Missa Brevis - Zoltan Kodály (1882 - 1967)








          Agnus Dei

          Ite, Missa est


Unlike his compatriot Bela Bartók, who emigrated to the USA, Kodály remained in Hungary during the Nazi occupation. After the war he became one of the leading figures in the development of music education in Europe. In common with a number of early 20th century composers, much of his music is based on national folksongs and dances. In addition to the Missa Brevis, Kodály produced two other major choral works, Psalmus Hungaricus (1923) and the Te Deum (1936), as well as numerous part songs.


Early in 1945 Red Army troops finally overcame the German forces who had been occupying the city of Budapest. The surviving civilian population emerged from where they had been sheltering during the seven weeks of non-stop bombing, to find large parts of the city destroyed. Kodály was caught up in this carnage, taking refuge in the cellar of the Budapest Opera House where, somewhat improbably, the Missa Brevis was composed. It was not an entirely new piece, but a re-working of the composer’s purely instrumental Organ Mass of 1942. First performed in the cloakroom of the Opera House, it later received its official première at the 1948 Three Choirs Festival in Worcester.


The regular parts of the Mass – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei – are framed by two short movements for solo organ: Introitus and Ite, Missa Est. The work’s distinctive character arises largely from Kodály's modal harmony and folksong-inspired melodies, coupled with a lyrical romanticism.


The Introitus immediately establishes the D minor tonality of the work with a gradually intensifying series of chords, after which a simple but important melodic idea emerges.  The Kyrie eleison consists of this motif in two-part imitation over a drone-like pedal D.  The Christe Eleison is especially memorable for its haunting chord progression for a trio of high sopranos, supported by the other parts.


Fanfare-like figures characterise the energetic outer sections of the joyous Gloria, whilst the slow central passage beginning at ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ introduces a yearning, lyrical melody. The movement reaches an exultant climax with the concluding ‘Amen’.


Forming the centre of the Credo, the ‘Et incarnatus est’ and ‘Crucifixus’ contain some of Kodaly’s most emotionally intense music. The exuberant ‘Et resurrexit’ which follows, mirrors the text with an energetic ascending figure.


For the Sanctus a short organ introduction prepares the way for a sequence of tranquil phrases from the upper voices of the choir, culminating in the festive fanfares of the ‘Hosanna’. The gently undulating Benedictus eventually leads into an expanded version of the ‘Hosanna’.


In the Agnus Dei the melody used for ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ in the Gloria makes a re-appearance. After a jubilant climax the final extended ‘Dona nobis pacem’ is a reworking of the entire Kyrie movement, bringing the Mass round full circle. The work concludes with the Ite, Missa Est for organ solo, a triumphant affirmation based on themes from the Credo.



John Bawden



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