Classical Choral Forms


Detail from a memorial in the Marktkirche in Hannover, Germany.

The Mass, a form of sacred musical composition, is a choral composition that sets the invariable portions of the Eucharistic liturgy (principally that of the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and Lutheranism) to music. Most Masses are settings of the liturgy in Latin, the liturgical sacred language of the Catholic Church’s Roman liturgy, but there are a significant number written in the languages of non-Catholic countries where vernacular worship has long been the norm. For example, there are many Masses (often called “Communion Services”) written in English for the Church of England. Musical Masses take their name from the Catholic liturgy called “the Mass” as well.

Masses can be a cappella, that is, without an independent accompaniment, or they can be accompanied by instrumental obbligatos up to and including a full orchestra. Many Masses, especially later ones, were never intended to be performed during the celebration of an actual mass.

Forms of the Mass

A distinction is made between texts that recur for every mass celebration (ordinarium, ordinary), and texts that are sung depending on the occasion (proprium, proper).


A Missa tota (“full Mass”) consists of a musical setting of the five sections of the ordinarium, as listed below:

I. Kyrie

In the Tridentine Mass, the Kyrie is the first sung prayer of the Mass ordinary. The repeated phrase is “Kyrie, eleison” (or “Lord, have mercy”). It is usually (but not always) part of any musical setting of the Mass. Kyrie movements often have an ternary (ABA) musical structure that reflects the symmetrical structure of the text. Musical settings exist in styles ranging from Gregorian chant to folk.

As the Kyrie is the first item in settings of the mass ordinary and the second in the requiem mass (the only mass proper set regularly over the centuries), nearly all of the thousands of composers over the centuries who have set the ordinaries of the mass to music have included a Kyrie movement.

II. Gloria

The Gloria is a celebratory passage praising God the Father and Christ.

In Mass settings (normally in English) composed for the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer liturgy, the Gloria is commonly the last movement, because it occurs in this position in the text of the service. In Order One of the newer Common Worship liturgy, however, it is restored to its earlier season.

III. Credo

The Credo, a setting of the Nicene Creed, is the longest text of a sung Mass.

Organizers of international celebrations, such as World Youth Day, have been encouraged by Rome to familiarize congregants in the Latin chants for the Our Father and the Credo, specifically Credo III (17th century, Fifth Mode) from the Missa de Angelis. The purpose of singing these two texts in Latin is to engender a sense of unity in the faithful, all of whom thus sing the prayer of Jesus and the shared belief of the universal Church in the same language.

IV. Sanctus and Benedictus

The Sanctus is a doxology praising the Trinity. A variant exists in Lutheran settings of the Sanctus. While most hymnal settings keep the second person pronoun, other settings change the second person pronoun to the third person. This is most notable in J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor, where the text reads gloria ejus (“His glory”). Martin Luther’s chorale Isaiah, Mighty in Days of Old, and Felix Mendelssohn’s setting of the Heilig! (German Sanctus) from his Deutsche Liturgie also use the third person.

The Benedictus is a continuation of the Sanctus. Hosanna in excelsis is repeated after the Benedictus section, often with musical material identical to that used after the Sanctus, or very closely related.

V. Agnus Dei

The Agnus Dei is a setting of the “Lamb of God” litany, containing the responses miserere nobis (have mercy upon us), repeated twice, and dona nobis pacem (grant us peace) once at the end.

In a Requiem Mass, the words “miserere nobis” are replaced by “dona eis requiem” (grant them rest), while “dona nobis pacem” is replaced by “dona eis requiem sempiternam” (grant them eternal rest).

Short and Solemn Masses

There is some additional terminology regarding Mass settings indicating whether or not they include all five usual sections of the ordinarium, and whether or not the mass is intended for exceptionally festive occasions.

Missa Brevis

Missa brevis (literally, “short mass”) may, depending on time and conventions, indicate the setting of a subset of the five ordinary mass parts (e.g. masses containing only a setting of the Kyrie and the Gloria), or a mass containing all these parts, but relatively short in duration, or a mass in a setting that is less extended in vocal and orchestral forces than that of a Neapolitan mass.

Missa longa (“long mass”) can indicate the counterpart of Missa brevis when the aspect of duration is considered.

Missa Solemnis

Missa solemnis indicates a solemn mass, usually for special festive occasions and with an extended vocal and orchestral setting. In that sense Missa brevis is sometimes used to indicate the counterpart of a Missa solemnis.

Listen: Missa Solemnis

You can listen to a performance of W. A. Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor below:

Missa Brevis et Solemnis

The Missa brevis et solemnis (short and solemn) is an exceptional format, for its best known instances tied to the archbishop of Salzburg Hieronymus Colloredo, although earlier examples are extant. Mozart described it thus in a letter he wrote in 1776 (“the Archbishop” in this quotation refers to Colloredo):

Our church music is very different from that of Italy, since a Mass with the whole Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Epistle sonata, the Offertory or motet, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei must not last longer than three quarters of an hour. This applies even to the most Solemn Mass spoken by the Archbishop himself. Special study is required for this kind of composition, particularly as the Mass must have a full contingent of instruments—trumpets, drums and so forth.

The “brevis et solemnis” description applies to several of the Masses Mozart composed in Salzburg between 1775 and 1780, the Sparrow Mass being considered as its first instance for this composer.

The Requiem Mass

The requiem Mass (Mass for the dead) is notable for the large number of musical compositions that it has inspired, including settings by Mozart, Verdi, Dvořák, Fauré and Duruflé. Originally, such compositions were meant to be performed in liturgical service, with monophonic chant. Eventually the dramatic character of the text began to appeal to composers to an extent that they made the requiem a genre of its own, and the compositions of composers such as Verdi are essentially concert pieces rather than liturgical works.

The common liturgical sections for the requiem Mass are the following (you can read the complete texts here):

  • Introit
  • Kyrie eleison
  • Gradual
  • Tract
  • Sequence
  • Offertory
  • Sanctus
  • Agnus Dei
  • Communion
  • Pie Jesu
  • Libera Me
  • In paradisum

For many centuries the texts of the requiem were sung to Gregorian melodies. The Requiem by Johannes Ockeghem, written sometime in the later half of the fifteenth century, is the earliest surviving polyphonic setting. There was a setting by the elder composer Dufay, possibly earlier, which is now lost: Ockeghem’s may have been modeled on it. Many early compositions employ different texts that were in use in different liturgies around Europe before the Council of Trent set down what became the canonical texts.

In the sixteenth century, more and more composers set the requiem Mass. In contrast to practice in setting the Mass Ordinary, many of these settings used a cantus-firmus technique, something that had become quite archaic by mid-century. In addition, these settings used less textural contrast than the early settings by Ockeghem and Brumel, although the vocal scoring was often richer, for example in the six-voice Requiem by Jean Richafort which he wrote for the death of Josquin des Prez.

More than 2,000 requiem compositions have been composed to the present day. Typically the Renaissance settings, especially those not written on the Iberian Peninsula, may be performed a cappella (i.e., without necessary accompanying instrumental parts), whereas beginning around 1600 composers more often preferred to use instruments to accompany a choir, and also include vocal soloists. There is great variation between compositions in how much of liturgical text is set to music.

Most composers omit sections of the liturgical prescription, most frequently the Gradual and the Tract. Fauré omits the Dies iræ, while the very same text had often been set by French composers in previous centuries as a stand-alone work.

Sometimes composers divide an item of the liturgical text into two or more movements; because of the length of its text, the Dies iræ is the most frequently divided section of the text (as with Mozart, for instance). The Introit and Kyrie, being immediately adjacent in the actual Roman Catholic liturgy, are often composed as one movement.

Beginning in the eighteenth century and continuing through the nineteenth, many composers wrote what are effectively concert works, which by virtue of employing forces too large, or lasting such a considerable duration, prevent them being readily used in an ordinary funeral service; the requiems of Gossec, Berlioz, Verdi, and Dvořák are essentially dramatic concert oratorios. A counter-reaction to this tendency came from the Cecilian movement, which recommended restrained accompaniment for liturgical music, and frowned upon the use of operatic vocal soloists.

Listen: Requiem Mass

You can listen to a performance of W. A. Mozart’s Requiem (1791) below:


An oratorio is a large musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists. Like an opera, an oratorio includes the use of a choir, soloists, an ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias. However, opera is musical theatre, while oratorio is strictly a concert piece—though oratorios are sometimes staged as operas, and operas are sometimes presented in concert form. In an oratorio there is generally little or no interaction between the characters, and no props or elaborate costumes. A particularly important difference is in the typical subject matter of the text. Opera tends to deal with history and mythology, including age-old devices of romance, deception, and murder, whereas the plot of an oratorio often deals with sacred topics, making it appropriate for performance in the church. Protestant composers took their stories from the Bible, while Catholic composers looked to the lives of saints, as well as to Biblical topics. Oratorios became extremely popular in early seventeenth-century Italy partly because of the success of opera and the Catholic Church’s prohibition of spectacles during Lent. Oratorios became the main choice of music during that period for opera audiences.

Oratorios usually contain:

  • An overture, for instruments alone
  • Various arias, sung by the vocal soloists
  • Recitative, usually employed to advance the plot
  • Choruses, often monumental and meant to convey a sense of glory. Frequently the instruments for oratorio choruses include timpani and trumpets.

The origins of the oratorio can be found in sacred dialogues in Italy. These were settings of Biblical, Latin texts and were quite similar to motets musically. There was a strong narrative, dramatic emphasis, and there were conversational exchanges between characters in the work. These became more and more popular and were eventually performed in specially built oratories (prayer halls) by professional musicians. Again, these were chiefly based on dramatic and narrative elements. Sacred opera provided another impetus for dialogues, and they greatly expanded in length (although never really beyond sixty minutes long).

During the second half of the seventeenth century, there were trends toward the secularization of the religious oratorio. Evidence of this lies in its regular performance outside church halls in courts and public theaters. Whether religious or secular, the theme of an oratorio is meant to be weighty. It could include such topics as Creation, the life of Jesus, or the career of a classical hero or Biblical prophet. Other changes eventually took place as well, possibly because most composers of oratorios were also popular composers of operas. They began to publish the librettos of their oratorios as they did for their operas. Strong emphasis was soon placed on arias while the use of the choir diminished. Female singers became regularly employed, and replaced the male narrator with the use of recitatives.

In the late baroque, oratorios increasingly became “sacred opera.” In Rome and Naples, Alessandro Scarlatti was the most noted composer. In Vienna the court poet Metastasio produced annually a series of oratorios for the court which were set by Caldara, Hasse, and others. Metastasio’s best known oratorio libretto La passione di Gesù Cristo was set by at least thirty-five composers from 1730–90. In Germany the middle baroque oratorios moved from the early-baroque Historia-style Christmas and Resurrection settings of Heinrich Schütz, to the Passions of J. S. Bach, oratorio-passions such as Der Tod Jesu set by Telemann and Carl Heinrich Graun. After Telemann came the galante oratorio style of C. P. E. Bach.

The Georgian era saw a German-born monarch and German-born composer define the English oratorio. George Frideric Handel, most famous today for his Messiah, also wrote other oratorios based on themes from Greek and Roman mythology and Biblical topics. He is also credited with writing the first English language oratorio, Esther. Handel’s imitators included the Italian Lidarti who was employed by the Amsterdam Jewish community to compose a Hebrew version of Esther.

During the nineteenth century, Britain continued to look to Germany for its composers of oratorio. The Birmingham Festival commissioned various oratorios including Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah in 1846, later performed in German as Elias. German composer Georg Vierling is noted for modernizing the secular oratorio form.

John Stainer’s The Crucifixion (1887) became the stereotypical battlehorse of massed amateur choral societies. Edward Elgar tried to revive the genre in the first years of the twentieth century.

Oratorios composed during the twentieth and twenty-first century include Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio (1991) and Jonathan Harvey’s Weltethos (2011).

Listen: Oratorio

You can listen to a performance of an oratorio, The Creation, by F. J. Haydn below: