Amy Summers discusses her Missa Brevis, written to celebrate the Cathedral’s 175th Anniversary.
Singing with the choir as a Choral Scholar, I developed some quite broad ideas about how I would personally set the text for each of the movements (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) and so this commission ended up being my first go at letting them out. I knew I wanted the overall feel to be fairly ‘traditional’ and something that the congregation and choir would feel ‘at home’ with, but definitely with a couple of my own twists. Furthermore, my composition teacher in London, John Ashton Thomas, had started to introduce me to the wonderful world of jazz harmony. We found common ground in our interest in theory/the more mathematical side of music, and found ourselves discussing things like the octatonic scale and resulting polychords on manuscript paper and at the piano in great depths. I still feel very much a novice and am currently sketching a string quartet where I can explore this fully, but I can’t say that this didn’t have an influence on my mass - particularly the Gloria.
I had a rough idea for the atmospheres I wanted to create in each movement: a relatively upbeat, slightly mysterious Kyrie, a very lively and contrasting Gloria, a fairly swift, more relaxed Sanctus (with echoes of the Kyrie), and a very stripped-back Agnus Dei which could embody elements of each of the movements. Once I had this draft in place, ideas came fairly naturally. I drafted several completely different versions of the Kyrie over a few weeks and let them sit in my head for a while, before starting afresh and writing something that combined what I felt were the best elements of my sketches. After I composed the main melody in the tenor line, the Kyrie wrote itself, and fairly quickly. At the same time, I was sketching the Sanctus (knowing I wanted it to reflect elements of the Kyrie) and I had rough plans for the Gloria.
As for the Agnus Dei, I knew I wanted to trial something that I had accidentally created last summer: whilst stitching together audio files of a choral piece I’d recorded, I accidentally placed two different bits of the recording on top of each other. The way they happened to fall meant that when I played it as one, the choir was sustaining a chord and they were suddenly interrupted by a chunk of another section of the recording where the choir were singing an ever so lightly higher chord. The result was a clash, but it wasn’t too dissonant and somehow felt uplifting. So, I attempted to recreate this in the Agnus Dei (to the words ‘Dona nobis pacem’), dividing the voices so that it had the effect of splitting the choir in two. Additionally, like in my accidental creation, the first ‘choir’ then is cut off, leaving the second hanging. I had this idea, along with others for the Agnus Dei, floating in the back of my mind for a while and when I was supposed to be finishing the Kyrie one evening, I felt suddenly inspired and sat down and ended up writing the whole thing!
Having finished the outer movements, I completed the Sanctus quite quickly and ended up leaving the Gloria until last (which, as I mentioned, had not been my original intention) but it was somehow more rewarding to do it like this and in a way made more sense. Given the length of the text, I knew it was going to be the most time-consuming part of the mass to write, and the proportion of energy that its jubilant, celebratory nature demanded was certainly higher than the other movements. Leaving it until last meant that I could now give it my crystal-clear attention. I think I definitely had the most fun writing the Gloria. Stylistically it ended up sounding quite different from the other movements, but I felt I really had to go with my gut, perhaps because I was setting this text for the first time and the ideas felt fresh.
It was a real honour to write for the choir and for this event and, as always, I have a lot to thank Alex for. Just like with any other first performance, I know I have a lot of corners to now reflect on and revisit, but I am excited to keep writing and keep developing.
Thank you, Nottingham Cathedral Choir!