Jean Langlais 1907–1991

Messe Solennelle (Solemn Mass) for Choir and Organ

By the age of three, Jean Langlais was completely blind, the result of infantile glaucoma. In later life he would claim that this had been a benefit: as the child of poor parents living in rural Brittany he would not have been able to enjoy the education he received at the School for Blind Children in Paris where his prodigious musical talents prompted the authorities to enter him for the Paris Conservatoire. There his fellow pupils, including Olivier Messiaen and Maurice Duruflé, were taught by none other than Paul Dukas (composition, harmony and orchestration) and Marcel Dupré (organ and improvisation). 

Langlais became assistant organist at both Notre Dame Cathedral and the church of Saint Etienne-du-Mont before inheriting the post of titular-organist at the Basilica of Sainte Clotilde, Paris – the post formerly held successively by César Franck and Charles Tournemire – where he remained until his death. Blind organists have always been nurtured in France as, unlike English organists, their duties rarely involved conducting the choir.

The Messe Solennelle was written for choir and two organs, one with a very large set of pipes (the Grand Orgue) positioned at the West end of the church, the other with a smaller set of pipes (the Petit Orgue) positioned in the chancel. The former would be used for organ solos and for leading the congregational music, the latter for accompanying the choir. (‘Petit’ is a relative term: the Petit Orgue in a French cathedral would be appreciably larger than the organ in an average parish church in England.) Langlais’ job title was Organiste du Grand Orgue; his assistant organist would have played the Petit Orgue. However, the work may be played on just one organ, as in this performance.

The Messe Solennelle is the first of Langlais’ choral works. It was composed in November 1949 and first performed in 1951, four years after Duruflé’s Requiem. Langlais sets the Ordinary of the Mass, that is those sections which are common to all masses, with the exception of the Credo, and is sparing in his use of word-repetition. Like Duruflé, he was familiar with plainsong and he quotes, in the Gloria, the intonation from Mass No.13 (‘Stelliferi conditor orbis’) found in the
Liber Usualis, an encyclopaedia of liturgical chant published by the Benedictine monks of Solesmes. His choral writing does not incorporate such chants explicitly but their shape appears to have motivated several of his vocal lines. 

The musical language for the choir is fairly conservative, with several sections in fugal style, for instance in the Gloria, and the vocal parts are almost entirely doubled by the (Petit) organ – Langlais was evidently concerned for choirs who were not used to singing unaccompanied.

The sections for the (Grand) organ on its own are another matter altogether. Langlais adopts an angular melodic line and a more chromatic harmonic language than he does for the choir, using these sections for unfettered comment on what the choir has just sung and for modulations to new keys. 


The organ begins the Kyrie by introducing the two themes to be sung by the choir. The voices sing ‘Kyrie eleison’ in turn, starting with the tenors, who repeat the first theme while the sopranos and altos sing a counter-melody.  ‘Christe eleison’ is set to the second theme; each repetition of the words rises in waves of increasing intensity. The final ‘Kyrie eleison’ is a powerful appeal, underscored by a repeat of the first theme in the organ.

Kyrie eleison.
Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison.

Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.


The first two sections of this movement are set as a fugue, starting in the basses. A polyphonic central section begins at ‘Domine Deus’ with the lead line shared between different voices. The fugal theme returns towards the end of the movement, at ‘Quoniam tu solus Sanctus’, bringing the movement to a joyful close.

Gloria in excelsis Deo
et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
Laudamus te; benedicimus te;
adoramus te; glorificamus te.
Gratias agimus tibi
propter magnam gloriam tuam,
Domine Deus, Rex coelestis,
Deus Pater omnipotens.

Domine Fili unigenite Jesu Christe;
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris;

Qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis;
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
suscipe deprecationem nostram;
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris,
miserere nobis.

Quoniam tu solus Sanctus:
Tu solus Dominus:
Tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe,
cum Sancto Spiritu,
in gloria Dei Patris. Amen.

Glory be to God on high,
and on earth peace to men of good will.
We praise Thee, we bless Thee,
we worship Thee, we glorify Thee,
We give thanks to Thee
for Thy great glory,
Lord God, heavenly King,
God the Father Almighty.

Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesu Christ; Lord God,
Lamb of God, Son of the Father;

Who takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Who takest away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer.
Who sittest at the right hand of the Father,
have mercy upon us.

For Thou only art holy;
Thou only art the Lord;
Thou only art most high, Jesu Christ,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father. Amen.


Chromatic triplets over a striding theme in the organ introduce the Sanctus. The choir enters with three powerful statements of the word ‘Sanctus’ before joining the rhythmic language of the organ.  The striding rhythmic patterns continue in the organ as the choir sings a grandiose ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ and an energetic ‘Hosanna’. The sopranos’ top C on the final ‘excelsis’ was reputedly added at the request of a choirboy at St John’s College, Cambridge.

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.

Holy, Holy, Holy,
Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.
Hosanna in the highest.


Descending chromatic scales on the organ introduce and punctuate the peaceful but eerie Benedictus, sung by the sopranos and altos in unison but an octave apart. A repeat of the ‘Hosanna’ ends the movement.

Benedictus qui venit
in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis.

Blessed is He that cometh
in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Agnus Dei

Each verse of the Agnus Dei is introduced by an angular chromatic melody in the organ. The repeated phrases of ‘Dona nobis Pacem’ reference the opening movement, closing the work with a fervent plea for peace.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata
mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata
mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata
mundi, dona nobis pacem. 

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins
of the world, have mercy upon us,
Lamb of God, who takest away the sins
of the world, have mercy upon us,
Lamb of God, who takest away the sins
of the world, grant us peace.


Composer:  Langlais Title of Musical Work:  Messe Solennelle

London Concert Choir concerts featuring this musical work: