Recovering Our Musical Memory: Ten Mass Settings

shutterstock_140270689We are in urgent need of greater cultural literacy today. Catholics have some of the most profound treasures in human history in its legacy and many of them are not being appreciated. I would like to point to one particular aspect of this legacy, musical settings for the Mass. This follows the great tradition of singing the Mass, which is so prevalent in Catholic history that we could speak of it as normative. Music has a natural power—rooted physically in the power of vibration and frequency and intellectually in its mathematical arrangement—that has been beautifully harnessed by the Church in order to move the soul spiritually.

I should make clear that I write about music not from the perspective of a musician, but rather from that of someone who loves the beauty of the Catholic tradition. I have tried to foster an understanding and appreciation of the development of Catholic culture, particularly in its major achievements. Although this is the perspective of an amateur, I am consoled by the words of John Senior that “the right point of view is that of the amateur, the ordinary person who enjoys what he reads,” or in this case hears.

Music has a deep history in human culture and became interwoven with the Judeo-Christian heritage through the tradition of singing psalms. In the West, in particular, we see this musical tradition coalescing in Gregorian chant through the period that many call the Dark Ages. This tradition was anonymous and spread from monastery to monastery throughout Europe. In the High Middle Ages, chants became more complex and with the move from chant in unison to the use of multiple voices, we see the beginnings of polyphony. From here Western music generally developed techniques for ensuring harmony in these multiple voices that laid the foundations for modern music.

I have chosen ten Masses that I think are very worthwhile for Catholics to come to know. I have chosen them in historical arrangement, seeking not simply the ten best Masses, but the ten Masses which best give expression to the development of the Church’s musical heritage from the Middle Ages to today. There are many others that could be (and maybe should be) chosen, but hopefully this list will be a good place to start for many.

1. Guillame de Machaut (1300-77), Messe de Nostre Dame

This is the first Mass that can be attributed to one composer. Machaut comes early in the history of polyphony and his music has a rawness that I find alluring. He wrote many secular pieces in the tradition of courtly love, while also writing many religious motets. The Messe de Nostre Dame may have been written for a coronation ceremony, and unlike later Masses, it does not follow one set tone or theme throughout.

 2. Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521), Missa Hercules

This Renaissance composer demonstrates a more polished polyphony. A testament to his importance for ecclesiastical music can be seen in the number of works falsely attributed to him in the attempt to gain notoriety. His prominence is justified simply by the number of advancements he made to the genre of Mass composition. An example of this can be found in his Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae written for the Duke of Ferrara. This dedication is significant as it is the first example of a soggetto cavato, fancy language for the fact that he used the vowels taken from the names Hercules Ferrariae to create a scheme for the pitches of the music. Beyond this sly, technical innovation, the Mass presents a good example, amongst so many, of the extraordinary talent of Josquin.

 3. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-94), Missa Papa Marcelli

Palestrina stands at the climax of the medieval musical tradition and the transition to modern music, especially through his advancement of the technique of counterpoint. He epitomized the musical response to the Reformation, manifesting that Catholics would continue to boldly and beautifully proclaim the faith. At the center of the Roman School of music, he held positions at the Julian Chapel of the Vatican, the Lateran, and Santa Maria Maggiore. His Missa Papa Marcelli stands as his most widely known piece and previously even served as the traditional Mass setting for the coronation of Popes. This piece is generally associated with the debate concerning polyphony at the Council of Trent, with some thinking that the words of this music were not clear enough for the Mass. Though this is no longer accepted, this Mass setting stands as the emblem of this time period and provides one of the most compelling legacies of Church music.

4. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Mass in B Minor

Wait a minute; isn’t this a piece on Catholic music! Yes, the great Lutheran composer wrote one, enormous Catholic Mass setting. In fact, it may be the best Mass setting! He also wrote five so called Lutheran Masses, which have fewer parts, but were used in Lutheran services. His Mass in B Minor seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by Palestrina’s Missa sine nomine. The Mass was begun in 1733 and helped him become the court composer to the Catholic Elector of Saxony, Augustus III. Drawing upon pieces he previously completed, he revised and expanded the piece during the last years of his life. Though it is not as well-known as some of his other masterpieces, such as the St. Matthew’s Passion, it is an overwhelmingly powerful piece that demands our attention!

5. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91), Great Mass

The troubled life of Mozart, cut short by a mysterious death, is still one that is profoundly Catholic. He said the rosary daily and began his musical career (after his youthful tours) in service to the Cardinal Archbishop of Salzburg (however much he resented it). Completed after his arrival in Vienna, his Great Mass in C Minor, though incomplete, serves as the greatest testament to his service to the Church (though we cannot forget his magnificent Laudete Dominum). The prelude’s movement into the Kyrie itself strikes me as one of the most moving moments in the history of Mass composition and the piece as a whole does not disappoint.

6. Mozart, Requiem

I could not resist adding another Mass by Mozart, especially since it is his Requiem. I say “his,” but he actually left it incomplete upon his death (see the movie Amadeus for a fictitious, yet entertaining account), and it is not clear who later completed it. Beethoven famously said that whoever did in fact write it was truly a genius. This Mass has captured Western culture’s imagination ever since, containing some of the most compelling pieces in the history of the composition of Masses. At times it is forceful and commanding, expressing the power of Christ’s judgment, and at other times softer, more aloof, and even mysterious, expressing a transcendent force that draws in the listener.

 7. Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809), Nelson Mass

Unlike Mozart, Haydn eventually found a stable and successful career. He worked for a long period of time as a court composer to a noble Hungarian family, named Esterházy. He wrote many Catholic Masses that were performed for this court. One Mass in particular stands out. It was written at the time of the English Admiral, Nelson’s, victory over Napoleon off the coast of Egypt. Officially it has the title of Missa angustiis (Mass for Trouble Times), and it contains a dynamic tension akin to its name.

8. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Mass in C Major

The Mass in C Major is shorter than Beethoven’s more famous Missa Solemnis, but has more passion and is more accessible. Ironically, it was written for Nikolaus II, Prince Esterházy, Haydn’s patron. Nikolaus did not like the piece, leading to one of Beethoven’s greatest moments of disgrace. Most today disagree with the prince, myself included, and in the piece we can see Beethoven’s great Romantic energy and genius in service of the Church’s worship. The beginning of the Credo is a great place to look for this energy in particular.

9. Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), Requiem

Fauré’s Requiem is a gem. It has a unique sound, soft and soothing, and is best known for the piece, Pie Jesu. Its effect could be described as the polar opposite of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, composed a little earlier in the nineteenth century, which has a bombastic effect. Composed at the end of the Romantic era (completed 1890), Fauré’s Requiem begins to have a modern flair. This is proof that beautiful music can still be composed in the modern era!

10. Andrew Lloyd Webber (b. 1948), Requiem

It would be hard to find a composer that epitomizes our culture more than Webber, with his smash hits on Broadway. He represents the last remnants of any attempt at high culture in Western society that can still appeal to a broad audience. It is interesting that the tradition of writing Masses still held enough appeal to incline Webber to write a Requiem. Expect to hear sounds similar to Webber’s operas, but which, nonetheless, represent an important twentieth century continuation of the Mass composition tradition.

 11. Honorable mentions

Here are some other very noteworthy composers who wrote Catholic Masses (though we are still only scratching the surface): William Byrd (1540-1623), Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643); Franz Schubert (1797-1828). I also want to point out that many works were recently discovered from the Jesuit reductions in Bolivia and Paraguay. These works are truly amazing in their blending of Baroque culture with native music. I think we can learn a lot from them and be inspired by their beauty and vibrancy.

Turning back to the tradition of Catholic Mass settings and familiarizing ourselves with some of the highlights may be just want we need in order to reinvigorate Catholic music. We need to recover our musical memory to point us toward renewal!

image: Igor Plotnikov /

R. Jared Staudt


R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

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  • Goodsam

    Although I share your love of all things traditional Catholic as well as your amateur statis I would like to pose this question: how do we with European heritage and preferrence reconcile ourselves to the fact that we represent only one aspect of the many cultures that comprise our Great and universal Faith. Wonderful examples of the beauty that is the treasure of the Church, musically speaking!

  • James k

    While I know you were focusing on our Latin heritage, I do rather wish you had discussed on the Greek or other Byzantine/Oriental Rite’s in the Eastern Church. Good article.

  • R. Jared Staudt

    There is not the same kind of tradition of “Mass” composition that I am aware of. There are of course many different modes of chant that are used. That does not mean that no one has attempted this. See Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. That is the clearest example I know of an Eastern equivalent, though it is 20th century.

  • R. Jared Staudt

    I don’t know if we have to reconcile. It is good for us to know our own culture and how it has been shaped by the Catholic faith. This is true in music, of course. There are other cultures shaped by the faith, but I am not aware of another that has had the same kind of synergy with music. What I mean is that the development of modern music, classical music, arose directly out of the European Catholic tradition.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Another nice resource is the group Cappella Romana who performs settings and chants from the ancient East. In fact, there are a lot of Byzantine chants they perform that I cannot find anywhere else. Tchaikovsky also composed the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in the 19th century, and that is very much worth a listen. I think both are on youtube.

    But, as you said, Mr. Staudt, it is hard to find to find it and the examples are not nearly as readily available as what we can find in the West.

  • monkbiker

    Would that it were so. I’m fed up with attending Mass and listening to guitars and flutes and maracas and bongos. While I’m at it, I’d also like to mention that I like to arrive at church 15 – 20 minutes before the start of Liturgy. I like to pray and meditate quietly. This is often quite difficult as the choir members are rehearsing and talking with each other very loudly. Other people also arrive early but some of them are more interested in socializing than praying. The atmosphere in the church more closely resembles that of a bus station.

  • catholicexchange

    I sometimes have to find a side chapel in order to get perfect quiet. Oddly enough, arriving before a mass designated for families can be quiet as so many families have to rust to get there in the nick of time. But noises and distractions are nothing new, I find it’s more that the architecture makes it hard to get away from it. Best of luck in your search! ~Michael

  • Magdalen Mauldin

    I have been attending the Latin Mass here in Littleton, Co. and am very happy to get back to my roots. It is nice to hear the Latin Mass music again.

  • Magdalen Mauldin

    This is the exact reason I went to different Catholic Churches until I found Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Littleton led by the order of FSSP priests. I have been here for about 7 yrs. and love it!

  • Michael J. Lichens

    I’ve been to that parish. Wonderful community and a great liturgy.

  • RAYC55