Missa Profana

2008 1 hour 5 minutes
orchestra, choir, soloists (SATB)
Text Michael Harlow

Preamble to the score:

The idea has been to write a Secular Mass, or Mass of Life. The use of the secular, in the traditional sense of pro-fana, ‘in front of the temple, in the service of the spiritual. A gigantic dance of various parts or figures. It connects to the century long tradition of settings of the mass, and acknowledges this cultural heritage by use of the mediaeval song L’homme armé, which was so often used as a bonding and unifying element in Renaissance masses; our version here is realised with the central image of “with this cloak of peace/we shall arm ourselves”… And we shall ‘dance’, “dancing on one foot/the other is not forgotten”.
Our textual version is one that celebrates the light of creation which, out of the dark of sorrow, emerges as a mass of life—where ‘the light and the dark lie down together’, as it were. Following this idea, there is the symbolic (that is to say, real) play of death and life in the figures of dark and light, light and dark, musically and textually. Just as there is the One in the many, the many in the One. The light out of the dark, the dark out of the light plays as a redemptive theme—expressed variously in the spiritual force of the natural (and human) world; a Missa Natura/Missa Profana.
In our view, themes which are missing or only sparingly referred to in the liturgical text are here introduced: as in the Gloria, for example, the ‘creation of language’ [the resonance of ‘in the beginning was the Word’, so central to any creation story]; Korimako [the Bellbird] Sings; the ‘creation’ of laughter as a celebrant affirmation and expression of life, in Billet Doux, for example (a Song Letter, if you like); and in the Kyrie the readiness and capacity ‘to risk delight’: “despite/every dark thing there is in the world,/there will always be music/…what is the name of this song?” (Canticle).
Just as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem so cleverly combines religious and secular texts, so is this an attempt to do something similar, but within a broader reach and intention. Thus, while extolling the extraordinary diversity of life (the many in the one, the one in the many) it also acknowledges death (‘there are many ways to leave the world, and return’) as an essential part of the life process. If we can’t know death how can we know life. The Ite missa est then is expanded into a Dance of Death, Dance of Life, which is the finale of the whole work.
As mentioned above, the six movements (or strophes, as in ‘turnings, a more dynamic figure) are linked together by the medieval folk song L’homme armé. This theme is used musically as a ‘Leitmotif’ and as such appears in each movement, sometimes openly but just as often ‘hiding’ or nesting in the musical texture. Its original old French text is by way of a pre-text to declare the opposite of its rather militant/bellicose sentiments—see opening Harlow versions: L’homme armé (1) of the Kyrie and the closing text L’homme armé (2) of the Agnus Dei.
The work is scored for a large choir and solo quartet (SATB), plus an orchestra of triple wind and enlarged percussion section: Timpani, Xylophone (or Glockenspiel), Piano and two other percussionists playing a variety of drums and smaller percussion instruments.
Kit Powell, Eglisau, Switzerland, January 2010 Michael Harlow, Dunedin, New Zealand, January 2010

No. 118 Missa Profana (2008 / 10 soli SATB, chorus SATB and orchestra)

Performing material: