for A Capella mixed chorus, countertenor solo and percussion

In 1955 Bernstein had composed incidental choral music to The Lark, adapted by Lilian Hellman from the play by Jean Anouilh about the trial of Joan of Arc. The music was deliberately written in a medieval to early Renaissance style. 

After seeing the play, the conductor Robert Shaw suggested that with some changes and additions the music would make an effective Missa Brevis, or short Mass. Thirty-three years later, in honour of Shaw’s retirement as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and with the help of George Steel, Bernstein revisited his original ideas, making additions and adjustments to develop them into a work which would be suited to performance either in church or in the concert hall.

1. Kyrie

The very brief Kyrie, for choir alone, begins with the altos, tenors and basses very quietly singing the repeated word ‘Kyrie’ on open fifths, immediately establishing the work’s medieval character. Divided sopranos, singing an octave apart, follow with ‘Christe eleison’. After repeating these bars twice more with increasing intensity, all voices come together to lead into the Gloria.

Kyrie eleison.
Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.


2. Gloria

This is the longest movement in the piece. Its harmonic language has been described as a blend of medieval and Renaissance styles with those of mid-twentieth-century America. As the choir sings ‘Gloria in excelsis’ the soloist enters with the angelic promise of peace on earth to men of good will. 

A faster section, ‘Laudamus te’, is followed by the emphatically chanted words
‘Gratias agimus’. Chiming bells accompany the ‘Domine Deus’, and after a
subdued plea for mercy from soloist and choir, the movement ends with the
bells playing fortissimo.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

Laudamus te, benedicimus te,
Adoramus te, glorificamus te.
Gratias agimus tibi
propter magnam gloriam tuam.

Glory to God in the highest.
And on earth peace to men of good will.

We praise you, we bless you,
We adore you, we glorify you.
We give you thanks
for your great glory.

Domine Deus, Rex coelestis,
Deus Pater omnipotens.
Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe.
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris.
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
suscipe deprecationem nostram.
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris,
miserere nobis.

Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dominus,
Tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe,
Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. 

Lord God, King of Heaven,
God the Father Almighty.
Lord, only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father.
You who take away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us.
You who take away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer.
You who sit at the right hand of the Father,
have mercy on us.

For you alone are holy, you alone are Lord,
You alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ,
With the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father. 

3. Sanctus/3A. Benedictus

Of all the movements, the Sanctus sounds the most medieval, employing several modal scales. After the first four bars, the soloist sings a flowing melodic chant while the choir holds a sustaining drone, the voices singing a fifth
apart. All join in richer harmonies to sing the words ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ against the soloist’s ‘Osanna’.

The Benedictus begins with the soloist singing the words ‘Benedictus qui venit…’ followed by a choral response on the words ‘Osanna in excelsis’.
The choir repeats the text prestissimo and with growing intensity,
culminating in the chiming of bells.

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
Osanna in excelsis.

Holy, holy, holy
Lord God of Hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory,
Hosannah in the highest.

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Osanna in excelsis.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. 
Hosannah in the highest.

4. Agnus Dei / 4A. Dona Nobis Pacem

The opening of the Agnus Dei is almost identical to the start of the Gloria. It leads into a peaceful section without dissonant harmonies. 

The Dona Nobis Pacem starts with a repeat of the ‘Agnus Dei’ music, after which
Bernstein introduces a six-note stepwise scale starting on C as the basis for melodic material. The following dance-like section in triple time on ‘Dona nobis pacem’ switches between two and three beats to the bar and is accompanied by improvised percussion. At the climax the soloist proclaims ‘Laudate Dominum, Alleluia’ and the work concludes with joyful Alleluias from the choir.

Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi:
dona nobis pacem.
Laudate Dominum. Alleluia. Amen

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
grant us peace.
Praise the Lord. Alleluia. Amen

Composer:  Bernstein Title of Musical Work:  Missa Brevis

London Concert Choir concerts featuring this musical work: