The Mass is the ritual of the Eucharist, and from the earliest days of the Christian church its central importance in the Christian service attracted a large musical participation throughout its various sections. It became divided into two parts – the Proper which varies according to the day in the church calendar and gained a large early plainchant repertory; and the Ordinary to fixed texts which generally developed and were first set to music from the 7th to 11th centuries.
The structure is as follows (parts of the Mass Ordinary are in italics):
- Alleluia (or Tract) Sequence
- Ite misse est (or Benedicamus Domino)
By the 14th century the Ordinary mass predominated. The first setting known to be written by a single composer dates from about 1350. By the early Baroque period musical settings had gained all the trappings and sophistication of the music of the great composers of the era, and various parts, especially the Gloria and Credo, were themselves being divided, and were taking on lives of their own.
Despite the preponderance of settings by catholic Italian composers, the pinnacle of the baroque mass is the great B minor Mass of J. S. Bach.
The great Classical composers – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert wrote notable masses - many of them exploited the greater resources available at the time and even today they are considered “big works”. Through the Romantic era and into the later years of the 20th century the setting of the Mass has been an act of faith for composers as disparate as Franz Liszt, Anton Bruckner, Antonin Dvorak, Igor Stravinsky and Francis Poulenc, although more and more they have been writing with one eye on the concert hall.
Missa Brevis, literally, “short mass”, is a term first used about 1500, and became popular later that century. At first a truncated setting of the Mass Ordinary, during the 17th and 18th centuries it began to consist of the first two parts – the Kyrie and Gloria - of the Mass Ordinary. It has lasted into the modern era with a notable setting by Benjamin Britten. The Lutheran version of the Mass consists of these two parts only.