FESTIVAL MASS (for a cappella double choir) op.377 (April 1987)

An eight-part unaccompanied setting of the mass in Latin for SSAATTBB
Published by: Highbridge Music Ltd
Commissioned by: Donald Hunt on behalf of The Three Choirs Festival
Instrumentation: SSAATTBB unaccompanied or with optional organ
[Key to Abbreviations]
Note on Lyrics: Latin text
Duration: 20 mins
First Performance: Donald Hunt conducting The Worcester Cathedral Choir at the opening service of the Three Choirs Festival 23 August 1987
Sheet Music Available
Vocal score for sale
Organ / vocal score for sale
Recordings Available


  • 1: Kyrie
  • 2: Gloria
  • 3: Sanctus
  • 4: Benedictus
  • 5: Agnus Dei


FESTIVAL MASS opus 377 1987

Composer’s note: In 1987 Three Choirs Festival scheduled a performance of my dramatic oratorio ‘Benedictus’ in Worcester.  The cathedral choir was in particularly fine form with a wide vocal range and advanced standard and the musical director Dr. Donald Hunt, who knew that I was coming down for the performance, aksed if I would be interested to compose a new setting of the communion service for the ambitious medium of a cappella (unaccompanied) double choir. I asked the Dean if the work should be in English or Latin but he said he would leave the decision to me. Several nights later I virtually  ‘dreamed’ the intense opening Kyrie in Latin and this decided me. The four further movements followed soon after - an ambitious virtuosic ‘Gloria’, a solemn antiphonic ‘Sanctus’, a flowing contrapuntal ‘Benedictus’ in eight really separate parts (of which I’m particularly fond) and a minor-key Agnus Dei of great sadness which is redeemed by a move to the major only in the last four bars on the words ‘donna nobis pacem’. ‘Festival Mass’ was commissioned for Three Choirs Festival with financial assistance from West Midland Arts and given its first performance at the opening service of the festival in Worcester Cathedral on August 5th 1987 by the Cathedral Choir trained and conducted by Donald Hunt.

[The Benedictus was used by the composer in 1986 for a scene in Adrian Noble's film of Shakespeare's'Midsummer Dream']


9th November 2016 Choristers of King's College conducted by Joseph Fort, King's College Chapel, London University, 1.10 pm
12th November 2015 Canticum Choir conducted by Mark Forkgen, St. Paul's Knightsbridge

JUBILATE DEO (choir & organ - Opus 406* commissioned by Abington Presbyterian Church, Penn. USA 1990)

FESTIVAL MASS (a cappella 8-part double choir - Opus 377* commissioned by The Three Choirs Festival, Worcester 1987)

THE RISE OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (organ solo - Opus 532* (commissioned for Dame Gillan Weir by The Usher Hall, Edinburgh 2003)

WALKING IN THE AIR (a cappella choir - Opus 585* commissioned by the Stockholm Boys Choir 2007)


 MOTET: GOD BE MERCIFUL UNTO US AND BLESS US (a cappella choir - Opus 494 - commissioned by St. Margaret's Westminster & 1st performed there in 1996)

STILL FALLS THE RAIN (choir & organ - Opus 495* - commissioned by  Chester Bach Singers 1997)

A TOCCATA OF GALUPPI'S (solo voice & harpsichord - Opus 263 - commissioned and 1st performed by Michael Leighton Jones, baritone with Howard Blake, harpsichord, on BBC Radio 3 1978 - 1st London concert performance)

SONGS OF TRUTH AND GLORY (choir & organ - Opus 546* - The Elgar Commission for the Worcester Three Choirs Festival  2005)

* = 1st London performance

29th March 2008 Bristol Bach Chorus, conductor Peter Leech, St.Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, 7.30pm
23rd August 1987 Worcester Cathedral Choir / Donald Hunt, Three Choirs Festival, Worcester Cathedral



Howard Blake, one of this country's most versatile composers, has developed a most personal style of composition which combines contemporary rhythmic and contrapuntal elements with a great gift for melody. The development of this idiom, combined with his other pre-occupations of recent years - a search for spiritual understanding - culminated in his oratorio 'Benedictus which is currently receiving much acclaim. The Festival Mass, written for Worcester Cathedral Choit and first sung by them at the 1987 Three Choirs Festival in Worcester is a contination and elaboration of this style. The work is scored for double choir.

The Kyrie is a solemn movement based on a simple rhythmic pattern but exploring some dramatic choral sonorities The Gloria is in complete contrast: this concise movement makes use of dance rhythms exploiting the range of the voices to the full. The more restrained middle section combines two themes, one of which is heard in the Agnus Dei, with conflicting time patterns. The movement ends in unrestrained jubilation. The central point and climax of the mass is the Sanctus, a highly original conception of this powerful text. The second choir is used almost exclusively to re-iterate the word Sanctus, providing a back-cloth on which the first choir weaves its melodies as well as sometimes adding additional power to the acclamation. Benedictus is a beautiful flowing movement in which the composer exercises his contrapuntal skills; here there is no antiphonal writing, the eight voices being used in melodic independence until the final 'Hosanna'. The prayerful setting of the Agnus Dei makes much use of a sighing figure in 12/8 time, but this most significant contemporary setting ends peacefully with slow-moving chords and a return to the key of A which has dominated the Mass.

Donald Hunt, Abbey Recordikng Company (sleeve note), 1/3/1988

Related Works

'A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM' op.487 (November 1995) (Audio Sample Available)
Songs and score for a film of The Royal Shakespeare Company's production, starring Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan.

Related Autobiography Chapters

'All the Way Up', BBC Music Now and a radical change (1970)
'Festival Mass' Three Choirs Festival, 'Shakespeare Songs' and 'Robocop!' (1987)
'The Land of Counterpane' - an animated film with music (2015)

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