INSIGHT no. 3 Prayer - for The Dunedin Consort - The People's Mass

For the third in this series of insights into my compositions, I thought it was high time I wrote about my contributions to 'The People's Mass', a wonderful collaborative project commissioned by The Dunedin Consort and released on Delphian in 2004. The label is going from strength to strength having won Gramophone award for classical music 'Label of the Year' in 2014. Many congratulations to them!

For 'The People's Mass' project, six Scottish-based composers (Malcolm Lindsay, Christine McCombe, Tommy Fowler, John Gormley, Anthea Haddow and myself) were commissioned to compose one of six mass movements to be sung SSATBarB. These were to be interspersed with plainchant and settings of poetry, chosen by the composers, that would unify and connect a thread running throughout the work.

I was thrilled that my great friend and fellow composer Tommy Fowler, had suggested that I be responsible for closing the work with my poetry setting for baritone solo and harp, 'Prayer', and my mass movement, the Agnus Dei.

I was delighted; Tommy knows my choral work going right back to the early nineties and he recognised that at the time of composing this piece, I was very well-placed to compose a fitting end to this magnificent project, which toured the major Scottish cities and through the highlands too. What an honour!

So. To select the poetry..... Something contemplative and meaningful, yet understated and gentle. I turned to 'An Iona Prayer Book', edited by Peter Millar which contained these beautiful words:

I believe that behind the mist the sun waits.                                                                                                          I believe that beyond the dark night it is raining stars.                                                                                         I believe that this lost ship will reach port.                                                                                                       They will not rob me of hope It shall not be broken, it shall not be broken.                                                   My voice is filled to overflowing with the desire to sing, the desire to sing.                                                        I believe that peace will be sown throughout the earth.                                                                                        I believe in our nobility, created in the image of God,                                                                                     

And with free will reaching for the skies.                                                                                                           

They will not rob me of hope It shall not be broken, It shall not be broken.

I love setting poetry and written words; sometimes there is such an immediacy and instant connection with the imagery or intent within them, that I often find I know exactly what to do with the words; how to set them. Harmonies, melodies, the narrative flow, the direction and conclusion are all very quickly imagined. Then comes the setting it down, phrase by phrase, so the pacing and build-up is just right. These words were a joy to set: 'the desire to sing', for example, and the imagery of ships and stars.

On the tour, the baritone solo was performed by Will Dawes; on the recording, Matthew Brook was the soloist. Both brought a great sensitivity and gravitas to the part. Helen Thomson was the harpist, playing with such delicacy and thoughtfulness.

The solo was written specifically to lead directly into the final mass movement, the Agnus Dei. 'Prayer' ends with a sense of doubt, as if the hopes yearned for may not be fulfilled. This is achieved with an ambiguous harmonic context, which resolves into the opening of the Agnus Dei. All six singers, including Susan Hamilton's beautiful soaring soprano were a joy with which to work. The Consort and the composers of this piece were delighted with the success of the work. A truly innovative way to collaborate.

It was particularly gratifying to have Prayer and Agnus Dei selected when the recording was reviewed on BBC Radio 3, upon its release.

 "Rebecca Rowe's recitative-like Prayer is both simple and passionate, and the soaring lines of her Agnus Dei emerge from a cloud of richly saturated harmonies."

To purchase:

An excerpt: