Thursday 30 June 2022

Premiere of James MacMillan's Mass of St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey as part of celebrations for the Feast of St Peter

Westminster Abbey, order of service for St Peter's day service

Yesterday (29 June 2022) was the Feast of St Peter, Apostle and Martyr. St Peter is also the Patron of Westminster Abbey and so there was a rather special sung Eucharist at the Abbey. The preacher was the Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle, Dean of Westminster and James O'Donnell directed Westminster Abbey Choir. The music at the service include the world premiere of James MacMillan's Mass of St Edward the Confessor, and Palestrina's Tu es Petrus, with MacMillan's Toccata as the closing voluntary. I was lucky enough to be seated in the historic Quire [see my photo on Instagram] so had a perfect sight and sound of a very special service.

James MacMillan's mass is, I think, his seventh setting of the ordinary, the first being a Missa Brevis written when he was just sixteen. There are at least two congregational settings, but perhaps the best known setting is the wonderful, and complex, Mass (for choir and organ) written for Westminster Cathedral for the Millennium, and equally complex is the Missa Dunelmi (for eight-part choir) written for Durham Cathedral in 2011. His Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman (for cantor, congregation, organ with optional brass & timpani) written for Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the UK in 2010.

Mass of St Edward the Confessor, commissioned by Thomas and Mia Harding and dedicated to Westminster Abbey Choir School, is written for unaccompanied choir. James O'Donnell directed a full-strength Westminster Abbey Choir (16 boys, 12 men), and we heard the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus & Benedictus and Agnus Dei. MacMillan's use of polyphonic textures in the piece referred to a tradition that dates back to the early Tudor period, but the sound-world sometimes also evoked the music of a 20th century figure like Kenneth Leighton (who was MacMillan's teacher), but at the end of the day the music was very much his own with plenty of distinctive finger-prints in the shapes of phrases and the approach. Often, the music was surprisingly thoughtful, but with passages of crunchy harmonies and almost violence, yet it is the quieter moments that stick in the memory, the lovely opening Kyrie and the surprisingly intimate final pages of the Gloria. The Sanctus was suitably rhapsodic with some lovely melodies evoking chant and Gaelic psalm singing, whilst the Agnus Dei featured a superb tenor solo.

Palestrina's glorious Tu es Petrus is a motet that I have sung on many occasions, and always a firm favourite, here it was superbly performed during the administering of communion. And at the end of the service we had MacMillan's Toccata which was premiered at Gloucester Cathedral in 2019.

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