Music This Sunday


Music This Sunday


Tournai is one of the oldest cities in Belgium, containing at its center an elaborate medieval cathedral with five towers. The cathedral library contains the oldest known complete mass setting, commonly called the “Mass of Tournai.”

The parts of the Mass Ordinary -- the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei -- had been sung for hundreds of years, but nobody had yet composed a complete set of these texts. The Mass of Tournai was something new: these movements were meant to be performed together. One historian speculates that the occasion for the performance was not a liturgy, but a drama celebrating the Virgin Mary, hence the new idea of having a musically unified setting.

The music is rich in symbolism involving the number three. It is for three voice parts and the meter is always a multiple of three, usually something like our modern 6/8 or 3/4.

The manuscript for this mass dates from 1349, but probably the movements were written by anonymous composers over a period of fifty years prior to that.

We don’t know if the Mass of Tournai is truly the oldest unified mass setting: it may be that other, earlier music has not survived. It is, however, the oldest known example of a genre that came to dominate European music for the next two hundred years.

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