SSAATTBB with soloists  a cappella

For information about this score please visit the Contact page of this website.  The Mass was recorded by Commotio and Matthew Berry for the Naxos CD In the Heart of Things .

Kyrie  – Gloria – Sanctus – Benedictus – Agnus Dei

If you had to encapsulate composition in one sentence, you might call it the search for an ideal balance between vertical and horizontal: chords as vertical, static points, melody as a linear navigation through time, often chasing its own tail via imitative counterpoint. The great 16th-century masters elevated linear polyphony as far as it could feasibly go; but, to do this, they had to restrict harmonic vocabulary to essentials. Thomas Tallis’s massive 40-part motet Spem in Alium sometimes slows harmony to a standstill, where one’s perception of movement is of ebb and flow captured within an enclosed space, rather like watching one’s rotating washing through the round window (if the window itself changed shape, presumably something would have gone horribly wrong). The surface effect unashamedly seeks to capture and bottle eternity, mastering literal time to become spiritually timeless.

Perhaps it is unsurprising if that distant past sits heavily; if, in a postmodern age seemingly now renewing its on/off relationship with common chords, it is counterpoint itself that seems to have gone permanently out of fashion. But that arises as much from the delicacy of the vertical/horizontal balance as from some abstract ‘weight of history’. Leave it as it is, and you will probably sound little different from the 16thcentury, just as composers then sounded generically far more alike than they do now. Interfere, and you may disable the substructure that lets counterpoint make its own sense. Clearly, only somebody very unwise.....

I had to try. The ex- chorister in me wanted to attempt something that could stand unabashed beside the touchstones of the 16th century, at least in terms of evident technical intention. We live in a crossover, sound bite, ‘www.’ age where styles and cultures are casually, superficially blurred, emasculated and homogenised, in music as in tourism or cuisine. I will go further:  with honourable exceptions, much contemporary choral writing perpetuates a grisly musical McDonald-isation: bland, anonymous and so undemanding that you could throw it together in little more time than it takes to sing. While a modern contrapuntal Mass still buys into well-worn basic vocabulary, its means of construction align with the work ethic of a Tallis or a William Byrd. These believed in their bones that it was the patient industry of the musical artisan, the scale of the mountain climbed and (pace Sir Francis Drake) ‘the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished‘   which yielded the true glory. A compelling notion per se, this has engaged agnostics and humanists as much as believers down the years: one thinks of Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Howells and, in our time, John Rutter, who has spoken eloquently of being inspired less by belief than by the ageless grandeur of ritual and liturgy, and of how an abstract, inarticulate spirituality stays perennially more central to our human experience than religion.

What I expanded from Tallis and Byrd was less the harmonic language (the humble triad remains paramount), more the overall tonal frame of reference: harmonies may pivot on an ‘axis’ note and take new directions without losing their essential antiquity.

I wanted to write something of this kind for years, sketching fragments of an Agnus Dei in Florence during summer, 2006. Having lived there for part of 1976, I was nostalgically revisiting ‘Oltrarno’, the remoter, outlying district beyond the river. I considered naming the work Missa Fiorentina. Then, in 2010, came a commission from Matthew Berry for a work in memory of Dr Anabela Bravo, a member of Commotio and of the Psychology Department at the University of Buckingham. About to take up her position there in 2008, Anabela had received a diagnosis of cancer, but bravely pressed ahead. In December 2009 she was able to present research at a conference in New Zealand. Shortly afterwards, back home in Lisbon for further treatment, she finally lost her courageous battle. She was 47. She had managed to conceal her condition from many of her fellow singers.

It is an oddly poignant task to celebrate the life of a stranger: one thinks of Matthew Arnold’s ‘...friends to whom we had no natural right, / The homes that were not destined to be ours’. Having been specifically asked not to compose a requiem, I found that my Agnus Dei obdurately disobeyed, starting with a slow groundswell from the lowest register and escalating through a central section of more agitated terrain (reworking a pattern from the middle of the Kyrie) towards an extended climax before subsiding in valedictory fashion back into the depths whence it arose. Anabela’s nationality sent me back to the elusively elegiac verse of Portugal’s greatest modern poet, Fernando Pessoa [1888-1935]. Lines of his, written only months before his death at the same age, appear in their original tongue opposite the final page of music, along with my own free, only semi-competent translation:

 

What is a soul? Who knows, or who can say

What spirit moves in things that are dead to us?

How much the earth and empty air forget?...

 

One who was calling you from beyond

the limitless expanse of ocean,

into the distance; one who knows

how in our human hearts there beats

instinctively this need for good,

forever slipping from our grasp – and subtle, rare,      

a thirsting for the music of the waves

that has no end, enduring far

beyond the shores of everything that is...

                                                                                                                                                       

 

Like a forgiveness, may I hear again

that wisdom half-remembered: tongues

singing an ancient Portuguese

within the eternal rhythm of the sea.

 

‘Ancient Portuguese’ was apt because Anabela had also been a musicologist. This prompted a quotation (in the final section of the Agnus) from the motet Sitivit Anima Mea by Portugal’s great sacred composer, Manuel Cardoso [1566-1650]. In the central part of the Agnus comes one further reference, an imitative pattern derived from the opening of Commotio [1931] for organ, the final work by the Danish symphonist Carl Nielsen [1865-1931]. In an essay Nielsen counselled us to ‘reverence and respect the simple intervals; ...listen to them, learn from them, love them’. His harmonic excursions around the cycle of 4ths and 5ths retain their freshness, yet also adhere to the known and the familiar. These find a number of echoes in the Mass, which also deploys recurrent material across its five movements, thus sharing some ground with Nielsen’s symphonic methods.

The Kyrie begins antiphonally. Some of its material recurs in altered form in the Agnus Dei, while the opening section contains a cadential phrase which reappears in each of the five movements. The central part of the Kyrie [Christe eleison] features six solo voices. it is a measure of the ‘pull’ exerted by 16th-century and earlier precedents that one of these sings a strict cantus firmus derived from the upper line of the movement’s opening, before joining the other voices on equal terms. Eventually the full chorus resumes unobtrusively behind this web of polyphony, increasing in intensity and complexity as the solo lines gradually fall silent and their exponents rejoin the main body of the ensemble.

The Sanctus, too, features antiphonal effects at the outset, though this time they are between upper and lower groups of voices, not equal forces of ‘firsts and seconds’. A fairly brief central Pleni sunt coeli section dispenses with the bass parts in the interests of a contrasting textural lightness. The concluding Osanna returns to antiphonal effects before branching out into rigorous motivic counterpoint whose rhythmic character fairly explicitly recalls mediaeval ‘hocketing’ techniques (whereby imitative alternation of long and short notes results in one or more parts moving energetically while others are momentarily static, so that the sense of perpetual motion is ‘averaged out’ between different lines and parts). This builds to a powerful final climax in which the 6/8 time signature of the central Pleni sunt coeli briefly returns to supplant the prevailing 3/4 .

Notes and Fernando Pessoa translation: © Francis Pott, 2011

 

Reviews:

Choral works from the Thames Valley University professor

 

This important new release of a cappella music by Francis Pott draws its title from the final line of Wilfrid Gibson’s poem ‘Lament’.  It captures that aching sense of loss which threads through much of this music.  This should not imply a lack of joy or exultation – as a supreme choral polyphonist Pott can build up an agitated climax with the best of them – but it is those melting moments of repose which are especially telling and memorable.

 

The disc consists of the substantial Mass for Eight Parts of 2010-11, interspersed with an antidotal anthology of shorter pieces.  With a duration of over 40 minutes, the Mass (cast in five movements and omitting the Creed) reveals all of Pott’s harmonic fingerprints: the pivoting chords anchored to false-relation pedal points, rigorous, rolling counterpoint worthy of the Tudor polyphonists and masters such as Rubbra, wrapped up in satisfyingly strenuous textures.  For the most part this is demanding music, for both the performer and the listener, not superficial.  Those patches of languid repose such as in the Benedictus and the intimacy of Balulalow are deeply moving.

 

Soprano soloist Grace Davidson floats effortlessly above the Oxford-based chamber choir Commotio, adding her seraphic poise to their perfect intonation.  In the loudest tuttis there is a steely, wearying harshness to the sound, as if the Chapel of Merton College cannot quite contain the sheer power of the full-throated attack.  This caveat aside, this is a powerful disc of important music. 

 

Malcolm Riley, Gramophone, February 2012

 

 

 
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