Wednesday, May 6, 2020

An exposition of the Requiem Mass

City Choir Dunedin with Dunedin Symphony
Orchestra, 2015, Knox Church. Photo: P. du Plessis
If you are unfamiliar with the structure of the Roman Catholic Mass, or the Anglican and Lutheran communion services (the standard forms of which are largely derived from the Roman rite), you may have wondered about the selection of texts set to music in choral Masses and Requiem Masses. Even if you are familiar with the Mass you may still wonder why these particular passages are chosen to be set to elaborate music.

The standard Latin Mass, in use throughout the Roman Catholic Church from 1570 to 1970 with very little variation, is known as the Tridentine Mass, as it was standardised by the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent was held in 25 sessions between 1545 to 1563 at Trento – now in Northern Italy – and not, as some music undergraduates have maintained, by the river of that name in central England! The modern (post-Vatican II) form of the Mass, and of its Anglican and Lutheran counterparts, is structurally similar, but with detail changes, and of course vernacular language is usually now used. The texts of the various musical elements of the Mass are however of much greater antiquity; the 'Kyrie eleison' may date from the 7th century, while the Credo (Nicene Creed) is the most modern, introduced into the Roman Mass in 1014.

The texts which may be set to music, and normally sung by cantors or choir, are divided into two categories: the ‘Ordinary’: texts which never change, and with some occasional exceptions are sung at every Mass; and the ‘Propers’ which are specific to the day or season. These are separated by spoken texts, including readings from the bible between the Gloria and Credo, separated by the Gradual and Alleluia or Tract (with or without the Sequence or Prose, a hymn) and prayers, including the lengthy prayer of Eucharistic preparation said or intoned by the celebrating priest(s), which is interrupted by the Sanctus and Benedictus.

In monastic establishments all the choral elements would usually have been sung to plainchant, but it was perhaps inevitable that the frequently-repeated texts would sometimes be sung in a more elaborate manner; the earliest-surviving complete polyphonic setting of the Mass Ordinary dates from the fourteenth century. Polyphonic literally means ‘multi-voiced’; polyphonic settings of the Propers were also composed, particularly for important feasts – we know these as ‘motets’. The Ite, missa est (at the end of the Ordinary) was seldom set to polyphony as it simply takes the form of a priestly command followed by the short congregational response ‘Deo Gracias’ (‘Praise the Lord’). 

There was some local variation in the position of the Benedictus in the liturgy, and it did not always follow directly on from the Sanctus. It is therefore often composed as a separate movement. In some places it accompanied lengthy liturgical action, hence some very lengthy settings in the works of Haydn, Schubert et al

Musical settings of the Requiem Mass are distinguished from settings of the standard Mass by the inclusion by the composer of some or all of the Propers for a Requiem:

Apart from Fauré’s Requiem, you are probably most familiar with Mozart’s setting. The structure of this is confused somewhat by the division of some of the longer texts into two or more movements (he divides the Sequence ‘Dies Irae’ into six sections), but it essentially follows the structure above (excluding the Gradual and Tract), concluding with the ‘Lux Aeterna’.

Fauré described his setting as his personal take on the funeral rite; he saw death as ‘a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience…’ Fauré made some amendments to the standard Requiem structure. The Introit and ‘Kyrie’ are run together; these were usually sung back-to-back. He omitted the full ‘Dies Irae’, with its emphasis on hellfire and judgement, although these subjects are also aired in the shorter ‘Libera me’, borrowed from the burial rite, which he added in 1893. He also set ‘Pie Jesu’ (the last two lines of the ‘Dies Irae’) as a stand-alone motet, to be sung between the ‘Sanctus’ and the ‘Agnus Dei’. The ‘Lux Aeterna’ runs on from the ‘Agnus Dei’; perhaps in contemporary Parisian usage these texts were sung one after the other. He concluded with the ‘In paradisum’ which had not previously been commonly included by composers of choral Requiems.

Maurice Duruflé followed Fauré’s structure but set a separate ‘Lux Aeterna’. He also based his music on the Gregorian plainchant melodies to which the Requiem texts had been sung for centuries.

Several 19th-century composers set the Requiem texts but had no intention of their works being used liturgically – Verdi’s colossal setting is the one best known today. These are purely concert pieces, almost operatic in musical conception.

Brahms’s German Requiem came from a different tradition, and followed on from Requiem settings for the Lutheran Church by Schütz and Praetorius; Brahms uses portions of scripture reflecting on death and immortality, and not the liturgical texts.

The twentieth century has seen a fusing of elements of the liturgical Requiem with Brahms’s approach; liturgical texts interspersed with reflective texts, not necessarily of biblical origin, usually intended for the concert hall. Britten’s War Requiem is perhaps the most well-known example of this in English-speaking countries, but it is but one of many works based loosely on the liturgical structure; John Rutter’s Requiem takes a similar approach although with very different musical results.

By David Burchell, Musical Director of City Choir Dunedin.

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