Mass in Troubled Times Programme Note


Programme Note

Mass in Troubled Times takes its title from Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis (Hob, XXII/11), composed in 1798 during the Napoleonic Wars and often known as the Nelson Mass. No direct connection is intended beyond the shared title, but the present work may be seen as a modern response to Haydn’s masterpiece, written against a background of even greater global uncertainty.

The work is a collaboration with the writer Gavin D’Costa, who has devised a complex text, drawing on multiple sources across five languages. Underpinning the entire structure is the Ordinary of the Mass (with added Introit). Only seventeen lines of text from the Mass itself are used. These lines are counterpointed with original poems unfolding a fictional narrative of a refugee father and daughter, fleeing their war-torn country by sea. Alongside these elements are texts in three Middle Eastern languages: a Twitter hashtag in Turkish from 2015 concerning the all-too-real fate of one Syrian refugee child, a passage from the Syriac Orthodox Church Liturgy of the Divine Mysteries and two passages in Arabic from the Qu’ran: the first part of the Shahada (the Muslim profession of faith) and a quotation from the Surah al-Waqi’ah.

The musical setting reflects the diversity of the texts. The Latin text of the Mass is treated in a largely polyphonic style employing a range of imitative devices. The English poems are set simply and directly with a concern for textual clarity (an exception to this occurring in the central Credo where the setting is allowed to develop into an extended lyrical episode). The Middle Eastern texts are set in a manner that does not seek to conceal their differences from the Western texts. The (secular) Turkish words are used in a textural manner in the Introitus and are complemented by a similar setting of (sacred) Latin words in final Agnus Dei. The sacred Syriac and Arabic texts are set in a monodic style.

I am indebted to Dr. John Grimshaw for commissioning the Mass for the BBC Singers and to Sebastian Brock, Argun Ҫakir and Teresa Witcombe for their invaluable help with the pronunciation and stress-patterns of the Syriac, Turkish and Arabic texts respectively.

John Pickard