American composer Arnold Rosner (1945-2013) was new to me, and I’ve greatly enjoyed discovering his two choral masses on a disc from Blossom Street, a chamber choir of young singers directed by Hilary Campbell, founded in York but now based in London.
Rosner was very much drawn to the polyphonic music of the Renaissance and early Baroque, and this is clear in the structure and form of the two masses here. However, his harmonic language is fascinating and within the construct of a mass setting, he manages to create some incredibly striking and dramatic moments. So his Missa L’homme armé, Op. 50 has the French secular song as its basis – as with many Renaissance masses, the tune is used as a ‘cantus firmus’, a sort of slow-moving spine, about which the other voices move, often using elements of the same tune. Things start out relatively conventionally in the opening Kyrie, although the harmonies become increasingly chromatic through the Christe and the second Kyrie. The Gloria contains a boisterous Laudamus te, with sliding, falling chromatic lines. The Credo is very dark in places, although suddenly bright at ‘Et resurrexit’, with a very dramatic Amen. The Hosanna is bouncy rhythmically, although the repeated ‘excelsis’ becomes rather aggressive, and it is in this movement that the harmonies are at their wildest. A calmer Benedictus gives some respite before the return of the Hosanna. Even the Agnus Dei is pretty full-blooded, although with a calmer conclusion.
The Missa In nomine, Op. 62 also uses a cantus firmus, this time the ‘Gloria tibi trinitas’ plainchant. Its Kyrie is weightier, perhaps even more Romantic in terms of its texture and vocal impact. As with the Missa L’homme armé, the Gloria begins quietly, but launches into a lively Laudamus te, almost jazzy in its rhythms, and reminiscent of Poulenc in places. Following its scrunchy Amen, the Credo twists and turns with chromatic rising and falling harmonies. Renaissance simplicity returns briefly but very effectively for the Et incarnatus, with a dark, slow-moving Crucifixus. The Hosanna in the Sanctusis joyfully lively and less harsh than in the previous mass, the Benedictus is beautifully plaintive, and the Agnus Dei has dark harmonic moments, before a pretty insistent, almost demanding ‘grant us peace’ to end.
Between the two masses is Peace, My Heart from Nine Tagore Madrigals, Op. 37. A setting of ‘The Gardener’ by Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore, it is lighter in texture than the masses, with lilting rhythms and contrasting groupings of voices. Blossom Street are highly impressive here in what is often very challenging music to sing, and they achieve great clarity of tone and precision in the tuning and harmonies, as well as rich energy in this frequently dramatic and fascinating choral music. Rosner wrote eight symphonies, three operas, as well as other orchestral and chamber music, and on the basis of this, he is definitely worth greater exploration.