Welcome back to Oxford Pro Musica’s blog!

In the next couple of posts I’m going to be looking ahead to our concert of fabulous music with a ‘french connection’, this coming Saturday (9th) in Exeter College Chapel. The programme is built around Poulenc’s challenging and wonderfully quirky Mass in G, so I’m going to start by exploring this work a little further.

Image of stone angelThe Mass was written in 1937 after the composer had rediscovered Roman Catholicism in the wake of a friend’s sudden death, and is dedicated to the memory of his father. It is obviously deeply felt, then; but, as so often with Poulenc, contains plenty of material, both rhythmically and harmonically, that departs from what one might consider to be conventional piety, and perhaps borders on the irreverent. This mixture of the traditional and the idiosyncratic is what gives the piece its irresistable charm.

Technically speaking, it is a missa brevis, which means that it omits the Credo but otherwise follows the usual sequence of movements. The Kyrie is dynamic and confident in its outer sections, its sometimes strident affirmations interpolated by quieter, almost questioning high solo voices. These sections contrast with the haunting, celestial Christe Eleison at its centre, dominated by the upper voices – often in semi-chorus – which seems to take us a little closer to heaven. After a sequence of rather dissonant and increasingly agitated kyries, which come to an abrupt halt, the movement finds a tranquil and consonant resolution. These two contrasted passages seem to encapsulate the ethos of the whole work.

The Gloria is very characteristically Poulenc, with precisely articulated rhythmic motifs and shifting harmonies
The Sanctus is airily jubilant and swinging, with perhaps a twinkle in the eye at the unusual re-articulated vowels – on Glor-oria, for example. By contrast, the Benedictus is in the mode of the Kyrie’s conclusion – predominantly serene, tender and ethereal. These two movements close with magisterial and impressive Osannas, painted in broad brush strokes.

The emotional heart of the work, though, as so often in settings of the mass, lies in the affecting Agnus Dei, led by a radiant solo soprano. The solo line has a plangency that is echoed in the spare harmonic texture of the initial choral entry, in unison octaves. However, the harmony grows increasingly more lush, with the soprano maintaining occasional commentary throughout, until, after a brief recollection of the very opening theme of the Kyrie, her utterly calm repeated ascending phrase on ‘dona’ leads the movement to a haunting, yet optimistic rest on a unison ‘pacem’.

We hope you will enjoy running the technical and emotional gamut with us in this captivating piece, undoubtedly one of the most significant a capella (unaccompanied) works of the twentieth century. Thank you for reading – do join us in our next post for a deeper look at some of the magical Gallic partsongs also featured in our programme.


© Alice Stainer