Thursday 11 July 2013

Missa Charles Darwin

Gregory W Brown - Missa Charles Darwin, Navona Records
As a contemporary composer who also sings a lot of Renaissance polyphony I find the intersection between polyphony and the modern composing idiom very fascinating. Composer Gregory W. Brown has created a modern mass, Missa Charles Darwin, in the unaccompanied polyphonic idiom for four voices, which has been recorded by the men of New York Polyphony (the four-man vocal ensemble with a counter-tenor on the top line). But Brown has gone one better and created a modern version of the texts. Here the Latin of the ordinary of the mass has been largely replaced by the words of Charles Darwin. Brown is a composer of acoustic and electro-acoustic music, who studied with amongst others the 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner Lewis Spratlan.

The idea and the initial draft of the libretto came from Craig Phillips, bass in Neew York Polyphony. The mass is laid out with the traditional movements, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei with the addition of a couple of extras.

The melodic germ for the mass was grown by Brown from a portion of the genetic sequence of Platyspiza Crassirostris (a bird from the group known as Darwin's Finches). By transcribing the amino acids into notes, he created a melodic idea which forms the basis of the mass. And by combining inversion and retrograde with ideas taken from genetics such as mutation, insertion and deletion, Brown has created a very modern form of Musica Speculativa (see my review of the Passion of Reason - Five centuries of scientific music).

The introit sentence, from Darwin's The Descent of Man is given as a form of plainchant, followed by a Kyrie which is troped with a sentence from Darwin's On the Origin of Species. The Gloria uses a text 'There is grandeur in this view of life' from Chapter 14 of On the Origin of Species. There then follows an Alleluia with a verse using texts from the Introduction to the Descent of Man and one of Darwin's letters.

The Credo is introduced by a Latin phrase from Linnaeus, 'Nature makes no leaps' followed by further texts from On the Origin of Species. The Sanctus uses more from On the Origin of Species 'As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds'. Finally the Agnus Dei uses further text from On the Origin of Species follwoed by an Alleluia and Ite missa est.

Brown's writing combines traditional polyphony with more angular melodic lines, with strong passing dissonances. The texture of the writing is relatively open, and the basic motivic ideas are often quite melodic. The result is very striking, a wonderful confluence of old and new polyphony and moments, like the Alleluia, are highly evocative. The Credo has rather an edgy feel, it is not always comfortable music. Here, the disadvantage of polyphony comes over as not all the words are audible, though the final section, 'With all his noble qualities' has more clarity of texture and word.

The Sanctus is in fact rather austere in feel. And the concluding Agnus Deiuses quite a melodic theme. Throughout there is a slight oddness to the work, the disjoint between text and genre. If I have a complaint it is that I wish that Brown had gone for a fully troped mass, interspersing the Latin texts with new ones, as he does in the Kyrie, rather than replacing the Latin entirely.

But the performance is beautifully realised by New York Polyphony, the four voices are nicely balanced and the more complex harmonies well placed. Also, you don't feel the lack of more voices, they make the piece work well with just a vocal ensemble. This is a fascinating piece, traditional polyphony re-interpreted for modern times. Anyone interested in how a modern composer can respond to the work of Palestrina and Victoria should try this.

There is a sample on and also on YouTube. The work is available for download (see the link below), further information from the Navona Records website.

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