Missa Brevis in D major, Op.63 for boys’ voices and organ (24 May 1959, Britten aged 45)
Dedication George Malcolm and the boys of Westminster Cathedral Choir
Text From the Ordinary of the Roman Rite
3 Sanctus – Benedictus
4 Agnus Dei
Clips from the recording made by the Westminster Cathedral Choir, conducted by David Hill, with organist James O’Donnell. With thanks to Hyperion.
3 Sanctus – Benedictus
4 Agnus Dei
Background and Critical Reception
The ‘Mass in shorts’, as Britten grew fond of calling it, was written as a direct result of the composer hearing the sound made by the choristers of Westminster Cathedral for their conductor, George Malcolm, as they sang A Ceremony of Carols.
John Bridcut details how the composer was under pressure to write a mass for liturgical use. This was the only one he produced, and it was to his own timeline – and typically it was against expectation and did not quite follow convention. For Britten’s vehicle was the treble voice alone – no men or women – because as Bridcut surmises he wanted to catch a sense of ‘the shrieks of boys running in the playground’. The only part alongside the trebles was the organ, assigned a rhythmically independent part.
Stephen Arthur Allen, writing in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, takes up the story. ‘Clearly the demands of writing for a professionally trained cathedral choir required a different approach to that adopted for the untutored extras of Noye’s Fludde: Britten uses the opportunity to write music of greater vocal virtuosity, employing more challenging intervals while retaining many technical features (e.g. canonic imitation) found in his earlier children’s music.’
For Allen, the work looks forward, too. ‘The Gloria is based directly on the tenth-century plainsong from the Mass Dominator Deus, to which the motivic structures of the other movements are related – recalling procedure in A Boy Was Born (motivic tightness, also based on major seconds and perfect fourths), A Ceremony of Carols (plainsong), and the later intense motivic use of plainsong in the three Church Parables.’
For him it also ‘anticipates the sound world of the War Requiem…especially in the plangent writing for treble voices and a mystical sensibility which, while enhancing the liturgical texts, also seems to stand outside them.’
Britten’s new found economy finds its ideal vehicle in the Missa Brevis, a model of compact invention that is perfectly designed to hold the shortest of attention spans among choirboys. It is incredibly clever, but not so knowing that it loses its occasionally mischievous appeal.
The opening feels like some ideas have been imported from the accompaniment of the recently completed folksong arrangement Bonny at Morn. Like that song, the harmony spends much of its time avoiding the actual key note it is supposed to represent, so the Gloria in the Mass spends most of its time precariously positioned on an F sharp instead of a D, the key in which the work is supposed to reside. It introduces a strange sort of tension that only begins to be resolved by the Sanctus and Benedictus.
Here the parts work in canon to great effect, a wonderful construction that sounds innocent initially but repays closer inspection and is shown to be densely woven together, while its odd intervals introduce a hint of disquiet. This is a theme that runs throughout, as the exclamation ‘Hosanna in Excelsis!’ is brightly written but the dischords prevent it from being wholly celebratory.
The organ part is wonderful as well, especially the otherworldly bass line that begins the Agnus Dei with a heavy tread, but also the sparkling upper register that complements the trebles so well.
Rhythmically there is a consistent play against the pulse, the ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ in the Sanctus a gently rocking syncopation that is incredibly effective. There is a ghostly sheen to the Agnus Dei, too, as if the organ is playing from afar, an effect Britten was to heighten when the same combination appears offstage in the War Requiem three years later. This brings the mass to a troubled, uncertain close, the peace the Mass often brings unattained on this occasion.
Britten’s ever-tightening screw – where not a single note is without value – ensures that this compressed version of the Mass is a vibrant and vital construction.
Westminster Cathedral Choir / George Malcolm, Brian Runnett (organ) (Decca)
Westminster Cathedral Choir / David Hill, James O’Donnell (organ) (Hyperion)
Choir of King’s College Cambridge / David Willcocks, Ian Hare (organ) (EMI)
Choir of New College Oxford / Edward Higginbottom, Stephen Grahl (organ) (Novum)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers, Margaret Phillips (organ) (Coro)
Finzi Singers / Paul Spicer, Andrew Lumsden (organ) (Chandos)
George Malcolm conducts the Westminster Cathedral Choir and attains the sound that inspired Britten to write the piece in the first place, with a brightness of texture and an effervescent organ accompaniment.
The Choir of King’s College Cambridge also sing extremely well for Sir David Willcocks, their unisons particularly impressive. The sympathetic organ registrations of both are complementary to accounts of great clarity and no little mystery. Edward Higginbottom secures an excellent performance from his trebles too, and benefits from an excellent modern recording, while David Hill gets a very fine account from the Westminster Cathedral Choir. I wonder if that choir now has any survivors from this premiere? An unlikely but enticing thought.
Given the circumstances in which the piece was composed it is difficult to countenance a recording for anything other than boys’ voices, but the Sixteen and the Finzi Singers offer mixed-sex alternatives should they appeal. Unfortunately I just could not warm to the idea, well sung as the two versions are – this music is very specifically written for the purity treble voices bring.
The following playlist groups together many of the versions listed above – those conducted by George Malcolm, Sir David Willcocks, Edward Higginbottom and the two from The Sixteen and the Finzi Singers.
Also written in 1959: Shostakovich – Cello Concerto no.1 in E flat major Op.107
Next up: Sally in our alley