Parody mass

A parody mass is a musical setting of the mass, typically from the 16th century, that uses multiple voices of another pre-existing piece of music, such as a fragment of a motet or a secular chanson, as part of its melodic material. It is distinguished from the two other most prominent types of mass composition during the Renaissance, the cantus firmus and the paraphrase mass. "Parody" often has nothing to do with humor, as in the modern sense of the word; while in some cases bawdy secular songs were indeed used in composition of masses, equally often non-liturgical sacred music such as motets formed the basis for parody masses. Instead of calling it a "parody mass", the term "imitation mass" has been suggested as being both more precise and closer to the original usage, since the term "parody" is based on a misreading of a late 16th-century text.[1]

The parody mass was a very popular model during the Renaissance: Palestrina alone wrote some 50-odd examples, and by the first half of the 16th century this style was the dominant form. The Council of Trent, in a document dated 10 September 1562, banned the use of secular material, "...let nothing profane be intermingled ... banish from church all music which contains, whether in the singing or the organ playing, things that are lascivious or impure."[2] However the reforms were most carefully followed only in Italy; in France, a change in taste had already brought about many of the wishes of the members of the Council, and in Germany they were largely ignored.

In its usual definition, the term parody mass only applies to masses where a polyphonic fragment is used. Masses incorporating only one voice of the polyphonic source, treated not as a cantus firmus but elaborated and moving between different parts, are known as paraphrase masses.

Parody techniques include adding or removing voices from the original piece, adding fragments of new material, or only using the fragment at the beginning of every part of the mass. In his colossal 22-volume El melopeo y maestro of 1613, Italian music theorist Pietro Cerone gave some general guidelines for writing a parody mass: each of the main sections of the mass should start with the beginning of the source; the interior section of the Kyrie should use a secondary motive; and some portions, for example the second and third Agnus Dei, should not be chained to the model but be freely composed. He also recommended using as many subsidiary musical ideas from the model as possible.[3]

Some examples of early parody masses include the Missa Malheur me bat, Missa Mater Patris, and Missa Fortuna desperata of Josquin des Prez, and the Missa de Dringhs by Antoine Brumel. By the middle of the 16th century, a high percentage of all masses composed used the parody technique.


  1. Lockwood, Grove, 1980
  2. Reese, p. 449.
  3. Harvard Dictionary of Music, p. 609.


  • Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0-393-09530-4
  • Harold Gleason and Warren Becker, Music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Music Literature Outlines Series I). Bloomington, Indiana. Frangipani Press, 1986. ISBN 0-89917-034-X
  • Lewis Lockwood, "Mass." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2
  • The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Randel. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-674-61525-5
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