Missa brevissima
Op.76 a

for SATB
5 mins.

Programme notes

Missa brevissima (op. 76a) leads a double life: it sits at the heart of a longer piece, Petite Messe solitaire (op. 76) which was written in 1997 for a French choir and congregation – the latter singing unaccompanied unison chants expressing man’s sense of loneliness in a world which finds conventional religious orthodoxies increasingly unsatisfactory and divisive. These chants are interspersed between the four movements, and then combined in counterpoint with them in jigsaw-puzzle fashion.  Missa brevissima is therefore exactly one third of the length of its parent. Apart from being more performable by British choirs, being entirely in Latin rather than a mixture of Latin and French, it satisfied my long-standing wish to write a setting of the Mass short enough to be sung in a liturgical context – none of its movements lasts longer than fifty-five seconds. It is a pocket-sized mass; hence the title. In style and approach it is quite similar to my Missa Tiburtina – although written thirteen years later.

The Kyrie is intense and anguished; the Sanctus far from saccharine (God’s glory being viewed as a thoroughly mixed blessing); the Benedictus is bouncy, with a tenor solo in the middle and a soprano solo at the end; the Agnus Dei starts on a mumbled monotone (as befits a trussed-up sacrificial lamb); but at “miserere nobis” and “dona nobis pacem”, which run into one another, we revisit the music of the Kyrie – an anguished call for assistance to a deity who is probably out to lunch.

Giles Swayne 2008


Swayne: Choral Works
Stephen Cleobury (conductor)
BBC Singers
David Goode (organ)
Philippa Davies (flute)
Classics: COLL15312
Three Shakespeare songs
Magnificat I
Missa Tiburtina
Nunc dimittis I
O magnum mysterium
Veni creator II
The Tiger
Ophelia drowning
Missa brevissima