Ferneyhough Week – Missa Brevis

by 5:4

From one of Brian Ferneyhough’s less familiar works i’m turning today to one of the best known, the Missa Brevis, composed in 1969. The very fact that Ferneyhough turned to a form and text so embedded in the development and consciousness of western music, so infused with associations, may seem surprising. Yet his is not a straightforward setting; in truth, it is not a “setting” at all—at least, not in any conventional sense of that term. The words are not treated so as to convey their meaning, and the work is not composed to fulfil any implied functional role; put simply, Ferneyhough’s Missa Brevis exists in an interesting friction with its connotations and legacy, as he explained in an interview with Andrew Clements:

[…] it was far from my intention to make the words of the text more audible. On the contrary, for the most part they are submerged irreparably! My choice of text was conditioned by reasons lamentably pagan: I wanted a verbal substructure which was sufficiently strong, certain of its own identity, to act as a firm counter-foil to the distortions and liberties which the exigencies of the purely musical material demanded. I had then, and still have now, a grave, in-bred suspicion of ‘text-setting’. Either a text is sufficient unto itself, or it is not worth using in a new art work anyway! In either case, such conventional notions of the relationship word/music set my teeth immediately on edge. The Missa text I took in its connotation of culture-object, not of meaning-constellation…

Lest that might seem a somewhat aloof attitude, Ferneyhough clarified further in correspondence with Paul Driver:

[…] the choice of text has less to do with statements of faith than with a feeling that the Mass ceremonial itself is a culturally integral monument, both historically and formally. As such, it has managed to withstand relatively unscathed the efforts of composers of many periods to bend it to their individual musical ends. This may be taken as something of a back-handed compliment, I suppose, but the task was undertaken in a spirit of profound respect on my part.

All this raises interesting issues from a listening perspective; in one respect, the words essentially don’t matter other than as sound-objects/-fragments, except that without at least some acknowledgement of the text and its provenance it cannot act as the identity-laden “counter-foil” Ferneyhough desires it to be. In reality, the words are very much more easy to discern than perhaps the composer intended, and as such there’s little reason—apart from the extreme upper register demanded of the sopranos, plus of course the reluctance of mainstream choirs to tackle much (if anything) beyond their comfort zone—that it couldn’t take its place within the ecclesiastical repertoire.

For much of the work, the twelve voices are grouped into three vocal quartets, although these groupings are at times difficult to grasp. The Kyrie is the most fragmented section, the consonants of its concise Greek text fractured into splinters that slice into the vowels (the initial ‘K’ is very cutting). The treatment of both is rough, thrown crudely from voice to voice—the antiphony here makes the quartets clearly audible—with only the briefest of more pensive moments. Although the Gloria is the longest movement in the Missa Brevis, this is not simply due to it being the most lengthy text (short masses omit the Credo, which would otherwise be longer still). Ferneyhough superimposes whole lines on top of each other, characterising them by differing registers and vocal techniques. Not surprisingly, the texture is extremely dense as a result, as well as exercising an even more emphatic contrast between sung and spoken words and syllables. It’s a highly dramatic tussle, one minute fizzling to whispered utterances, the next erupting into gruff spoken exclamations that gradually become teased back to pitch; its conclusion is wildly expressive, the sopranos occupying the stratosphere of their range, before the whole choir coalesces onto a brutal “amen”.

The remaining three sections are each relatively short. In the Sanctus, extended melismas are shaken by powerful vibrato and contorted, angular joints. Yet there’s a lessening of aggression and energy, with more sense of a united choir, even during its final broken “excelsis”. Despite a sudden deluge that suddenly ignites the singers, the Benedictus continues this dynamic restraint; its conclusion could not be more different from the Sanctus, caught up in moments of ecstasy. The three quartets move independently in the last movement, the Agnus Dei; once again, the quietening mood is threatened when the lower voices combine, becoming bullish. The upper voices continue to subside, though, and it’s they who prevail, drifting and floating gently without a consonant to be heard—a truly magical passage—before ascending to altitude at the end.

Given by the BBC Singers directed by James Morgan, this superb performance took place during the Barbican’s 2011 Total Immersion day.

The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.

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