An accomplished organist, Alanna Ropchock’s performances for religious services and festivals fueled a curiosity for liturgical music history. From that interest, Josquin des Prez’s Missa Pange lingua, an important Renaissance mass for the celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi, became the topic of her doctoral dissertation.
And, starting in September, the fourth-year PhD student at Case Western Reserve University will spend 10 months in Germany on a Fulbright U.S. Student Award, searching documents and other sources to learn more about the 16th-century communion mass.
Ropchock said studying Missa Pange lingua provides a lens on how a group broke away from Catholicism and transitioned to form the Lutheran Church during the German Reformation. She specifically will examine the period between 1515 and the 1560s.
Ropchock will study at the University of Augsburg, and plans to visit Rostock, Regensburg, Nuremburg and Munich; Vienna, Austria; Cambridge, England; and Brno in the Czech Republic.
David Rothenberg, Ropchock’s adviser and a professor of music who has done similar research on the music of the feast for the Virgin Mary, encouraged her to pursue the topic.
Missa Pange lingua was composed shortly before the German Catholic monk Martin Luther revolted against Catholicism in 1517 by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the Castle Church door in the city of Wittenberg. Luther would be called to Augsburg to explain his actions, which set off a church revolution that led to the Catholic-Lutheran divide.
Ropchock explained that most students taking a music appreciation class encounter this famous five-movement mass to celebrate the Catholic Church’s Corpus Christi feast, which honors the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist.
“The Corpus Christi feast day, which began in the mid-13th century, was popular across Europe, but even more so in Germany,” Ropchock said.
Ropchock was surprised to learn that Corpus Christi and transubstantiation were among the church practices Luther protested and are not practiced in Lutheran churches.
Scholars have information that Lutherans recited mass. Ropchock hopes to learn how the mass was able to cross the Catholic-Lutheran schism, while expanding the histories of the German Reformation and Renaissance music.
Ropchock plans to start her dissertation with historical background about the origins of Josquin’s composition. Josquin and his mass are particularly interesting, she said, because the composer was a favorite of Luther’s and also popular in the Catholic Church.
“Catholics and Lutherans were more alike than different as they transitioned into separate religions during the German Reformation,” said Ropchock, who hopes to find documentation to support that observation.
“Scholars have information that Lutherans used several parts of the Catholic Mass in their liturgies,” she said. “They used the same prayer texts and some of the same hymns, but they believed they were doing something different from what the Catholics were doing, and they did remove a key prayer that occurs right before the Eucharist.”
Although she plays several instruments, Ropchock, raised in Osceola Mills, Pa., said she has been fascinated more with the history of music than performing it.
Ropchock earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Penn State University, during which time she made her first, brief trip to Germany as part of a tour for organ students.