Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 2.djvu/243

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MASS.
231
 

Roman style: a style, the beauties of which were speedily recognised from one end of Europe to the other, exercising more or less influence over the productions of all other Schools, and thereby bringing the music of the Mass, during the latter half of the Sixteenth Century, to a degree of perfection beyond which it has never since advanced.

The Sixth Epoch was one of universal decadence. In obedience to the exigencies of a law with the operation of which the Art-historian is only too familiar, the glories of the 'Golden Age' had no sooner reached their full maturity, than they began to show signs of incipient decay. The bold unprepared discords of Monteverde, and the rapid rise of Instrumental Music, were, alike, fatal to the progress of the Polyphonic Schools. Monteverde, it is true, only employed his newly-invented harmonies in sæcular music: but, what revolutionist ever yet succeeded in controlling the course of the stone he had once set in motion! Other Composers soon dragged the unwonted dissonances into the Service of the Church: and, beyond all doubt, the unprepared seventh sounded the death-knell of the Polyphonic Mass. The barrier between the tried, and the untried, once broken down, the laws of counterpoint were no longer held sacred. The old paths were forsaken; and those who essayed to walk in the new wandered vaguely, hither and thither, in search of an ideal, as yet but very imperfectly conceived, in pursuit of which they laboured on, through many weary years, cheered by very inadequate results, and little dreaming of the effect their work was fated to exercise upon generations of musicians then unborn. A long and dreary period succeeded, during which no work of any lasting reputation was produced: for, the Masses of Carissimi, Colonna, and the best of their contemporaries, though written in solemn earnest, and interesting enough when regarded as attempts at a new style, bear no comparison with the compositions of the preceding epoch; while those arranged by Benevoli (1602–1672) and the admirers of his School, for combinations of four, six, eight, and even twelve distinct Choirs, were forgotten, with the occasions for which they were called into existence. Art was passing through a transitional phase, which must needs be left to work out its own destiny in its own way. The few faithful souls who still clung to the traditions of the Past were unable to uphold its honours: and, with Gregorio Allegri, in 1652, the 'School of Palestrina' died out. Yet, not without hope of revival. The laws which regulated the composition of the Polyphonic Mass are as intelligible, to-day, as they were three hundred years ago; and it needs but the fire of living Genius to bring them, once more, into active operation, reinforced by all the additional authority with which the advancement of Modern Science has, from time to time, invested them.

Before quitting this part of our subject, for the consideration of the later Schools, it is necessary that we should offer a few remarks upon the true manner of singing Masses, such as those of which we have briefly sketched the history: and, thanks to the traditions handed down, from generation to generation, by the Pontifical Choir, we are able to do so with as little danger of misinterpreting the ideas of Palestrina, or Anerio, as we should incur in dealing with those of Mendelssohn, or Sterndale Bennett.

In the first place, it is a mistake to suppose that a very large body of Voices is absolutely indispensable to the successful rendering, even of very great works. On ordinary occasions, no more than thirty-two singers are present in the Sistine Chapel—eight Sopranos, and an equal number of Altos, Tenors, and Basses: though, on very high Festivals, their number is sometimes nearly doubled. The vocal strength must, of course, be proportioned to the size of the building in which it is to be exercised: but, whether it be great, or small, it must, on no account, be supplemented by any kind of instrumental accompaniment whatever. Every possible gradation of tone, from the softest imaginable whisper, to the loudest forte attainable without straining the Voice, will be brought into constant requisition. Though written, always, either with a plain signature, or with a single flat after the clef, the music may be sung at any pitch most convenient to the Choir. The time should be beaten in minims; except in the case of 3-1, in which three semibreves must be counted in each bar. The Tempo—of which no indication is ever given, in the old part-books will vary, in different movements, from about Figure rythmique blanche hampe bas.svg = 50 to Figure rythmique blanche hampe bas.svg = 120. On this point, as well as on the subject of pianos and fortes, and the assignment of certain passages to Solo Voices, or Semi-chorus, the leader must trust entirely to the dictates of his own judgment. He will, however, find the few simple rules to which we are about to direct his attention capable of almost universal application; based, as they are, upon the important relation borne by the music of the Mass to the respective offices of the Priest, the Choir, and the Congregation. To the uninitiated, this relation is not always very clearly intelligible. In order to make it so, and to illustrate, at the same time, the principles by which the Old Masters were guided, we shall accompany our promised hints by a few words explanatory of the functions performed by the Celebrant, and his Ministers, during the time occupied by the Choir in singing the principal movements of the Mass—functions, the right understanding of which is indispensable to the correct interpretation of the music.

High Mass—preceded, on Sundays, by the Plain Chaunt Asperges me—begins, on the part of the Celebrant and Ministers, by the recitation, in a low voice, of the Psalm, Judica me Deus, and the Confiteor; on that of the Choir, by the chaunting, from the Gradual, of the Introit, appointed for the day. [See Introit.]

From the Plain Chaunt Introit, the Choir proceed, at once, to the Kyrie; and this transition from the severity of the Gregorian melody to the pure harmonic combinations of Polyphonic Music is one of the most beautiful that can be imagined. The Kyrie is always sung slowly, and devoutly