By Sister Fidelis
As we approach Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent this week, I’ve been looking at Mass XVIII – Missa pro defunctis, which we use during the Lenten season. While this is one of the “simpler” masses, it is also very beautiful and has been borrowed or expounded upon by composers over the ages – maybe one of the best known being Fauré in his Requiem.
It is interesting that although the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, were not composed together – not even within the same century, they have several similar qualities. For one, the narrow range is noteable. The Kyrie covers the distance of a 7th, the Sanctus a 5th and the Agnus Dei a mere 3rd! 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 – adding 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 Lent? Could it be connected to the thought of narrowing our focus or simplifying our lives? Maybe the chant itself will inform us of something in these next weeks…