Glagolitic Mass………….

There are certain pieces of music that on first hearing leave an indelible impression, Smokestack Lightening by Howlin Wolf, Johnny Hodges playing Jeeps Blues, Jessy Norman in Strauss’s For Last songs and not least Janaceks Glagolitic Mass, a mass like no other and often takes people by surprise when they first hear it.

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) composed his Glagolitic Mass (Mša glagolskaja) in 1926-1927 at the end of his life and during the most productive period of his compositional career. It is rightly considered one of the supreme choral masterpieces of the twentieth century and has been very lucky in recordings. However, it was not until 1994 that the whole work was actually recorded. Prior to then it was heard in its published form of 1930, which was shortened and simplified from the original composition — largely due to the perceived inability of its first performers to execute the difficulties of the score. Thanks to Janáček scholar Paul Wingfield, whose edition restores the Glagolitic Mass to its original form, it can now be heard in all its glory. It is important to remember that the standard version, even with cuts and simplified scoring, is still a very powerful work although, for obvious reasons, the original has steadily gained adherents and is now being performed throughout the world.

The main differences between the two versions are as follows: the original reinstates the Intrada movement at the beginning of the mass as well as in its usual place at the end. This gives the Mass a perfect arch form with Věruju (Credo) as its centerpiece. There are meter changes in both the Úvod (Introduction) and especially in the Gospodi, pomiluj (Kyrie) where 5/4 meter was originally conceived and then switched to easier 4/4. The Věruju movement contains the largest changes, with the orchestral middle section, the “Raspet” (an orchestral commentary on the Crucifixion), longer and more complex in the original version and containing a wild section with three sets of timpani omitted in the revised version, as well as off-stage clarinets. Finally, the Svet (Sanctus) movement is extended thrillingly near the end, reaching ever higher and higher. For a detailed analysis of the Glagolitic Mass and its versions, please see Paul Wingfield’s study, Janáček: Glagolitic Mass, Cambridge University Press, 1992..

On a personal note I have listened to a number of performances by different conductors including Sarasate, Jansons and Boulez. In the latters case he should never have been let near the score, his performance at the proms a few years ago was abysmal and did what no other conductor could do, and that is make Janacek sound dull. As an example of the work I have chosen the concluding two short movements, firstly the organ solo followed by one of the most sublime and visceral finishes to any piece of music. It is taken from a proms concert by Andrew Davis ( a much under rated conductor of Janaceks music) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra back in the year 2000.

Do seek out the full Mass and enjoy one of the greatest pieces of music of the 20th century.


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