About this work:
It is something of a challenge to compose music that sets the ordinary of the Mass when it is to be sung in English by a congregation unassisted by a choir and accompanied by a keyboard instrument (which may not on every occasion be an organ) played by a volunteer, music that is, furthermore, not traditional in its harmonic usage even though it is completely diatonic. Of the four texts that I set in my Missa Simplex, namely, the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus-Benedictus, and Agnus Dei, it was the Kyrie that presented special problems because the words of each of the three supplications needed to be repeated at least once, yet the music, in order to be minimally interesting, had to avoid literal repetition. By subtly varying each of the six phrases yet keeping each essentially the same, it became also possible to impose a formal design on the movement so that 1. the first two phrases begin on the same pitch and employ the same cadence formula, 2. the high point of the movement coincides with the change in text to "Christ, have mercy on us" so that the resulting two phrases constitute a kind of contrasting middle section, and 3. the return to the starting pitch of the first phrase coincides with the return of the text of the first supplication, a pitch that then gradually descends by the time of the final cadence to the keynote of the movement, B-flat.
The greatest barrier to a composer in setting this text, unfortunately, is the awkward (some would say, ugly) sound of the English translation compared with that of the original Greek. In the absence of an ideal solution, a practical solution was simply to keep the setting syllabic with the possible exception of the word "Lord" and to place "mercy" in a mercifully less exposed middle-to-low register while avoiding excessive prolongation of the first syllable.
To make this otherwise unconventional setting—unconventional because the harmony is not basically triadic as it is in almost everything that a congregation is likely to hear, it was decided that whatever music was assigned to the congregation would sound as if it had been derived from the major-minor system and therefore sound "conventional" but that the more adventurous, "up-to-date," sounds would appear only in the accompaniment. Even here, however, one or the other of the two primary triads of the key is employed at each cadence in order to provide the singers with the kind of harmonic orientation that is best provided by a triad with an unambiguous root. What the congregation sings is always doubled in the accompaniment, whatever else it may also be playing at the same time. With the exception of the Kyrie each of the movements of the Missa introduces the congregation to the first phrase by stating the first two measures it will sing. In the Kyrie the starting pitch is given and approached by a motive similar to those that begin each of the next six phrases. The accompaniment itself requires no use of the organ's pedals and can be played by any pianist who has had some, though not necessarily a great deal of, formal training. The score is also printed using somewhat oversized note heads (not evident here), and the congregation is supplied with a single sheet containing only its own part, transposed to C so that there are no key signatures to interpret, and small cue notes showing the short introductions. There are, of course, no instrumental interludes to interrupt the congregation's participation, and any of the four movements can be sung to good effect with no accompaniment at all, although the absence of the constant rhythm which the accompaniment otherwise always supplies will render the longer notes in the Agnus Dei a little difficult to measure accurately.
My purpose in composing Missa Simplex, I have to confess, was not merely to add one more piece of liturgical music to an already-overflowing repository but also to demonstrate how a more recently developed musical language can be utilized in the creation of liturgical music without upsetting congregations with the results. Do we need to be reminded how much the music of Guillaume Dufay, composed in the fifteenth century, differs from that composed by Palestrina and Lassus a century later? Why then should we expect less in the twentieth or now in the twenty-first century? And is it not also possible for liturgical music to sound “contemporary” without drawing only on those characteristics that we associate with the popular entertainment music of our time?
Score and part available from Mira Music Associates. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Version: Congregation & organ
Year composed: 1984
Ensemble type: Chorus, with or without Solo Voices:Chorus with Keyboard
Instrumentation: ,1 Organ soloist(s)
Instrumentation notes: Simple, easily-sung melodic line for all voices regardless of range. Easy-to-play organ accompaniment only for manuals. Additional part available for the congregation.