My Little Mass is a setting of three of the smaller sections of the Ordinary of the Mass, (Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) for young voices and orchestra. Nevertheless each movement is reasonably substantial, with much space for the orchestral music to grow and develop. In fact a lot of the vocal writing was imagined as an extension and enhancement of the orchestral palette where the young voices are ‘smudged’ into the orchestral sound in an impressionistic manner.
In spite of this, the general outline and structure of the liturgical texts are respected, although the music is imagined for concert performance only.
The Kyrie begins in the depths of the orchestra before some principal themes emerge on oboe, cor anglais and muted trumpet, before the trebles enunciate the text, Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy). The simple phrases are repeated in various different harmonic and textural contexts.
The central section, Christe eleison (Christ have mercy) sees a culminatory development of the musical material as the mood become more enervated and ecstatic, leading to a climax. The return of the opening text sees the mood wind down, reversing towards repose.
The Sanctus opens with brass exclamations and fanfares, interspersed with the threefold declaration of the word Sanctus (Holy). The young voices pick up on one of the trumpet tunes leading to a playful, dance-like episode for the brass. This leads to a joyous outburst in the woodwind and free “chattering” in the voices (Heaven and earth are full of your glory.) The ‘Hosanna in the Highest’ is heard on high voices, pitted against a deep rumbling in the low instruments of the orchestra.
The middle section of the movement (Benedictus) is serene and slow, before the Hosannas return.
The Agnus Dei begins with a substantial string threnody. The main theme is then heard simply and distantly on the voices, before an eruption of the theme, chorale-like on brass accompanied by buzzing woodwind, percussion and harp. The ‘miserere nobis’ takes the music into static and serene territory again, before the brass pick up on the main theme in contrapuntal fashion.
The final section introduces a highly ornamented melody which floats above slow-moving chords, where the voices have become very much part of the orchestral texture. We hear a final high-placed ‘Agnus Dei’ from the singers, accompanied by harp and tuned percussion as the music comes to its close.
James MacMillan, January 2015
James MacMillan's Little Mass was commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society for its 175th Anniversary, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Supported by Sally, Mary and Jonathan Groves to mark the centenary of Sir Charles Groves, in the month he would have celebrated his 100th birthday.