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The twentieth century in Britain witnessed a renewed interest in the number of new settings of the “Missa Brevis” being composed by leading contemporary composers. These included works by Richard Rodney Bennett, Lennox Berkley, Benjamin Britten, Brian Ferneyhough and Jonathan Harvey to name just a few. This new setting by George Arthur takes both the traditional Austrian “Missa Brevis” as cultivated by Mozart and Haydn and mixes it with the techniques of the symphonic mass settings we see in Bruckner’s settings. The composer does not set the words of the Creed and the words of the Gloria are telescoped so that different lines of text are sung at the same time.
Yet the whole work grows and develops from the basic material as presented in the very first bar of the Kyrie, giving it a symphonic feeling of growth. The three basic elements are (1) the interval of a fourth between the alto and soprano parts (2) the interval of a fifth between the bass and tenor parts and (3) the interval of a major or minor second as can be seen between the bass, tenor and alto parts in the second half of the bar. Almost every bar has some reference to these intervals. It gives the whole work a very cohesive structure as well as giving the singers three very significant musical signposts to look out for.
The gentle swaying Kyrie makes much use of the major and minor seconds until the climax is reached on an emphatic and loud “Kyrie” in bar twenty-three in the sopranos and alto a fifth apart. After the intonation of the Gloria the sopranos have a trumpet like motive built on the interval of a fifth, move down a second then up a fourth and this little figure dominates the whole movement as does the gentle swaying as seen in the Kyrie. You can see this figure again at the start of the bell-like Sanctus movement leading into the trumpet-like sounding Osanna which makes a lot of use of the intervals of the fourth and the fifth, and this leads into a redeveloped version of the Sanctus as a Benedictus. The works ends with a magical Agnus Dei where the opening is full of parallel chords moving in fourths underpinned by a bass part on the interval of a fourth. Here we can feel the influence of Debussy in the use of chords made, using the interval of a fourth plus a hint of Vaughan Williams with the parallel motion of the voice parts.