Matthew Brown Composer


Mass for the Wives

Driven by a range of emotions throughout much of the time of composition, I wrote Mass for the Wives primarily as a mark of respect for the wives of Henry VIII. I’ve read books, seen film adaptations, and most recently a television documentary presented by the historian Lucy Worsley which highlights some of the differences between the wives and the way history often remembers them.

I don’t think I’ve ever been inspired to write music about such a theme before, and so this work is quite a significant one for me. The music itself is unrelated to the music of 16th Century Great Britain.

Mass for the Wives is scored for an ensemble of violas with a cello part as the bass and strictly a solo violin. There are four distinct movements, where movement one is separated and movements two to four are linked and flow from one to the next. The solo violin appears only in the fourth movement.

  • Movement I:- After a fierce opening of violas spread across the register, strongly in the key of E minor, we hear a soft unison murmur of violas which I found myself writing having recently listened to an example of something similar when I heard Hymnus Paradisi (1936-1938) by Herbert Howells. Both examples use E natural minor.
  • Movement 2:- I began with a theme derived from the plainchant idea but used different notes! What is initially a rather haunting lone viola solo becomes the material for a luscious melody, with a rich accompaniment in the key of E flat major.
  • Movement 3:- Though linked to the previous movement by the common tone, C, the change in mood is dramatic. In this movement the violas are tremelo throughout, giving way to the cello. Build mostly from seventh chords in the melody and accompaniment, there is no actual cadence.
  • Movement 4:- Beginning with the tremelo texture from the previous movement, I like to think that the opening is both haunting and beautiful. After a substantial introduction, the solo violin is heard for the first time in the work, playing a distinct and contrasting theme. Once fully established, the ensemble gradually comes together with increasing vigour and passion. The solo violin finally fades into the background and the violas fade too. I think of the violin partly as a reference to Kathryn Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII who survived him, yet died soon after his death.