Hyperion Records

MacMillan’s setting of the Mass is an extraordinarily complete one, not only because he writes music for elements other than the Ordinary, but because it has a mysterious sense of the physical presence of the body of Christ, which is at the heart of the Eucharistic celebration. His music comes not only from the words of the liturgy, but from the drama and the miracle of all that it represents. It also takes its form from the space for which this music was written—the huge and dark Byzantine curves of Westminster Cathedral, and belongs with the mixed aromas of the cathedral’s polished floor, the lingering incense and the distant stench of London. It is at once earthly and heavenly.

The Mass was commissioned for the ‘Glory of God in the Millennium Year of Jubilee’, and was first performed on the Feast of Corpus Christi by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral. It is a profound work and one which is strictly faithful to the composer’s own religious convictions. It is significant that he chose to set the vernacular text rather than the Latin Mass and that he includes several parts for the congregation. The Mass builds on a tradition of modern vernacular choral settings espoused by Britten with his Missa Brevis, also written for Westminster Cathedral.

The music, here recorded in sequence, would originally be separated by sections of liturgy which are spoken or chanted much more simply, thus bringing richness to key moments of the event, without overwhelming it. Even so, the through-composed sweep which brings control and balance to the whole Eucharistic section of the Mass is central to MacMillan’s thinking, as he reveals in his note written for the first performance:

The Mass is a setting of the usual sections of the Ordinary (minus the Credo), the Gospel Alleluia and much of the priest / choir / people dialogue during the liturgy of the Eucharist. In fact, the Sursum Corda, Preface, Sanctus and Benedictus, Eucharistic Prayer, Memorial Acclamations and Great Amen are all linked in a through-composed flow.
The movements of the Mass are crafted like a musical journey which mirrors the progression of mood, emphasis and poetic tension in the liturgy. From the Penitential Rite to the joyous hymn of the Gloria, to the mysteries of the Consecration through to the reflective ambiguities of the Agnus Dei, the music moves from clarity to a sense of uneasy resolution.
Even though this is a work which explores the eternal mysteries and truths of the Catholic faith, it is written through the experience of the tragedies and uncertainties of our own age. It is inevitable that a contemporary celebration of Divine Love would be shrouded in the doubts and fears which characterise our time.

from notes by James Whitbourn © 2001

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDA67219 track 2
Recording date
13 July 2000
Recording venue
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. MacMillan: Mass & other sacred music (CDA67219)
    Disc 1 Track 2
    Release date: April 2001
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