Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Kevin Allen's Missa Rex Genitor

In his Missa Rex Genitor, Kevin Allen uses Renaissance polyphony as a model, but from the inside out rather than from the outside in. This approach is reminiscent of what Arnold Schoenberg says in his book Style and Idea, in which he argues against obsession with the surface impressions of music. Start with a good idea, he says, and the style will take care of itself. Allen has begun with a good idea and developed it in solid but not antiquated ways, and the end result is satisfying and well within a lively tradition that embraces the past and present. In this particular respect his work is more like Reger’s and Rheinberger’s and less like Prokofiev’s First Symphony or any number of the works of Perosi.

As the title suggests, Allen bases this work on Mass VI, Rex Genitor, in the Liber Usualis. In many sections, the polyphony makes use of the original chant melodies, but thankfully more by intimation rather than slavishly accurate transcription, and the harmonies venture off to interesting places without putting the piece out of reach of a group of somewhat respectable skill.  

Allen makes use of plainchant passages throughout the Mass. The Kyrie is set in a straightforward alternatim way, which is an attractive approach. Other movements are not set alternatim as such but have extended chant passages, which this writer has somewhat mixed feelings about. Chanting “cum Sancto Spiritu,” etc, in the Gloria seems to steal the momentum from the energetic passage just before it. This result would seem to be less likely if the chant and polyphony were to alternate more frequently and regularly. Or perhaps polyphony would be preferable all the way through.

In the chant passages of the score, modern notation is used. This is likely due to limitations of music publishing software. Of course, one can easily make use of square note notation from an appropriate resource---an advisable approach, given the expressive neumes which simply don’t convert very well into modern notation.

Written for two tenors and bass, this piece is perfect for a choir of limited resources, or for an occasion on which someone calls out sick. But it is too well-written to be relegated to the stack of music labeled “In Case of Emergency.” A lot of music like this tends to sound glee-clubbish, as some of this reviewer’s own work demonstrates, but the approachability of this particular piece comes not from cheapening the musical content but through the use of chant and judicious repetitions of polyphonic material, particularly in the Kyrie and Agnus Dei. It deserves a regular place in the church music repertoire, the aforementioned peripheral reservations not withstanding.