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Mass for double choir
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Written in 1922, the Mass for double choir was to remain Martin’s only unaccompanied choral work. In the intimacy of its musical language and the deep emotion inherent in every bar it stands today as one of Martin’s finest creations and one of the greatest a cappella works written this century. It is a sincerely felt and intensely personal work which Martin secreted in a drawer for forty years, releasing it only after much persuasion from Franz Brunnert, director of the Bugenhagen Kantorei of Hamburg, who premiered the Mass in 1963, the year in which it was also first published.

Why keep such a masterpiece hidden? The answer to this question lies in the strong Christian faith to which Martin adhered throughout his life. He was born into a fervently Christian family – his father was a Calvinist minister – and religious themes form the basis of much of his music, both choral and instrumental. Such an all-pervasive faith convinced him that the public airing of an aesthetic work expressing the very essence of Christianity was tantamount to blasphemy. As he wrote at the time of the Mass’s premiere: ‘I did not want it to be performed … I considered it … as being a matter between God and myself. I felt then that an expression of religious feelings should remain secret and removed from public opinion.’

There was a further reason for Martin’s reluctance to have the Mass performed. When he was ten he had heard a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, an occasion which had so profoundly affected him that he decided there and then to devote his life to music. But if Bach was the catalyst to set Martin on the composing road, Bach was also the barrier which held Martin back from submitting his music to the public gaze. Beside the genius of Bach, Martin was convinced his own efforts would seem merely presumptuous – a belief he never fully shook off.

Coming from a Calvinist background Martin was not imbued with the Catholic tradition of the Mass with its associated plainchant melodies. There is no plainchant in Martin’s Mass, although its influence is obvious in the sinuous alto melody at the start of the Kyrie. Free-flowing, interweaving melodies, often sung antiphonally (as in the opening bars), create a vivid sense of streams of supplication in this movement while the calm, gentle opening to the Gloria, with the voices piling up in a sensation of awestruck wonder, leads into a movement in which frequent changes of time signature and syncopated cross-rhythms testify to the fascination with rhythm which led Martin to study and later teach rhythmic theory at the Jacques-Dalcroze Institute. Martin declared that the music for the words ‘et incarnatus est’ in the Credo was ‘very dear’ to him. The Credo, central to the Christian faith, displays Martin’s wonderful conciseness of word-setting; a conciseness which results in all five movements of the Mass being of roughly equal musical length. There is some subtle word-painting, with a gloriously luminous climax on ‘lumen de lumine’, and some truly ecstatic canonic writing for ‘Et resurrexit’ where the essentially intimate nature of the Mass is highlighted by this glorious moment being marked both dolce and piano. Above a gentle swaying cushion of harmony from the tenors and basses the sopranos intone with ever-increasing urgency the word ‘Sanctus’. After a sensuous, almost erotic, setting of the ‘Benedictus’ this movement concludes with one of the work’s few passages to be marked fortissimo.

And that is where Martin concluded his 1922 Mass. However, in 1926 he took the work out and added a deeply moving Agnus Dei in which the two choirs are used essentially as separate entities, the second maintaining a steady, regular movement while the first, largely in unison, moves with the kind of quasi-plainchant free-rhythmic flow heard in the Kyrie. Only with the final invocation of peace do both choirs join as one in a rich and moving conclusion to a work of unalloyed beauty.

from notes by Marc Rochester © 1998

Track-specific metadata
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Details for WCC100 track 9
Movement 5: Agnus Dei
Artists
ISRC
GB-AJY-98-01705
Duration
4'17
Recording date
7 July 1997
Recording venue
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Arthur Johnson
Recording engineer
Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Martin: Mass; Pizzetti: Messa di Requiem (CDA67017)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: January 1998
  2. Martin: Mass; Pizzetti: Messa di Requiem (GAW21017)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: September 2003
    Deletion date: November 2013
    Superseded by CDA67017
  3. The Music of Westminster Cathedral (WCC100)
    Disc 1 Track 9
    Release date: October 1998
    Super-budget price sampler
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