20 February 2011

Sunday morning in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Christ Church Cathedral in the snow last month ... the setting for this morning’s Cathedral Eucharist is Jonathan Dove’s Missa Brevis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I am presiding at the Cathedral Eucharist at 11 a.m. in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning [20 February 2011]. The preacher and canon-in-residence is the Canon-Chancellor and Rector of Rathmines, Canon Neill McEndoo,

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for the Third Sunday before Lent are Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119: 33-40; 1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48.

The Cathedral Eucharist is being sung by the cathedral choir, the setting is Jonathan Dove’s Missa Brevis and the Communion Motet is Gabiel Jackson’s O sacrum convivium.

Jonathan Dove’s Missa Brevis was commissioned by the Cathedral Organists’ Association for performance during their conference in Wells on 13 May 2009 and was first performed by the choir of Wells Cathedral, directed by Matthew Owens. This World Premiere in Wells Cathedral was followed later that month by a London premiere during the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music.

Jonathan Dove’s incomparable catalogue of more than 20 diverse operatic works is indicative of a practical and lively theatrical mind, steeped in operatic experience. In all his music, Dove has a strong desire to communicate, to entertain, and to provoke transformative experiences.

For this Missa Brevis Dove was required to address a number of stipulations:

● the music should be challenging, but not be out of the reach of a good church choir;
● it should be interesting but accessible;
● it should be economical in its proportions;
● it should be in Latin accompanied by organ.
● the composer should not have published a liturgical Mass before.

At the first performance in Wells Cathedral, it was immediately recognised that Dove had judged the work perfectly. At the conference, 25 cathedral organists signed up to perform the new work and many more joined their number soon afterwards.

Dove’s musical language has provided performers, audiences and directors with rich possibilities for interpretation; several of his major operatic works have been performed in multiple productions all over the world, and his list of commissioners includes some of the world’s greatest musicians.

His musical style is tonal, direct and has often been linked to the expressive minimalism of John Adams. But the Kyrie is quite different from Dove’s normal practice. There is more linear development, more polyphony and a greater development to a moment of climax close to the end. The organ part is minimal and uses the sustained-chord device to bind the short vocal phrases together. The effective cluster chords and their formation are reminiscent of Kenneth Leighton’s organ writing.

His Gloria is particularly minimalistic with the opening section built around two-bar repeating musical phrases with time signatures of 4/4 and 3/4 creating an unusual and unsteady 7/4 rhythmic pattern. The Gloria is something of a moto perpetuo as the organ sets up a rhythmically dancing figure. The choir sings short phrases in a variety of dynamics that do not let up on the rhythmic excitement until the words Agnus Dei, Filius Patris, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis allow the tension to relax, even though the organ keeps up the constant motion underneath.

A spectacular climax is reached at Jesu Christe, at the words Tu solus altissimus, Jesu Christe’, when Dove brilliantly throws the music into D flat major, from an A major tonality. After this, the movement dances to a brilliant ending.

Minimalist ideas continue in the Sanctus and Benedictus, which carry on the dance in a 5/8 “spirited” setting. There are some similarities with Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis in the way the organ chords build up before the choral entry. But, where Britten leads straight into bell-like writing, Dove begins with a chordal outburst for the word Sanctus and he reserves his bell-like choral writing for the words Dominus Deus Sabaoth. The Hosanna at the end brings back the opening chords of the movement.

The Agnus Dei draws on the more reflective moments of the Gloria and, like the Kyrie, cadences on a consonant chord. It is formed over an organ pedal point with a held low E and A that moves only twice during the movement, cleverly ratcheting up the tension with minimal fuss but maximum effect.

After six bars of organ introduction – a short figure played by the right hand prepares us for the choral entry – the choir sings short chordal phrases.

The introductory organ material is reduced to four bars for the next choral entry and the first pedal point move. After this, the organ’s material is reduced further to two bars and the climactic pedal point shift to C and G with the choir singing the final Agnus Dei strongly before subsiding into a mantra-like repetition of the words dona nobis pacem. It is a most beautiful and effective movement.

The Communion motet, O sacrum convivium, was composed by Gabiel Jackson for the Feast of Corpus Christi. This setting has a poise and beauty rare in choral music. Jackson uses the full sonic opportunities offered by the divided scoring, moving effortlessly from controlled meditation to ecstatic fervour, all delivered with absolute belief and clarity.

Jackson, who was born in Bermuda in 1962, was chorister at Canterbury Cathedral for three years before studying composition at the Royal College of Music. His liturgical pieces are in the repertoires of many of Britain’s leading cathedral and collegiate choirs, and in 2003 he won the liturgical category at the inaugural British Composer Awards.

Later in the day, the cathedral choir sings Choral Evensong at 3.30 p.m. The responses are Michael Walsh’s Preces and Responses, the canticles are from Hugh Blair’s Evening Service in B minor, and the anthem is Faire is the heaven by Sir William Henry Harris.


Almighty God, who alone can bring order to the unruly wills and passions of sinful humanity: Give your people grace so to love what you command and to desire what you promise; that, among the many changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer

Merciful Father, you gave Jesus Christ to be for us the bread of life, that those who come to him should never hunger. Draw us to our Lord in faith and love, that we may eat and drink with him at his table in the kingdom, where he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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