For SATB chorus and organ


25 minutes



Dedication In loving memory of Patricia and Dennis Ambler. Dona eis felicitatem.

Commissioned by The Choir of Westminster Cathedral





SATB chorus, organ, optional second organ


Sanctus and Benedictus
Agnus Dei


Composer Notes

The style of the Mass was very much influenced by my experience as a music student in Rome in 1957 and 8 and where, several times a week, I ascended the Aventine Hill to the Benedictine Monastery, armed with the ‘Liber Usualis’ – the great collection of Latin plainsong – for the whole year and came to know plainsong in normal everyday use.

Before studying in Italy, I had, as an undergraduate in Manchester University, learned to love much of the sixteenth century repertoire – Byrd, Victoria, Palestrina, etc. both by singing in the University Choir, and by diligently attending liturgical performances, with scores, at the Cathedral and the Church of the Holy Name.

One medieval and renaissance legacy became central to my musical experience and compositional thinking, involving a lean and strict polyphony, where the smallest gesture has to work with maxiumum effect in its context. The twentieth century Masses of Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams and Britten have also been strong influences on the present work – the last two were also written for Westminster Cathedral.

Two plainsongs proper to Pentecost feature in the Mass – ‘Dum Complerentur Dies Pentecostes’ and ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’: the whole musical structure is based on these.

In the ‘Gloria’ and the ‘Sanctus’ I have taken advantage of the presence of two organs in Westminster Cathedral, employing the second organ to comment upon and expand the material of the choir, and the first organ, exploiting the dramatic possibilities of highly charged antiphonal writing.

Programme Notes

Extended Note by Roderic Dunnett

Peter Maxwell Davies recalls how he first came to encounter the great works of the Renaissance – Victoria and Palestrina, and the English Tudor composers Tye, Tallis and Byrd: as an undergraduate at Manchester University he got to know, and learned to love, sixteenth-century repertoire both by singing in the University Choir and by attending (score in hand) performances of sixteenth-(although not fifteenth-) century music both at Manchester Cathedral and at John Aloysius Hansom’s imposing mid-Victorian Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, a little way along OxfordRoad, close by the University.

Later, as a student of Goffredo Petrassi in Rome, the young Davies made similar pilgrimages up to the top of the historic Aventine – the second hill of Ancient Rome, where Remus, co-founder of Rome with his brother Romulus, first set up camp – “armed with the Liber Usualis” (the indispensable Catholic manual of plainsong melody), to hear Latin Mass sung at the Benedictine College and Church of Sant’ Anselmo, now the world headquarters of the Benedictine Order, where, Max recalls, “I heard a lot of chants sung”.

It was these early life-enhancing experiences, Maxwell Davies points out, that first taught him to deploy ‘lean and strict polyphony’ within his own work: a quality he also noted in the Masses of Stravinsky and – even more strikingly – Vaughan Williams (in his post-Great War Mass in G minor); each of which, together with Britten’s Missa brevis (also written for Westminster Cathedral) has had a bearing on his approach to composing the present work.

“I wanted”, Max says, “to give people an intense musical and spiritual experience; and if they get that from the setting I’m very happy. But of course, because I’m not a Catholic, I come to it from, as it were, the outside.”

Although the Mass is conceived with parts for two organs, the composer indicates in the score that it is perfectly feasible to perform it with just one. The whole work is founded on two Whitsun plainsong chants, Veni Creator Spiritus and Dum complerentur dies Pentecostes, both of which feature later on this disc. The latter, with its vivid textual evocation of ‘tongues of fire’, also plays a significant role in his Strathclyde Concerto No 1 for oboe and in his recent ‘Antarctic’ Symphony (No 8), where a feather-light, almost miraculous fall of wafer-thin Polar snow put the composer in mind of ‘the descent of the Holy Spirit’.

The Kyrie opens with variants of the chant sung in canon, building from the treble line through middle voices to the bass line below. As so often in Maxwell Davies, it is the chant itself which dictates the harmonies, lending a distinct and characteristic modal feel to the slowly emerging contrapuntal lines, while maintaining linear clarity. The movement builds impressively to eight parts, climaxing gloriously before the soft envoi of the penultimate Kyrie, in which Davies’s trademark interval of a diminished fifth (also evident in the boys’ opening sequence), plus the pitting against each other of apparently conflicting major/minor roots, both form prominent features, before the final diatonic resolution – though even this is not without a question mark, being poised unexpectedly over not the root, but the third in the bass line, which lends rich added resonance.

By the start of the Gloria the plainsong has acquired an almost cheekily joyous ‘major’ demeanour: the second organ adds its own elaborate coloratura comments, with the unvarnished plainsong audible in the pedal. ‘Et in terra pax’ is slow-unfolding, the organ inserting a slow chordal meditation before the joyously asseverative ‘Laudamus te’; whereas the fast-moving canon ‘propter magnam gloriam tuam’ has the energized feel of voices chattering, as if the singers were indeed, like Jesus’s Disciples, infused with many tongues.

Davies is not averse to employing the tested techniques of his predecessors – presenting a theme in its upside down (‘inverted’) or reversed (‘retrograde’) form, compressing or expanding its intervals, or analysing, fragmenting and re-ordering it so that it appears in a fresh guise. Even the most elusive harmonies draw their strength from the embedded plainsong, with materials more often heard as linear sometimes compressed into chordal form.

After a further dramatic, toccata-like organ intervention, the ‘Domine Deus’ is led in by the men canonically, the textures opening out into six-part, and latterly full eight-part, harmony, until the cascading appeals to Christ himself (‘Domine Fili unigenite’) lead to an exciting climax ushering in a strange, unnerving diminuendo. This is the invocation of the Holy Spirit, graphically expressed, with the second organ again adding elaborate, almost violent gestures, like licking tongues of fire, with the Veni Sancte Spiritus plainsong resurfacing in the pedals. By contrast, the ‘Tu solus’ is almost elusively serene, before a canonic ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ and unison, then harmonized, Amens.

Originally Maxwell Davies, like Britten before him, had planned a Missa brevis for Westminster Cathedral, with no setting of the Credo, but prior to the Mass’s premiere on 19 May 2002 he was prevailed upon to furnish this assured unison setting of the Credo. The flowing, largely narrative plainsong assumes added intensity at certain key moments – Christ’s Incarnation and Burial – the latter leading straight into the growing and glowing confidence of ‘Et resurrexit’.

The Sanctus launches out with an unexpected, and uplifting, unison major seventh; here again, the apparent density of the textures (in fact there are just five voices) is remarkable, and this is sustained through the ‘Pleni sunt caeli’, in which a foretaste of the staccato organ passage that will open the Benedictus can be heard. The choir rises to a fever pitch at the words ‘gloria’ and ‘Hosanna’, before the organ dissolves the temperature and serenely embarks on an (even in this context) French-sounding ostinato-like figure – in fact the plainsong motto, picked out once more on the pedals.

In the Agnus Dei, the organ staccato has moved up to the treble, where it decorates the quasi-fugal entries. First tenors and basses, then the boys’ and altos’ lines are accorded prominence, while the lush harmonies of the final ‘dona nobis pacem’ seem all but a tribute to Messiaen, one of the composers Davies most admires (even though he has impishly satirized him elsewhere).

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.


First Performance

Westminster Cathedral (Pentecost Service). The Mass was celebrated by HE Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster.

Sunday, 19 May 2002

Choir of Westminster Cathedral