, , , , , , ,


Liturgy as a Musical Form

I often encounter persons who tell me they love a certain piece of Christian liturgical music, but feel embarrassed because they are atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. We should note, therefore, that Sacred Music is not only liturgical, but that it is also, and officially, a musical form.

The Daily Liturgy

The Canonical Hours: Daily Liturgy

As we have seen in an earlier blog, Benedictine and other monks observe the Canonical Hours, thereby following the directives of Benedict of Nursia, the father of monasticism. But monks also celebrate Mass, the more important service of daily liturgy.

The Canonical Hours could be defined as a Vigil. During his agony, at Gethsemane, as he was about to be taken by the Romans and later crucified, Jesus was alone. One of his disciples had betrayed him and now everyone slept. Therefore, monks have long kept Hours.

The Mass: Daily Liturgy

Mass (liturgy)* is the central service of the Church and it commemorates the Last Supper, or the last time Jesus and his disciples broke bread and drank wine together. This explains why Mass is also called the sacrament of the Eucharist. The priest and the faithful take communion in remembrance of the Last Supper. Praticing Christians, Catholics at any rate, do not usually observe the Hours, except Vespers, occasionally. But they attend Mass every Sunday and on feast days, such as Christmas.

*or Mass (musical form); Mass (liturgy)

The Catholic Mass

The Ordinary of the Mass: Permanent Components

There are as many masses as there are days in the year, if not more, but all contain the Ordinary of the Mass. The Ordinary of the Mass is not variable and it comprises the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus DeiIte missa est. The Ite missa est (Mass is finished) is sometimes replaced in Requiem Masses, Masses for the dead or Masses commemorating the dead. Mozart’s Requiem is considered one of the foremost examples of the genre.

The Proper of the Mass: Moveable Components

There is also a Proper of the Mass, which is variable. For example, Christmas Mass differs from Easter Mass. Moreover Masses are said in honour of apostles, martyrs, saints, archangels, etc. So the Proper of the Mass changes accordingly. The Proper contains the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia or Tract, Sequence, Offertory, Communion. These components are added to the Ordinary of the Mass.

The Accentus ecclesiasticus: more Moveable Components

Also variable are those parts of the liturgy which the priest, the deacon, the subdeacon, or the acolyte sing. These are the Collect, Epistle, Gospel, Secret, Preface, Canon and the Postcommunion.

The http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postcommunion was probably introduced by Andreas Ornithoparchus in his Musicæ Activæ Micrologus, Leipzig, 1517. Parts sung by the entire choir (mass ordinary, hymns, psalms, alleluia) form the concentus.

Mass is incorporated in the Liber usualis, but masses are usually the main content of the Missal.

The Nativity: Simeon’s Song of Praise at the Consecration of the firstborn son by Aert de Gelder, c. 1700-1710

The Four Seasons: Soltices and Equinoxes

Although the moveable parts of the Mass can be used to honour an apostle, a martyr, a saint, or serve some other purpose, the liturgical calendar also corresponds to the seasons or, more precisely, the solstices and the equinoxes, as we have seen in earlier blogs. But let us repeat that, traditionally, Christmas has been celebrated near the longest night of the year. In 2011, the winter solstice was on December 22nd.

As for Easter, the most important celebration of the liturgical year, traditionally, it has been celebrated near the vernal equinox, when night and day are the same length. The summer solstice, the longest day, is St. John’s Day, celebrated on the 24th of June. As for the autumn equinox, it used be called Michaelmas, but Michaelmas has disappeared. However, on September 29th, Christians still celebrate the feast of Michael the Archangel.

In order words, nature has been the mold in which feasts were, metaphorically speaking, poured. This eased the transition between “paganism” and Christianity. Roman Saturnaliæ and the Greek kômos (comedy) were replaced by Christmas.


To sum up, although Sacred Music is liturgical, it is also a musical form. As a musical form it contains the daily liturgy, i. e. the Mass and the Canonical Hours, but it also includes oratorios (Handel’s Messiah), motets, cantatas, canticles, for the Virgin Mary especially, such as the Magnificat and the Ave Maria, and other forms or genres.

Sacred music has in fact proven an enduring musical form. John Rutter composed the music that was sung at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton and is also the composer of a Requiem, as is Andrew Lloyd Webber, or Baron Lloyd-Webber.

Moreover, the story of sacred music is also the story of polyphony “music in which voices sing together in independent parts”[i] in which it resembles the story of the Madrigal, to which composers kept adding voices.

This blog is now rather long, so I will end it. But I will include several musical examples from which you can choose.  


The Lacrimosa and the Piu Jesu are part of a Requiem Mass. Here is a description of a Nunc dimittis (a song of praise).

(Click on title to hear music.)


[i] J. P. Burkholder, D. J. Grout and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, 7th edition (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company), p. 87.


© Micheline Walker
15 December 2011