Friday, November 15, 2013

A twentieth century masterpiece: Britten's Missa brevis

Benjamin Britten
2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), one of the greatest English composers of the twentieth century. Across the world a vast number of concerts and events are taking place to mark the centenary. These events reach their peak next Friday, 22 November, the Feast of St Cecilia, Patron Saint of Music and Musicians, and appropriately the birthday of Benjamin Britten. One of my choirs, the Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory School, will be singing a number of works by Britten at a centenary concert at St Peter’s, Eaton Square in London that day (see below) including his famous Missa brevis written for the choristers of Westminster Cathedral. The second part of the concert will be a performance of Duruflé’s Requiem.

Earlier today the Schola sang the Duruflé at the school’s annual Memorial Mass at the Oratory Church and we recently sang Britten’s Missa brevis in a liturgical context for the Annual First Form Mass at the Oratory. I chose the Britten for a number of reasons, not least because it is aimed at children, who love both to sing and hear it, but equally because being technically challenging, it is a piece from which a young singer can learn a great deal. To further the experience, I invited the present Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, Martin Baker, to come to the school and work with the Oratory boys on the Mass.

Martin Baker rehearsing the London Oratory choristers
In the 1950s, the Master of Music at the Cathedral was George Malcolm. Britten attended a Carol Service there in 1958 at which the choristers sang his Ceremony of Carols. Greatly impressed by the boys and their sound, Britten offered to write something for the choir. Malcolm asked him to write a practical weekday Mass for boys' voices, a piece which could be used in the everyday routine at the Cathedral.

Later, in 1959, Britten heard that Malcolm had tendered his resignation to Cardinal Godfrey, and so, realising that time was short, he invited Malcolm down to his home in Aldeburgh to discuss the proposed Mass. Malcolm stayed for a few days and explained to Britten the theology of the Mass. Britten then wrote the Mass very swiftly, over the course of a day or so, which in part explains why it is so concise. The result, in the words of composer Colin Mawby, was 'one of the greatest pieces of liturgical music written in the 20th century'.

The Gloria takes its thematic material from the Plainchant Mass XV (Dominatur Deus). This Mode IV Gloria centres around three pitches, Mi, So and La which ascend and fall in mirror image to form a series of short palindromic phrases, in effect a series of musical arches. Britten's setting turns this figure into a rhythmic driving force, an ever-present ostinato which urges the piece onwards, only pausing briefly in the centre of the work for the more tender solo moments at 'Qui tollis peccata mundi'. The Kyrie uses the same Gregorian pitches, which first appear in reverse order, making an impassioned plea for mercy. This same cry for mercy reappears in the 'miserere nobis' and 'dona nobis pacem' of the Agnus Dei, a series of implorations which build over a repeating rising figure in the pedals before dying away to a quiet reverence which is left suspended in an unresolved second inversion chord.

The Sanctus is a very concise work in which the theme, a note row (the use of every pitch underlining the universality of the Church) sounds as a vivid carillon of chimes, suggesting the Sanctus bell itself. During the triplet rhythms at ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ the theme is heard in the pedals and then the manuals during the triumphal ‘Hosanna’. The charming Benedictus, a dialogue between two treble soloists, leads into the ‘Hosanna’ which is a brief ‘telescoped’ reiteration of the music of the Sanctus.

The inventive nature of a genius like Britten makes us look again at the nature of what is taking place during the course of the Mass. Through his eyes and creativity he comes up with a unique and extraordinary take on the mystery of the Eucharist. Composer James MacMillan: ‘Whether or not they are Catholic, liturgical composers need to do their research and gain an understanding of the Mass. This is particularly important because through their music they are able to tease out meaning which the words alone cannot.' MacMillan’s own Mass written for Westminster Cathedral sets the entire Eucharistic prayer and contains a powerful innovation whereby the celebrant sings the actual words of consecration down a sixth, recalling the Passion settings in which the part of Christ is sung by a bass. And so musically, as well as theologically, the celebrant actually becomes Christ.

The first performance of Britten's Missa brevis took place during Mass at Westminster Cathedral on 22 July 1959, during the last few weeks of George Malcolm's tenure as Master of Music. The lay clerks sang the plainchant propers from the Apse as usual that day, accompanied by Colin Mawby; however, the trebles sang from the Grand Organ tribune at the West end, unconducted, with George Malcolm sitting between them at the organ console. Decca made a live recording of the Mass which they released as a 45, although the Sanctus was replaced by a recording made at Mass the following day which was deemed to be better. The combination of the boys’ tangible sense of connection with the music, the focus of their musical intent and the ‘Malcolm sound' add up to a very compelling experience. You can listen to it below.

Britten’s Missa brevis is a piece which boys take to with great enthusiasm both from a singing and listening perspective. Children’s minds are wide open to new experiences but they are nevertheless discerning, being drawn to quality and things which engage and stimulate them. As adults, we tend to develop individual tastes and rely on particular comforts, so it can be tempting to reject music of a more challenging nature. But even if you are someone for whom Britten’s Missa brevis represents a less than optimal aesthetic experience, try to listen to it through the ears of your own childhood, and see what you rediscover.

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