• Anthony Payne
  • Phoenix Mass (1969)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Score for sale

  • 3tpt.3tbn
  • SATB (min. 48 voices)
  • 21 min

Programme Note

The Phoenix Mass was conceived in 1965, although the Sanctus and Agnus Dei were not written down until 1969. As its name implies it marks a resurgence of creative activity after a fallow period, and the natural emergence of a new manner long sought after but previously only partly envisaged.

It was only originally to have been liturgical setting for school choir but soon turned into something much bigger and more technically demanding. The use of an English Gloria with Latin Sanctus, however, stems from its original function, and this mixture of languages suggested to me the idea of a bi-textual ‘Agnus Dei’, the English spoken, the Latin sung. The most important outcome of the original intention to write for the young singers, however, is the simple interval structure. The Kyrie flows out of a repeated falling semitone, the Gloria is entirely constructed from the whole- tones and the Sanctus from major thirds, while the Agnus provides a cadential feeling by contracting those major thirds to minor. Although totally chromatic the textures throughout are arrived at by polymodal combination of basically simple lines.

As it now stands the work is a concert mass, tapping the associations of early baroque music for brass and choir, and the overwhelming experience of movements like the Gloria from Beethoven’s MISSA SOLEMNIS. It is a record of spiritual rather than denominationally religious experience.

The KYRIE provides a monumental static opening and introduces two ideas of prime importance for the whole work, the phrase structure of the opening three-fold KYRIE ELEISON and the staggered speech-rhythms of the CHRISTE ELEISON which suggest a congregation getting out of phase in prayer.

In contrast the GLORIA is a freely evolving dynamic structure and it is obsessed with bell sounds. The crowd rhythms of the CHRISTE supply some of the material for the brass’s bell like cacophony and the chorus’s climatic outbursts. At the close after the Amen the chorus shouts this rhythm to wildly exultant brass ‘changes’, over-running the cadence just as they do in the GLORIA of the MISSA SOLEMNIS.

The train of processional paragraphs in the SANCTUS form a rhythmic paraphrase of the KYRIE decked out with fanfare motives, the PLENI SUNT COELI and first HOSANNA weave a climax from a complex web of mensural canons on a two-part theme suggested by the BENEDICTUS which is a further paraphrase of the KYRIE. This provides the only extended unaccompanied writing for chorus in the work and they are frequently divided into eight parts. The second HOSANNA reverses the textural procedure of the first, unwinding from sic-part density to a final lone tenor phrase.

The AGNUS DEI introduces a note of passionate protest, and a new sound in its amplified version of the Christe’s crowd rhythm, the other sings in Latin, alternating between slowly changing six-part chords and sections of short motives. The brass supply a dense background of fanfares related to the SANCTUS which melt into patterns of isolated notes in free rhythm. A dramatic silence precedes a series of outbursts corresponding to the traditional second AGNUS and the accumulated tension explodes into the DONA NOBIS, the whole choir now singing, which provides a varied repeat of the opening KYRIE ELEISON.

PHOENIX MASS was first heard in a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on 2 October 1973 given by the BBC Chorus and the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, conducted by John Poole.