Hyperion Records

Mass in G minor
dedicated to 'Gustav Holst and his Whitsuntide Singers'; first performed on 6 December 1922 by The City of Birmingham Choir under Joseph Lewis
author of text
Ordinary of the Mass

'Vaughan Williams & Bingham: Mass' (CDA67503)
Vaughan Williams & Bingham: Mass
'Howells: Requiem; Vaughan Williams: Mass in G minor' (CDH55220)
Howells: Requiem; Vaughan Williams: Mass in G minor
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55220  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
Movement 1: Kyrie
Movement 2: Gloria
Movement 3: Credo
Movement 4: Sanctus
Movement 4: Sanctus & Benedictus
Movement 5: Agnus Dei
Movement 5: Benedictus
Movement 6: Agnus Dei

Mass in G minor
In the late nineteenth century, England had been dominated by the German-influenced composers Parry, Stanford and Elgar, with the maverick Delius lurking on the sidelines. It was only really with Vaughan Williams that music began to speak with a radically different, quintessentially English voice, something which modern ears now take for granted. Stanford produced a large-scale orchestral mass for Thomas Wingham’s choir at the London Oratory and is reputed to have written an unaccompanied eight-part setting in Latin for Westminster – although it is referred to in the music lists for 1920 neither parts nor sketches have ever been found. Herbert Howells wrote his Mass in the Dorian mode in 1912 but more as an exercise in polyphonic writing than a serious original composition. Thus it could be argued that Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor of 1922 was the first substantial, unaccompanied setting to be written with a distinctly English voice since the time of William Byrd in the sixteenth century.

‘There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good mass’, insisted Vaughan Williams, and certainly Richard Terry, the consummate musician-liturgist of his generation, was delighted with the new setting: ‘I’m quite sincere when I say that it is the work one has all along been waiting for. In your individual and modern idiom you have really captured the old liturgical spirit and atmosphere.’

This duality between the ‘modern idiom’ and the ‘old liturgical spirit’ lies at the heart of the composition’s success. It takes as its starting point the sound world of the sixteenth century with its modal writing and subtle imitation, a style which Vaughan Williams had already utilized in his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The Mass seems to reach back to a long-forgotten world, yet it is not some atavistic exercise but new music, coloured by Vaughan Williams’ love of rich harmonies and made more dramatic by the juxtaposition of sinuous Gregorian-like lines with blazing choral antiphony. These effects are achieved by a scoring very similar to the ‘Tallis Fantasia’ which had so gripped concert-goers at the Three Choirs Festival over a decade earlier in 1910. Two four-part SATB choirs (string orchestras in the ‘Fantasia’) work in dialogue with a solo SATB quartet (solo strings) who provide more personal, impassioned comment.

from notes by Andrew Carwood © 2005

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