Mass - Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971)

In his 1929 monograph on Igor Stravinsky, Boris de Schloezer wrote: 'What ought we still to expect from Stravinsky, who is today in the prime of life and the full flowering of his genius? What will his next work be? … Logically, after Apollo Mustagetes he ought to give us a Mass: but our logic is not necessarily his.' In fact, de Schloezer's prediction was not to come true for some 19 years, and Stravinsky's next religious work was Symphony of Psalms. In 1926, Stravinsky re-joined the Russian Orthodox church after being lapsed since his departure from Russia. The Catholic Mass, however, is not consistent with Russian Orthodox tradition, where music has a very particular style and place and does not always fit into the Catholic liturgical strictures of the Mass form; moreover, Russian Orthodox tradition forbids the use of any instruments as part of worship, except the voice and bells.
So, why did Stravinsky, in 1944, begin work on a liturgical musical form which was alien to his own religious tradition? The answer may be found in his Expositions, where he recounts finding some Masses by Mozart in a second-hand shop in Los Angeles in 1942. He wrote: 'As I played through these rococo-operatic sweets-of-sin, I knew I had to write a Mass of my own, but a real one'. By 'real one' he may have meant a Roman Catholic one that would allow the use of instruments – Stravinsky wrote that he could '…endure unaccompanied singing in only the most harmoniously primitive music'. Like Howells, he eschewed the decorative style and set out to write a work which would be '…very cold music, absolutely cold, that will appeal directly to the spirit'. In a conversation with Evelyn Waugh, Stravinsky noted: 'My Mass was not composed for concert performances but for use in the church. It is liturgical and almost without ornament. In making a musical setting of the Credo, I wished only to preserve the text in a special way. One composes a march to facilitate marching men, so with my Credo I hope to provide an aid to the text. The Credo is the longest movement. There is much to believe'. The Mass is written for an unusual combination of mixed choir, two oboes, cor anglais, two bassoons, two trumpets and three trombones. The Kyrie and Gloria were finished in 1944, the remaining movements followed in 1947 and the whole was published in 1948, receiving its first performance in a concert (doubtless to Stravinsky's disappointment, following his earlier comments about the sacred nature of the work) on 27 October 1948 at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan. The Kyrie contains about ten short contrasted episodes for full chorus, accompanied by orchestra. Noteworthy is the change of key and instrumentation with every episode. Modulations to at least seven keys, and shifting instrumentation between brass and woodwind add colour to this movement. The final two choral phrases are identical to the initial two.
The Gloria begins with a dialogue between oboe and trumpet.; a solo alto joins and is answered by solo treble with an inversion of the alto's theme. The choir responds with a chanted chord alternating with snatches from the duet. The movement ends with a choral Amen. Given the length of the text of the Credo, in order not to make the Mass too long or complex, Stravinsky resorts to the use of choral chant, the instruments providing background colour. The volume is at a constant piano, except at three marcato passages in order to emphasize the words Ecclesiam... peccatorum... mortuorum. The movement then moves abruptly into the canonic a cappella Amen. The oboes and trumpet declare the short-long figure at the beginning of the Sanctus; this is followed by an answer of florid chant from two solo tenors; the full chorus then takes up the short-long rhythm, which is further echoed by the trombones. This pattern is repeated twice. A four-part fugue follows for solo voices, trumpet and trombone, leading to the Hosanna. The quiet and devotional Benedictus begins and is developed and intensified to conclude with a repeat of the Hosanna. The Agnus Dei consists of three a cappella passages for the choir alternated with the orchestra. In each repeat, the orchestral passages remain the same, but the choral passage is developed firstly for the high voices, then the low voices then all together. The work concludes on a breathless, unresolved chord.

 Barry Creasy


Collegium Musicum of London


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