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Origins of the cyclic Mass

March 20, 2008

Manfred Bukofzer discusses the origins of the cyclic Mass in this extract from Chapter VII of
Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music (1950).

My comments are in square brackets. I have omitted Bukofzer’s footnotes.

The Origins of the Cyclic Mass

Since the early days of musical research Mass cycles of the fifteenth century have attracted special attention of scholars and musicians alike for reasons that are still valid today. The cyclic Mass holds a central place in the music of the period because it embodies the most representative and extended form of Renaissance music. Not without justification have early historians like Ambros molded their conception of the period after this form. Very little would be left of the chapters on the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in his Geschichte der Musik if the sections on the Mass were omitted. It is no exaggeration to assert that the cycle of the Ordinary of the Mass was the focal point on which all the artistic aspirations and technical achievements of the composer converged. It held as dominating and prominent a place in the hierarchy of musical values as the symphony did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The idea of combining the five parts of the Ordinary of the Mass into one cycle is not as old as generally believed. From the liturgical point of view there was no need to unify the unchangeable items of the Ordinary, because they are not sung in direct succession during the celebration of the Mass, except for the Kyrie and Gloria. Even if there were unity it would be made immaterial by the intervening prayers and chants. It is for this reason that in medieval music only individual movements were set to music just as they were used in the liturgy. The first suggestions of the cyclic Mass are to be found in the fourteenth century. The so-called Mass of Tournai, which has for a long time been regarded as the first cyclic Mass, cannot strictly be regarded as a Mass cycle. Its constituent parts were composed separately and were only later arbitrarily combined. No musical relations exist between the single movements. They are moreover, composed in different styles. The first cycle known to have been composed as a unit comes from the pen of the French composer-poet Guillaume de Machaut. There can be no question that in this work the Ordinary is in a certain sense a six-section cycle (the sixth part is the Ite Missa est, which Machaut has included in the musical setting). It has sometimes been claimed that Machaut’s Mass is unified musically by recurrent motives, but this claim is open to question because the motives seem to be figures and formulae that are not characteristic enough and are not placed conspicuously enough to serve a really unifying function. Actually some of the movements are composed freely in conductus style without use of plainchant, while others are written like isorhythmic motets with the proper plainchants in the tenor. The unity displayed by this Mass is primarily that of the liturgy, not of musical material.

The distinction between musical and liturgical unity is a crucial point, the importance of which has not been sufficiently stressed in past discussions. Without it the significance and spiritual background of the Mass cycle cannot possibly be understood. It takes a very bold and independent mind to conceive the idea that the invariable parts of the Mass cycle should be composed not as separate liturgical sections, but as a set of five musically coherent compositions. In the latter case the means of unification are provided by the composer, not the liturgy. This idea, which is the historical premise of the cyclic Ordinary, betrays the weakening of purely liturgical consideration and strengthening of essentially aesthetic concepts. The “absolute” work of art begins to encroach on liturgical function. We discover here the typical Renaissance attitude – and it is indeed the Renaissance philosophy of art that furnished the spiritual background to the cyclic Mass. The beginnings of the Mass cycle coincide with the beginnings of the musical Renaissance.

It is therefore hardly surprising that the decisive turn in the development of the cyclic Mass occurred only in the early fifteenth century. At this time the first attempts were made to unify the movements of the Ordinary by means of the same musical material.

[Bukofzer discusses the two methods used by composers to unify the cyclic Mass:

1. Using a characteristic motive at the beginning of each movement.

2. Using the same cantus firmus in the tenor of each movement.]

Bukofzer, Manfred F., Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1951, pp. 217-219.

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