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Missa brevis, Op 63

composer
1959, for George Malcolm and the choristers of Westminster Cathedral
author of text
Ordinary of the Mass

 
Written in 1959 for the boys of Westminster Cathedral and their then director, George Malcolm, the Missa Brevis is one of Britten’s first works to a Latin text. Not being a ‘living’ language it cannot be expected that even Britten could set Latin with the freedom that he brought to English, French and Italian; instead he employs his Latin texts as ‘phonetic material’, rather in the manner of Stravinsky. That said, this little work is an undoubted masterpiece which somehow manages to relate the character of his music for children with proper observance of the liturgy.

George Malcolm’s training had produced a singular timbre in the boys’ choir quite different from the bland tone of the ‘cathedral’ tradition. This timbre, which had the ‘edge’ of a wind instrument, allowed Britten to use the voice parts in an instrumental manner that is as refreshing as it is delightful. The work involves much organization of motifs; for example the Kyrie begins with an inversion of the Gloria’s plainsong intonation and is an impassioned plea for peace. The Gloria is set in a lively 7/8 rhythm first heard in the organ pedals before being taken up by the singers. The plainsong phrase is punctuated by bar-long chords and there is an interesting flowing scalewise tune heard first at ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’.

The bell-like Sanctus is a marvellous example of Britten’s aural imagination with its climactic ‘Hosanna’, and the preceding passage of triplets at ‘Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua’ written so knowingly for a cathedral acoustic. The following Benedictus immediately establishes a profoundly moving mood of quiet fervour before the final outburst of ‘Hosanna’. The Agnus Dei is an agonized prayer for peace in which the voices’ short phrases are pitted against an insistent ostinato pedal and dissonant chords from the organ’s manuals. The work ends as if the world were exhausted in its search for peace.

from notes by Peter Lamb 1986

Recordings

Britten: A Ceremony of Carols
CDA66220
The Music of Westminster Cathedral
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Details

Movement 1: Kyrie
Track 13 on CDA66220 [2'05]
Movement 2: Gloria
Track 14 on CDA66220 [2'53]
Movement 3: Sanctus and Benedictus
Track 15 on CDA66220 [3'26]
Movement 4: Agnus Dei
Track 16 on CDA66220 [2'26]
Movements 3 and 4: Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus dei

Track-specific metadata for CDA66220 track 16

Agnus Dei
Artists
ISRC
GB-AJY-86-22016
Duration
2'26
Recording date
27 June 1986
Recording venue
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Antony Howell
Hyperion usage
  1. Britten: A Ceremony of Carols (CDA66220)
    Disc 1 Track 16
    Release date: January 1987
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