many contemporary composers have acknowledged the modern custom of saying these words during Christian worship and not offered a musical setting, simply describing their works (consisting of K, G, S, B & AD) as Missa Brevis.

This option, however, was not available to their Renaissance forbears who nonetheless were prolific composers of masses. Our favourite Victoria, with 20, seems positively idle compared with Lassus’s 60 or Palestrina’s 100+! So how did they do it?

Occasionally, masses were composed entirely from new material (Palestrina’s Missa Brevis, which, despite the title, does include a Credo) with no musical connections between the movements. But mostly composers took as a starting point music that already existed, either just a melody line (a plainchant hymn, for example) or a choral motet. Suitable sections of these could be re-texted, probably with a few rhythmic alterations, and combined with new music to make a seamless whole (Victoria’s motet O quam gloriosum and the mass based on it were highlights of our 2011 Victoria quatercentenary concerts). A melody line could be mined for melodic shapes or embedded just as it was in the middle of the texture with newly-composed music dancing around it. Sometimes the melodies thus exploited were secular in origin: the famous tune L’homme armé (the French equivalent of Greensleeves) has been used over 40 times as the basis for a mass – including Du Fay, Josquin and Palestrina in the Renaissance and Peter Maxwell Davies and Karl Jenkins in our own time.

The first English composer to base a mass on a secular source melody was John Taverner (c1490-1545) in his Western Wynde Mass and the result, as you can hear on June 25th is brilliantly planned, sonically spectacular and Beethovenian in its scale and vision. Essentially, the mass is an extended set of variations in which the tune appears nine times (a symbolically significant number, representing the angelic choirs among other things) in each movement, sometimes boldly stated at the top of a comparatively simple texture, sometimes a serene descant to lower parts of dizzying complexity and at other times an unlikely bass. Those who heard our performances of music by John Browne and Robert Wylkynson from the Eton Choir Book will recognise this ornate style from their music, only a decade older.

And Taverner addressed the problem I raised at the start of these musings by leaving out some of the words!