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Igor Stravinsky - Mass, I-III

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Published on Apr 4, 2011

Mass, for chorus & double wind quintet (1948)

I. Kyrie
II. Gloria
III. Credo
IV. Sanctus
V. Agnus Dei

RIAS Kammerchor
musikFabrik
Daniel Reuss

After the composition of Oedipus rex (1926-1927) it was unusual for Stravinsky to write a non-commissioned work. Also, since 1926 Stravinsky had been a communicant of the Russian Orthodox Church. Thus, it seems peculiar that the composer would write a concerted Latin mass. The motivation stems from what seems to have been a negative reaction to some masses of Mozart, which Stravinsky found in a second-hand music store in Los Angeles in 1942. The choice of the traditional Latin text of the Catholic Mass was a practical one: the Russian Orthodox Church proscribed the use of instruments in services, and Stravinsky did not want to write an unaccompanied vocal work.

The ensemble consists of a chorus of children, altos, tenors, and basses, and a double wind quintet. The opening of the Kyrie contrasts the timbres of the wind instruments, and the voices enter by imitating the instrumental introduction. Mirroring the text, the chorus intones three complete statements of "Kyrie eleison" before the central, "Christe eleison" section. After the first statement of "Christe eleison," the music takes on a clearly articulated pulse, and the children take center stage. The animated atmosphere continues through the return of the Kyrie text. Throughout the Gloria movement the vocal texture alternates between full chorus, duet, and solo. Near the middle, at "Domine Deus," a pair of voices evokes a style reminiscent of thirteenth century parallel organum, one instance in the mass that illuminates Stravinsky's familiarity with Medieval and Renaissance sacred music (although in Expositions and Developments Stravinsky claimed that he did not hear Machaut's mass until after he had completed his own). For the Credo, Stravinsky gave a large nod to tradition by directing that the first phrase, "Credo in unum deum," be sung by the celebrant alone. In fact, the composer specified the use of the plainchant melody listed as the "authentic" Credo intonation in the Liber Usualis. The harmonic organization of the movement bears a close relationship to the pitches of the plainchant intonation, and the opening and closing tonal areas (E and G) match the chant's first two pitches. The central part of the movement features a more strident sonority dominated by a major seventh chord. Like most composers of masses before him, Stravinsky set the lengthy Credo text syllabically. The composer described the movement rather succinctly: "The Credo is the longest movement. There is much to believe." The celebrant opens the Sanctus alone, and each of his florid statements of "Sanctus" is echoed by the chorus. In another nod to tradition, Stravinsky sets the Benedictus off from the rest of the movement, both by setting the text to contrasting music and by framing it with the same music for both appearances of the "Hosanna in excelsis." The Agnus Dei is built around an instrumental ritornello, which opens the movement and separates the three lines of text. [allmusic.com]

Art by Jules Olitski

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