More Mass-ive thoughts

Today I sent conductor Donald Nally a PDF of the complete score for my piece commissioned by The Crossing, Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. I posted a program note about the piece here, but I thought I would say a little more in this post about how the piece is put together.

My Mass is scored for both a full SATB chorus and four SATB soloists forming a semi-chorus or schola. While the work can be performed with the two groups arranged antiphonally, this is not absolutely necessary. In fact, the rhythmic coordination of the two groups is probably too tricky to permit the schola to be placed in a distant gallery of a church far from the main choir loft. Still, a certain degree of separation will be desirable. I am told The Icebox, the performance space here in Philly where the work will be premiered, is extremely reverberant, so it is unlikely that we will be able to position the two groups very far apart.

There are plenty of precedents for antiphonal choral music, but the special issue at play here is how the texts for the work are divided up: the schola sings the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) in Latin, while the main chorus sings excerpts from Denise Levertov’s cycle of poems “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus”. Rather than something like the Monteverdi Vespers where the antiphony is used for echo effects, here the two groups are articulating different texts, using musical gestures that more often contrast with, rather than echo each other. The model is obviously the Britten War Requiem, with its Wilfred Owen poems sung by tenor and baritone soloists while a choir and boychoir sing the Latin Mass texts. The schola in my piece is further distinguished from the main choir because its music evokes various liturgical idioms while the full choir usually does not. For example, the piece begins with the schola singing the Kyrie in a melismatic plainchant style. As the chant continues, the choir gradually unfolds the first words of the Levertov – “O deep unknown” – in sustained four-part harmony. These four chords return in varied forms in every movement of the piece, and there are melodic gestures derived from them as well.


The compound meter and open fifths of the schola’s music for the Gloria suggest medieval organum; the choir sings in block polychords, using simple meter to increase the contrast with the smaller group.


Actual liturgical music is quoted in the Credo. The schola sings excerpts from the Creed set to phrases from the Bach chorale Wir glauben all’ an einer Gott. Since the German text of that chorale is a translation of the Creed, I have simply “Romanized” the Lutheran tune! I have also extracted only a few phrases from the Creed, not to be theologically selective (the so-called “cafeteria Catholic” syndrome is not at play), but because setting the entire Nicene Creed in chorale style would be impossibly long in this context.


Soloists from the main choir begin the Sanctus with the Levertov text.

Sanctus 1

In this movement there is a kind of private quotation: when the schola enters, the music it sings is based on a much simpler setting of the Sanctus I wrote many years ago for the choir of the Catholic Campus Ministry at Columbia University. That piece was influenced by the rhythms of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Mass (the latter piece perhaps influenced in turn by the Poulenc Gloria), as well as being based on a chant melody – so there are multiple layers of reference at play here.

Sanctus 2

The Agnus Dei begins with a simple traditional plainchant setting of the Latin, which returns at the end.

Agnus 1

At last the two groups join together, with the schola singing the “”O deep unknown” chords that have recurred throughout the piece, the women of the choir repeating the last line of the Levertov in non-synchronized counterpoint, and the men of the choir chanting the Latin text – this is the first time in the piece the two groups have swapped languages.

Agnus 2

To close, the two groups sing the chant in unison. Musically binding together all the musicians in this way is a strategy borrowed from the closing pages of the Britten.

I’ll surely be writing more about the piece once rehearsals get going. Perhaps I can coax Donald or one of the singers to do a guest post about working on the piece. Remember that the premiere is June 28th at The Icebox in Philadelphia, 7:00 pm.

8 thoughts on “More Mass-ive thoughts

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