by Sister Fidelis
As we approach Advent, days becoming shorter and the church year coming to an end, I’ve been looking ahead to the rich repertoire of pieces we have for this season. Mass XVIII, assigned to the Advent Season, is one of the “simpler” but well known and beloved Masses. It is interestingly also used in Lent and has been borrowed or expounded upon by many composers over the ages—Palestrina, Fauré, Duruflé, to name a few.
It is interesting that although the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, were not composed together—not even within the same century—they have many similar qualities. For one, the narrow range is notable: the Kyrie covers the distance of a seventh, the Sanctus a fifth, and the Agnus Dei a mere third! Looking through the entire repertoire of ordinary Masses we don’t find any other Mass with such a narrow range. We also see in the Sanctus and Agnus Dei almost entirely syllabic writing, which adds to the feeling of humble simplicity. Then we find a motive, a repeated pitch followed by a whole step, which appears both in the “eleison” of the Kyrie throughout, and twice at the start of the Sanctus. The reverse of that same motive is the intonation of the Agnus Dei—two repeated pitches followed by a whole step upwards! There is something comforting and calm about the way in which this motive weaves in and out and in the way the overall compositions seem to rise and fall. What is it about this music that lends itself so well to the season of Advent? As we take some time this season to prepare for the coming of Christ we can let these pieces lead us and point our hearts towards the simple manger of Bethlehem.