Missa brevis – Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)
Sir Lennox Berkeley’s (1903-1989) Missa brevis, written in 1960, features as the Mass setting in church this Sunday morning.
After studying at Merton College, Oxford, Berkeley travelled to Paris in 1927 to study composition under Nadia Boulanger and Maurice Ravel, the latter being cited as one of Berkeley’s biggest influences with regards to technical development. He also enjoyed a long artistic association and friendship with Benjamin Britten – composer of this morning’s communion motet – with whom he collaborated on a number of works.
As with many other 20th-century works with this title, Missa brevis here implies no more than a Mass of modest proportions with organ accompaniment. The vocal scoring, for instance, never expands beyond four-part. This simplicity of texture, however, combined with the conservative dimensions belies a consummate musical technique and affinity with the text. The style is based upon imitative polyphony which serves both to give the work a generally contemplative nature and also to highlight the more assertive homophonic passages. Of special interest is the Sanctus which, particularly at “Pleni sunt coeli”, employs the rather more dissonant, fourth-dominated harmony with which Berkeley was experimenting at the time.