No one can accuse us of not publishing enough settings of O Magnum Mysterium – we now have no fewer than two (2) in the catalogue. The first one, which has been there a little while and was first performed in 2007, is by Edward-Rhys Harry. The second, which has been there for about 15 hours as I write this, is by John Hosking.
John and Edward are very different composers. One is Welsh working in England, while the other is English working in Wales. One is an organ specialist, holding positions in more than one place including St Asaph Cathedral, while the other is a choral conducting specialist with five choirs at his command, including the London Welsh Chorale.
So it’s no surprise that their two settings are very different from each other. To turn to the new one first: John’s O Magnum Mysterium begins with a smouldering organ introduction, with rising figures in Eb minor (Cb, please, don’t forget), which conjures up a flavour of mysticism, building as the voices enter to a climactic ‘et admirabile sacramentum’ (‘and wonderful sacrament‘). Plainsong fragments in the organ (Hodie Christus natus est and Dominum natum) help to add to the mystical sense of the piece, which finishes with a slow build-up in pitch and volume to a final, triumphant ‘Alleluia’. As so often in John Hosking’s work, the organ, and in particular the colours that come from his very carefully crafted registrations, are a headline feature.
If you thought Eb minor was a long way round the cycle of 5ths, you ought to hear Edward-Rhys Harry’s setting of the same text, which begins in Ab minor – as flat as you can go without having double flats in the key signature (and they’re not even allowed there). What is it about this text and flat keys? In contrast to John Hosking’s setting, this one is largely homophonic, relying not on a busy organist for its colour but on the exquisite harmony. It’s not difficult harmony – far from it – for the singers, and their parts move to a large extent by step above a supporting piano part, but the result is a very expressive, contemplative start to the piece. The effect is abruptly changed with the arrival of the words ‘Dominim Christum’, which are faster, louder, generally bolder and more energetic, before the piece recovers its former tranquillity for the ending.
Both pieces are being performed over the coming weeks, and I commend them to you most highly. We’ll be hearing more from both Edward-Rhys Harry and John Hosking very soon.