Mass for Eight Parts
for SSAATTBB a cappella with 2 soprano soloistsforces: SSAATTBB Choir, 2 Sopranos
published by: Composer
Under terms of the composer’s contract with Edition Peters, the Mass will be published in due course.
In the meantime, enquiries should be addressed to the composer’s agent, Valerie Withams:
The Naxos recording of this work by Commotio [Matthew Berry, Director] is accessible on Spotify, here:
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 sixteenth-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 forty-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 sixteenth century, 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 sixteenth 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 of the city 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 his Oxford-based chamber choir 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. Cast in the usual three sections, this starts with a slow groundswell from the lowest register and escalates before a central section (reworking a pattern from the middle of the Kyrie) traverses more agitated territory. The apex comes at the onset of the final section, then the music subsides gradually 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, on top of her other professional accomplishments, Anabela had 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 aptly 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 fourths and fifths 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.
Stephen Pritchard, The Observer, Sunday 12 February 2012:
Pott is one of today’s most interesting choral composers, managing to make challenging, intricate music instantly accessible. Even on a cold, snowy night he can draw a crowd. Combine his work with the vocal dexterity of Commotio, one of our finest young choirs, and you know you can expect a programme of rare quality.
Conductor Matthew Berry’s perfectly balanced ensemble has something that many choirs strive for but few achieve: the ability to sing quietly without losing pitch or tempo, most beautifully realised in Pott’s Lament, written last year as a tribute to Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, killed in Helmand in 2009 while defusing a bomb. Setting the sorrowful but consolatory words of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (“We who are left, how shall we look again/Happily on the sun or feel the rain”), it is graceful, dignified and heartbreaking.
Commotio lapped up Pott’s polyphonic Mass for Eight Parts, sailing through the tricky counterpoint of
the Kyrie before savouring the thick textures of the Sanctus and its ecstatic, concluding Osanna.
Nicola Lisle, Oxford Times, February 2012:
Commotio’s latest recording — their fourth — is, quite simply, stunning. Pott’s sublime Mass for Eight Parts forms the framework for the CD, from the quietly compelling opening of the Kyrie Eleison, with its intricate texturing, to the heartfelt Gloria in Excelsis Deo, and the poignant Agnus Dei. This is an inspiring work. …Interspersed between the movements of the Mass is a selection of Pott’s other works, all handled with sensitivity and sincerity. The heartbreakingly beautiful Lament, a setting of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s poem We who are left…, is a moving plea to remember the dead, written in memory of an Afghan war hero. In contrast, Ubi caritas is both joyous and contemplative.
Listening to this CD is an unforgettable experience, and it is worthy of a place on any music-lover’s shelf.
John Quinn, Musicweb International, 2012:
The Mass is a most interesting and important work. …Pott’s debt to the masters of sixteenth-century polyphony is clear and readily acknowledged; indeed, he has eagerly built on the foundations laid by Tallis and Byrd in particular and has a deep respect for that tradition.
The Mass was shortlisted for the choral category of the 2011 British Composer Awards and surely merited that recognition. It strikes me as a fine and moving work and I hope it will be taken up by others through the exposure it gets from this excellent first recording.
…The short pieces are equally fine. Ubi caritas… inhabits the same rarefied space as Maurice Duruflé’s exquisite setting of the same words – I can think of no higher compliment than that. This is a most distinguished disc. Francis Pott is a significant composer and his choral music is consistently rewarding. Collectors who are already familiar with his music will certainly want to hear this disc, especially for the chance to experience his new Mass setting. The disc offers an excellent opportunity for others to whom Pott’s music may be new to sample it for themselves. Thereafter, I would recommend newcomers make further exploration through the Dublin Cathedral disc before tackling the magnificent The Cloud of Unknowing.
Anyone thinking of acquiring this disc can be assured that it is a significant addition to the Naxos catalogue.
Malcolm Riley, Gramophone, February 2012:
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.
…With a duration of over 40 minutes, the Mass reveals all of Pott’s harmonic fingerprints: 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.
…A powerful disc of important music.
Philip Sommerich, Classical Music, February 2012:
Pott gets marks for courage in seeking to fuse English Renaissance polyphonic structure with 21st-century harmonies. The result is distinctive rather than derivative. The interpolated smaller-scale works contrast well, particularly the swirling Lament.
Robert R. Reilly, Crisis Magazine – journal for the Catholic Laity [USA], August 2012:
[Included under the heading Listen, and Take Heart: Music that Shines through the Darkness:]
…Before we leave Great Britain, I must say something about the music of Francis Pott (b. 1957), compiled in a new Naxos CD (8.572739). Of Thomas Tallis’s sixteenth-century contrapuntal masterpiece, Spem in Alium, Pott writes, ‘the surface effect unashamedly seeks to capture and bottle eternity, mastering literal time to become spiritually timeless’. This is what he achieves in these precious pieces. …So long as there are composers such as Pott, all is not lost. And you thought Western civilization was over? Listen, and take heart.
Christian Stobbs, New Directions, June 2012:
The music itself is glorious. And, most pleasingly, does not – in the cliché sense – try to be too contemporary. As a chorister at New College and regular fixture of the Winchester Cathedral choir during the Nineties, Pott reveals an innate understanding of the sound world we are all so familiar with.
…The Mass for eight parts …is a work rich in colour and harmonic language. This is a setting that we can only hope becomes as established as [the Masses by] Martin and Vaughan Williams.…[Commotio] should be lauded for championing such a fine contemporary composer. Indeed, the excellent singing certainly does justice to Francis Pott, whose Mass, in particular, is a welcome addition to the choral repertory.
The main work on this disc is the Mass for eight parts…There is the same sense of continuity with the old Tudor masters and the sheer delight in the interweaving of vocal lines. The singers convey the appropriate other-worldly sound without any sense of strain or effort.
Paul Corfield Godfrey, Musicweb International, April 2012:
Pott certainly believes in challenging his predecessors; three of the settings on this disc come into direct competition with well-established pieces by Britten. His Balulalow comes into competition not just with Britten but with Warlock’s beautiful setting; all three use solo voices in conjunction with the choir. Grace Davidson here takes the palm for sheer beauty of voice which convinces one that this setting is fully the equal of its predecessors. In I sing of a maiden Pott actually surpasses Britten in the aptness of his response to the text.
Mary’s Carol is set to a modern text and need fear no comparisons with any previous settings by other composers. It is a lovely little poem… Pott’s setting of Ubi caritas is more straightforward and very beautiful indeed.
The whole disc is named after a line from Pott’s setting of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s Lament…It was written in memory of a soldier killed in Afghanistan. There is a real emotional charge in the music, and Pott’s setting of the final line is truly heart-breaking. The singing throughout, by both soloist and choir, is absolutely impeccable. This is a most beautiful disc of some absolutely beautiful music.
Terry Blain, BBC Music Magazine, 2012:
Of the movements from the Mass, the tender Benedictus, with a pristine soprano contribution from Grace Davidson, is the most striking.
I Sing of a maiden retains an overall lightness of compositional touch…with complex part-splintering as the music climaxes. It’s a testing sing for the 31 voices of Matthew Berry’s Commotio, but there’s a relaxed clarity in their performance bespeaking fine technique and excellent preparation.
A Hymn to the Virgin references Britten’s setting and, like so many of the pieces on this disc, intriguingly blurs the distinction between contrapuntal development and fresh melodic invention.
Carson Cooman, Fanfare Magazine, USA,
Issue 36/2, November-December 2012:
…One of the most stunning unaccompanied choral works I’ve heard in years. Pott’s work [the Mass] is a contrapuntal masterwork that combines the rigors of modal counterpoint with the expanded harmonic and textural vocabulary of the present day. The Vaughan Williams Mass in G Minor was a work of similar concept with his vocabulary of 1921. Pott’s work is a 2011 approach to a similar idea, and the result is breathtakingly glorious.
Roderic Dunnett, Church Times, March 2011 [reviewing the work’s première performance by Commotio / Matthew Berry]:
Composing a Mass for eight voices, or double choir, is no mean feat. It calls for remarkable dexterity and judgement in balancing the voices, keeping the textures clear and transparent, and writing lithe counterpoint that maintains its momentum while enabling the liturgical text to be heard. The composer must also create contrasts of dynamic and vocal colouring to bring out meaning and ensure variety and flow.
The choir Commotio recently commissioned Francis Pott to write a new Mass for Eight Parts, given its première at St Barnabas’s Church, Jericho, in Oxford .
Pott mastered that tricky and vexatious problem of achieving refined balances and letting the voices speak clearly. The Gloria was particularly successful: spacious in concept, but full of fine passages — the gradual development of a really animated momentum; stylish canonic writing between the voices; and some uplifting sequences for solos and duets emerging from the choir.
A noble Sanctus was offset by a delightfully rippling Pleni sunt coeli and some very effective Osannas (perhaps shades of Vaughan Williams here), building to an exciting and well-judged resolution.
No movement quite matched the excellence, excitement, and, indeed, inspiration of the Gloria. But the Benedictus stood out for some enchanting use of upper voice soli, and indeed several solo voices during the Osannas, beautifully pared down to a final unison.
The glorious chromatic clashes in the final Agnus Dei, which relate to a passage from the 16/17th-century Portuguese composer Manuel Cardoso’s motet Sitivit anima mea, which Pott poignantly inserts, produced a miraculous effect, almost like a sudden moment of enlightenment. The apt reference related to the Portuguese-born Dr Anabela Bravo, a late member of the choir, to whose memory this musically challenging concert was dedicated.