Choral level of difficulty: Level 2-3 (5 greatest)
Like the Ceremony of Carols this work is one of Britten’s most performed and well-loved works for upper voices. It was written for George Malcolm’s outstanding boys at Westminster Cathedral with their distinctively bright continental tone. Many other types of upper voices have since adopted it, of course, and these days it is as much performed by women or girls, or mixed boys’ and girls’ voices as by boys alone. The Missa Brevis requires three soloists, though it is possible to make it work with only two. The choir is divided into three voice parts, the third of which needs to be able to produce low As.
The work is incredibly fresh and original. Part of this is Britten’s organ part which is no ‘accompaniment’ but rather an equal partner in the realisation of the text in music. Britten’s direction in the Kyrie that the voices should sing ‘passionately’ underpins the approach to the performance of the whole work. It is an intensely dramatic reading of these familiar words. The grave passion of the Kyrie, the rhythmic ebullience of the Gloria with its 7/8 time signature and its colourful dynamic contrasts, the pealing bells of the Sanctus, the slow, measured tread of the Benedictus (the gentle march of ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’) for two solo voices followed by the tutti for the pealing Hosanna, and finally, a rather dark and troubled Agnus Dei which impresses through its relentless intensity and its final exhausted staccato utterance of ‘dona nobis pacem’.
While not as difficult note-wise as the Ceremony of Carols (and being far shorter as well), there are still plenty of challenges for any group of voices that undertakes this work. It needs three really equal voice parts and solo voices that can sing with confidence and conviction. Tuning issues will also arise at key points, and the ability to tune three part chords instinctively is needed in much of the work. It also helps if the organ which plays with the voices has a suitable range of colours to realise Britten’s intentions.
Repertoire note by Paul Spicer