For a composer, setting the words of the Latin rite of the Mass is an experience like no other. When I was discussing with Blanaid Murphy, conductor of the Palestrina Choir, the plan to write a work, I had not decided what to do. When Blanaid suggested it should be a Mass setting, I felt like an MP who is asked to run for the post of prime minister. This would have to be the whole nine yards.
In fact my Mass, being designed for liturgical use, has no Credo. This cuts out more than half of the words of the complete sequence. Asked, clearly by a non-Catholic, why the Credo of his Mass was so much longer than the other movements, Stravinsky replied, ‘because there is so much to believe.’ At Mass, the Credo is usually spoken or sung in chant. Having composed several Masses without a Credo, James Macmillan decided that he would have to set the prayer as a self-standing work if he was ever to do it at all. Perhaps I will do the same.
The Mass composer hears behind him the footsteps of many giants. I have become a devotee of the repertoire, all the way from Machaut to the great Stravinsky setting to Macmillan and Ferneyhough. Curiously perhaps, the late ninetheenth century essays of Liszt and Bruckner aroused my particular interest, because in them one can hear composers of ‘advanced’ bias coping with the varied demands of setting these words. To get a renewed feel for setting Latin, I sang in a performance of War Requiem. Brilliant though this work is in conception, the Latin parts sit awkwardly with the Owen song cycle. One feels the liturgical text has been co-opted, if not conscripted.
An immediate and recurrent problem is this: are you to set the words objectively or affectively? This problem is acute for composers like Beethoven. The Missa Solemnis is a great ‘problem work’ I think. It seems to me that Beethoven is never certain whether he should be affective and set the words for dramatic and emotional impact, or objective and set them as prayers. When he does the latter, as in the Credo, the results can be pedestrian. In the Agnus Dei he famously introduces military trumpets and drums to electrifying effect. These passages are the music of a frustrated opera composer who lived through the Napoleonic Wars and knew the sound of cannon fired in anger. But they have nothing whatever to do with the text. Beethoven in fact is torn between engaging with the text and trying to get away from it.
My preference, following the renaissance composers, is for a prayer-like approach. This has nothing to do with stylistic pastiche. In the 19th Century the Cecilian movement, aware of the modern confusions about Mass setting, tried to set the clock back to Palestrina. This won’t do, as composers like Bruckner and Liszt realised. We are condemned to our own eras, and ears, and must work from these. Yet to use the Mass as just another text with which one can do what one likes, interspersing it with poetry, turning it into agitprop in the manner of Bernstein, will always seem unreverent to a Catholic sensibility. The words have infinite expressive possibilities and are constructed in an intensely musical way. But they are not to be messed around with.
So my primary goal has been to set the words as clearly as I can. And what a joy they are to work with: economical and architectonic. The many closed forms that they suggest are a musician’s gift. The Kyrie is a recessive ternary form, each of the three enunciations being itself ternary. The Gloria is a succession of such forms with introductions and codas: for example, the three ‘Domine’ invocations are beautifully rounded off with the ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’, which in turn becomes the first of three ‘Qui’-based declarations. Traditionally in the Sanctus, the Benedictus is given distinct treatment, and many composers set it as a separate movement. I have preferred to keep the integrity of the prayer, but I mark the Benedictus off with a sub-group of voices. My Agnus Dei evokes the sound of bells. How fitting that the Mass should end with a prayer for peace. For when is that ever untimely?
Kevin O’Connell’s Mass for mixed choir and organ will be performed as part of the 11.00 am liturgy at the Pro Cathedral, Dublin on June 21st 2015. The Palestrina Choir will be conducted by Blanaid Murphy.
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