Thanks to dear friends, our first Launceston Missa cantata since Vatican II was graced with Byrd's Mass for three voices. Before their most generous offer, I had initially planned on our own humble schola singing the so-called Missa primitiva, which consists of the oldest and shortest and easiest settings of the Ordinary: Kyrie XVI, Gloria XV, Credo I (though I was planning on using III), Sanctus XVIII and Agnus Dei XVIII. They are syllabic, with only one note per syllable in the main.
According to a handy website giving the texts and sound files of all the settings of the Kyriale, these would indeed be quite short and easy to sing, and in total would take a bit over 9 minutes (nearly half of that for the Creed). One can fruitfully compare them to that mainstay of times past, Mass VIII De Angelis with Credo III, which the same site indicates would take nearly 12 minutes to sing. (The website only gives the Kyrie in the modern sixfold form; I estimated the length of the traditional ninefold form.)
But I began to wonder, what would be the longest composite Ordinarium Missæ? Having spent some time looking over the chants of the eighteen Mass Ordinaries, with their variants and extra chants ad libitum, it seems to me that the following (with performance times in brackets, supplied from the above website) would constitute the longest Ordinary, taking nearly 17 and a half minutes to sing:
- Kyrie II (3:06)
- Gloria III ad libitum (5:01)
- Credo VI (5:56)
- Sanctus VII (1:33)
- Agnus Dei V (1:47)
All of these are neumatic chants, including long melismas on some syllables. It is interesting to compare the length of these to that of Byrd's polyphonic setting: unusually for polyphony, Byrd's setting of the Kyrie is only threefold, and very short (thus usually supplemented, as at our Mass, with six plainsong invocations); his Gloria and Credo are quite similar in length to the above lengthiest plainchant settings; but even his three-voice settings of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei are twice as long as those of the longest Gregorian ones.
All things being equal, I do prefer a Sanctus (with its Benedictus) that is long enough to occupy the time taken for the silent recitation of the Canon of the Mass – which is only possible if it is sung in polyphony. At the same time, many polyphonic Agnus Dei's are too long, being evidently intended for use at Masses where only the priest communicates, and no one else.
Speaking as an M.C., the Agnus Dei should ideally fill up the time between the priest singing Pax Domini and, after his preparatory prayers and reception of Communion, his turning to the congregation holding the Host and saying Ecce Agnus Dei. At least it should last until the bell is run thrice at his triple Domine non sum dignus, immediately prior to his Communion. Depending on the speed or otherwise of the celebrant, some plainchant settings are too short.
The longest composite Ordinary, assembled above, would also be suitable for a celebration of the Extraordinary Form in Eastern Rite lands, where the sensibility of local Uniates and Orthodox persons of good will would demand a lengthy Mass – one in which the Introit would be sung with several psalm verses if need be, the Gradual would have its response repeated after the verse, the Offertory would be sung with all its ancient verses, and the Communion chanted with selected psalm verses also...