The Missa canonica
, although mainly composed in 1856 (on the back of swapping polyphonic exercises with Joachim), was not published until a century later; moreover, the Mass was not performed until 1983. The piece was written as a technical exercise for Brahms’s own musical health, although that does not detract from its considerable artistic merit. The Missa canonica
does not include settings of the Gloria and Credo (these texts are longer and more dramatic than those of the other movements of the Ordinary of the Mass and are consequently less appropriate vehicles for the working out of the purely abstract form of canon). The short Mass setting that remains is a testament to Brahms’s compositional craft, his deft handling of voices in combination, and his enormous respect for the polyphonic masterpieces written by the great contrapuntalists of the late Renaissance and the High Baroque. In 1857 Brahms replaced the Kyrie with a new one and set about trying to secure a performance of the Mass. However, even though Julius Grimm—a choirmaster in Göttingen—showed interest, Grimm could not secure a performance. Brahms put the manuscript away and concentrated on writing other music: consequently the Missa canonica
lay undisturbed until it was rediscovered in the mid-twentieth century. The only indication that Brahms himself never completely forgot about his canonic Mass comes in the form of a self-quotation in the middle movements of the motet Op 74 No 1.
from notes by Jeremy Summerly © 2006