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New Mass for Abbey’s 450th celebrations

Wednesday, 16th June 2010

New Mass for Abbey’s 450th celebrations

Bell Mass by one of Britain’s pre-eminent composers, Julian Anderson, which was commissioned by the Dean & Chapter of Westminster as part of the celebrations to mark the 450th anniversary of the Abbey's Collegiate Charter receives its first performance at the Abbey on Tuesday 29th June at 5.00pm.

The Choir of Westminster Abbey, directed by James O’Donnell, Organist & Master of the Choristers, with organist Robert Quinney, Sub-Organist, will perform the new Mass at a Sung Eucharist marking the Abbey's patronal feast day, St Peter the Apostle. Its first concert performance will take place three days later on Friday 2nd July.

The Mass is a missa brevis and is in five movements: Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. The moods of each movement are closely prompted by the sounds, meanings and implications of the texts. Throughout the composition of this work, bells – their sonorities, overtones and the tradition of change-ringing – were very much in the composer’s mind, and much of the harmony in the work was derived from listening closely to bells, in particular the bells of Westminster Abbey with which the composer became very familiar as a pupil at Westminster School.

Julian Anderson was born in London in 1967. He was educated at Westminster School and Cambridge University. His music has been performed by many of the world’s leading orchestras and ensembles, and notable commissions have included works for the BBC Proms, the London Sinfonietta, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, with whom he was Composer in Association from 2000-2005. He has held teaching posts at the Royal College of Music and Harvard University, and is currently Composer in Residence and Professor of Composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

James O’Donnell, Organist & Master of the Choristers, said:

It is always exciting to work on the first performance of a new piece of music, particularly having also been involved in discussing it with the composer from the earliest stages. It seemed utterly appropriate to ask Julian Anderson to compose a new Mass for the Abbey's 450th anniversary celebrations; as an Old Westminster, he knows the place well and it was good to invite a former member of the Collegiate Foundation to compose a new work for this occasion. In rehearsals so far, the choir and I have found the Mass challenging and also fascinating, with some quite new sounds and ideas, inspired largely by the sounds and character of bells and demanding a good deal from both singers and organist. We are all immensely looking forward to both the first liturgical performance and the first concert performance.

All are welcome to attend the Sung Eucharist on Tuesday 29th June at 5.00pm. Entry is at the West Door of Westminster Abbey.


Julian Anderson in conversation with James O’Donnell

James O’Donnell, Organist and Master of the Choristers interviews composer Julian Anderson about his new work, Bell Mass which receives its first performance at Westminster Abbey on Tuesday 29th June at 5.00pm followed by a concert performance on Friday 2th July. The new work has been commissioned by the Dean & Chapter of Westminster to mark the 450th anniversary of the Abbey's Collegiate Charter. 

1. This is your first commission for Westminster Abbey. How does it feel to be following in the footsteps of Purcell, Blow, Handel, and the many other illustrious composers who all wrote music for the Abbey?

I am delighted to have been commissioned by the Dean & Chapter to compose for this special anniversary. I have known James O’Donnell for a long time and used to worship in the Abbey when I was a pupil at Westminster School. Indeed, one of my main memories is of the loud Abbey bells ringing during classes.

2. What has been the particular inspiration for this work?

I was inspired by the space and height of the building and have tried to capture these aspects in the sound of the piece, and also in the sections when individual singers chant at different speeds lending a kaleidoscopic effect. I was also inspired by the Abbey bells, which suggested to me fresh forms of melody and a new kind of melodic writing – a new simplicity and stillness.

3. When did you start composing and what influenced your development?

I started composing at the age of eleven. I was bored to death with playing football and tried to avoid it, so I would fill the two hours by making up music in my head and then writing it down. The major influences on my musical development include the composer Olivier Messiaen, Gregorian chant, the Blues, and of course the sound of bells.

4. What is the hardest thing about being a composer? 

Deciding what comes next in the music at any point; plotting the course of a piece of music. Why does this come next and not that? Why are you going where you’re going? What do you do with the sounds? Repeat or not? Doing “just anything” isn’t interesting.

5. What is your favourite place in Westminster Abbey?

I love the 15th-century altarpiece by Bicci di Lorenzo in the Lady Chapel.  It is one of the finest examples of its type and I love its beautiful medieval imagery.

6. How do you feel when your music is played in a place like Westminster Abbey?

I like the fact that it’s a space “set aside” for something special in life – not for making money or for other ephemeral pursuits. It means a lot for my music to be performed there. In a way it belongs there; much music is spiritual and it’s good for it to be performed in a spiritual place.

I would also like to add that in my opinion the Abbey Choir is one of the best in the world and I’m delighted to be to be working with James O’Donnell, Organist & Master of the Choristers.

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I feel very privileged to work here. I take so much pride in working for a beautiful place like the Abbey, it’s unique.

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Alex - Abbey Marshal

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