Tom Coxhead writes about his current post-graduate research into Kenneth Leighton’s mass settings.

During my second year as an undergraduate at Durham, I worked on a project trying to make the case for classifying many British composers of the early twentiethcentury as deserving of the term ‘modern’. Britain does seem to foster an unusually hostile reception towards its native composers and so often modernism is portrayed as the domain of continental Europe, a view that seems to validate the belief that British music is not worth bothering with. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this generalisation and the tide shows signs of turning, nonetheless my academic interests are still concerned with these issues. I particularly focussed on Herbert Howells for this project and during a conversation with Paul Spicer he posited the idea of Kenneth Leighton as Howells’ “natural successor”.[1] Leighton has suffered the same fate as many English composers in receiving little attention from concert halls and festivals. Only a handful of his works are maintained by our choral foundations. This tacit relegation to a mere ‘church-music composer’ overlooks a significant output of high-quality orchestral music including three symphonies and a handful of concertos.This really has proven one of the key inspirations for studying Leighton’s music; whilst my thesis is chiefly concerned with the ten mass settings Leighton wrote, it is intended to understand them within the wider frame of all his compositions (not just choral) as well as exploring his music in the canon of English music in the twentieth century. By focusing on the ten mass settings, it allows an in-depth exploration of Leighton’s style and his response to similar texts and also appreciation of these neglected works.

The following table identifies the ten mass settings, the reason for their composition, and performance details:

Year Title Translation Scoring Notes
1949 Missa Brevis BCP SATB Unpublished.
1962 Missa Sancti Thomae BCP SSATB, Org Commissioned by Canterbury Cathedral for the 800th Anniversary of the consecration of Thomas Becket as Archbishop.
1964 Mass (Opus 44) Latin Rite Double SATB chorus and soloists, Org (in Credo only) Written for Herrick Bunney and the Edinburgh University Singers.
1965 Communion Service in D (Opus 45) BCP Unison voices, optional SATB, Org Commissioned by the Church Music Society.
1967 Missa Brevis (Opus 50) BCP SATB Commissioned by Liverpool Cathedral
1972 The Sarum Mass
(Opus 66)
BCP with two movements set from the Sarum Rite SATB, Org Commissioned by the Southern Cathedrals Festival for the 1973 Salisbury Festival.
1973 Mass for Ampleforth (Opus 67) Roman Catholic Vernacular Unison voices, SATB, Org Unpublished. Commissioned by Ampleforth Abbey.


Missa Cornelia (Opus 81) Roman Catholic Vernacular SSA, Org Commissioned by St. Leonards-Mayfield School.
1987 Missa Sancti Petri Anglican Rite B SATB, Org Commissioned by Peterborough Cathedral for the 750th anniversary of the church’s foundation.
1988 Missa Christi (Festival Mass) American Episcopal Liturgy SSATB, Org Commissioned by Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis for its 150th year.

Kenneth Leighton was one of the most distinct and original voices in the mid-twentieth century. He was also a gifted pianist and often gave performances of his own works. Leighton always described himself as a Yorkshire composer, his music embodying the regional trait of straightforwardness (or better, directness). He was also a considerable figure as a teacher, holding the Reid Professorship in Music at the University of Edinburgh from 1970 until his early death in 1988, during which time several of today’s composers studied with him including James MacMillan. He enjoyed composing in a cottage on the Isle of Arran and would frequently take his dogs for long walks in the Scottish countryside, which would give him the space to work out a tricky corner of an ongoing project. Some publications have made the mistake to assume that Leighton himself was Scottish! His love of Palestrina and Bach were well-known to his peers and pupils alike. Leighton’s friendship with Finzi, by whom he was encouraged considerably, developed after the second world war.

Born in Wakefield in 1929 to Thomas and Florence Leighton, his upbringing was unlikely for a major British composer. Leighton grew up in a modest terraced house on Denstone Street and whilst his parents appreciated music, they were not musicians themselves. Finzi visited Denstone Street in 1953 and was struck by the unassuming ‘back-to-back four roomed house in a cobbled street’.[2] The family home was a stable and supportive environment and, if a little bemused by his genius, Leighton’s parents encouraged their young son. Leighton’s father and brother both sang in the choir at Holy Trinity as did Leighton until 1938 when he was admitted as a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral. This is likely to have been when Leighton’s initial formal musical education began. The choir at Wakefield under Newell ‘Tosh’ Wallbank managed a diverse repertoire and Leighton recalled coming across not only Stanford et al but a fair amount of Elizabethan music and even carols by Peter Warlock and Benjamin Britten. It is not clear who provided Leighton with his first music lessons but he was already playing the piano in school assemblies at Holy Trinity Boys’ School, which he attended between 1937 and 1940, and it is evident that he possessed an innate musical ability. Leighton subsequently went to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School (QEGS) on a scholarship where he excelled in Latin as well as music. One of his masters at QEGS, Ronald Chapman, introduced him to much modern music including Stravinsky and Bartok. It is also where Leighton first became aware of Serialism and the Second Viennese School.

Leighton began writing down music as a means to record his improvisations but he soon became interested in the art of composition itself.Perhaps what is most impressive with the juvenilia is the evident self-discipline. Even in his teenage years, Leighton studiously works through exercises in two and three parts and hones his technical skill. Leighton kept a composition book (in fact he had three in various states of completion) and the earliest entries start at 1945. His compositions are exclusively for solo piano or songs for voice and piano accompaniment in the first few years. These early works, particularly those for the piano, do demonstrate key hallmarks of Leighton’s mature style (a rather free approach to harmony and elements of modality) but they also show the greater impression of the composers who influenced him. The early songs, which have not been published, mostly readily show the impressions of Vaughan Williams, Quilter and Parry. Some are guilty of being pastiche but it can be forgiven for a young composer still finding his voice. The songs also highlight Leighton’s interest in literature. His choice of poetry is diverse and he shows a nuanced understanding in his text-setting. So perhaps it is not completely surprising that it was Classics not Music for which Leighton was awarded a state scholarship (upgraded to a Hastings Scholarship) to The Queen’s College, Oxford in 1947.

The context of Leighton’s early life is significant considering that the Stanford-taught generation was very much at its height and that major elements of Leighton’s mature compositional style are already present in his early works, even before he arrived in Oxford. He could hardly be described as a product of the establishment, yet he was able to easily gain its respect. Leighton was by all accounts an affable man and certainly did not appear to have the chip-on-the-shoulder that Elgar had about his background. By going to Oxford, Leighton may have become part of the musical establishment, but so much of his style was formed already it would be hard to say he was necessarily a product of Oxford: the level of originality was honed rather than created by his experiences. He had already had his Sonatina No. 1 for piano published.

Leighton took full advantage of the extra-curricular musical activities at Oxford. He was an active member of the College’s Eglesfield Music Society and he continued to compose. Bernard Rose, who was Director of Music at the College, took a keen interest in Leighton’s music and convinced him to take the Music tripos. Rose was highly active in getting performances for Leighton’s music and he even performed some of Leighton’s songs himself with the composer at the piano. It was Rose who sent a score of Leighton’s Symphony for Strings (Opus 3) to Finzi in 1949. Leighton had recently discovered Finzi’s song settings and found them incredibly rewarding and inspiring. Finzi was evidently impressed enough with Symphony for Strings to invite Leighton to hear the Newbury String Players (NSP) rehearse the work. This was a watershed moment for Leighton. He had not before experienced the same quality of players perform a work of his before and he appreciated the sensitivity of Finzi’s direction and advice.[3] Finzi would have inevitably been drawn to Leighton’s well-developed handling of contrapuntal textures and linear approach to composition. Leighton was still studying Classics when he met Finzi and their extensive knowledge and love of literature was almost certainly a bolster to their friendship. Leighton’s string-writing shares many characteristics of Finzi’s, an influence that pervades even in his later works. Leighton wrote his suite Veris Gratia (Opus 9) in 1950 and dedicated it to Finzi and the NSP. It was premiered with Jacqueline du Pre playing the solo cello part .

It is slightly surprising considering Leighton’s cathedral training that it was only in 1948 that he wrote his first choral music. The Three Carols of that year included the now well-loved setting of the Coventry Carol, which Leighton later included in his Opus 25 set of Three Carols, the other two from 1948 (The Seven Joys of Mary and Sleep, Holy Babe) are assured but less inspired compositions. In 1949 Leighton penned a Missa Brevis (following the 1662 BCP order for Holy Communion) that seems to take Harold Darke’s Communion Service in F as its model and a Pater Noster,Again, both of these are rather unadventurous and, although displaying his ability to compose singable and interesting parts, unrelentingly homophonic. His development is much more discernible in his non-choral music. Evidently Leighton did not perceive his career as a composer to be one focussed on church music and after 1960 (with only one or two exceptions) all of his choral output is commissioned.

In 1951, as Leighton’s studies at Oxford drew to a close, Rose encouraged him to apply for the Mendelssohn scholarship which he won and it allowed him to study with GoffredoPetrassi in Rome. Lessons with Petrassi saw more Serialism enter Leighton’s music (although he never fully embraced Serialist principles) and a greater degree of vertical harmonic dissonance. Returning from Rome, Leighton had essentially obtained all the elements of his mature style. By this point, Leighton was receiving London performances of his music which Finzi continued to attend when he could, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams too.

Concerning the music itself, understanding that much of Leighton’s writing is instinctive and nominally improvisatory is significant. Leighton also worked bar by bar, his scores clearly demonstrating that his method for composing was to work through a piece, not to stitch disparate sketches together. This method of construction does bring about a much more literal meaning to the phrase ‘through-composed’. Very few works end in the same key (or even a related one) that they start in. As my work is chiefly analytical, Leighton’s music can be rather problematic to find a suitable way of explaining what is going on: quite often it can feel like the music does what it does because ‘it sounds like Leighton’! The fact that his harmony is broadly ‘non-functional’ (that is to say not of the traditional dominant-tonic kind of harmony where chords hold different ‘functions’) and that the tonal plots of his music are not conventional makes the usual prose commenting on modulations and key changes quite meaningless. What becomes apparent when trying to unpick Leighton’s harmonic style is the importance of voice-leading and that in fact the harmony is a product of it.The Neo-Riemannian school of analysis has proved the best fit for exploring Leighton’s harmonic language, particularly Richard Cohn’s treatises.[4] It provides suitable terminology for relating tonics (and their consequent triads) that do not bear any meaningful relationship with Roman numeral analysis, i.e. beyond dominants, sub-dominants etc., to each other. It is also to say that Leighton’s music largely eschews traditional cadences.

There are two observable styles or groups into which Leighton’s works fall. The first is what I would predominantly attribute to his orchestral music and most clearly demonstrates Leighton’s place in the canon of English orchestral composers. Here there are the essential English elements of Elgar as well as Vaughan Williams; in crude terms, one might describe it as somewhere between Finzi and Britten, and it might be termed his ‘orchestral’ or ‘lyrical’ style. The second style is characterised by its polyphonic texture. This style is the one most are probably familiar with as it seems to particularly belong to the keyboard and choral music. It exhibits the spiky qualities displayed in some of Leighton’s best-known music such as Let all the world (1965) and the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (1959) written for Magdalen College, Oxford. Of course, these two particular ways of writing do not exist entirely isolated from each other and there are several examples of switching between the two. The Mass (Opus 44) for double choir constantly begins phrases in Leighton’s polyphonic style but then adopts the ‘orchestral’ once all eight of the voices have entered the texture. The nature of the polyphonic style requires there to be something of a dominant-tonic framework in order to be convincing. The fugally-necessary melodic fourth is also present, the qualities of which make life a little easier for singers as it means the music does not exhibit quite such extreme tonal plots. Nonetheless, Leighton is able to create harsh textures but not do this at the expense of a singable line. Perhaps the best example of the ‘orchestral’ style in his choral music is in the setting of Phineas Fletcher’s poem, Drop, drop slow tears that ends his cantata written for David Lumsden and the choir of New College, Oxford, Crucifixus pro nobis (Opus 38, 1961). This is one of the few works Leighton wrote in one sitting. Its tonal plot reads a like a list of keys chosen at random. The setting of the first verse is: C-sharp minor, C Lydian, A major, F Lydian, D major/minor, B-flat Lydian, E-flat major. Neo-Riemannian analysis gives us useful handles for some of the transitions, particularly when the bass moves by a third. The creation of these dramatic tonal shifts are, as always, made up by alto, tenor and bass parts that are predominantly made up of small intervals, seconds and thirds. Stepwise contrary-motion, particularly between the soprano and the bass, signals the most dramatic of these.

Modality is also a prominent feature of Leighton’s works. Whilst used less discriminatingly in Leighton’s earlier pieces, often giving rise to ‘synthetic’ or invented modes, the prominence of the Lydian (in place of the major) and the Phrygian and Locrian (in place of the minor) modes defines much of the compositional character. Within these Old Church modes, Leighton writes almost entirely diatonically. The instability of the modal scales also provides much scope for unorthodox modulations and tonal shifts and the occasional mixing of modes provides enough chromatic interest. The Lydian mode, for example, has a raised fourth scale degree, which has the effect of trapping the music in the ephemeral space of traditional harmony during a tonic to dominant modulation. This often adds to the exciting and energetic effect of Leighton’s works particular when combined with the composer’s use of dance-rhythms and ostinato.

My aims with this thesis are, of course, not merely for analysis’ sake but to instigate a critical discussion of Leighton’s compositions, the result of which would be greater interest and enthusiasm for a greater portion of his work. I hope that by engaging with the harmony in particular, it is possible to highlight the quality and originality of Leighton’s compositional voice. In choosing to focus on the ten mass settings, I have not been able to explore Leighton’s formal organisation and structure of his compositions in great detail. His strong point as a choral and vocal composer is as a responsive text-setter and in managing to preserve a strong sense of the natural speech-rhythms. I hope my work might encourage others to explore the orchestral or chamber music in similar detail and possibly elucidate areas that my research has not allowed me to focus on.

Selected bibliography:

Binks, Adam (2001). The Development of Kenneth Leighton’s Musical Style 1929-1960 and a complete
catalogue of his compositions from 1929 to 1988.
Doctoral thesis, University of Edinburgh


Tom Coxhead is a post-graduate researcher at Durham University currently writing an MA thesis on Kenneth Leighton’s mass settings under the supervision of Jeremy Dibble. His research interests are focused on 20th Century British music especially concerning British modernism and the influence of French music.

Tom received his initial musical education as a chorister in the choir at Chester Cathedral and learnt the organ with Roger Fisher. He studied at Durham for his undergraduate degree in music and subsequently held the posts of Organ Scholar at Ripon and Assistant Organist at Brecon cathedrals. He is currently Assistant Organist of Ampleforth College.

[1] Spicer, Paul (2014). Interview with author. Durham.

[2]McVeagh, Diana (2005). Gerald Finzi His Life and Music. Boydell Press, Woodbridge. p.215

[3] Leighton’s ‘Memories of Finzi’ is available on the Finzi Trust website:—kenneth-leighton.html


[4] Cohn, Richard (2000). Audacious Euphony. OUP