Six centuries. Ten composers. One text.
This week’s blog is a journey that savours the flavours of settings of Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest), the opening text of the Gloria section of music that has been written for use during the celebration of the Mass in churches down the ages. The overview might surprise in the way these sacred settings are sometimes more than happy to hold hands with secular styles.
We start with a couple of parody masses. These were settings that started not with a blank sheet of paper, but with material taken from a preexisting vocal piece, either sacred or secular.
Our first example takes fragments from a secular chanson, L’homme armé (The armed man), that was popular in the Late Middle Ages; so popular, in fact, that dozens of works used it as their starting point. The music is by Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474) who was based in Italy for many years before returning to his native Cambrai in France. He spent the last sixteen years of his life there, enjoying considerable distinction as one of the leading composers of his time, if not the greatest. Despite its secular roots, the music sounds entirely devotional and well suited for a religious setting. Here’s the opening section of the Gloria.
Missa L’homme armé (8.556702)
Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) spent 20 years in Italy between his birth and death in Spain, where he returned to lead the quiet life of a priest. But his well-paid and influential position as maestro of the choir in a Madrid convent, where Charles V’s daughter Maria spent her old age, was far from a retirement. With plentiful resources at his disposal it’s no wonder that so much of his writing is characterised by a huge underlying optimism and confidence.
Victoria was particularly fond of using the parody technique. Only one of his twenty Masses was composed without recourse to the method. I’ve chosen the Gloria from his Missa O quam gloriosum, based on an early motet of that title which he published in 1572.
Missa O quam gloriosum (8.550575)
The more optimistic bounce you may have detected in Victoria’s music goes up a notch in our next example by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). The fact that he, too, spent the years 1706-10 in Italy is testament to the country’s position of influence on the European musical scene. Handel wrote his setting of the Gloria we are going to hear in 1707 for the Marquis of Ruspoli. Scored for soprano and two violins with continuo accompaniment, it was to be performed at his country estate at Vignanello. With its florid melodic lines, a simple change to secular words would easily see the music transformed into an operatic aria.
Gloria in excelsis Deo (8.572587)
Complete settings of the Mass were destined to get ever longer as the years passed, and in hopping from that Baroque music to Franz Joseph Haydn in the ensuing Classical period, we end up in that happy part of any record label’s catalogue — Haydn’s great Mass settings. But there were occasions when lengthy extravagance wasn’t appropriate to a particular celebration of the Mass, so I’m going to do a brief detour into the world of the Missa Brevis (Short Mass). Haydn wrote one such work, the Little Organ Mass (scored for violins and organ) and to make brevity more easily attainable, what better way than to chop the majority of the text into four and superimpose the words in the four vocal lines, so you get to the end four times quicker than with the usual approach. In this case, well under a minute!
Little Organ Mass (8.554416)
Our next three examples were written by composers better known for their operas, something that the spirit of their offerings can hardly conceal. While the German tradition observed a strict distinction between sacred and secular styles, the 19th-century Italian Mass can feel more akin to attending an operatic performance. Donizetti’s (1797-1848) church music, consisting of at least a hundred items, has hardly been explored. Individual movements were often later recycled by the composer, in cantata-like fashion, to form a complete Mass, and it is this ad hoc technique that Franz Hauk used to create a ‘new’ work, the Messa di Gloria. Hauk is the conductor on our recording. The music is the Gloria in C major which Donizetti wrote in 1818.
Gloria in C major (8.573605)
Just when you thought that it would be hard to beat that spirit of irreverence in a spiritual environment, up pops Rossini two years later with his Messa di Gloria. A critic who attended the first performance in 1820 at the church of San Ferdinando in Naples declared it a “profanation of the sacred place.” It wasn’t performed again for 150 years; and a further twenty-one years before our recording was made.
Messa di Gloria (CDS074)
And if you like cherries on your icing on your cake, you’ll no doubt enjoy Giacomo Puccini’s robust Gloria from an early work he completed in 1880 at the age of twenty-two. It, too, is titled Messa di Gloria.
Messa di Gloria (8.555304)
We leave the Italian tradition by moving to England and to the Missa Brevis Benjamin Britten wrote within the space of a few weeks in 1959. It was inspired by George Malcolm’s work as choirmaster at London’s Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral. The sound world he developed with the boys there had a fresh, natural and a slightly harder-edged vocal timbre, quite distinct from the smooth blend typically sought at many Anglican cathedral choirs. Britten loved it and his Missa Brevis for 3-part boys’ voices and organ was written in response. The Gloria is noted for its seven-in-a-bar sycnopations.
Missa Brevis in D (8.554791)
Across the pond now to Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, a work intended for concert performance that certainly lets its ecclesiastical hair down. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis presented Bernstein with an irresistible commission: to compose the inaugural piece for the opening of the newly constructed Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. This was right up his alley. Bernstein wrote: “I’ve always wanted to compose a service of one sort or another, and I toyed with ecumenical services that would combine elements from various religions and sects, of ancient or tribal beliefs, but it never all came together in my mind until Jacqueline Onassis asked me to write a piece dedicated to her late husband… The Mass is also an extremely dramatic event in itself — it even suggests a theater work.”
Originally titled Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers, the work premiered in 1971. It’s a visionary period piece that seems to gain more relevance as time goes on. Let’s listen to three short sections: Gloria tibi, Gloria in Excelsis and Half of the People (the words of which were a Christmas present to Bernstein from singer/songwriter Paul Simon).
Gloria tibi (8.559622-23)
Gloria in Excelsis (8.559622-23)
Half of the People (8.559622-23)
We end back across the pond and music with slightly more English reserve … but not too much. There’s a link with the American scene we’ve just heard from, in that John Rutter’s Gloria was composed just three years after the Bernstein Mass; it was also an American commission, as Rutter explains:
The Gloria (1974) is a milestone in my career because it was the first major commission I had received from overseas. I was approached out of the blue by a concert choir in the American midwest called the Voices of Mel Olson, who wanted me to compose an accessible but challenging choral work of about twenty minutes’ duration which I was to come over and guest-conduct.
Their conductor visited me in Cambridge to discuss the commission, and the guidelines were laid down: a familiar text, preferably sacred; instrumental accompaniment, but (for budgetary reasons) less than an orchestra; no professional soloists; and a positive, ‘upfront’ quality so that a non-specialist audience could enjoy the music at first hearing. All this steered my thoughts towards the text of the Gloria, which forms a complete section of the familiar Ordinary of the Mass, beginning with the words of the angels to the shepherds on Christmas Night, not often set to music on its own.
We’ll end with the first section of the piece which, as Rutter intended, is guaranteed to instantly appeal to non-specialists and specialists alike.