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We have the American conductor Robert Shaw to thank for the Missa brevis, although his planting of the idea with Bernstein took a full thirty-three years to be realized. In 1955, Bernstein composed French and Latin choruses for a play about the trial of Joan of Arc, The Lark. This incidental music had a deliberate medieval/Renaissance feel, and was performed (on tape) in those performances by a specialist early music group, New York Pro Musica Antiqua (SAATBB + solo). Robert Shaw’s suggestion that the material could be reworked as a Mass setting obviously lodged with Bernstein, because he did just that to mark Shaw’s retirement in 1988 as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
The Lark’s incidental music featured three French choruses—the first of which, Spring Song, became the dancing section of the Dona nobis pacem—and five Latin choruses. Robert Shaw’s suggestion of a Missa brevis was not surprising, because what he heard in that Broadway theatre in 1955 were Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus movements already in place. Bernstein reworked the Prelude and Gloria from The Lark, which share the same assertive choral opening and countertenor solo, not only into the Gloria of the Missa brevis, but into the openings of the Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem too. And The Lark’s other movement, Requiem, Bernstein adroitly turned into the Kyrie. It is all a fascinating exercise in recycling and resourceful extension of material.
The prominence of percussion and a countertenor (or boy treble) solo in Bernstein’s mid-60s hit Chichester Psalms was not the original thing it might have seemed at the time; it was anticipated in his 1955 incidental music, and then replicated in the later Missa brevis. Pealing tubular bells are the main thing here, in the latter parts of the Gloria and Benedictus, together with the banquet dance-style percussion of tambourine, tabor and hand drum in the final movement. The countertenor solos, much more austere here than in Chichester Psalms, add to the ancient, ceremonial air of the music generally—not mock-medieval as such, but infused with a stone-vaulted, bare-fifths severity.
from notes by Meurig Bowen © 2015