“Credo in unum Deum”: Setting the Mass to Music


We need to realize that when we say (or sing) the Nicene Creed during Mass on Sundays, we are not only “listing” things we believe in, but we are, in fact, telling the story of salvation. In the diagram shown above, I show how I divided the Credo (Latin for “I believe” or “we believe”) into different sections while writing my mass setting in Latin. It is very difficult to set the entirety of the text of the Credo to music as one section. And there is a theological reason why we should not do that; the text requires that some parts have music that is of a different character from the others. Obviously, the character of the music while the singers are describing the Crucifixion should be very different from, for example, the Resurrection. Not only is this a theological and musical issue, but also an issue of tradition – not necessarily the Apostolic Tradition of the Catholic Church, but the tradition of sacred music (which has little to do with Sacred Tradition). There are certain aspects of different mass settings I’ve heard, and they all have some things in common: the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection (Et incarnatus est, Crucifixus, and Et resurrexit) are usually made the central focus of the entire musical structure of the Credo, and the Et vitam, the ending which directly follows the Et unam sanctam, is often a fugue.

From all this, we can see that it is quite favorable for a composer to divide up the text while setting the Credo to music. However, every composer does it in a different way. For example, in Franz Xaver Süssmayr’s Missa Solemnis in D, he divided the text into the Credo in unum Deum, Et incarnatus est – Crucifixus, Et resurrexit, and Et vitam. This is usually the “traditional” way of doing this. The beginning of the Credo is usually sung by the full choir, proclaiming the faith, sounding confident. With the Incarnation, however, the text calls for music that is serene as we reflect upon this mystery. Musically speaking, this section is traditionally sung by soloists, although some composers set it for choir. Mozart wrote a solo aria for the Et incarnatus est in his Mass in C minor, and it is often sung separately as a concert piece. Continuing to the Crucifixus in the Missa Solemnis: although this section directly follows the Et incarnatus est without being a distinct section on its own, the character of the music totally changes as the Crucifixion is described. Then, at the “Et resurrexit”, as if demonstrating that the Resurrection (and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost) strengthened the faith of Jesus’s followers. The music returns to the confident, joyous feeling at the beginning of the Credo, and, following tradition, Sussmayr sets the Et vitam as a fugue.

Mozart decides to take a different route. In his C minor mass, he only wrote the Credo in unum Deum/Et in unum Dominum (he wrote them as one section, but I choose to divide it) and the Et incarnatus est, but he never finished the mass. Robert Levin, who completed the mass, apparently followed the structure of Mozart’s earlier masses while completing the C minor mass. Following the Et incarnatus est is the Crucifixus, then the Et resurrexit, Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Et unam sanctam, and Et vitam. As you can see from my diagram, I clearly find this quite logical and divide the text and music similarly.

I have barely begun writing my own Credo at this point, but I would like to explore how I plan to go about setting the Credo to music – and why. I believe that when setting text to music, a composer should always be mindful of how the music corresponds to the text, and I am especially careful when it comes to setting liturgical texts. The music must do justice to the holy text and show the glory of God!


Let’s examine the text, and then consider how the music can do justice to the text. “I believe in one God [italics mine].” Here, the music should put emphasis on the fact that there is only one God, so I would consider polyphonic and contrapuntal music (music that has several voices and several melodies occurring at once) out of the question. Homophonic music (with only one melody and its corresponding harmonies) can better express the “oneness” which is emphasized here. Of course, some might argue that polyphonic music does indeed do justice to the text as well – there is one God, the Almighty, but there are different ways in which different people worship God. As a musician, I write sacred music (and I also sing during Mass sometimes). Artists can create sacred art, paintings, etc. And let’s not forget that there are different vocations as well! However, although we are all different people, we all are in communion with each other, all equally important, and we are all one in Jesus Christ.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

~Galatians 3:28

With polyphonic music, particularly fugues, where each voice takes turns stating the subject (basically the main melody, so to speak), and this emphasizes the different sounds of each voice (my mass has soprano, alto, tenor, and bass). In this case, since “we are all one in Christ”, we do not want to emphasize our differences at the moment. Yes, we are all unique, but right now we are all emphasizing the oneness of our communion with Christ.

Now that I’ve covered the basics of what type of music, homophonic or polyphonic, the Credo in unum Deum should be (in my opinion), let’s continue analyzing the words… “the Father almighty”… God the Father, the first person of the Trinity, is the Creator. Logically, the music should be showing praise and glory to God the Father because “everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4). Also, since we are emphasizing our faith and beliefs (since “Credo” means “I believe” or “we believe”), the music must be confident. Of course, all of us Catholics have doubts or waver in our faith at times, but generally, we should be confident in what we believe and especially – be ready to stand up for the truth in any situation!

The key here is to bring different things together. Heaven and earth, visible and invisible. When I said the music should be homophonic, I did not exclude polyphony altogether, and often composers of homophonic music will add a bit of counterpoint to sustain interest or to give each part something interesting to play or sing. “Visibilium” should be homophonic; it is clear, distinct, and right in front of us. On the other hand, “invisibilium” is a bit more mysterious, less clear; but God’s mysteries will become clear to us once we’re in Heaven, so – why not start with a musical idea, for example in one voice, and build upon that idea with imitation between the voices, until all the voices join together? The unclear is starting to make sense to us.



From a brief glance-through of the text, it is clear that two things must be emphasized: The Son, the second person of the Trinity, “is born of the Father before all ages” and therefore, different from the Father. But He is also “consubstantialem Patri” – consubstantial with the Father. So, generally speaking, the Et in unum Dominum section should take thematic material from the Credo in unum Deum, but develop it further to show that the Son is “born of the Father.” Since the Son is also being of one substance with the Father, but also different, there has to be similarities and differences between this section and the previous one.

“Substance” can translate to musical structure. The Et in unum Dominum should be in the same key and have the same time signature as the Credo in unum Deum. But this time, I would prefer to use polyphonic music; however, not all four choral voices should be singing individual melodies at the same time. Rather, to emphasize the dual nature of the Son as God and man, there should be two melodies and two harmonies at the same time, rather than four melodies. For example, when the sopranos have a melody, the altos sing a harmony to the soprano, and, at the same time, the tenors sing a contrasting melody (to the soprano) while the basses provide the harmony for the tenors. The text of the Et in unum Dominum also puts emphasis on unity: “one Lord”, “only Begotten Son of God”, so at the cadences, the voices should come together after parts with counterpoint.

“…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

~Ephesians 4:5-6

Logically, at “qui propter nos homines,” etc, the voices should all be singing in a low register. This shows the lowliness of man compared to God, and how Christ was willing to humble himself for our sake, and “came down from heaven.” Also (as is self-evident), the word “descendit” (literally translated to descended) should be a descending musical phrase. Many musical settings of the Credo do justice to this using a technique called “word painting”, and likewise, in a later section about the Resurrection, the music should be ascending.


As short as the text of the Et incarnatus est may be, a lot can be expressed through music, so let’s review the announcement of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke:

“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’

“But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

“Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’

“But Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?’

“And the angel said to her in reply, ‘The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing is impossible for God.’

“Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.”

~Luke 1:26-38

The Et incarnatus est is traditionally set for one or more solo voices. Here, since we obviously have a dialogue between the angel and Mary, the music should be a duet, perhaps for soprano and alto, respectively, to represent the angel and Mary. At the words “et homo factus est” (and became man), the two soloists should join together in parallel thirds and sixths or in a canon-like imitation to represent the dual nature of Christ as God and man.

The Credo is in the key of D major, but in order to provide further emphasis on the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, I have decided to go to the subdominant key of G for these sections; the Crucifixus is in G minor, framed by the Et incarnatus est and Et resurrexit, which are both in G major.



From a Christian’s point of view today, although the crucifixion was a sorrowful event (it is one of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary), it brought about our salvation. Therefore, one could argue, the Crucifixus should be set as a joyful, not sorrowful, section. However, I did mention at the beginning that the Credo is not only a statement of faith, but the story of redemption. So instead of depicting the goodness that came from Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross with joyful music, we should, rather, portray the Crucifixion the way those with Christ must have viewed it. Let us not forget the Church’s two-thousand-year history!

There was much uncertainty surrounding the Crucifixion. The disciples were terrified, and even Peter, who said he’d die for the Lord, denied Jesus three times. A “classic” way to express uncertainty is to use a lot of chromaticism. Every key in music has seven different tones that “belong” to that key, and these are called diatonic tones. Diatonic tones can represent purity, since they keep the music a simple, clean “color” and character, while chromatic tones, the other five tones outside of the aforementioned key, paint the music with different colors to show different emotions, etc. The chromatic tones can also make the music sound unstable because they can be used to create dissonant intervals. With the Crucifixus, chromaticism obviously makes sense (and likewise, for the Et incarnatus est, the music should be mostly diatonic to show Christ’s purity).

I have split the Credo into sections to make the Crucifixus stand out as the central movement; it is also the only movement I am planning on writing in a minor key, considering that my mass is in D major. The Credo in unum Deum and Et in unum Dominum are both in D major, and the Et incarnatus est shifts to the subdominant, G major. Then the Crucifixus continues this in the key of G minor. Of course, with the Resurrection, the music should return to G major to match the Et incarnatus est, and after that, the Et in Spiritum Sanctum should transition back to the tonic of D major.


Like I stated earlier concerning the word “descendit” in the Et in unum Dominum, the coming down from heaven can be depicted – literally – with a technique called “word painting.” Here we should use it for the words “resurrexit” and “ascendit”, ascending rather than descending this time. The mood of this entire section should be joyful, showing Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension into heaven.

“Cujus regni non erit finis” can recall thematic material from the Et incarnatus est, because the angel Gabriel had told Mary that Jesus “will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33). However, the character of the music for the Et incarnatus est, in context of the entire section, is totally different from the character of the entire Et resurrexit. Perhaps we can take thematic material from the Et incarnatus est and present it in diminution at the end of the Et resurrexit.


Many times, the Et in Spiritum Sanctum has been set for one or more soloists (Mozart’s Waisenhausmesse uses a tenor aria, and idea used by Robert Levin while completing the C minor mass). Since I’ve used the soprano and alto in the Et incarnatus est to represent the angel and Mary, logically (and to be fair, since many times sopranos end up doing most of the heavy work!), the Et in Spiritum Sanctum should be a duet between the tenor and bass soloists.

While the text of this section does not directly suggest unity, it does imply it. “…who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified…[italics mine]” This is to say that the Third Person of the Holy Trinity and his work is in no way subordinate to the first two and their work.

Now we are getting a sense of how the Credo is, in fact, a story. First, God the Father created everything, then the Son, Jesus, redeemed us on the Cross after we became sinful (Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden and Jesus came as the new Adam and Mary as the new Eve), and finally the Holy Spirit sanctifies us (coming at the first Pentecost). All three are important – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and we could not do with only one or two of them. Therefore, and logically, this section can take material from the Credo in unum Deum and/or Et in unum Dominum and develop it even further, as well as adding new motifs and ideas to show that although the Trinity is one God, there are three persons.

“Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”

~1 Corinthians 12:3

At the words “qui ex Patre Filioque procedit” (who proceeds from the Father and the Son) I would exclude polyphony altogether because of a doctrinal issue. The Eastern Orthodox Church split from the Catholic Church, as we all know, and one of the reasons was the addition of the word “Filioque”. In spite of this split, the Catholic Church is still the true Church, and remains unified until this day (hence homophonic music), an idea which will be developed further in the Et unam sanctam.


Here, in the text, we can see the four marks of the Catholic Church (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic). As I stated earlier, this can be a further development of the “unity” implied in the previous section. I would start the Et unam sanctam homophonically, and then get into some polyphony since a subdivision of this section, the Et vitam venturi, is generally set as a fugue to match the fugal conclusions to the Gloria (but this is another story). The polyphony is supposed to foreshadow, so to speak, the concluding fugue. But there is a theological reason as well. While the Church is unified, her members have different spiritual gifts, as is written in 1 Corinthians 12:

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.”

~1 Corinthians 12:12-31

At “et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum,” the music usually becomes highly chromatic, modulating through many different keys, until it finally lands on the tonic in the beginning of the Et vitam venturi fugue. After all the uncertainty, eternal life has come. Although the resurrection of the dead can be interpreted as a joyful phrase, many composers would like their listeners to contemplate the horror of death before expressing joy. Before the choir can sing about eternal life, we need to remember what brought us there, which is, of course, death of the body.

And, obviously, the ending should recall some motif or theme from the opening section, because “sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum” (as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end). The beginning and end of the Credo – which refer to the beginning when God created everything all the way to eternal life – should be unified in some way. And, musically speaking, this is also very satisfying to the ear as well.

I hope you are beginning to get a sense of how the Credo is a story. But, in any case, I will organize it clearly now:

Credo in unum Deum: God creates everything

Et in unum Dominum: Jesus – the Son – is begotten of the Father, and comes down from heaven

Et incarnatus est: Jesus becomes man

Crucifixus: Jesus dies on the Cross for our salvation

Et resurrexit: Jesus rises from the dead and ascends into heaven

Et in Spiritum Sanctum: The Holy Spirit comes to sanctify us (Pentecost)

Et unam sanctam: The Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic; resurrection of the dead and eternal life

So yes, not only is the Nicene Creed a profession of faith, it is also the story of salvation itself. The music, as it is with all church music, must do justice to the text. Of course, I can’t guarantee that every single thing I’ve mentioned will be used in my own musical setting (is that even humanly possible?), and there are also other ways to do justice to liturgical texts that I have not mentioned. Although I highly doubt (and don’t intend) for my Latin mass setting to actually be used for a liturgical function (it will probably be too long anyway), music should be appropriate for worship and should do justice to Catholic theology. As Pope Pius XII said in his encyclical, Musicae Sacrae:

“Certainly no one will be astonished that the Church is so vigilant and careful about sacred music. It is not a case of drawing up laws of aesthetics or technical rules that apply to the subject of music. It is the intention of the Church, however, to protect sacred music against anything that might lessen its dignity, since it is called upon to take part in something as important as divine worship.”

~Musicae Sacrae, 21