Hello again, and thanks for stopping by to read our second blog post exploring the programme for our upcoming concert on 17th February in Exeter College Chapel (partial repeat 22nd March).
I promised you should have the Mass in G Minor in this one, and so you shall. This glorious work was first performed by the City of Birmingham Choir in 1922, and commentators have agreed that its distinctive soundscape derives from the apparently effortless and triumphant marriage of old and new. Richard Terry, an active figure in the renaissance of the music of the English Renaissance (so to speak), and who directed the first liturgical performance at Westminster Cathedral in 1923, put his finger on this characteristic from the outset: ‘In your individual and modern idiom you have really captured the old liturgical spirit and atmosphere.’ This ancient spirit can be heard in its modality (neither major nor minor key) and subtle use of false relation (notes in dissonant conflict) and imitative lines. Its modernity lies in its scoring for double choir and solo quartet (reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’s earlier smash-hit for strings, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis), and richly-textured, shifting harmonies; and perhaps also in its development of a rootedly English sound-world.
This information, however, while being of interest (I hope!), doesn’t really give you a sense of the musical experience. It’s my job to try and communicate this, so here goes…
I’ve said elsewhere that singing this Mass feels like singing the sea in all its moods, and this analogy remains the truest I can muster to describe what it is like to perform it. The first of five movements, the Kyrie begins and ends with a sinuous alto line that seems to evoke what Auden marvellously described as ‘the swaying sound of the sea’. The rest of the movement tidally ebbs and flows, building to a crest like a majestic wave, only to fall away again.
The Gloria and Credo introduce the work’s characteristic antiphonal (call-and-answer) effects. After a quietly glimmering opening on ‘Et in terra pax’ which lulls you into a false sense of peace, the exhilarating choral waves crash against each other one after another, broken by poignant interlocutions from solo lines. The dynamics range from full volume (ff) to barely a whisper (quadruple p!).
The next two movements return us to predominantly calmer seas, punctuated by energetic Osannas: the Sanctus begins as ethereal sunrise at sea, then the fugal (imitative) ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ dances like playful waves. The Benedictus is ineffably tender, a gentle exchange between choirs and soloists.
I find it hard to diagnose which is my favourite movement; but the Agnus Dei is the one to which I keep returning, perhaps because it seems to encapsulate the work in microcosm, with its deft use of antiphony between choirs and soloists, and episodes of agitation balanced by moments of other-worldly tranquillity. The climax – of the movement, and perhaps the whole work – comes on the final page, where the quartet and two choirs converge in great chordal columns of ecstatic sound. The solo soprano sails over the top with a luminous A, and the effect is like the sun breaking over a sea that has been at times tumultuous, but now subsides to a perfect, shimmering calm.