The Premiere and Subsequent Performances of Motet & Mass: 'O Magnum Mysterium'

Original score for alto, tenor and bass soloists and SATTBB choir. 
Transcriptions of the Motet, Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei for SSA soloists and SSAATB choir (with optional organ part), and for SSSAAA.

Premiere of the Motet:
4th October, 1969, 3pm
Wigmore Hall
Midland Boy Singers (including the composer)
Conductor Peter Grant

Premiere of the Motet and Mass:
19th February, 1977
Birmingham Cathedral
Birmingham School of Music Chamber Choir
Conductor Andrew Downes

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Photograph by Stephen McKay

More info on this work

An account by his wife and publisher, Cynthia Downes, posted on February 15th, 2018

Andrew wrote his Motet, O Magnum Mysterium, in 1969, for himself and 2 other soloists from the Midland Boy Singers.  They sang the piece in a special joint concert with the London Boy Singers in the Wigmore Hall, London, in October 1969, just before Andrew went up to Cambridge. 

I met Andrew and the choir outside the Hall just before the concert.  They asked me to attend.  It was, however, my first weekend as a student at Royal Holloway and I was nervous about being out late in the big city with the long journey by train and bus to get back to the college.  

What a shame I missed Andrew's concert... The Times wrote: "The single most outstanding feature ... was the counter tenor singing of Andrew Downes."  His Motet, O Magnum Mysterium, was described as an "imaginatively meritorious setting" and Andrew himself as "a figure to watch out for".

Programme for the premiere at Wigmore Hall

Andrew then composed the Mass during his time at the Royal College of Music, studying composition with Herbert Howells, who wrote of him: "In a quiet, but strong way, one of the most effective composers coming to me these days.  I have very considerable hopes for him."

At that time, Andrew was also singing with the group Counterpoint (2 countertenors, 2 tenors and 2 basses: all ex choral scholars from St John's College, Cambridge).  He wrote the Mass with them in mind: he scored it for himself, high countertenor, with ATTBB.  In 1975 Counterpoint, with soprano Sheila McQuattie singing Andrew's part, sang the Gloria from the Mass at our wedding.

Counterpoint singing the Gloria Andrew and Cynthia's wedding 1975

The world premiere of the complete Motet and Mass took place in Birmingham Cathedral, with Andrew conducting the Chamber Choir of the Birmingham School of Music (now Royal Birmingham Conservatoire), on February 19th 1977. 

In the very early hours of that day our first child, Anna, was born.
Andrew came back from work on the day before to find me in the early stages of labour.  Anna was a week early and I was anxiously awaiting Andrew's reassuring presence.  He drove me directly to Bromsgrove hospital, where I had a lot of help, because Anna's was a breech birth. Anna finally arrived at 20 minutes past midnight on 19th February 1977. Andrew was absolutely elated to be a first-time father, but I insisted he went back to our home to get some sleep before his big performance that evening.
My parents came to the hospital to see their first grandchild that same evening.  They were very excited.  My Dad had been all round town looking for a perfect gift for his little granddaughter and only had eyes for pink!

Andrew's first performance went extremely well.  He was able to record it for me.  I was in hospital for 6 days following the birth (able to recover while the midwives looked after the baby and gradually taught me how to do it.  What luxury that was then, leaving me with special memories of Anna's first days).

Probably, Anna's first experience of her Dad's Music was O Magnum Mysterium.

Premiere memorabilia:

In May 1977 Andrew conducted the Birmingham School of Music (now Royal Birmingham Conservatoire) Chamber Choir in further performances of the Motet and Mass in Lapley Church, Staffordshire and in Upton-upon-Severn Parish Church, Worcestershire, and then recorded the work for BBC Radio Birmingham at the Knights Templars Church, Temple Balsall, Warwickshire (broadcast on 29th June 1977).

Lapley Church, Staffordshire, performance:

Upton-upon-Severn Parish Church, Worcestershire:

BBC Radio Birmingham broadcast on 29th June 1977:

The recording of the Lapley performance was shared online by our daughter Paula in June 2020, Andrew's 70th birthday year.

I typeset this work from the handwritten score many years after those early performances and also created, from the AATTBB original, a SSAATB version of all movements except the Gloria.  (We called this version of the Mass Missa Brevis.)  This was around the time when our daughters' music teacher, Heather Fairs, retired.  Paula, Katy Pickford and I sang the Motet in my newly typeset (SSA) version at Heather's retirement dinner.

In 2006 Paula organised a concert of Andrew's choral music, including my higher voice version of the Motet and Missa Brevis, O Magnum Mysterium, in King's Chapel, Boston, USA.  Andrew and I both sang in this concert, another highlight in my life. You can hear the concert here.

1n 2017 Paula further transcribed the Mass, this time for high voices for her vocal group, the Cantabrigians.  They have sung this and my high voice transcription of the Motet in concerts in Selwyn and Trinity Colleges, Cambridge, and for the Brandenburg Choral Festival of London. She went on to create a multitrack recording and music video of this version.

Cantabrigians' performances:

In 2018 Paula went on to transcribe the Motet for SAB for the Meridian Singers for their Christmas Concert.

Meridian Singers' performance of the Motet:

I feel so thrilled that this Motet and Mass, first performed on the birth day of our first daughter, Anna, is still being kept alive by Paula, our second daughter!


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