• Giles Swayne
  • O magnum mysterium (1986)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)
  • Organ
  • Boys Voices (3 parts)
  • 2 min

Programme Note

During the early '80s, after completing CRY, I became concerned about the remoteness of contemporary music, and (perhaps because of my interest in African music and several years' community-based educational work) began experimenting with the use of a radically simplified harmonic and melodic language, with greater emphasis rhythm as a structural force. This resulted in pieces such as Count-down (1981), Magnificat (1982), A Song for Haddi (1983), Symphony for small orchestra (1984) and Missa Tiburtina (1985) in which the pitch-field is severely restricted, varying from the purely modal to an unextended form of tonality.

By 1985 I had purified my ear and harmonic palette as far as I needed, and began a cautious return to greater harmonic destiny, while preserving a more harmonious balance between a rhythm and pitch-control. Godsong, for mezzo-soprano and small ensemble, was a turning-point, its subject, significantly, is a reworking and continuation of the CRY theme, covering the whole time from Creation to Last Judgement, as described by the York mystery-plays. It uses a far denser pitch-palette, and takes the structural rhythmic processes even further, but reduced to miniature proportions, as if under a microscope.

After godsong I felt more relaxed about my musical language, and when, in late 1986, I offered a Christmas carol for high voices and organ to Westminster Under School as a gesture of thanks for taking good care of my son Orlando, I wrote a purely serial piece-confident that my years of tonal purification had sharpened both my ear and my mind.

O magnum mysterium is scored for boys' or womens' voice in three parts, accompanied by the organ. 'Accompanied' is not quite the right word, as the organ plays only one phrase (a compressed version of the piece's 11-note series in the form of six 2-note chords (the last of which repeats the initial C). The series remains untransposed; harmonic variety is created by putting it in different pairings. After the organ phrase already mentioned, there is a brief climax on the word 'admirable'; then the solo soprano reappears, introducing a vestigial recapitulation of the opening. A celebratory 'Alleluia' presents the entire series as a melody, sung in unison by the whole choir, and the piece ends with the solo soprano's intoned C which, for the final note, drops to A - the one note used on the piece so far.

© Giles Swayne


Swayne: O Magnum Mysterium