|Performance Date||April 22, 2017|
|Location||Basilica of Saint Mary|
|Performance Title||Miracle Mass|
|Title Of Work||Missa Mirabilis|
VocalEssence Chorus & Ensemble Singers; Aaron David Miller, organ
|About The Piece||
I was delighted when Martin Baker asked me if I would like to write a Mass for Westminster Cathedral because I had had one in mind for a while, and this commission encouraged me to get down to work.
The central idea, and the central movement, is the Credo—in some ways the most problematic text to set because of its length and the non-poetic nature of the words. But instead of setting the words simply in a descriptive way, I wanted to explore aspects of the psychology which underlies the whole nature of belief and doubt. The Creed contains line after line of densely-packed, carefully articulated theology—as watertight and restrictive as Nicea could make it. But I, like most Catholics, have said these words quickly, without thinking fully of the depth (or daring) of what is being expressed. And what does ‘believing’ in these pregnant clauses actually mean? When I stand and affirm that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son” what am I saying? And what about those who have ceased to believe and yet still rattle off blithely the bold print in the Missal after the sermon and before the offertory?
In my setting of the Credo I divide the upper from the lower voices as if innocence from experience. Only the soprano and alto sing the word ‘Credo’, constantly interrupting the fast-paced mutterings of the tenors and basses. What at first is an encouragement to believe becomes a despairing cry as the men’s pattered rote turns into defiant unbelief. Only the clause about baptism is sung with any sense of faith—a last hope dashed as the final clauses about resurrection and eternal life fizzle out. A final ‘Credo’ is sung an octave lower by the upper voices—quietly, as if tired and shattered from their earlier, futile exertion.
The whole work opens with a brief, muted, unsettled chorale (which we will later hear as the blazing series of chords punctuating the statements of the Credo). This moment of doubt lasts only for seconds and melts into the Kyrie proper, sung to music of sweet, simple consolation. The Gloria is joyful in its outer sections, based on an organ rising scale and a choral falling zigzag motive. In the central ‘Qui Tollis’ section the zigzag motive pipes away in repeated high chords, and the chorus now sing the rising scales. There are a few prophetic hints of the Credo here and there, in the ‘miserere nobis’ for example.
The Sanctus and Benedictus aim to contrast the divine and the human. The angel’s ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ is something beyond the universe itself in grandeur and scope, and the music here is huge, broad, immense. In the Benedictus Divinity has become Humanity in the Messianic incarnation, and the music is deliberately and sentimentally intimate—as if two people are sharing a drink in a Parisian café, with a whiff of Poulenc perhaps in the harmonies, or maybe even the sound of a distant 1950s pop tune coming from a neighbouring café’s jukebox.
The Agnus Dei takes the ‘Credo’ motive, sung by the upper voices, and develops it in a plaintive sequence. All is restrained and quietly expressive until the third, louder statement of the text, where the response should be ‘Grant us peace’. Instead of ‘peace’ the organ plays an interlude of mounting agitation and desperation based on chromatically altered fragments of the opening vocal chords. As this passage reaches its high point, with still no sign of ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’, the chorus sing a fortissimo ‘Agnus Dei’ to the music which had accompanied the baptism clause in the Credo. Finally, as a climax to the whole work, the ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’, is sung at highest volume and highest pitch—a variation of the descending scale first heard in the Christe Eleison. The spell has been broken, all gradually becomes calm, and the piece ends musically as it began with the Dona Nobis sharing the same melody of consolation as the Kyrie, despite a fleeting fragment of the unsettled chorale from the work’s opening bars.
And why ‘Mirabilis’ ? Purely personal: I gathered my year’s-worth of sketches for this Mass together in September 2006 and wrote three of the movements in three days; the following day I had a serious car crash, overturning on the motorway at 80 mph; I stepped out of the one untouched door in my completely mangled car with my Mass manuscript and my body intact; I wrote part of the Agnus Dei in St. Mary’s Hospital, waiting for four hours for a brain scan. I was conscious, as I was somersaulting with screeching metallic acrobatics on the M1, of feeling regret that I would never get to hear this piece. Someone had other ideas.
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