Music: A Trinity of Masses

The Mass has probably been set to music more often than any text in history. Three new CD releases of early- and mid-19th century Masses remind us of the immense treasure contained in the dormant Catholic cultural heritage. We need that reminder in the context of today’s liturgical impoverishment, the musical expression of which gives us no real sign of the actual reenactment of our salvation. The superb quality of these three relatively unknown works startles us with the realization that the Mass used to call forth, in a regular way, the very best that composers could marshal. Unlike so many of today’s liturgical works, these Masses do not patronizingly look down at their congregations but rather endeavor to lift them up.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (17781837) has enjoyed a resurgence of late, generated largely by Stephen Hough’s brilliant performances on the Chandos label of two of Hummel’s best piano concertos. Now all of his piano concertos and piano sonatas are available, and Chandos is dipping into the treasures of the five Masses he wrote as kapellmeister for the Esterhazy family, a position in which he followed Haydn. Manifesting the influences of his predecessor, and of his teacher, Mozart, Hummel’s Masses, Op. 111 and Op. 77, are charged with high energy and flow with a melodic mellifluousness. Chandos recently completed an excellent series of recordings of Haydn’s Masses with Richard Hickox and the Collegium Musicum 90, and it makes perfect sense that these same forces should now continue with this, the first release in what will be a complete traversal of Hummel’s Masses.

Stylistically these works are contained within the Classical world of Mozart and Haydn. According to English diarist and traveler Vincent Novelo, Hummel would show the Mass scores to Haydn for his emendations before their publication. Written for chorus and orchestra alone, the Masses are distinguished by the absence of soloists. They are also somewhat of a departure from Hummel’s typical ornamental brilliance, familiar from his piano compositions—a feature many critics have thought presaged the works of Chopin. These Masses are deeply devout works devoid of extraneous decoration or flights of fancy. That said, they are nonetheless melodically rich, through-composed, and endowed with a variety of orchestral expression that easily compensates for whatever interest may be lost through the absence of soloists.

Hummel adeptly varies the choral writing between homophony and polyphony. Witness the extraordinary fugues at the end of the Gloria and the Credo of Op. 111 and the Gloria of Op. 77. In the Credo of Op. 77, Hummel skips through the text with great rhythmic vivacity, but somewhat perfunctorily and without the amount of musical characterization that he achieves in Op. 111, until he reaches the “Et resurrexit.” At six minutes for the entire Credo, it is an exhilarating ride but seems in a bit of a rush to affirm the “Amen.” Overall, these are glorious works that confirm that Hummel took to heart Haydn’s advice: “Go now, and remember that everything beautiful and good comes from above.” Chandos also includes Hummel’s delightful setting of the Marian offertory text, Alma Virgo, which shows his more florid style.

Jan Václav Voříšek (1791-1825) knew Hummel in Vienna and studied piano with him. He also beat Schubert in a competition to become court organist. The enterprising Cedille label out of Chicago, created by James Ginsburg, son of the Supreme Court justice, has issued the premiere recording of Voříšek’s Mass in B-flat Major, along with his Symphony in D Major. While the Symphony has hovered around the fringes of the repertory, keeping Voříšek’s name alive, this recording of the Mass should do a great deal to confirm what a treasure was lost to music in his early death from tuberculosis at the age of 34.

Votikk’s Symphony is beholden to early Beethoven. (In fact, he apparently lifted a section from Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony for the first movement’s exposition.) Voříšek’s work is like Beethoven’s in its energy, drive, and harmonic punch, though its melodic delicacy remains firmly implanted in an earlier era. The Mass, written for the Viennese court in the early 1820s, however, remains in the fecund world of Haydn’s late Masses. Within that tradition, it serves nobly and distinctively. It is highly charged, strongly expressive, and particularly effective in its use of the minor mode in key sections of the text. In the Gloria, the Holy Spirit gets the best of it in the majestic fugal writing at “Cum Sancto Spiritu” to the Amen. Interestingly, the “Et incarnatus est” is not at all joyous or sweet (I wish the tenor were not so wobbly in his entrance here). In a minor key, the cellos preface the text with a troubling rumination. It is solemn, almost funereal music, as if Christ were being entombed in flesh as a foretaste of the later “et sepultus est.” The worrying motif in the cellos is repeated before the Crucifixus. Clearly, this part of the Credo is from Christ’s perspective. The repetition of the Et resurrexit signals its central significance. These are some of the many original touches by Voříšek.

One slightly jarring note is that the performance leaves out the opening lines from the Gloria and the Credo. It is weird to hear the Gloria begin with “Et in terra pax” and the Credo with “Patrem omnipotentem.” Voříšek omitted the openings only for the officiating priest to intone them. Surely, Cedille should have passed them on to the soloists. The Czech National Symphony Orchestra gives excellent performances of both the Symphony and the Mass, where they are joined in the latter by soloists and the Prague Chamber Chorus, under conductor Paul Freeman.

Johannes Verhulst (1816-1891) is a Dutch composer of whom I had never heard, which makes his Mass all the more of a shock. First of all, “Mass” is altogether too modest a title for this monumental work, which is twice as long as the Hummel and Voříšek works. This heaven-storming paean would raise the roof off any cathedral. “Grande Messe” or “Missa Solemnis” would serve much better, and fit it within the tradition to which it properly belongs. Seldom has a composer so fully exploited all the choral and orchestral resources in a Mass as Verhulst has done here. One thinks of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Gounod’s St. Cecilia Mass. At its 1847 premiere, it was the largest-scale sacred composition by a Dutch composer and remained so for some time. How can a work of this magnitude and magnificence have escaped attention all these years? Chandos deserves great praise for resurrecting it in an excellent performance by the Netherlands Concerto Choir and the Residentie Orchestra The Hague, under conductor Mathias Bamert.

The Kyrie begins in a serene, consolatory manner until it suddenly bursts forth in almost a demand for mercy that then exhausts itself into a plaintive plea. A muscular fugue of some majesty follows that once again collapses into supplication. The Kyrie is so impressive that one wonders: Where is Verhulst going to go from here?

The answer comes soon enough in the tumultuous, almost frantic opening of the Gloria that breathtakingly blazes forth. One almost gets the impression that this is a very proud, powerful person on his knees. If so, at the “Qui tollis peccata mundi,” the writing is so delicate, touching, and tender that one has the sense that this proud person has been humbled. At the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” Verhulst reprises the thrilling music from the Gloria’s opening. The full realization of God’s glory engulfs the supplicant through to the mammoth fugue at the movement’s conclusion. At nearly 20 minutes, this is one of the most extraordinary Glorias that I have heard.

Only three and a half minutes shorter, the Credo is equally brilliant in its word painting, melodic quality, and majestic sweep. It begins with a sweetly lilting affirmation of faith before showing its muscle. The Sanctus is perhaps the most seraphic of the movements. After the reverential opening, an unusually sprightly “pleni sunt coeli” gives the first hint that God’s glory is also playful. The Agnus Dei, like the Kyrie, alternates between strength and weakness in its moving supplication. It is not possible here to catalog the many merits of this Mass. Besides, it is far more important for you to hear them.

These three Masses are major finds. They join my list of recent discoveries of other 19th-century liturgical works, such as Friedrich Kiel’s Missa Solemnis on the Capriccio label and Heinrich von Herzogenberg’s Missa on CPO. If this is what people were listening to in a century in which people were purportedly losing their faith, what is our music saying about us?

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...