In the late 1960s Brian
Ferneyhough was working on a setting
of the Latin mass and on two Latin motets.
Following the Vatican Council in 1965,
Latin texts were falling out of use
in the Roman Catholic Church and certainly
they were not popular with the European
avant-garde. But then Ferneyhough has
always ploughed his own, very distinctive
furrow. The complex nature of the musical
idiom of these pieces was far removed
from the prevailing British musical
aesthetic. Their religious nature was
antithetical to the European composers
with whom Ferneyhough had the most in
common. Also extremely complex settings
of Latin text were unlikely to be of
In fact the first of
the two Marian motets was never fully
finished and Ferneyhough only returned
to it in 2002 whilst he was working
on his opera Shadowtime, excerpts
from which form the remainder of the
disc. Not that these Shadowtime off-cuts
can be regarded as bleeding chunks,
both The Doctrine of Similarity and
Stelae for Failed Time are pieces
which work in their own right, free-standing
and independent. This means that on
one disc we have choral works spanning
nearly 40 years of Ferneyhough’s career.
The Missa Brevis
was written in 1968 and 1969. During
its writing Ferneyhough attended the
Gaudeamus festival. This triggered his
move away from the conservative British
establishment - Ferneyhough studied
with Lennox Berkeley - signified by
his moving to Amsterdam.
Though billed as a
choral work, the piece is written for
12 solo singers. In the Kyrie the singers
throw the individual syllables of the
text around in apparently random fashion.
This randomness coalesces into a three-choir
antiphonal format. In his introduction
to the piece the composer explains that
he only realised the need to impose
some sort of discipline on the disorderly
proliferation of voices in the opening.
The Gloria uses a lot of spoken and
whispered text, with approximate pitches
complementing the notated pitches. In
the Benedictus and Agnus Dei it is the
rhythms which are notated approximately.
By the end of the movement, the duration
is dictated simply by the capacity of
the first soprano’s lungs.
This is certainly not
a traditional Missa Brevis and there
is a sense that Ferneyhough is testing
the text almost to destruction. I would
be interested to hear how the piece
worked in a liturgical context. Ferneyhough’s
style is not easy on the ear, nor is
it easy to sing. The BBC Singers are
magnificent, though even they cannot
disguise the strenuous nature of some
of the passages. But you feel that Ferneyhough
welcomes this; that both performers
and listeners should have to work to
make the piece possible. It is this
feeling of joint struggle which gives
the piece its special nature. Perhaps
this feeling of common endeavour lends
a rather unexpectedly modern cast to
the ancient language and structure of
the Latin mass.
The Doctrine of
Similarity, for choir and ensemble,
forms the third scene of Shadowtime.
The opera is concerned with the final
hours of the philosopher Walter Benjamin.
This scene consists of 13 movements,
each one a canon. During the course
of the piece Ferneyhough explores all
the ramifications of the historical
use canons. The number of movements,
13, is a prime number and prime numbers
are important throughout the whole opera.
Charles Bernstein wrote
the texts specifically for the opera;
prime numbers dominate the number of
words per line and lines per stanza.
The texts themselves re-work a number
of Benjamin’s key obsessions but the
nature of the work means that there
is no resolution, words and music are
locked into their structure formalism.
An instrumental ensemble of piano, percussion,
violin and three clarinets accompanies
the choir. But four movements are unaccompanied.
One movement is purely instrumental
and the exact composition of the instrumental
ensemble varies from movement to movement.
As far as the canons
are concerned, there are straight rhythmic
canons, canons in diminution - a canon
where subsequent entries reduce the
note values - and canons in augmentation
- note values are increased. Sometimes
the canons are obvious; sometimes not.
The 4th movement includes
an isorhythmic motet from the Montepelier
Codex. An isorhythmic motet is one where
a rhythmic pattern is repeated in one
or more voices, so it can be seen as
a species of canon. This is a very unusual
example of Ferneyhough incorporating
foreign material into his work.
If all this sounds
strange and formalistic, then fear not.
Ferneyhough transforms these concepts
into music that is passionate and fascinating.
As in the Missa Brevis, the listener
must work to appreciate the piece. The
choral writing is more traditional than
in the Missa Brevis, but is perhaps
even more difficult; not that you would
know this from the confident way the
BBC Singers and Lontano play the pieces.
The piece is not obviously
part of an opera, but then Shadowtime
is hardly a traditional opera; the
2nd scene is in fact a guitar
The final scene of
the opera is for choir accompanied by
pre-recorded tape – sounds that are
metallic and percussive. Also on the
tape is the composer’s own voice, at
first muttering and then of greater
importance. The result is strange and
dazzling. The choir sing different texts
simultaneously and the text incorporates
a made-up language. The computer-produced
accompaniment, though pre-calulated
and generated, actually consists of
some 120 individual figures that are
cued by the conductor of the ensemble.
A brilliant combination of live performance
and pre-recorded material, typical of
Ferneyhough’s complex attitude to his
The two Marian Motets,
Ave mater gloriosa salvatoris and
Alma redemptoris Mater are typically
non-liturgical in their attitude to
the text. Alma redemptoris Mater
is a relatively straightforward setting,
though of course nothing is ever really
straightforward in Ferneyhough’s sound-world.
Ave mater gloriosa salvatoris
is more complex and you sense that Ferneyhough’s
wrestling with the text and his musical
materials were the cause of the piece
only being completed in 2002.
The disc was made in
association with the BBC; utilising
recordings made over a two year period.
This is another example of how the BBC
seem to be opening up their catalogue
The BBC Singers under
Odaline de la Martinez perform brilliantly.
They are fearless in their ability to
transform Ferneyhough’s vocal lines
into music. The disc expects a lot of
both singers and listeners. But as I
said earlier, the sense of struggle
seems to be integral to the pieces.
Don’t buy this disc if you are looking
for easy listening. But in a world where
contemporary classical music seems to
be increasingly minimal or post-Modern,
Ferneyhough’s brand of maximal modernism
acts as a beacon to us all.