St. Cecilia Mass

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St. Cecilia Mass
by Charles Gounod
Charles Gounod 1859 - Huebner 1990 plate2.jpg
The composer, 1859
Native nameMesse solennelle en l’honneur de Sainte-Cécile
CatalogueCG 56
TextOrder of Mass
Performed22 November 1855 (1855-11-22) Saint-Eustache, Paris
  • SATTBB choir
  • solo: soprano, tenor and bass
  • orchestra
  • organ

St. Cecilia Mass is the common name of a solemn mass in G major by Charles Gounod, composed in 1855 and scored for three soloists, mixed choir, orchestra and organ. The official name is Messe solennelle en l’honneur de Sainte-Cécile, in homage of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. The work was assigned CG 56 in the catalogue of the composer's works.


The first work by Gounod performed in public was on 1 May 1841 a mass at the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.[1] The St. Cecilia Mass was his first major work. Parts of it, the Sanctus and Benedictus, were performed in London on 13 January 1851, together with works such as Mendelssohn's Die erste Walpurgisnacht. Gounod's new music was acclaimed in the press, rendering details and culminating in an enthusiastic summary: "It is ... the work of a thoroughly trained artist – and what is more, the poetry of a new poet". The review was published in Paris and raised expectations. The premiere was performed on St. Cecilia's day, 22 November 1855, in Saint-Eustache, Paris, where it was customary to celebrate the day by the performance of a new mass. The conductor was Théophile Tilmant.[2]


The Order of Mass is slightly extended. In the Gloria, the prayer miserere nobis (have mercy on us) is intensified by an added Domine Jesu (Lord Jesus). The Credo is followed by a threefold supplication, rendering the same text, "Domine, salvum fac Imperatorem nostrum Napoleonem, et exaudi nos in die qua invocaverimus te" (Lord, bless our emperor Napoleon and hear our prayer this day that we call you), sung once as Prière de l'Eglise (prayer of the church) by the choir a cappella after a short instrumental introduction, the second time as Prière de l'Armée (prayer of the army) by the men's voices and brass, the third time as Prière de la Nation (prayer of the nation) by the choir with orchestra. The mass has an instrumental offertory. In the Agnus Dei, the soloists sing between the three invocations the text "Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea" (Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say a word and I shall be healed), sung once by the tenor, once by the soprano. The movement ends with an added Amen. The changes have been criticized as not liturgically strict.[3]

Scoring and structure[edit]

The vocal parts of the mass are performed by three soloists (soprano, tenor and bass) and a choir of four parts, sometimes with divided tenor and bass. The soloists act mostly as an ensemble, without arias. Gounod scored the mass for a large orchestra, demanding six harps. In Gloria and Sanctus, he highlighted passages by pistons (cornets),[4] typical instruments of the romantic French orchestra. In Benedictus and Agnus Dei, he was the first composer to use the newly developed octobass, a string instrument of the violone family. He included the great organ, mostly in Grand jeu.

In the following table of the movements, the markings, keys and time signatures are taken from the choral score, using the symbol for alla breve (2/2).[5][6]

No. Parte Incipit Marking Tono Tempo
I Kyrie Moderato, quasi Andantino G major common time
II Gloria Larghetto D major common time
III Credo Credo in unum Deum Moderato molto maestoso C major common time
Et incarnatus est Adagio
Et resurrexit Tempo primo
IV Sanctus Andante F major 9/8
V Benedictus Adagio B-flat major
VI Agnus Dei Andante moderato D major 12/8


Camille Saint-Saens commented after the premiere:

"The appearance of the Messe Saint-Cécile caused a kind of shock. This simplicity, this grandeur, this serene light which rose before the musical world like a breaking dawn, troubled people enormously. … at first one was dazzled, then charmed, then conquered."[6]

He ranked the mass among the best works by Gounod:

"In the faint distant future when inexorable time has completed its work and the operas of Gounod are forever in repose in the dusty sanctuary of libraries, the Messe de Sainte Cécile, the Rédemption and the oratorio Mors et Vita will still retain life."[6]

The Sanctus was used in Werner Herzog's film Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979).

Selected recordings[edit]


  1. ^ A Dictionary of Music and Musicians, s.v. "Gounod, Charles".
  2. ^ Thrall, Josephine (1908). "Messe Solennelle" in "Oratorios and Masses" (PDF). The American History and Encyclopedia of Music. pp. 345–348. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 June 2014. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  3. ^ Henry, Hugh Thomas (1907). "Agnus Dei (in Liturgy)" . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  4. ^ In French, piston is a shortened form of cornet à pistons, the instrument known in English as a cornet; a piston is a modern invention.
  5. ^ Cookson, Michael. "Charles Gounod (1818–1893) / Solemn Mass (Saint Cecilia Mass) for soloists, mixed choir, orchestra and organ (1855)". Retrieved 17 December 2014.
  6. ^ a b c Eriksson, Erik. "Messe solennelle de Sainte Cécile for soloists, chorus, orchestra & organ in G major". Allmusic. Retrieved 17 December 2014.


External links[edit]