Missa Brevis


double SATB unaccompanied chorus
Mixed Voices
First Performance
(revised version) 29.8.1967, BBC Promenade Concert, London UK: John Alldis Choir

Score 0-571-50154-0 on sale

Programme Notes

The composition of my Missa brevis was begun on 30 March, 1966 and the final version, for sixteen solo voices, was completed in June 1967. The material of the work is based on the keyboard piece 'Gloria Tibi Trinitas' IV (Mullinar Book, No. 96) by the early Tudor composer William Blitheman (d.1591). A transcription of this piece, for two trumpets and two trombones, will be played before the Mass. Its motivic, durational and tonal characteristics are the source of all the music which follows, although during the course of each movement the initial derivations from the Blitheman take on a life of their own and develop far away from the model. Probably the most obvious recurring motive is one of three notes rising and falling a semitone (usually A-Bb-A) which is heard in the first two bars of the Blitheman and begins all movements except the Sanctus.

The sixteen voices are divided into two groups of eight, antiphonally separated to the left and right of the conductor, and much use is made of the opposition and interchange of musical material between the two groups.

Kyrie. The shortest movement. Held chords in one choir are counterpointed with a rapid quintuplet figure in the other.

Gloria. The longest movement. This divides into four large parts. The first part is subdivided into four sections, A-B-A-B. In the A sections a cantus firmus on the sopranos is decorated by melismas, unpitched shouts and whispers. The B sections are a series of interlocking duets which cross from one choir to the other. The second part, at the words 'Domine Dues, Rex coelestis' is a gradually accelerating build up to four other outbursts on the words 'Jesu Christe', 'Domine Deus', 'Agnus Dei', 'Filius Patris'. Three short alto solos, separated by whispers of 'miserere nobis', present the material on which the third part is based. This begins at the words 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' and is a long and slow crescendo which releases into the fourth and final part, a varied recapitulation of the A sections from the beginning of the movement.

Sanctus. In three parts. It opens 'very fast and gay' on female voices, twice interrupted by slow quiet interjections from the basses on the word 'Dominus'. The second part, 'Pleni sunt coeli', is a mass build-up of all the voices, who repeated their phrases independently of each other. The third section is the 'Osanna', in which a cantus firmus in one choir, increasing from one to six parts, is decorated by fast melismas on the other.

Benedictus. A duet for two sopranos. It opens with the A-Bb-A motive expanded to a ninth.

Agnus Dei. This begins on male voices alone, each sforzando attack being sustained very quietly by another voice. The attacks get closer and closer together a the female voices enter and lead up to the climax with sustained melodic lines. As the female voices die away and their chords increase in length, a single bass voice sings the attacks of the first part in reverse order, which therefore increase in speed.


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