Will Todd: Mass in Blue – Musical Opinion
Will Todd’s Mass in Blue or Jazz Mass was written in 2003 and heard at the Barbican not long afterwards/ It is an extended setting of the Mass in Jazz style throughout. As such, it is more than an interesting experiment, but is one that, I fear, is not wholly successful as a work of art. Anything is possible in art, given the twin criteria of imagination and the ability to express that imagination in artistic language, but because something can be done it does not follow that doing it guarantees success.
The Latin text of Mass, whether rendered into English or not, lies at the heart of Christian worship, meditating upon belief in affirmation and contemplation. It is concerned with the essential mystery of Christ and His teaching and surrounds the transubstantiation which is the central act of the celebration. Such profound matters are not, therefore, to be treated lightly, but, literally, reverently, soberly, and with as full a comprehension as can be mustered of what the Eucharist is about. Will Todd’s patently jazzy music, for all its attractive fluency, simply does not begin to approach the subject matter of the words. Half a century ago, Father Geoffrey Beaumont’s Folk Mass, in rock-and-roll style, caused a much bigger sensation than has Will Todd’s Mass in Blue, largely because it was more ‘up-to-date’ for its time, musically speaking, but it has vanished without trace. Neither Beaumont’s music, nor Todd’s, possesses the original, genuinely inspired and lasting qualities that the finest settings of the text have drawn from their respective composers. Frankly, Todd’s kind of jazz music as exhibited in this work could be settings of anything; the fact that it is the text of the Mass merely makes it superficially fashionable.
The other straight works here, eight short pieces, are also intermittently interesting, but my main criticism of Todd’s choral writing is that the proceeds, in jazz or straight settings, in blocks, with all singers seemingly singing at the same time; there is virtually no counterpoint, no light and shade, no chance for any section of the choir to shine at any one time; in short, no musical inspiration.
This is a pity, for I believe that Will Todd has it within him to break through in a big way. Perhaps he needs to lighten up, or relax more in his music, to permit his imagination a greater freedom over his chosen texts. Perhaps we need a Viola Concerto from him. The performances are excellent, as is the recording.