Blog 5: Temporality of the Mass

Julia Marine
4 min readJan 20, 2021

From an outsider’s perspective, it would be easy to assume that the Catholic mass could become monotonous and boring: the same prayers and rituals are repeated every time the congregation comes together. However, music is one factor that ensures this is not the case. DuFay’s Missa Ecce Ancilla Domini and Tavener’s Missa Wellensis both contain the same lyrics, but are drastically different in their presentation: while DuFay’s mass joyfully celebrates the Annunciation through traditional polyphony, Tavener’s reminds worshippers of their sin and need for redemption through unconventional style. Nonetheless, the two masses ultimately both offer a transcendent temporal experience that makes the worshipper aware of the eternity of Christ’s sacrifice present in the Eucharist.

The masses of Tavener and DuFay differ noticeably in their implementation of meter. DuFay’s Missa does contain a pulse that can be sensed: while not overpowering the manner in which the music is delivered, it offers a sense of control and familiarity to the worshipper. The presence of pulse allows the mind of the worshipper to focus on the celebration of the Annunciation, where all are called to rejoice in the knowledge of the Savior’s incarnation. Conversely, Tavener’s Missa lacks a consistent, clear meter: a characteristic that can be clearly referenced in the Gloria when the choir sings “quoniam tu solus sanctus,” changing from a slower tempo to a faster one abruptly. In this way, “…time becomes no more than durational proportion, having no relation to metrical waves…” (Begbie 142). The worshipper may at first be disillusioned by the notion that Tavener’s music is not bound to time as many classical works are, but they are in turn compelled to pay close attention to the words of the prayer that call them to reflect upon salvation.

Furthermore, the tension invoked by the phrasing of each mass contributes to each having a very different understanding of worship. DuFay’s Missa creates tension by shifting between passages sung by two voices and passages sung tutti: in the Credo especially, “…the melody and texts of two antiphons from the Annunciation liturgy unfold in the tenor, creating a dialogic structure designed to foreground the Virgin’s reply to the angel Gabriel that precipitated the miracle of the Incarnation” (Bloxam 520). DuFay is thus able to honor the Annunciation by combining voice parts to emphasize important words and phrases, particularly those that glorify and praise Christ’s sacrifice. However, Tavener does not employ tension in the same way: Begbie describes his style as “akin to the increase and decrease of light intensity than the winding-up and release of a clock-spring” (Begbie 138). His repetition of certain musical motifs, such as the ascensions to ‘G’ in the Kyrie, contribute to a lack of tension as they become expected. Because the listener is not distracted by sudden changes in tension, they are left to dwell upon their sinfulness which makes the recitation of these prayers so necessary.

Tavener and DuFay’s masses also differ in their usage of harmony. DuFay’s Missa is dulcet: musical ideas are often completed with perfect fifths, which are pleasing to the ear. In the Sanctus/Benedictus, DuFay uses ascending harmonies which joyfully lift the prayer to the heavenly hosts, while in the Agnus Dei he employs descending sequences as if ending the mass with a reverent bow. DuFay is traditional in these aspects, producing rich, major sound “…intended to intensify the experience of ritual…” (Bloxam 513). Tavener’s Missa is far more discordant. It is much harder to pick out a key in which the mass is based on, and his frequent use of tritone and minor second intervals are unnerving. These harmonies evoke emotions of sorrow and repentance, because their disagreeability to the ear reminds the worshipper of the offensiveness of sin in the eyes of the Lord. As worshipper’s ear wishes for harmonic resolution, Tavener calls their soul to redemption.

While DuFay’s Missa invites the worshipper to rejoice in the Assumption feast and Tavener’s Missa encourages solemn contemplation of the necessity of such prayer in the life of the worshipper, they both make the listener aware of the eternity of the Eucharist in their different styles. The essence of praying the Mass is a mortal desire for everlasting unity with God, that can only be achieved through venerating Jesus who intercedes for us: “In contrast to all merely worldly innovations, novelties, and revolutions, the resurrection is utterly free from fading decay” (Begbie 149). Thus, the reasoning behind DuFay and Tavener’s artistic decisions becomes apparent. Their loose interpretation of meter, musical emphasis on phrases which glorify God and speak of divine mystery, and usage of poignant harmony speak to the immutable quality of Christ’s sacrifice and honor it. Through the temporal experience that mass offers us, we are able to enter into a period of festivity that like the Eucharist, is not bound by the constraints of time. As Chretien puts it, “… man [is] a ‘eucharistic’ creature, a creature whose most characteristic act…is to give thanks …The human voice becomes a place in which the world can return to God” (36). In praying the mass, no matter the form it takes, the worshipper is uplifted from the fast pace of daily life into a realization of the eternal salvation that awaits them.

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