Like the Ceremony of Carols this work is one of BrittenÔÇÖs most performed and well-loved works for upper voices. It was written for George MalcolmÔÇÖs outstanding boys at Westminster Cathedral with their distinctively bright continental tone. Many other types of upper voices have since adopted it, of course, and these days it is as much performed by women or girls, or mixed boysÔÇÖ and girlsÔÇÖ voices as by boys alone. The Missa Brevis requires three soloists, though it is possible to make it work with only two. The choir is divided into three voice parts, the third of which needs to be able to produce low As.
The work is incredibly fresh and original. Part of this is BrittenÔÇÖs organ part which is no ÔÇÿaccompanimentÔÇÖ but rather an equal partner in the realisation of the text in music. BrittenÔÇÖs direction in the Kyrie that the voices should sing ÔÇÿpassionatelyÔÇÖ underpins the approach to the performance of the whole work. It is an intensely dramatic reading of these familiar words. The grave passion of the Kyrie, the rhythmic ebullience of the Gloria with its 7/8 time signature and its colourful dynamic contrasts, the pealing bells of the Sanctus, the slow, measured tread of the Benedictus (the gentle march of ÔÇÿBlessed is he who comes in the name of the LordÔÇÖ) for two solo voices followed by the tutti for the pealing Hosanna, and finally, a rather dark and troubled Agnus Dei which impresses through its relentless intensity and its final exhausted staccato utterance of ÔÇÿdona nobis pacemÔÇÖ.
While not as difficult note-wise as the Ceremony of Carols (and being far shorter as well), there are still plenty of challenges for any group of voices that undertakes this work. It needs three really equal voice parts and solo voices that can sing with confidence and conviction. Tuning issues will also arise at key points, and the ability to tune three part chords instinctively is needed in much of the work. It also helps if the organ which plays with the voices has a suitable range of colours to realise BrittenÔÇÖs intentions.