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Zoltan Kodály (1882-1967)
Missa Brevis (1944)

Some Introductory Notes

  • Kodály, like a number of early 20th century composers, drew inspiration from the folksongs of his homeland (in this case, Hungary).
  • Other main influences on Kodály’s style include Bach, Palestrina, plainchant, Debussy, and the traditional Hungarian verbunkos style, a type of dance music from the late seventeenth century. The Missa Brevis features many plainchant-style melodies, mixed with modal keys reminiscent of the Hungarian folk tradition that Kodály was so familiar with.
  • The traditions of Hungarian folk music tend to be rooted in the country's Gypsy culture. Prominent musical features include dance rhythms, dotted rhythms, short phrases, improvisatory gestures, the Kuruk-fourth figure (a Hungarian version of horn fifths), drones, and parallel thirds and sixths. Many of these devices make appearances, although not overwhelmingly so, throughout Kodály's mass setting.
  • Kodály composed during World War II, even as he helped others escape persecution. The Missa Brevis, in fact, was written while Kodály and his wife hid in the basement of a convent in Budapest.

If you’re not familiar with Kodály’s works, this is good piece to serve as your introduction. Unlike a number of his contemporaries, Kodály stayed more or less rooted in tonality, so his works aren’t as challenging on the ears as those by Berg, Webern, or even his friend Bartók. This particular piece showcases many of the styles that influenced Kodály’s compositions, especially plainchant and Hungarian folk music.

Kodály’s Missa Brevis is an eight-movement work, with the final four movements each including references to earlier material. This cyclic nature is a nod to the traditional nineteenth century mass. The Missa Brevis centers on D, but can be somewhat tonally ambiguous because of Kodály’s use of mode mixing.

The Introitus, which is the first division of the Proper of the Mass, opens the work with a series of building chords. This movement serves as an orchestral introduction, and is centered on D minor. After the opening chords, this movement's main melody enters. At measure 29, the opening chordal idea returns, but is replaced with the melody again at 37. This melody will also return in the Kyrie.

A shortened version of the Introitus melody over a bass pedal (reminiscent of the Hungarian folk music drone tradition) starts the Kyrie movement. The first 11 measures are a duet between the alto and bass section, with the tenor adding at measure 12. "Christe eleison" (Christ have mercy) starts at measure 17 and has a reduced texture (another traditional technique), with three solo sopranos and a responsorial choir part. The repeat of "Kyrie eleison" occurs in measure 43, using the same melody as in the first iteration, but louder and more accented.

The Gloria movement opens with a traditional plainchant incipit, which is followed by a vocal fanfare. The text throughout the Gloria movement is set very deliberately: "Laudamus te" (We praise you) is broad, except for the words "adoramus te" (we adore you), which are hushed and more reverential. The words "Glorificamus te" (We glorify you) herald a return to the fanfare idea, which carries through until the beginning of the "Qui tollis" section. Until this time, the longer melodies have been step-based. This section, in contrast, is based on large leaps. On "Miserere," the three vocal solos have a long, descending chromatic line that seems to represent the penitential quality of the text at this point. "Quoniam tu solus sanctus" is set as a joyful flourish, with double dotted rhythms. This joyful character lasts through the end of the movement, including the Amen. The Amen is a long descending choral line, and is fairly lengthy when compared to the rest of the movement.

In contrast to the previous movements, the Credo movement has a somewhat jumpy feel to it, as the sections do not flow into one another quite as smoothly. The opening is again a plainchant incipit, followed by a smooth, almost plainchant-style melody. After this first main melody, the choir gets very quiet for "Et in carnatus est." "Crucifixus" uses big clashing chords, suggesting the turmoil associated with the Crucifixion. At measure 64, "et resurrexit" begins with a rising melody - again, the musical setting mimics the subject of the text; in this case, the resurrection. There is a return to the movement's first melody, and this melodic idea and broad style last through the rest of the movement.

The Sanctus movement begins with an instrumental introduction. The choir then takes over the theme started by the orchestra. On the words "Pleni sunt caeli et terra" at measure 18, Kodály uses the main melody from the Credo. "Hosanna in excelsis" is extremely jubilant, almost fanfare-like. In the Benedictus, the musical material for the first line is newly composed, but the rest of the movement quotes previous material: on "Hosanna," for example, there is a return to the material used in the Sanctus "Hosanna."

Agnus Dei
The Agnus Dei movement has three main musical threads. The first is a four-note motive that is only sung on the words "Agnus Dei." The second is a return to the interval-based "Qui tollis" melody from the Gloria movement. The third is a return at measure 62 to material from the Kyrie movement for "Dona nobis pacem" (Grant us peace).

Ite, missa est
The final movement is the Ite, missa est, which is entirely based on material from the Credo.

This work, for the most part, is not as polished as masses by other composers. It has a somewhat rough feel to it, which probably stems from Kodály’s work with folksongs. In many senses, this mass setting is conventional, with its traditional text division and cyclic nature. However, Kodály's use of modality and folk technique, especially Hungarian rhythmic gestures, sets this particular setting apart from others. When one takes into account the fact that Kodály completed this piece during World War II, while seeking shelter in a convent cellar, the Agnus Dei's final "Dona nobis pacem" plea becomes all the more compelling.

Node your homework


  • Bellman, Jonathan. "Toward a Lexicon for the Style hongrois." Journal of Musicology, Vol. 9, pp 214 – 237.
  • Kodály, Zoltan. Folk Music of Hungary. Barrie and Rockliff, London, 1960.
  • Kodály, Zoltan. Missa Brevis, score. Boosey & Hawkes, New York, 1951.
  • Kodály, Zoltan. The Selected Writings of Zoltan Kodály. Boosey & Hawkes, New York, 1974.
  • Lang, Paul Henry. "Zoltan Kodály: The Other Hungarian Centenary." High Fidelity, vol. 33, pp 44 – 45.
  • Pickar, Catherine J. "An Analytic Process Applied to Kodály’s Missa Brevis." Choral Journal, vol. 26, pp 7 – 12.
  • Ránki, György (ed.). Bartók and Kodály Revisited. Akadémiai Kiado, Budapest, 1987.
  • Sadie, Stanley (ed.). "Kodály, Zoltan." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 10, pp 136 – 145.
  • Szabolcsi, Bence. A Concise History of Hungarian Music. Barrie and Rockliff, London, 1964.

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