Renaissance and Contemporary settings of the Mass – A Comparison
A number of differences and similarities become apparent upon listening to outstanding examples of a mass setting by two composers from different eras, Uģis Prauliņš’ Missa Rigensis (2002) and Josquin des Prez’ “Missa Pange Lingua” (circa 1515). I have chosen these two works as they are directly comparable, both addressing the five invariable sections of the liturgical text, the Mass Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei), therefore allowing me to directly set one against the other.
Josquin approaches the Mass in the expected form for the Renaissance, a fugue, 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. Modern compositions of the Mass are largely performance pieces rather than strictly liturgical tools for use in ceremony and Praulins’ diatonic piece exemplifies this, composing as he did as an exercise in being able to retain the attention of the audience “by the singers’ voice alone”.
Both of these compositions follow the path of the Missa Tota (Full Mass) but whereas Josquin keeps the theme (with minor alterations) as he moves into the Credo, Prauliņš sets of with a completely new structure, firmly modern in its choral style and use of dramatic 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 the listener in this area still generally abides by the Renaissance convention of resolving dissonances as soon as possible and only being used on passing notes between the beats of the bar. Prauliņš, although coming as he does from an era which accepts atonality and dissonance as viable techniques with more flexible rules has no such cultural restrictions but the effect is only gently used throughout the Mass, although more noticeably in a number of phrases during the Gloria.
Moving through the rest of the sections of both works we discover what I believe to be the most striking difference between the two approaches to the liturgical format. With the Josquin, each section has a definite similarity to the sections on either side with only the Agnus Dei moving away from the framework used in the previous four. Prauliņš piece shows a greater variation of themes with each section having a distinctly different texture to the others, the Agnus Dei breaking away completely with a spoken section bringing the whole piece to a close.
To my modern ear I tend to lean towards the more variable nature of Prauliņš’ 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.
Click on the sections below to hear Uģis Prauliņš’ “Missa Rigensis”