Hyperion Records

Missa Choralis, S10
When Liszt met Cardinal Hohenlohe in Germany in 1859, he told him in confidence about his plan to reform church music. As a result, Hohenlohe wrote from Rome inviting him to stay with him in the Vatican should he visit the city. Liszt had last been there in 1839, at which time he had heard music by Palestrina sung in the Sistine Chapel. Liszt’s musical reform was not a systematically worked-out plan, but a reaction to the dismal state of church music in the first half of the nineteenth century, when in France and Italy it was common to hear opera cabalettas sung to liturgical words. Liszt was one of the earliest musicians to advocate the restoration of plainsong. Among his sixty or so church works is a collection of plainsong antiphons for Christmas and Easter with added harmony (Responses and Antiphons, S30). The harmonisation of plainsong was widely discussed in Liszt’s lifetime, particularly in France, and to some extent it formed the basis of his church style. It is part of Liszt’s genius that such an erroneous concept could have led to the production of masterpieces. The Missa Choralis is built initially on a musical ideal compounded of plainsong and Palestrina, the twin elements of Liszt’s imagined reform, which in the 1840s pre-dated the founding in 1867 of the Cäcilien-Verein in Germany, with its not dissimilar ideals.

Liszt referred to this Mass in his letters as ‘a cappella’. Another name he gave it was ‘Messe de Jubilé’. The jubilee was the 1800th anniversary in 1866 of the founding of the Holy See in AD66. Liszt said at the time that he intended to dedicate the work to Pope Pius IX. It seems clear that Liszt had designs on a performance in the Sistine Chapel, the home of the Palestrina tradition and a cappella performance, and the heart of any attempt he might propose at reform. There is, however, no record of a performance there—perhaps he encountered opposition from Salvatore Meluzzi, the choirmaster at the Sistine, who was a conservative musician and outlived Liszt by eleven years. In the event the Mass was published in 1869 by Kahnt without a dedication and with an organ accompaniment.

The key of the work is D minor/D major, though the opening Kyrie has no key signature and is written as if in the Dorian mode, a pseudo-Renaissance conceit on Liszt’s part. The Christe ends in D major with two sharps, and the other movements are in G (Gloria), D (Credo), B flat (Sanctus and Benedictus) and D (‘Dona nobis pacem’); a genuine D minor with the flat key signature occurs only at the Agnus Dei, one of the most poignant settings in the mass literature. Liszt’s emphasis in the work on D major may be a ‘royal’ association (the key for example of the march from the symphonic poem Mazeppa, which has the inscription ‘Il s’élève roi’, and of the motet Domine salvum fac regem—‘God save the king’)—especially as he told his companion Princess Carolyne von Sayn Wittgenstein that the tonsure ‘signifies the “royal dignity” of those admitted into the ranks of the clergy’.

Although the influence of plainsong on the thematic material is evident, there are only two actual quotations, one a ‘Credo in unum Deum’ intonation used also in the male-voice Mass, and the other an antiphon given fugal treatment at the start of the Kyrie. This antiphon is taken from Vespers on the Feast of Corpus Christi and has the text ‘Sacerdos in aeternam Christus Dominus secundum ordinem Melchisedech, panem et vinum obtulit’ (‘Christ the Lord a priest for ever in the line of Melchizedek brought bread and wine’). Clearly Liszt’s choice of this material in 1865 was influenced by biographical factors. (In Renaissance England this same melody, with the words ‘Gloria tibi Trinitas’, formed the cantus firmus of the In Nomine.) The Christe is homophonic and in F major, its key of one flat remaining for the reprise of the Kyrie. The word ‘eleison’ is sung repeatedly in D major at the end.

A fortissimo unison phrase heard at the outset dominates the Gloria. Its piano response in four-part harmony for ‘et in terra pax’ illustrates the principle of textural contrast used in the movement, which has no real fugal writing. The vigorous theme is used imitatively at the ‘Laudamus’, and the ‘Domine Deus’, at the end appearing in augmentation at the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’. The ‘qui tollis’ is marked ‘Lento assai’ and has expressive chromatic harmony. The original ‘Animato’ returns at the ‘Quoniam tu solus’ with the earlier four-part music, forming a climax at ‘Jesu Christe’. The ‘Amen’ leads effectively from a G sharp minor tonality straight back to the G major of the opening.

The Credo is built mainly as a series of variations on the plainsong intonation, sung fortissimo in unison by the choir at the outset. Liszt casts the melody in triple time, which gives the movement impetus as far as the ‘descendit de coelis’, an Adagio in 2/2 time passing into F sharp major at the ‘et incarnatus est’. The ‘Crucifixus’ returns to the variation technique, restoring the earlier tempo, but putting the theme into the minor mode. Gradually energy is released, taking the music to a climax at ‘iterum venturus est’, with again a 2/2 signature, but no change of tempo. A pause on ‘non erit finis’ leads to the ‘et in Spiritum Sanctum’, where the triple-time rhythm dominates right throughout the ‘confiteor’. ‘Amen’ statements sung in a jubilant 2/2 end the movement, whose final bars repeat grandly the opening unison intonation motive.

The Sanctus, marked ‘Solenne’, is in 6/4 time, Liszt introducing a clever syncopation throwing the second and third ‘Sanctus’ statements off-beat. The solid harmony here is a long way from Palestrina, but the music is superbly imagined. The most active organ writing of the Mass appears at the ‘pleni sunt coeli’ whose energy is released into a captivating change of metre at ‘gloria tua’. The ‘Hosanna’ statements are quiet, a series of triads leading imperceptibly from B major back to B flat major. The Benedictus, marked ‘Andante quieto’, is an example of how Liszt can compose simple music to great effect. The return of ‘Hosanna’, instead of using the earlier music, is the occasion for a passage of real beauty with inner parts moving between held pedal notes in the soprano and bass.

The expressive harmonic ingenuity of the Agnus Dei, marked ‘Lento assai’, is again an example of Liszt’s compositional genius in a simple context—nobody would expect such music from the piano virtuoso. The third ‘Agnus’ leads to the ‘Dona nobis pacem’, where Liszt gives the mass a cyclic character by re-introducing music from the Kyrie, spanning out the word ‘pacem’ with pedal notes as in the second ‘Hosanna’. A series of measured ‘Amen’ statements to the earlier ‘eleison’ music ends the work in a resplendent D major.

from notes by Paul Merrick © 2000

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