Wednesday, 9 May 2012

'Missa Salisburgensis' - baroque splendour

I was interested to read the account of the recent visit of the Papal Choir to Westminster Cathedral, which revealed in a practical way, the extent of the Holy Father’s goodwill towards our Country. Without doubt the visit was very much a personal expression of gratitude for the warm welcome he received on his visit to  the United Kingdom, and for the sacred music performed in the his presence, particularly at Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

This is the first ever visit of the Papal Choir to this country , a truly historic event, which has allowed us to hear sacred music sung by a choir trained in the European continental style, as distinct from the style and technique of Westminster Cathedral Choir, faithful to the post-war Catholic choral tradition inculcated by the late George Malcolm. 

The continental choral tradition  has been described as ‘fulsome’ in its manner of presentation,  which while creating impressive and lively sound, loses perhaps a little in purity of tone and clarity of enunciation; whereas George Malcolm insisted, among other things, on the importance of these particular qualities, delivered directly and precisely. Since then, this tradition has been honed to near-perfection, with Westminster Cathedral Choir now regarded as one of the finest Cathedral Choirs in the world. 

Moving from the 21st century to the 17th century, allows me to introduce a magnificent Baroque composition by Heinrich Ignaz Biber (1644-1704), namely his ‘Missa Salisburgensis’, composed for the great celebrations in Salzburg in 1682, commemorating the cities 1100th anniversary as a centre of Christianity, a jubilee unparalleled in the High Baroque era. 

That the papal state of Salzburg enjoyed precedence over the Habsburg emperors and bishoprics, indicates its unique importance, both spiritually and temporarily, with preparations for the ambitious anniversary celebrations beginning years before the event. 

                           Salzburg Cathedral Facade

The archdiocese of Salzburg regarded itself as the focal point of Roman and Venetian tradition, and ‘Missa Salisburgensis’ was composed not only for the glory of God, but also for the honour of Salzburg. 

There are six ‘choirs’ in all, comprising two principal vocal choruses with string accompaniment; a ‘chorus’ of recorders and oboes , a ‘chorus’ comprising cornets and trombones; and two groups of court trumpeters,’ outward manifestations of the secular power of the archdiocese, whose fanfares  represented the union between heaven and earth.’ 

The choirs were situated separately, but in complementary areas of the Cathedral, representing the ‘Choirs of angels standing upon every one of the towers of the heavenly Jerusalem, armed with all the instruments of the time, glorifying Almighty God, the Creator of all things.’ 

That is the message of this great Festival Mass, ‘the innermost concern of which, is the unification and strengthening of every section of society in the archdiocese, in the praise of God.’

 Spare a few minutes to listen to the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Gloria’ from this extraordinary work – you will be blown away – figuratively speaking, of course! I find it deeply spiritual, powerful , and very moving. 

I think that Fr Blake from St Mary Magdalen’s, Brighton, as a baroque devotee, will particularly enjoy this. What about a performance at your Church, Father, it would be a full-house, without a doubt! Sublime sacred music, composed for the glory of God, and performed for the honour of God.                                           


Our Blessed Lady, Queen of Heaven and Earth, guide and protect our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI