Boosey & Hawkes
Durham Cathedral, Durham
Durham Cathedral Choir / James Lancelot
Choral level of difficulty: 4/5 (5 greatest)
This is a major, serious work with some very challenging music for a choir to master. Big cluster chords (the first chord of the Agnus Dei is a challenge in itself), complex progressions and familiar ornamental details in melodic lines which are still difficult to sing accurately, rhythmically and with good ensemble, blend and balance. Some of the music is ‘borrowed’ from earlier works. The Sanctus, for instance, uses material from one of the early Strathclyde Motets, Data est mihi omnis potestas to great effect. Such borrowing was commonplace in the Baroque period (Bach and Handel recycled constantly) and this seems to reinforce the feeling that MacMillan’s music is a true continuation of a choral tradition which stems back centuries. He is inspired by Palestrina and Monteverdi, by Bach and Handel, even by Parry and Elgar in his vocal textures and interactions, and more recently by Britten, Tippett and his own teacher, Kenneth Leighton. There are many others of course, and not least those who have inspired his use of ornament. But the essential point here is that all these inspirational composers have given him the multi-faceted language to create his own personal style which is instantly recognizable.
The Missa Dunelmi is a complex, difficult work which will be approached by expert cathedral/collegiate choirs, professional ensembles and a few top-end amateur groups. It is important that MacMillan feels free to write music which is only attainable by such groups but, unlike many other contemporary composers, he has also written highly effective music for every other level of choir.
The Kyrie is essentially straightforward. The opening figure for divided sopranos works its way, slightly changed, gradually through the altos and then the tenors for Kyrie/Christe/Kyrie working towards a hummed cluster chord at the end which reduces and hangs in the air. The Gloria straight away introduces MacMillan’s trademark ornamental chant-like melodic lines which form the basis of the whole movement. The texture moves between four and eight part choir always as SSAATTBB and not antiphonal double choir. The Sanctus opens with a quiet cluster like the resonance of a dying bell and builds into rich harmony. There is big-scale, strong and characterful setting of these words here with further ornamental writing. The Pleni is quietly reminiscent of (but not the same as) the opening, and the Hosanna bursts out with the remembered music from Data est mihi. The Benedictus follows as part of the movement – a soprano line in octaves over ATB in thick clusters, and its Hosanna recalls the previous one. The Agnus Dei is a very slow, reflective and beautiful movement with long spaces between phrases. This movement is difficult and has to sound easy. The Dona nobis pacem is ravishing and highly effective.
Repertoire Note by Paul Spicer