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Musical Settings of the Agnus Dei

posted Sep 17, 2011, 8:44 AM by Steven Vaughan

Originally, the Agnus Dei was doubtlessly sung in “plainsong”, or very simple and syllabic chant.  It subsequently developed into more florid chant, with its eighteen syllables of text receiving up to sixty-one notes in each phrase, though simpler versions were reserved for Requiem Masses and those of penitential character, such as Lent and Advent.

The Vatican Kyriale of 1905 reproduced twenty ancient musical settings of this text.  In six of them the melody remains the same for all three invocations – a musical form indicated as A-A-A.  Twelve have identical melodies for the first and third repetitions, but the second phrase is different – or A-B-A.  In one setting all three are different – A-B-C.  And one has the same melody for the first two invocations, with a variation on the third for grant us peace – or A-A-B, which is the form Curtis Stephan uses in the Mass of Renewal we’re learning now. 

After the medieval period however, composers began treating the final phrase separately, often creating a grand finale movement.  In Bach’s Mass in B-minor, the first two invocations are alto solos, followed by the Dona nobis pacem in a four-part fugue without any Agnus Dei.  Beethoven’s Missa solemnis has a soloist and chorus singing the Agnus Dei three times slowly, and then the Dona nobis forms a new lively movement, interrupted with drum rolls accentuating the blessings of peace in contrast with the horrors of wars, similar to Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli.  These musically dramatic practices are further illustrated in masses by Mozart, Schubert and others. 

Musical settings without the rest of the Mass include Samuel Barber’s, who transcribed his Adagio for Strings into it in 1967 for eight-part choir; which can be heard in the soundtrack of Homeworld, PC Gamer magazine’s 1999 Game of the Year.  Rufus Wainwright includes it on his 2004 Want Two, and Magna Cante presents a Gregorian-Pop version in 2005.