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J. Lee Graham

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

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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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