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J. Lee Graham

Missa Brevis 4 vocibus (Short Mass for 4 Voices) – LIVE RECORDING

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Movements:

1.  Kyrie

2.  Gloria

3.  Sanctus

4.  Benedictus

5.  Agnus Dei

Scoring:  Mixed chorus a cappella (SATB)

Style:  Baroque stile antico, circa 1700

Composed:  June 23 – July 9, 2014 at Wichita, Kansas, USA

I here present my second attempt at a Missa Brevis.  This one is a cappella, and in the Dorian mode throughout.  The first was composed in 2000, modeled after the short Masses Mozart wrote for Salzburg Cathedral in his youth; I posted it here some years ago.    

This work was commissioned in 2014 by a Roman Catholic church in Colorado that supports and highly values the best in traditional church music for their liturgies.  A long-time friend and colleague happened to be the director of their small but well-trained choir, and he regularly programs 16th Century polyphony for them to perform during Masses.  When he proposed the commission to me, he specified that I would compose a short but solemn Mass, as well as a set of Propers (the variable parts of the Mass, including the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, and Communion) specifically for the feast day of the church’s patroness, Our Lady of Mount Carmel; he further stipulated that ideally the work would emulate Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) – his favourite composer – in style and substance.  Flattered that he thought highly enough of me to think that I was capable of this, my response was that the style would be a tall order – Victoria was one of the giants of Renaissance liturgical music, and not easily imitated – but that I would gladly do my best to present him with the best polyphony I could manage.  My friend was satisfied with that, so we negotiated what I thought was a fairly generous stipend, and I accepted the commission. 

Though it was not due to be fulfilled until the following spring, I immediately set to work (I’ve rarely been one to procrastinate on a commission), though not without some trepidation; I am relatively facile in several historical styles, but I had never attempted to write 16th Century polyphony before, and I wasn’t altogether sure I would succeed.  I worked diligently and completed the entire Mass in 15 days.            

While the final product did not disappoint me, despite having employed all my knowledge and skill, I knew I had not produced an authentic piece of 16th Century at all.  Rather, I had written a solid work in stile antico.  For those unfamiliar with the term, to quote Wikipedia: “Stile antico (literally "ancient style") is a term describing a manner of musical composition from the sixteenth century onwards that was historically conscious, as opposed to stile moderno, which adhered to more modern trends. It has been associated with composers of the high Baroque and early Classical periods of music, in which composers used controlled dissonance and modal effects and avoided overtly instrumental textures and lavish ornamentation, to imitate the compositional style of the late Renaissance. Stile antico was deemed appropriate in the conservative confines of church music, or as a compositional exercise as in J. J. Fux's Gradus Ad Parnassum (1725), the classic textbook on strict counterpoint. Much of the music associated with this style looks to the music of Palestrina as a model.”  I had done my best, so I presented the Mass to my patron, and to my relief, he was very pleased. 

The work was premiered by my friend’s choir at a festal Mass on July 19, 2015, the Sunday following the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (July 16) when the patronal feast was observed, on which occasion the present recording was made.  The following year, I was invited to come to Colorado to join the choir in performing the Mass again, and I accepted.  The appreciation of the choir and congregation for my work was most affecting – a memorable experience indeed. 

I hope you enjoy this little Mass, and do let me know what you think of it.  I’d especially like feedback on the counterpoint from any of you out there who may be experts in the art.  Thanks for your time!    

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A beautiful piece to listen to, not just for the music itself but the purity of the voices. But the music is so accomplished that comment is barely appropriate. You asked about the counterpoint. I learned species counterpoint and though this in rather a different league from V, I looked at the Sanctus in a modicum of detail. If you have broken any rules I didn't spot them - besides, nothing was apparent in the sound itself. But I can hardly claim to be an expert. I noted the fugue form - that alone takes some mastery - you turn to it often (if not a fugue then imitative entries). And the modulations were handled always with skill (it was something with which I always had problems). I noticed the way you marked phrasing.  I'd guess your study went deeper than just looking at the famous renaissance composers' scores - as if you assessed how they were really sung and captured that in score.

Altogether it had a beautiful solemnity about it.  

Edit. A propos your declaration "While the final product did not disappoint me, despite having employed all my knowledge and skill, I knew I had not produced an authentic piece of 16thCentury at all.   If true you seem to have come very close. I doubt WIlliam Byrd could have got much closer.

 

Edited by Quinn
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@Quinn, I thank you sincerely for your thoughtful commentary, and I could not be more delighted by your assessment that this music has a "beautiful solemnity about it."  Aside from technical and stylistic correctness to the extent I was able, "beautiful solemnity," to use your words, was foremost in my mind as a goal with this piece, and it does my heart such good to read these words from you.  The people of the very traditional parish for whom this work was written (they say Mass in Latin according to the old 16th Century Tridentine rite!) are deeply devoted to their Patroness, and I wanted nothing more than to reflect and enhance that devotion.  Hearing this music in the resonant space of their church and seeing the emotional and spiritual effect it had on the people was one of the most gratifying experiences of my career.  

The Sanctus you analyzed is my favourite of all the movements (followed closely by the concise Gloria with its florid Amen) and I'm relieved that you found no obvious flaws in it, particularly given your background in species counterpoint.  It actually turned out to be one of my better fugal expressions, and I might have gone on longer with it had it been appropriate.  The imitative entries you noted throughout the piece are of course characteristic of Renaissance polyphony, so I tried to incorporate them wherever possible - not always an easy task.  Modulation is so very different in a modal environment than what I'm used to that I'm glad to hear from you that they were skillful.  Musica ficta is still a difficult concept for me to wrap my mind around, and I only hope most of that worked too. 

I included the kind of phrasing indications sometimes found in modern editions of Renaissance music to remind the choir that word accent was in some places as important, or more so, than metric accent; this kind of music is always more interesting when the hemiolas implied by the word accents are subtly observed.  I actually had originally wanted to present the score without barlines as Renaissance music was originally written, with only tick marks to indicate where they should be, which I thought might have resulted in greater metric fluidity; but I was admonished against it by the director, who thought it would unnecessarily complicate learning the music.  The mostly amateur choir very capably interpreted the music even with barlines, so it's just as well I included them to make their work easier. 

On 1/19/2019 at 1:43 PM, Quinn said:

Edit. A propos your declaration "While the final product did not disappoint me, despite having employed all my knowledge and skill, I knew I had not produced an authentic piece of 16thCentury at all.   If true you seem to have come very close. I doubt WIlliam Byrd could have got much closer.

One of the most extravagant compliments I have ever received, Byrd being my personal idol in this style.  I doff my cap to you.  Thank you very much indeed.                                            

 

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Gorgeous work. I don't know how much people in a religious position of power know about the original reasons for stile antico, but the vast majority of the piece seemed to follow a lot of the rules.
There were a couple spots where it could have been tightened up, but I'm not so nitpicky where I'd point out everything wrong, since on the whole it is quite good. For example, On page 20, system 2, m. 2, there's a leap away from a tritone interval formed between the tenor and the bass, which is a no go in the more conservative style. Parallel dissonances show up here and there, like the last page, second system, first measure, between the alto and tenor on beat 4 (the perfect 4th is considered dissonant in this time). 
To use a more contemporary term, your frequent use of Schenkerian voice exchange really helps the counterpoint out which is something I wish I knew helped when I was starting out in this very particular style. 
Complaining about this seems stupid though if being 100% accurate wasn't of interest to you. While I'd normally adopt a "composer intent doesn't really matter", I feel the same about historical particularities unless it's an exercise in said historicism. 
Very well done.

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@JordanRoberts  Thanks very much for listening and commenting.  I'm getting a lot of feedback that this music sounds authentically Renaissance, and I find that very gratifying!  

On 2/14/2019 at 8:55 AM, JordanRoberts said:

It has a very pure and holy sound to it.

I suppose despite my sometime apostasy in disagreement with some tenets of the Roman Catholic Church, I am at heart still very much a true believer, and as such as devoted as ever.  I'm glad it shows, in my religious music anyway.  

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Mr Graham, this is just amazing! I have tryed many times to write vocal music in this style, only to fall big time! 

Your mastery of the style is very impressive. The music is beautiful, melodic and meditative combined with good counterpoint. 

All the movements are of excelent quality, but for me the gloria was special. The 2 part section with tenor and soprano as a contrast is wonderful, i love it!

Thanks for uploading

 

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@Simen-N Simen, coming from you, one of the best Baroque-Revival composers I know of, what you say is quite a compliment indeed!  Thank you very kindly!  I really like how the Gloria turned out as well, and the Sanctus at least as much.  🙂  

By all means, keep trying the stile antico thing!  

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@Monarcheon  I don't know how I missed your comments!  I'm so sorry I didn't say anything before now.  Thanks for pointing out some spots for me to look at - I may see if I can improve those spots somehow.  Thanks again!  

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