Mass in Blue - Will Todd (born 1970)


for soprano, choir and jazz ensemble

  1. Kyrie
  2. Gloria
  3. Credo
  4. Sanctus
  5. Benedictus
  6. Agnus Dei


Will Todd is from County Durham where he sang in a church choir from an early age and became familiar with many settings of the Mass from Palestrina to Howells. He studied music at the University of Bristol and established himself as a composer in the classical tradition with a number of works, including his oratorio St Cuthbert and his prize-winning opera, The Blackened Man.
He confesses to having lived something of a double-life as a musician. On the one hand he was steeped in classical music and the demanding discipline of singing or playing the notes that are written. But in his leisure time he also loved to improvise on the piano and to play jazz with friends. The suggestion that he write a setting of the Mass in a jazz idiom came from David Temple, conductor of the Hertfordshire Chorus, who had previously commissioned one of Todd’s oratorios but knew of his other life as a jazz musician.
Despite being uncertain whether he could blend such different musical forms successfully, Will Todd took on this novel commission and wrote what was originally called his ‘Jazz Mass’. This was given its first performance in Cambridge in 2003 by the Hertfordshire Chorus. The composer himself played the piano and his wife Bethany sang the demanding part for solo soprano.
The Mass in Blue, as it came to be called, was an immediate success with choirs and audiences alike. It has been given more than a hundred performances and is now an established part of the choral repertoire.
The secret of its success lies in its fidelity to two very different musical traditions: that of the sung Mass, one of the oldest forms of European music whose evolution indeed co-incides with the development of classical music as we know it: and that of the Blues, a distinct form of African-American music that came into prominence in the nineteenth century and paved the way for jazz.
Will Todd’s Mass keeps to the text and the now traditional six-section division of the sung Catholic Mass. His only significant departure is right at the end, where the words ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (‘Grant us peace’) invite a quiet conclusion, more resignation than triumph. He departs from custom by returning to the Credo where the words affirm belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. This provides a satisfying conclusion without making the music go against the meaning of the words.
Many of the ‘Blues’ features of the Mass in Blue, such as its syncopation and the virtuosic ‘improvisatory’ singing of the solo soprano, are very familiar and need no explanation. Less obvious is that ‘Blues’ music tends to use a different scale from classical music. Classical music has major and minor keys each with seven notes whereas ‘Blues’ music tends to be based on a simpler five-note (‘pentatonic’) scale. This five-note scale, interestingly, is also found in much traditional folk music of the British Isles, North America and elsewhere.

It is easy to produce a pentatonic scale or a tune based on one by playing only the black notes on a piano. The untrained eye can see the obvious ‘gaps’ in such a  scale (between the groups of two and three notes) which give a distinctive sound to melodies based on it.

The Mass opens with an introduction from the jazz ensemble who immediately announce and repeat what will be a recurring and unifying theme of the work. It is based on one of the pentatonic scales. This theme, in a varied form that hints at plainsong, becomes the main subject of the Kyrie eleison (‘Lord have mercy …’).
The Gloria (‘Glory to God …’) has a conventional form with two similar outer sections and a contrasting central section. The choir sing a plainsong introduction in the manner of a cantor but the opening and closing sections have a Latin rhythm. The central section is a blues in 5/8 time. The main unifying theme is alluded to in the ‘Amens’ at the end.
The Credo (the Creed) also has a plainsong introduction sung by the choir in unison before it swings into a 12-bar blues led by the soloist and backed by the choir. This movement is also in three sections with a quieter second section that reflects on the birth, suffering and death of Jesus.  At this point there is a cadenza for the piano that recalls the main theme and is quoted by the choir both in singing ‘Amen’ and in repeating the word ‘Credo’. The movement concludes with a wonderful jazz chord sung by the choir.
The Sanctus (‘Holy, Holy, Holy’) provides some respite after the bustle that has gone before and is, as the composer puts it, the ‘least bluesy’ movement of the whole Mass. The pace picks up for a short section in which the prescribed Hosanna appears briefly but the quiet mood of the Sanctus returns.
The Benedictus (‘Blessed is the man …’) makes use of a form common to Blues and classical music alike, called a ‘ground bass’, where there is a constantly repeated line of music in the bass that provides a foundation for the music in the other parts. Here both the bass fiddle and the basses of the choir, whose lines are repeated every 8 bars, provide the ‘ground’. After the swinging Benedictus comes an extended Hosanna that the choir are instructed to sing ‘straight’.
The final movement begins with the band re-stating the main theme of the Mass and the solo soprano introduces the Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God …’) with some variations on it. The choir join in, mainly in a supporting role, and it seems as if the work is moving to a quiet conclusion. Unexpectedly the altos recall the Credo and the rest join in, bringing the Mass to an exuberant conclusion.

 Notes by

Stuart Brown


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