An Italian-style sung Mass in Chicago
Depending on whether one follows the Roman or Gallican ars celebrandi, Missa Cantata can be either a sung low Mass or a reduced solemn Mass. Either version is characterized by the singing of the propers and ordinary with only a celebrant, no deacon or subdeacon assisting. In the city of Rome, saturated with clergy, Missa Cantata did not envision the offering of incense until 1960, when Missa Cantata ceased to be a description and somehow became a rubric. According to the Roman praxis it followed the ceremonies of a said Mass with a server or two. To this day in Italy one often sees a sung Mass wherein acolytes kneel on the bottom steps behind the epistle and Gospel horns of the altar.
Padre Pio sings a Roman-style Mass (note: the Saint is not a fussy celebrant)
The other manner of celebration envisions a reduction of solemn Mass through means of fewer ministers. The institution of this sort of Mass is often attributed to missions, but this seems unlikely in light of the communities and fraternity-based orders which served missions during the Counter-Reformation era until 1960. More likely, it was a way of doing more with less in isolated parishes served by a single priest. In this schema acolytes serve from the credence, as they would at a solemn Mass, processions can be made, incense is offered, and the priest assumes most of the duties of the deacon and subdeacon; duties unassumed (such as holding the paten during the Canon) are simply discarded. This form of celebration may have been popular in the Latin uses of the Roman rite before the universal imposition of the Roman books in 1570. Less equipped parishes may then have received the Roman rite while retaining their own instinct for ceremony.
A "higher" take on sung Mass according to the northern tradition
One cannot argue the Italian or northern way is more right than the other. Prior to the 1960 rubrics there was no gradation of Mass called a Missa Cantata, merely public Mass and private Mass, the rubrics of which revolved around the kalendar and its observance more than ceremonies. The 1960 rubrics could be interpreted as an accommodation for an organic development, but it may also have stifled greater leniency. John XXIII's rubrics, like those of his successor, erroneously assume the parish Mass as normative rather than an episcopal celebration by the leader of the distinct church. As such, Masses are called solemn, sung, and low (the practice of two candles for low Mass and six for anything else comes into play here, too previously the numbers of candles was dictated by feast rank). But what is wider needs?
One contrast to the post-Tridentine rubrics that has always impressed this writer about the Byzantine tradition is celebrations always attempt to make the most of whatever resources are available. A bishop, as the lone celebrant, can "dress down" to a phelonion with his omophorion; multiple deacons can serve one liturgy; pontifical Divine Liturgy can be had with numerous subdeacons or none; a layman can read the epistle if a tonsured cleric is unavailable; Vespers can be sung with one incensation or many. The Roman rite may not have been like this, but the Parisian rite was. There existed provisions for celebration of high Mass without the availability of a subdeacon: a cleric or server could sing the epistle from the ambo and the Canon was observed as at low Mass. Pius XII made a similar concession toward the end of his life, but it is a widely unpracticed observance despite its potential usefulness in parishes with one priest and married men, eligible for the diaconate, who know Latin.
Could the Italian form of Missa Cantata be the superior version after all, at least, if used in the proper way? If the essence of a solemn Mass is the full participation of the deacon and subdeacon, the Missa Cantata cannot anything more than an improved version of low Mass. It could even be argued that the Missa Cantata is an under-utilized tool, at least in the Italian version. Given the density of the kalendar in the Missals printed from 1939-1962, used by traditionalists today, a cantor well versed in the Commons of various types of Saints combined with a laity who know a simple ordinary (Mass VIII, Mass XI, Mass XV, Mass XVIII would all work) could easily elevate a daily Mass with a single server from a low Mass into something fuller. Marian Masses on Saturday would be an excellent starting point for such an effort.
The Missa Cantata has been a welcomed change in the Traditionalist world after decades of low Masses and four hymn sandwiches from the end of World War II until recent times (is not the parish Pauline Mass normally a four hymn sandwich?). Still, one out to keep in mind that the Missa Cantata is a practical compromise for when the ideal is implausible, but the ideal is not always implausible.