Missa Brevis Pacem


Programme Note

Missa Brevis Pacem (literally a ‘Short Mass for Peace’) was commissioned by the National School Band Association, and received its first performance at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall in April 1988 in a performance conducted by the composer. It is scored for large forces: boys’ voices (often divisi), baritone soloist and large symphonic wind ensemble with an array of percussion.  The first London performance, at the Barbican Hall on 17 March 1989 by the Guildhall School of Music Symphonic Wind Ensemble , conducted by the composer, and Christopher Goldsack (baritone), was a rather special occasion, with the combined Junior Choirs from the Guildhall School of Music, the Purcell School, the Royal Academy of Music and Trinity College of Music coming together for the first time.

The idea of writing a work for boys’ voices, baritone solo and symphonic wind came about as a gradual process. In the back of my mind was the wonderful Stravinsky Mass of 1948 for similar (though smaller) forces. Stravinsky’s preference in his mixed choir was for the purity of boys’ treble voices. For a long time I had wanted to set the text of the Latin Mass, but in themselves the words were too abstract for my purpose and so, gradually, the idea of a central English text emerged, as did the thematic element. The concept of Peace (particularly of finding a personal peace) became the basis of this text, and was written by my wife, Susan Gregson.

The final words of the Mass are, of course, Dona nobis pacem (Give us Peace). The entry of the baritone in English at the close of the work is mirrored by the entry of the boys’ voices with the Latin words at the end of the baritone solo.

The Mass is structured in an arch shape, with the baritone solo acting as the central emotional core of the music. The work begins and ends quietly, pivoting on the pitch of E both times. The opening Kyrie is full of foreboding with its middle Christe eleison suddenly faster and rhythmic. The Gloria is highly-charged but joyful, ending in a blaze of G major, whilst the Sanctus is majestic and centered on B flat (a tritone away from the opening E), but moving upwards to a triumphant C major for the Osanna in excelsis. The Benedictus unashamedly unfolds a simple and expressive melody sung by a solo treble. The final Agnus Dei returns to the unsettling atmosphere of the Kyrie with harsh brass fanfares and jagged rhythms from the orchestra, whilst the boys’ voices mirror this with chromatic phrases and low intoned B flats on the words Miserere nobis. The music moves back to the opening E of the Kyrie and the peaceful conclusion the work has been waiting for.

Throughout the Mass there are references to other musical sources – a deliberate attempt to create aural memories for the listener. Hence the ghosts of Bach, Britten and Stravinsky are never far away (the B minor Mass, the War Requiem and the 1948 Mass respectively). It is no coincidence that the first performance was in the very place that Britten himself created as part of his own musical dream.

Peace in our Time (baritone solo)

(text by Susan Gregson)

‘Peace in our time’
Or so they said.
Words just words
To a fanfare of guns
To the cries of the dead.

Peace is elsewhere.

Loud proclamations!
Their promises, our hopes,
Falling, dying in the air
As men fall
And die
For this word
This manufactured peace.

Peace is elsewhere.

Not with the dead but with the living
Is Peace
No dusty dream dreamed
In the night. But
As light in the morning comes
As the seasons’ rhythms run
So within us
Is Peace.

Peace is here.
Peace is within our hearts.
Dona nobis pacem.

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Reviews:

There is nothing neutral or evasive about this mass: the composer has laid himself on the line, calling for peace of heart in a delusive insincere world (a cry most overt in the baritone solo, to words by the composer’s wife, Susan, which comes at the centre of the work, but underlying everything).  But, fear not, there is no trace of sentimental morbidity; the classicism is there.  The quick sections are exuberantly celebratory, the slow ones touch tragedy, and it’s all brilliantly scored.  The children’s choir is well handled, with nicely varied textures and gutsy, very effective use of the lower register.

Tom Aitken, Winds Magazine, 1989

The schematic pattern of the music, the choral monotones amid instrumental development, the delicate touches by solo instruments and the terrifying final climax before subsiding into a quiet conclusion left an impression of an intensely moving work which ought to become established in a repertoire where such pieces are rare.

Winds Magazine, April 1988


Work Details

  • Date of Composition: 1987
  • Publisher: Novello
  • Genre:
  • Duration: 25'
  • Instrumentation: solo baritone, boys’ chorus, large symphonic wind ensemble
  • Commission Information:
    National School Band Association with funds from the NSBA and the Riyadh Concert Band, Saudi Arabia
  • Text Author: text from the Latin Mass; poem by Susan Gregson

First Performance

  • Date: 9 April 1988
  • Venue: Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh, UK
  • Performers:
    Composite Ensemble from the National Schools Wind Band Roger Langford (baritone) Edward Gregson (conductor) Halesworth Middle School Choir

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