Of all the compositions by Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901) I suppose it's his Mass for double choir in E flat 'Cantus Missae' Op 109 that's the most famous. He wrote it in 1878 and dedicated to Pope Leo XIII who rewarded him for it with the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Saint Gregory. He wrote it specifically as a musical rebuttal to the doctrines of the Cecilian movement — a reformist movement whose aim was to reform nineteenth century Catholic liturgical music by eliminating most of the innovations of the preceding two centuries and returning to the guidelines and practices set forth by the Council of Trent.
Rheinberger had at first been attracted by this movement but came to regret his involvement with the Cecilians and wrote this Mass as his repudiation of them. It's Rheinberger's musical sigh of relief at having thrown off the shackles of Cecilian doctrine and expression of delight in his new-found musical freedom and flexibility. His writing in this Mass is very antiphonal and is in clear lineal descent from Venetian cori spezzati (spaced choirs) music of the late Renaissance. This doesn't mean that it's a re-write of something that might have been written for St. Mark's by Monteverdi or Gabrielli or one of the seemingly innumerable minor Venetian composers. For a start there's a heavy sprinkling of Bach's and Mendelssohn's inspiration throughout the piece to say nothing of Rheinberger's own highly original and gloriously unpredictable inventiveness. You'd think from reading the forgoing that it's a complete Tivoli of a composition but in fact it's a triumph of beautifully clear and very moving choral writing. Rheinberger starts with a spacious and expansive Kyrie and then goes on to show what he can do.
There aren't many composers who would dare to make the Gloria and the Credo the heart of their settings but this is precisely what Rheinberger does. He maintains interest throughout his almost completely syllabic setting these notoriously long texts by some ingenious word-painting – have a listen to what he does at 'et incarnatus est', 'descendit' and 'ascendit' in the Credo and you'll hear what I mean. He follows this double tour de force with a Sanctus of ethereal beauty and a Benedictus that leads us through a gentle and stately dance. The Mass concludes with an Agnus Dei whose contrasts and modulations end with an extended 'dona nobis pacem' that is symphonic both in inspiration and scope. Enjoy :-).
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