Missa ‘in illo tempore’

If one has to point to a single characteristic that distinguishes Roman Catholicism from all other flavours of Christianity, aside from its historical legacy, the most obvious candidate is the celebration of mass. It is the church’s most holy sacrament, instated by Jesus among his disciples at the Last Supper, and commemorated ever since according to his instruction. The protestant Reformation centred around a fundamental question epitomised by the very idea mass: was salvation dependent upon receiving the transubstantiated body and blood of Christ from a certified earthly agent or was it given freely by the grace of God for the asking, without theological machinery?

The central role of mass has not changed, but its form certainly has. As a ritualized re–enactment it has always comprised recitation, incantation and readings from scripture. The name is thought to originate from the priest’s closing intonation Ite, missa est (“Go, it is the dismissal”). Many of the various spoken and sung formulas were standardized into plainsong (chant) under the Gregorian reforms of the late sixth century, along with the structure of the celebration, which might change according to the occasion, the time of year, or the resources at hand.

Thus during the course of time, some sections might be replaced by instrumental music rather than sung, and others might be omitted altogether. The unvarying portions came to be called the ordinarium missae (“Ordinary of the mass”), while the changeable portions were called the proprium missae (“Proper of the mass”). The Ordinary includes the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Canon, Agnus Dei and Ite, each named for the first word of its segment of the liturgy. All but the Canon and final Ite are sung.

During the Renaissance, it was common for composers to set the Ordinary to music, the first large–scale form in western music. The texture was polyphonic, at first based on the underlying plainsong melodies of each section. Such was the paraphrase mass, in which an existing melody, albeit in a usually embellished form, was used as the basis for one or more movements. In a more mature form, the melody was sung by the tenor voice in long, sustained notes as the cantus firmus (“fixed song”) while the other voices weaved their counterpoint around it. The so–called cyclic mass made use of the same cantus firmus for all movements, and was as often based on a secular melody as a sacred one. The most famous such is perhaps the Missa l’homme armé (“The Armed Man Mass”), which was used in a number of settings by various composers.

L'homme armé

Dufay, Missa l’homme armé, incipit



As liturgical and sacramental reformers, the Council of Trent frowned on the practice of borrowing secular tunes for sacred worship services. Music in a sacred setting, the Council held, should be suitably solemn and dignified, and the words should be clearly perceived. Yet the church had relatively little further to say that was tangible with respect to the actual style of music that should be played during worship services. Practices among various centres would continue to vary, with Rome, for example, maintaining a relatively conservative and sober atmosphere, while others such as Venice emphasized a more jubilant, celebratory and exuberant affirmation of faith in keeping with its earthly power.

The new Palatine Basilica of Santa Barbara in Mantua was built as much a shrine to Gonzaga pomp as it was to Christian worship, for which the Pope granted such special privileges as the observance of its own special rite. Giaches de Wert spent the latter part of his life writing suitably splendid music for Santa Barbara alongside his considerable output of madrigals, and the church was almost certainly the venue for performances of Monteverdi’s Missa in illo tempore.

The mass of 1610 is seldom heard — its conservative, dense polyphonic texture, an apotheosis of what Monteverdi called prima pratica, has been overshadowed by the forward–looking Vespers in the same collection. The mass is based on the motet In illo tempore loquente Jesu of Nicolas Gombert, the words taken from Luke 11: 27 – 28.

In illo tempore loquente Jesu ad turbas extollens vocem

  quendam mulier de turba dixit illi: Beatus venter qui te

  portavit et ubera quae suxisti.

At ille dixit: quinimo beati quae audiunt verbum Dei

  et custodiunt illud.

And it came to pass as he spake these things, a certain woman of the

  company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb

  that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked.

But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God,

  and keep it.

N. Gombert, ’In illo tempore‘

Monteverdi begins by treating the initial theme (①, in illo tempore), but is not content only with that: the Christe uses a second snatch of melody (④, et custodiunt) from Gombert’s motet both in original and inverted forms, and the Kyrie reprise examines a third one (②, loquente Jesu), closing with a restatement in augmented form over the descending figures used in the first Kyrie.

Monteverdi, rsquo;Missa In illo tempore‘ (excerpts)

The Gloria, in two sections, continues to treat other phrases over the cyclic theme; the first half et in terra (“and in earth”) in inversion

Monteverdi, rsquo;Missa In illo tempore‘ (excerpts)

and the second qui tollis (“who takes away”) featuring the theme in retrograde, i.e. backwards:

Monteverdi, rsquo;Missa In illo tempore‘ (excerpts)

The Credo is the longest movement and central to the musical form, literally and figuratively. Monteverdi splits it into four sections, the first culminating in falling figures on the words descendit de coelis (“descended from heaven”). In sharp contrast, et incarnatus est ... et homo factus est (“and was incarnate ... and was made a man”) is homophonic in texture, set in the bright key of E major. The very intense crucifixus etiam pro nobis ... cujus regni non erit finis (“he was crucified for us ... [his] reign shall never end”) is a double canon: the alto begins with the cyclic theme, a second responding with the same melody five beats later while the first continues; above these, a soprano sings a counter–theme which the second soprano (sextus) echoes.

Monteverdi, rsquo;Missa In illo tempore‘ (excerpts)

At the transitions between phrases, the distance (number of beats) between voices changes, or they exchange places, the second leading and the first following. The ascending figures on et resurrexit tertia die (“and arose the third day”) and et ascendit in coelum (“and ascended into heaven”)

Monteverdi, rsquo;Missa In illo tempore‘ (excerpts)

are answered by the descending thirds of the loquente Jesu theme on et iterum venturus (“and he shall come again”).

Monteverdi, rsquo;Missa In illo tempore‘ (excerpts)

The section gradually subsides into perpetual harmony on repeated affirmations of cujus regni (“his reign”) and subsides in the sustained non erit finis (“shall never end”).

Monteverdi, rsquo;Missa In illo tempore‘ (excerpts)

The effect of one pair of voices in echo at points completely different from those of the other pair is nothing short of astounding, not to say sublime. More astonishing is the way Monteverdi brings the canon — a musical infinity — to a reluctant close on the words non erit finis. As the last notes die away, they seem to hang in the air.

The closing et [credo] in spiritum sanctum (“and [I believe] in the Holy Spirit”) picks up with more polyphonic treatment among all six voices, including the cyclic theme in augmented form. At et exspecto resurectionem mortuorum (“and I await the resurrection of the dead”), the loquente Jesu figure is inverted, along with other themes, so that it rises rather than falls, and the movement ultimately comes to rest on a triumphant amen.

Agnus Dei I takes up the et custodient theme in inverted form, then in augmented and inverted forms in invocation of mercy. The closing Agnus Dei II, beseeching the granting of peace, returns with the cyclic theme, in places broken into two parts, in others in augmentation or retrograde, woven together with strands of the extollens vocem figure. This final movement includes a seventh (bassus) voice.



Missa in illo tempore is unfortunately less well known than its sister Vespers, although there are now several recordings. It was said to have taken an enormous amout of intensive study on Monteverdi’s part. It may have been performed at Santa Barbara, but it and the Vespers were dedicated to the Pope — Monteverdi presented them on his trip to Rome in 1610. Clearly he invested a good deal of effort proving his mastery not only of seconda pratica, but of the prima pratica that would be expected of a composer worthy of a position in Rome. The pope, it seems, did not see it in that light, to his great loss.

Scherzi musicali | Vesperae Beatae Virgine I ⇒

↥ Top