'Westminster Mass' - a Musical Work by Roxanna Panufnik Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Westminster Mass' - a Musical Work by Roxanna Panufnik

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Born in London in 1968, Roxanna Panufnik is a composer of mixed English and Polish heritage. Her mother, Camilla Jessel, is an English author and photographer, while her father was Sir Andrzej Panufnik, a noted Polish composer and conductor who defected to the West in 1954. Roxanna studied music in the Royal Academy of Music in London. She has written works in many different genres, including opera, ballet, music theatre, choral, chamber and film music.

Panufnik's Westminster Mass was commissioned by John Studzinksi for the Choir of Westminster Cathedral, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of London, to celebrate the 75th birthday of the late Cardinal Basil Hume. Written in 1997, the work was first performed in May 1998. On that occasion, Cardinal Hume said that Panufnik was 'helping us to pierce in some manner the cloud which separates us from Him, the Holy One to whom all glory and honour must be given'.

The work is not quite a standard musical setting of the Mass - it is normal to set the prayers Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei to music. The Credo always causes problems for composers due to its length compared with the other prayers. It is so long, that Bach, for example, set it into nine separate movements. Panufnik's Mass omits the Credo but includes short settings of two other prayers, the Memorial Acclamation and the Amen, as well as a long setting of the Psalm 'Deus, Deus meus'.

The work is written for a choir of mixed male and female voices, divided into 4 or 8 parts, with a soprano or treble soloist. There are three arrangements of it:

  • plain organ accompaniment, for general use
  • small orchestra, for special occasions
  • organ, harp and tubular bells, for a performance in Clifton Cathedral, Bristol

The musical work is designed so that it can be either performed in a concert setting or sung during the spoken Mass. In keeping with modern Roman Catholic practices, the work is written almost entirely in English so that the congregation can understand it.

Panufnik says that she wanted the work 'to throw a transformed light onto the text that I had repeated, perhaps without enough thought and understanding, so often.' The general style of the work uses simple tunes with very few key changes, but these are accompanied by complex chords. Sometimes these are 'jazz chords' with lots of extra notes. More often they are a curious mixture of a major and a minor chord, so that one voice sings a minor third above the root of the chord while another sings a major third. For example, the basses, altos and tenors might sing three notes which form a major chord, while the notes of the basses, altos and sopranos form a minor chord. These chords can sound very odd to some ears, but listen and you will always hear a simple tune among the chords.

1. Kyrie

Kyrie eleison
Christe eleison
Lord have mercy
Christ have mercy
Kyrie eleison

Panufnik sets this plea for mercy in a slow contemplative piece. It starts with the words 'Kyrie Eleison' sung by some of the female voices in a simple melody. The other voices join in on certain syllables of the melody and hold their note to make an extended sound space of many of the notes of the chant sung simultaneously. The tubular bells play a tune against this sound space. This treatment is repeated for the next phrase 'Christe Eleison' introduced by some of the male voices.

The movement progresses into an extended slow treatment of the same phrases in English: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. The movement ends with a repetition of the original Kyrie Eleison chanted on a single note.

2. Gloria - The Angelic Hymn

Glory to God in the highest
And peace to His people on Earth
Lord God, Heavenly King
Almighty God and Father
We worship you, we give you thanks
We praise you for your glory

Glory to God in the highest
And peace to His people on Earth
Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father
Lord God, Lamb of God,
You take away the sin of the world
Have mercy on us
You are seated at the right hand of the Father
Receive our prayer

Glory to God in the highest
And peace to His people on Earth
For you alone are the Holy One
You alone are the Lord
You alone are the most high Jesus Christ
With the Holy Spirit
In the glory of God the Father

Glory to God in the highest
And peace to His people on Earth

The Gloria is a song praising God and starting with the angels' song to the shepherds at the birth of Christ. It praises both God the Father and his son Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity, getting a mention at the end.

Panufnik's musical setting is meant to suggest bells ringing. Not only are tubular bells used in places to accompany the piece, but the irregular patterns of English bells change ringing are echoed in the harp introduction. This pattern is repeated later in the movement and the sopranos and altos of the choir take it up in the phrase 'Lord God heavenly king, almighty God and Father'.

The movement is structured as a Rondo - a musical sandwich, with many slices of bread and a different filling between each pair. Here the 'bread' is the phrase 'Glory to God' which occurs four times in basically the same arrangement throughout, with different musical settings of the other words sandwiched in between.

In the last of these sections, the bells are brought to mind again on the phrase 'you alone' in which the six upper voices produce a chiming effect while the basses sing out the words of the prayer.

3. Deus, Deus meus (God, My God)

Deus, Deus meus es tu
O God, you are my God
Ad te de luce vigilo
For you I long
Sitivit in te anima mea
My soul is thirsting for you
Te desideravit caro mea
My body pines for you
Like a dry, weary land without water
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
To see your strength and glory
For your love is better than life
My lips will speak your praise
So I will bless you all my life
In your name I will lift up my hands

My soul shall be filled as with a banquet
My mouth shall praise you with joy
(Deus, deus meus es tu)
On my bed I remember you
(Ad te de luce vigilo)
On you I muse through the night
(Sitivit in te anima mea
Te desideravit caro mea)
For you have been my help
In the shadow of your wings I rejoice
My soul clings to you
Your right hand holds me fast

The Roman Catholic Mass normally includes a responsorial psalm in which the congregation say or sing a response to the verses of the psalm. The Westminster Mass has a setting of Psalm 63 (verses 1-8). Cardinal Hume, the dedicatee of the work, specifically requested the first four lines of this psalm in Latin, but Panufnik says she was so inspired by the beauty of the English translation that she went on to set much more of it to music, interleaving the Latin with the English translation.

This is the longest movement of the Mass and is sung entirely a cappella, that is, without any instrumental accompaniment. The soloist sings a four note phrase which mixes major and minor (including both an E natural and an E flat in the key of C). This motif occurs in a few places through the movement. Also watch out for the two-note 'Deus' motif sung by the soprano soloist, then the first sopranos, then the second sopranos. A similar effect occurs on 'My body' with the phrase being passed backwards and forwards between the female voices while the basses and tenors chant 'like a dry weary land without water'.

4. Sanctus and Benedictus

Holy, holy, holy Lord
God of power and might
Heaven and Earth are full of your glory
Hosanna in the highest
Holy, holy
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord
Hosanna in the highest
Holy, holy

This prayer is often split into two separate musical numbers, but Panufnik treats it as a single movement.

Another hymn of praise to God, the text of the first three lines comes from the words spoken by the Seraphim (a type of angel) in a vision of Isaiah. The prayer also features the words shouted by the crowd welcoming Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The word 'hosanna' expresses adoration and joy, so Panufnik has set this movement as a lively one which builds up to an explosion of 'hosannas'.

There's a change of mood for the phrase 'Blessed', with an eerie chanting of the word 'blessed', once again in both major and minor chords simultaneously, before an abrupt return to the frantic hosannas to finish this lively romp.

5. Memorial Acclamation

Dying you destroyed our death
Rising you restored our life
Lord Jesus, come in glory

The Memorial Acclamation was not in the traditional setting of the Mass but was introduced in the 2nd Vatican Council (1962-65) as a way to involve the congregation more in the rite of consecration of the host. It is normally sung or spoken by the people just after the consecration.

Panufnik's setting is short and is based on the same eerie theme as the 'Blessed' from the Benedictus.

6. Amen

The shortest movement in the Mass, the Amen is normally sung or said by the congregation at the end of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, to show agreement with the rather large number of prayers the priest has just said without interruption. The musical setting here uses the lively 'Holy, holy' theme from the Sanctus.

7. Agnus Dei

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world Have mercy
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world Have mercy on us
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world Grant us peace

The Agnus Dei prayer addresses Jesus Christ three times, calling him the Lamb of God. The symbol of Jesus as a lamb was provided by John the Baptist at Jesus' baptism. It calls to mind the Paschal lamb of the Jewish passover; by killing a lamb, the Jews gave a sign to God that they would obey his instructions and so were saved from God's wrath. In the same way, the Lamb of God by dying saves all mankind from eternal punishment.

The movement starts out with the rhythm of the phrase 'Lamb of God' repeated on tubular bells. The first two times the prayer calls upon the Lamb of God, the choir asks for mercy. For the third request, Panufnik's arrangement builds to a climax repeating the phrase 'Lamb of God' over and over, before fading away. At the very end, the sopranos and altos conclude the Mass quietly with 'Grant us peace'.

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