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Composing A Mass

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So, I've been given an assignment by my friends and myself actually, to compose a mass. It is supposed to be very minimalistic, actually, with two or three vocal parts and maybe an organ part. Also, it should be minimalistic in length. Since I'm aiming for the rainessance style, nothing experimental is meant to be incorporated in this piece. My question now is, apart from obligatory movements, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, are there any other guidelines to follow when writing, for the only thing I know, or that I have access to are the lyrics to the movements.

How long are the movements relative to each other? How are they structured? Form? Are there any predominant 'settings' to each of the movements, mode - speaking? How many times should the lyrics be repeated? What devices should I use?

And probably what bugs me the most: how to start? Just write counterpoint and apply text? What to do?

Thank you very much

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"Just write counterpoint and apply text?"  Oh, definitely not!  The text needs to be there from the beginning.  


If you were writing for voice, and coming up with your own lyrics, then you could write the music first and then come up with text that fits well, and then go back and adjust the music to fit the text better as needed.  But for a mass, you have your text from the start, and that needs to dictate the music.  You don't have the option of changing the text later to fit what you've written better, so best to start with the text.  There is a natural rhythm to speech that will guide many of your decisions on the rhythms of the music, where chords resolve, etc.  Sing every line as you write for the vocal parts.  Then add the instrumental parts to your vocal framework.  Then go back and look at the whole and adjust as necessary.  


Have fun!  I'm slogging away on a "Dixit Dominus" and an opera.  This year, I dip my toe into the mighty waters of orchestration and long form work.  

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I don't want to sound presumptuous but your plea seems worryingly close to 'please provide a handy formula I can apply to generate some decent-sounding music'.  This is not how composition works and we certainly don't write great music using formulas, ever. The best I can come up with is learn how to self-study.  As you admit to knowing nothing about the mass besides the texts, your first line of attack should be familiarising yourself with as many extant musical examples as possible. Ideally sing some masses yourself, or failing that, listen to the works of others with scores.  As for writing in the Renaissance style: firstly, seeing as there is a massive body of work from this era already, how much of a point is there really in doing so other than as a study exercise?  Secondly, the fact you are only using 2-3 voices but having an organ makes a significant departure from the sixteenth-century idiom already, as most music from this period was unaccompanied and used a minimum of four voices. More interesting would be to combine elements of Renaissance music with minimalism and other styles, but again we come back to knowledge of repertoire and techniques. So start listening!

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from an old friend:


Setting the Ordinary of the Mass


General Overview


The prayers and chants of the Mass fall in two basic categories, the Ordinary and the Proper. The Ordinary prayers and chants are those which do not change from one service to another, while those of the Proper change constantly and are specific to certain Sundays, feasts, seasons, days of the year, and special occasions.


When one speaks of writing a Mass, one almost invariably means a setting of the major prayers of the Ordinary: The Kyrie (Lord have mercy), the Gloria (Glory to God in the highest), the Credo (We believe in one God), the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy), and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).


The Texts – in English




Lord, have mercy

Christ, have mercy

Lord, have mercy




Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory. Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father; Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us: you are seated at the right hand of the Father: receive our prayer. For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.




We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, seen and unseen.


We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

one in Being with the Father;

through him all things were made.

For us men and for our salvation

he came down from heaven;

By the power of the Holy Spirit,

He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

he suffered, died and was buried.

On the third day he rose again

in fulfillment of the Scriptures;

he ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

and his kingdom will have no end.


We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son;

with the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified;

he has spoken through the prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,

and the life of the world to come. Amen.




Holy, holy, holy Lord God of power and might,

Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna in the highest.


Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest.


Agnus Dei:


Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Grant us peace.


General Setting Guidelines




The mood of the Kyrie is penitential. Most settings nowadays are simple and subdued. Formerly, this was often downplayed (Mozart’s short masses), and sometimes a little drama is added to underscore the penitential quality (my Missa Brevis).


For congregational use nowadays, each line is usually sung by the cantor or choir first, then repeated by the congregation.




The Gloria follows the Kyrie immediately. It is a prayer of joy glorifying God, and as such it is omitted from the Mass during Advent and Lent.

Nowadays it is often set for congregational use with a catchy tune on the opening words “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” The choir or cantor will sing this tune once, then the congregation will answer. Then the cantor or choir will continue with the prayer for a while on different material. After a few lines, when it seems appropriate, the music returns to the original tune, and everyone knows to sing “Glory to God…” again. Again the choir or cantor picks up where they left off with new material, and after a while, the “Glory to God…” comes back again. This pattern continues to the end, when one last “Glory to God…” repetition occurs, then the choir finishes with Amen. This gives the congregation plenty of participation, without having to follow a long, complex setting of the entire text.


There is usually a change in mood toward the middle, at “Lord Jesus Christ, only son of the father…” and/or “you take away the sins of the world; have mercy on us,” because the mood becomes penitential. By the time the text “for you alone are the holy one…” comes up, the mood is jubilant again.




The Credo is almost never set anymore. It is reserved for the congregation to recite in its entirety.




The Sanctus is the mystical song of the angels in heaven, and provides the most variety of possible moods and settings. It is sometimes set jubilantly (most classical Masses), sometimes mysteriously (Durufle and Faure both do this to an extent in their Requiem Masses). The “Hosanna in the highest” is almost always set boisterously. At “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” the mood sometimes becomes more subdued, and formerly this section was a separate movement, but even here the Hosanna is usually joyful.


Nowadays, settings of the Sanctus are kept short.


Agnus Dei:


Because it comes right before communion, nowadays the Agnus Dei is also kept short and simple, usually subdued. The first two lines are usually set similarly, if not identically. The third line often begins the same, but the mood changes at “grant us peace,” often with a pleading or dramatic quality…because peace on earth is far from a reality.

* * *

I hope this gives you some idea of how to proceed with your project. From here, it’s up to you. Listen to some Masses if you get a chance to get a historical basis, and pay attention to the way the music for the Ordinary of the Mass is presented when you go to church, providing there is music at that Mass. That’ll give you insight into how Masses are set now.


Best of luck, and may God guide your endeavour. --Lee

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Minimalistic mass? Have you heard Arvo Pärt's ouvre and his minimalistic counterpoint technique ("tintinnabuli")?


I think you can use some of that features, even the instrumentations are similar.

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