Cantata Mass Trends

The “Neapolitan” style of church vocal music evolved in Italy in the 17th Century as the dense, polyphonic, unaccompanied choral “Roman” style gave way to a “new music” of expanded writing for solo voices accompanied by instruments.  Schools in Naples and Venice began to teach the “new style” along with the “old style,” which clever composers incorporated into a “mixed style” using both.  

The old style, exemplified by the masses of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1595-1624), typically used overlapping, “telescoped” text among the voices, also called “polytextuality”, resulting in a dense, flowing sound which at least partially obscures the clarity of the words.  Palestrina’s masses are lovely and consonant, but every part of them sounds much like every other part, suitable as background music to meditation, perhaps, but offering little of interest for the ear to hang onto.  The old style also featured learned choral fugues, though Palestrina himself employed them mostly in his motets.  It was this fugal form that became an important part of the mixed style.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell a single fugue from a double fugue from a fugato from just imitative voices.  If you can, you’re probably a “scholar” who likes to study scores and doesn’t care particularly how music sounds to the ear.  If so, these essays are probably not for you.  But if you just want to listen intelligently to eighteenth-century orchestrally-accompanied Catholic masses (and who doesn’t?), certain patterns that are easy to pick up can add to the enjoyment.  In these notes, if the voices in a chorus sing pretty much at the same time in big block chords, I will call it Type I writing.  If the voices enter one at a time and play off each other in complicated ways, I will call it Type II writing.  That way we don’t have to worry about whether it’s a fugue or just a wannabe.  The important thing is that Type I and Type II music sound different from each other.

The new style featured Type I homophonic block choral writing and extended vocal solos, duets, trios, and quartets in most parts of the mass, while the retention of the “churchy” feel of Type II polyphony in others completed the transition to the mixed style.  A festive sound evolved as well, with rich orchestral scoring replacing the mostly a cappella austerity of the old style.

In the new style, the six parts of the Catholic mass, which I will call movements—Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei—began to be divided into sections in order to showcase solo voices, making the masses longer and longer.  Because of the resemblance to the divisions of other sacred and secular texts, these masses were often called “cantata-style” as well as “Neapolitan-style”.

The sections were particularly prevalent in the long and boring texts of Gloria and Credo.  Since these were settings of Christian religious words, composers jumped on any excuse for three-part structure as an organizing feature.  I recommend having the file “Mass Words” open for ready reference as you read these essays and will provide a link to it at the beginning of each.

Kyrie is a slam dunk with only three phrases; there is often a Type I chorus for “Kyrie eleison,” a solo or duet for “Christe eleison”, and a Type II chorus for the second “Kyrie eleison”.

The words of Gloria are basically one long prayer extolling various attributes of the deity—“Glory be to God blah blah blah amen”—but there are several stretches of text that divide nicely into threes.  The material at the beginning of the Gloria is not so felicitous, but the grammar there 

lends itself well enough to be divided into three sections:  “Gloria in excelsis”, “Laudamus te”, and “Gratias agimus”.  Then there are two repetitions of “Domine Deus” surrounding one of “Domine Fili”, each followed with appositive material.  Then there are two repetitions of “Qui tollis” and one of “Qui sedes”, each followed by entreaties, two of which are “Miserere nobis”.  “Domine Deus” and “Qui tollis” lend themselves well to antiphonal treatment, with alternations between chorus and soloists.  “Quoniam” is followed by three attributes of God.  Then the whole shebang can finish with a big chorus, usually Type II, on “Cum Sancto Spiritu” all by itself

The words of Credo actually tell a story and lend themselves to being structured as a mini-cantata in three sections, set off with full stops, pauses, changes in tempo, or changes from chorus to soloists:

The first section is sometimes divided into three at “Credo in unum Deum,” “Et in unum Dominum,” and “Qui propter nos homines”; the third section sometimes at “Et resurrexit”, “Et in spiritum sanctum”, and “Et unam sanctam catholicam”.  Again, the last phrase, “Et vitam venturi saeculi”, often stands alone as a rousing Type II chorus.

Sanctus is a short text, like Kyrie.  If it is divided, it is generally into two, at “Sanctus” and “Pleni sunt caeli”, with the line “Hosanna in excelsis”, often another Type II chorus, used as a third part.

Benedictus, another short text, is usually not divided and is often a flowing, extended, perhaps songlike solo or duet, with multiple repetitions of the words.  It is followed by a usually verbatim repeat of “Hosanna”.

The shortness of the text of Agnus Dei provides a final opportunity for three-part structure, as the words, “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi”, are required liturgically to be repeated three times, offering again the opportunity for antiphonal treatment.  The first two statements of “Agnus Dei” are followed by “Miserere nobis”; the third is followed instead by the line “Dona nobis pacem”.  This takes on a life of its own in most cantata masses with new music and often a new tempo, and is usually treated as a separate section or at least an extensive coda to “Agnus Dei” and to the mass itself.  “Dona nobis pacem” is sometimes another Type II chorus.

Composers certainly picked and chose among these and other combinations of the text and tended to have their favorites, but these divisions of text were not uncommon.

Finally, a number of “tone-painting” conventions abound, particularly in Credo.  The words “Descendit de caelis” are often set with a descending melodic theme; the words “Et ascendit in caelum” are often set to a rising melodic theme.  “Et incarnatus est” is often for female voices; “Crucifixus” is often for male voices.  The music generally slows respectfully for the words “Et mortuos” and “Mortuorum”.  Similarly, in Gloria, “Gloria in excelsis” is often set to joyous, rafter-rattling music, “Et in terra pax” to quiet, peaceful music, and “Tu solus Altissimus” to high music.

These Neapolitan-style composers soon found that the new style was also well-suited to opera—and opera paid a lot better than church music.  They began to spread out, particularly to Germany/Austria/Bohemia, where they found dozens of powerful and wealthy Catholic patrons with large orchestras and excellent singers who supported both genres.  This led to both secular and sacred music being written as strings of almost interchangeable arias, duets, and choruses.  

Masses were mercifully spared the recitative, a meandering solo voice accompanied by a harpsichord, used primarily to advance the complicated, preposterous plots of operas until the soloist could hold forth in song about such stock subjects as love, loneliness, jealousy, revenge, and death.  Instead, many mass movements had grand orchestral accompaniment, using strings, trumpets, trombones, timpani, one or more organs, and sometimes flutes, horns, and oboes for the glory of both God and the patron.

The sacred works of Naples-trained composers who remained in Italy, such as Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), Francesco Durante (1684-1755), Leonardo Leo (1694-1744), and Niccolò Jommelli (1714-1774), consisted primarily of arias and duets and, from recorded examples, the sound is quite similar to their operas—pompous and stilted.  However, the Naples-trained composers who settled in the “German” lands made much more extensive use of the mixed style involving both Type I and Type II choruses and increasingly adopted a lyrical, accessible vocal sound more pleasing to the ears of ordinary people—folk-like songs rather than opera-like arias.

We don’t know what masses Mozart might have heard or studied by 1768, when he wrote his first one, which is cantata-style.  We do know that from an early age he could hear a musical work or read its score and later write out all its parts nearly perfectly.  What he might have been able to do with a CD collection of his forebears and contemporaries boggles the mind.  Through the miracle of recorded music, we can quickly survey the eighty or so years of the cantata mass preceding Mozart and make some guesses about what his sponge of a musical mind might have soaked up by the time he was ready to distill his own elixir.  We are indebted to those scholars noted above, who have sifted through musical scores—hundreds, perhaps thousands of manuscripts in churches and monasteries—to pick the ones they deem worthy of recommending for recording.

All we have to do is listen.