Assignment Five – Part One (Old Version)

Please note that this version of the assignment was submitted in error and was subsequently rewritten focussing on the work of Uģis Prauliņš (truly contemporary) rather than that of Ralph Vaughan Williams (“modern” rather than contemporary) and is published here merely for the sake of completeness.

This is the piece that my tutor commented on but not the work which was submitted to OCA.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: “Mass in G Minor” (1921) and Josquin des Prez: “Missa Pange Lingua” (circa 1515)

Upon listening to outstanding examples of a mass setting by two composers from different eras, Ralph Vaughan Williams with “Mass in G Minor” (1921) and Josquin des Prez’ “Missa Pange Lingua” (circa 1515) a number of differences and similarities become apparent.

Although both composers initially approach the Mass as a fugue (which was the expected form for most of the Renaissance) Vaughan Williams isn’t as restricted within the compositional style as Josquin. This freedom bestowed on Vaughan Williams is due to the fact that whereas Josquin’s composition is expected to be a “working” piece, performed in a Catholic ceremony, Vaughan Williams’ is pure art, to be explored and appreciated as such. With his Mass, Vaughan Williams has written within a modern tonal (post circa 1600) structure (with flirtations with the Dorian mode) while Josquin’s work is based around the modal system (in this case, Phrygian) which was prevalent at the time. Although this doesn’t restrict the older composer in any melodic sense (in this example) it does change the feel of the music, lending it a distinctly Medieval air.

Vaughan Williams also doesn’t stick to the rules so much with the initial exposition of the theme from the four parts. He brings them all together in a stretto section within the first few bars while Josquin subscribes to the more traditional method of a definite exposition and imitation from each part before getting involved in complex counterpoint using a much shorter subject.

Both of these compositions follow the path of the Missa Tota (Full Mass) taking in all five invariable sections of the liturgical text (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei) but whereas Josquin keeps the theme (with minor alterations) as he moves into the Credo, Vaughan Williams sets of with a completely new structure, firmly modern in its choral style for the first minute before gently moving back to a responsive fugal style with dramatic variation of dynamics.

When we look at the attitude of the two composers towards the use of dissonance it reveals the difference between their compositional styles. Josquin, although clearly not afraid to challenge convention in this area still generally abides by the Renaissance convention of resolving dissonances as soon as possible and only used as passing notes between the beats of the bar. Vaughan Williams, coming as he did from an era which accepted atonality and dissonance as viable techniques with more flexible rules had no such reservations, and the effect created in such a gentle frame of reference as this Mass (such as the final alto note at the end of the Kyrie (a D instead of the expected G)) adds a life and an edge to a phrase which could have ended smoothly on the tonic.

To my modern ear I tend to lean towards the more variable nature of Vaughan Williams’ work as a pure listening experience and as an expression of twentieth century Western Art music, but taken in context of a liturgical service I would expect Josquin’s Mass to be the more successful if we accept that the role of the music is to underline and support a religious service. As a tool to ease the procession of the Mass as an event and a ceremony I believe that the music shouldn’t detract from the focus of the whole event, the practice of worship.

Sadie, S and Latham, A (1990). The Cambridge Music Guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.