Reviews of Mass Setting with new Translations – GIA’s New Settings

Advent 2010 is half-over, which means that Advent 2011 is less than a year away. If you’re a choir director at a Catholic Parish, you probably are trying to figure out what new Mass settings to start using. I highly recommend the ICEL chants to start with.
All the publishers, of course, want you to sing their settings (or at least purchase them), and they are offering previews of their works online. I have listened to almost all of them.
Folks, it ain’t pretty out there.
Let’s set aside arguments about what styles and genres are appropriate for Mass. Those are worthwhile discussions in the abstract, but they obscure any discussion about the inherent merits of any particular composer’s work. I get annoyed when a Reformer of the Reform says, “This would be great in a theatre but not at Mass,” about a piece of music which would be abysmal in a theatre, a church, or anywhere else.
Therefore, I’m reviewing these preview selections on their won merits as much as possible, based on the ethos of the types of parishes that tend to use contemporary (or otherwise non-chant) music in liturgy.

This post will focus on GIA’s new settings. Future posts will deal with new settings from the other publishers, and then perhaps a look at the revised Mass settings.
Previews for GIA’s new Mass Settings can be found here.
Like I said, it isn’t pretty out there.

Mass for a New World – David Haas
The marketing blurb from GIA touts this setting’s “gospel-style” themes, calling them “memorable” and “uplifting.” I might call David’s setting here a lot of things, but “Gospel” is not one of them.
The style is pretty indicative of why I like listening to David Haas CDs in my car and while doing housework- it sounds like a parade at EPCOT Center! I’m being quite sincere here- the music is enjoyable, easy, well-scored, and well-produced. If you’re a fan of Disney musicals, you ought to pick up the CD.
As for liturgical suitability, that’s difficult here. The Alleluia presented is quite nice and could work well in a parish that likes an elaborate “Gospel Procession.” The Gloria, on the other hand, just seems to go on forever. I think I’d get bored if I had to pray the whole thing, instead of just listening to it as background music for my laundry-folding or morning commute.

Storrington Mass – Marty Haugen
The possibly-too-honest copywriters at GIA say that this setting “displays striking contrasts…within its own pages.” Yes, I should say so. Whatever the merit of any two or three-measure section, the combination of festival-style brass with folk guitar and a host of other instruments is a bit overwhelming. It’s a little like walking from one section of Disney World to another several times, each “land” having its own background music. Combined with the incessant repetition of a refrain in the Gloria, I could hardly take it.
The Lamb of God was more interesting, and could have passed as the sentimental ballad that customarily marks the 3/4s point of a romantic musical theatre piece.

The Sound of My People – M. Roger Holland II
This is being billed by GIA as “the premier new setting for African American communities,” because it “utilizes various gospel styles from deep within the African American tradition of Christian worship.” Hard to tell from just a couple tracks, but it seems like a poor shadow of real Gospel music- the kind you hear in a musical about Gospel music intended for a mostly white or suburban-black audience. It lacks the pathos and depth of any Gospel music I’ve ever heard from congregations steeped in the genre, and mostly leaves me bored. Also, the Alleluia is super long.

Unity Mass – Norah Duncan IV
Two of my favorite music-theatre composers are Jason Robert Brown (Last Five Years, Songs for a New World) and Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked, Children of Eden). The Unity Mass is reminiscent of both composers’ work, but more as a poor-copy than as an inspiration. I honestly wish I could write for piano as well as Norah Duncan IV does in the Gloria, but as long as I’m wishing, I really wish I could write as well as the composers he seems to be trying to emulate.
The marketing blurb speaks about the Mass setting’s diversity of styles (“calypso…early American… gentle lyricism”). That’s hard to gauge with only two tracks of fairly poorly sung and poorly produced recording. I love early American music, so I wish I could have heard the Gospel Acclamation. Overall, though, I’m not sure this setting will, as GIA says, “unite the most diverse assemblies.”

Mass of Joy and Peace – Tony Alonso
This setting “weaves together gentle melodic motifs and jubilant, lilting rhythmic patterns eliciting a sense of quiet joy and blissful peace.” Well, sort of. The Gloria is pretty enough, but lacking meat. Also, I’m starting to get a bit tired of refrain-style Glorias. They can work, but that better be one darn-good refrain if you’re going to make me sing it four times for no intrinsic liturgical purpose.
I’m afraid about two things concerning thins setting. First of all, I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t sound particularly good without all the wonderful instrumentation present on the recording, which is unlikely to happen in a normal parish. Moreover, even if you did it very well, it seems to give the impression that Mass is supposed to be… relaxing.

Mass for a Servant Church – Michel Guimont
I love the opening brass fanfare of the Gloria, but I wonder about how many parishes can muster these forces regularly. My sense is that this piece would be quite boring without the full orchestration. But the Gloria is a great piece of writing otherwise and would work well in a concert or at a festival mass. I quite think Anglicans would like it, also.
The Lamb of God just hit me as a bit dull and flat, unworthy music for such an exalted moment in the Mass. This makes me wonder about the rest of the setting.

Mass of Plenty – Rob Glover
The new-age drum-beat-wind-chime-piano-chord that begins the Agnus Dei made me happy. The flute part did not fail to deliver on the pseudo-tribal musical promise. The overly-scored choral part did not jibe well, though. It whisked me away from well-produced-suburban-exotica and straight into schmaltzy vacation-bible-school sing-along. Not good.
The Holy Holy was similarly disappointing, feeling for all the world like the grand finale of a very important musical about diversity and doing your best and making friends and other messages children should hear.

Mass from Age to Age – Chris de Silva
I can say little good about this setting. The writing is flat and uninspired. The Gloria sounds like perhaps it was one of the rejected options for the Gummi Bears theme song. The first few piano chords of the Lamb of God gave me some hope, but the rest of the setting just went nowhere. The clever use of Latin in the back-up vocals might have been a good idea, but the result is cluttered and hard to listen to.

Black Mountain Liturgy – Sally Ann Morris
Before listening to this setting, I was really excited about it. I love American roots music, and I think it has a solid place in American Christian liturgical worship. Sadly, from the two tracks presented on the preview page, I’m not sure if Sally Ann Morris and I are even thinking of a remotely similar musical culture.
The Gloria sounds like a bit like a bad Renaissance dance, except more forceful. And the Lamb of God opens with the (literal) theme from “Somewhere Out There” (that’s a song sung by a cartoon mouse in a 1980s children’s movie).
On the other hand, I’ve never been to North Carolina, so maybe there’s something I don’t know…

The Glendalough Mass – Liam Lawton, arr. Paul A. Tate
The Holy Holy is nice, if a bit long. It has some gorgeous moments in it that remind me of Enya. I’d like it better if it was produced by Enya’s people. Lawton and Tate’s work here is nice, but not exciting or breath-taking the way the commercial stuff is.
The Kyrie is less nice than the Holy Holy. A bit of pretty blandness.

Missa Ad Gentes: Maryknoll Centennial Mass – Michael Joncas
Musically, the light piano percussiveness of the Alleluia is quite nice. It draws the listener in right from the beginning of the track. I have a hard time, though, imagining this being used in any Roman Rite parish with even a semblance of solemnity. Beyond that, after the initial good musical idea, the piece meanders through a handful of languages and arrangement textures, becoming quite a clutter of musical noise.
The Sanctus, mostly in Latin in a sort-of High-Church choral-concert setting is quite nice, but really long. As with many of the more serious settings from the major publishers, I wonder about how commercially practical this is: the type of parish that would “go for” this long, quite glorious Sanctus )and have the ability to pull it off well) doesn’t seem likely to do this setting in its entirety and, in fact, seems likely to want to do a different, even more glorious and High Church, setting of the Sanctus.

Misa Una Santa Fe / One Holy Faith Mass – Ronald F. Krisman
I’m not sure, but I think if I were Hispanic, I might find this setting mildly insulting. It seems to be a parody of Mariachi music, dressed up in the guise of Anglican choral music, complete with a horn section that does double duty as a festival brass quartet and a Mexican party band. Maybe I’m reading too much into this.

9 thoughts on “Reviews of Mass Setting with new Translations – GIA’s New Settings

  1. I mentioned things I liked and thought were good throughout. I can’t help that the subject matter was mostly… wanting.

  2. I think these reviews, perhaps not in line with others’ views, are very honest.

    Thanks, Adam, for posting these (and also the OCP, etc.)

  3. It may be helpful for Mr. Wood to read the composer’s notes attached to my “Missa ad Gentes / Maryknoll Centennial Mass” to understand what I was asked to do. In honor of the 100th anniversary of their founding, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers asked me to create a setting of the new English texts for the RC Order of Mass. Each element was to reflect either the “American” character of the Maryknoll religious community or the cultures where Maryknoll missioners serve. Thus the a capella troped “Lord have mercy” sounds to my ear like a cross between shape-note singing and Stephen Foster; the “Glory to God” is in a Gospel style; the Gospel Acclamation (which employs an English verse and a Spanish verse — not exactly a “handful of languages”) uses a Spanish 6/8 // 3/4 rhythmic device; the “Holy, Holy, Holy”, “Memorial Acclamations”, and “Doxology/Amen” all use the same “choral-concert” style (to use Mr. Wood’s characterization) [and what makes the “Holy, Holy, Holy” long is that the choir sings in Latin the melodic material that is then sung in rote format by the congregation in English]; the “Lord’s Prayer” is modeled on Orthodox chant; and the “Lamb of God” uses an Asian pentatonic melody. Would any parish choose to use all of these styles in a single worship event? Perhaps, if they wished to emphasize the catholicity of the Church manifest in diversity of cultures. Perhaps not, if stylistic unity is prized as a method by which they manifest the unity of the Church. They might choose to use only those elements of the score that help them best engage the ritual in faith (and that may mean that they use none of it, if it is judged to be “a clutter of musical noise.”) In any event, it may have been helpful to read the composer’s notes, examine the scores, and listen to the entire work to contextualize the elements on which Mr. Wood commented.

  4. Fr. Joncas:

    Thank you for your response!

    Considerations of taste and appropriateness aside (which I will readily admit are not universal norms, despite what some may claim), I think this highlights a bit of a problem with the way the larger publishers promote the work of their composers…

    I don’t even recall if PDF sample scores were available at the time I reviewed these, but even if they were- reading through them takes significantly more time than listening to the provided sound clips. I can only work with what the publishers give me (and the rest of the public), which unfortunately was a non-complete set of recordings with a performance practice far outside that of a normal parish which might actually use them. This makes it difficult to put things into context adequately.

    Would it sound like a “clutter of musical noise” in an actual parish, or is that a by-product of the over-produced recording? Would hearing a decent (but amateur) choir leading a full congregation through the choral-concert stuff change my (or some other parish music director’s) mind about the setting? Would the “Lord’s Prayer” make my heart hurt with the beauty I so often find in Orthodox chant?

    I just don’t know. And I’m sorry that the sheer volume of new Mass settings is making it difficult to dig much deeper than a paragraph on most of them. But I think that if the publishers weren’t quite so worried about selling commercial-sounding recordings and keeping people from copying perusal scores illegally, then it would be a bit easier to for consumers to find settings that work for them.

  5. Dear Mr. Wood (or “Adam” if you would call me “Mike”):

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I appreciate the difficulty of trying to assess how ritual music might actually work in a liturgical setting from a studio recording. I join you in hoping that our publishers might make the scores and composer’s notes available for review without thereby making them available for unauthorized reproduction.

    It may interest you to know that I’ve just completed a project for LTP in which I have sung all the presidential chants in the forthcoming Missal in both solemn and simple tones as “demos” for those priests who would like to chant these texts but might not feel comfortable with their sight-reading ability. I’m sure there will be criticism of my timbre, vowel placement (I’m from Minnesota), pauses for breath, etc., but as a way of letting priests know what is possible from an average voice (like your “decent (but amateur) choir”) I think it may be helpful. I’ll be tackling the Sunday and solemnity presidential orations in simple and solemn tones later this summer. Pray for me (and those who will listen :-)!).

    Blessings on your life and work.

  6. This blog was referenced on PrayTell, so I decided to read through it. Noting your research (sound clips and sample pdfs from the websites), I cannot take these review seriously. I doubt that someone who were to offer a review on say, a book, would get far by only reading one chapter. The recordings are nothing more than a sample of how the music could be presented. The full scores, which have been available for some time now, include extensive background and performance notes. One example of the poor methodology you use: The Storrington Mass instrumentation is overwhelming with folk and brass together. Here’s a tip: If you don’t like that sound, don’t use those instrumentations together. Personally, I enjoy the effect as the guitar offers a subtle percussive effect.

    You are free to blog and review however you wish, but there is so little to go on. Voicing? Ranges? Accessibility for the assembly? etc.. etc… In my Mass setting review submitted to the diocesan worship council, I reviewed first the scores, played/sang through portions, and then listened to the recordings. I would not dare to comment on settings after seeing a handful of pages and listening to a quick sound clip.

    Regarding Disney comments – musical influence can go both ways, sacred can influence secular. You mention specifically the Lion King. The movie was set in Africa. Without a doubt, the composers set out to give the music an authentic african sound. So if certain motifs sound similar, I’m not sure what the issue is.

    I kindly recommend you head back to the drawing board and work towards more constructive and informed commentary rather than personal tastes if you wish you be taken seriously.

  7. I agree with you.

    The difficulty is, as I said before, the volume of material coming out.
    Plus, when I started these reviews, about the only thing I had to go on was a couple mp3s and (sometimes) a sample pdf score of one or two movements.
    And not incidentally- these were tracks (and blurbs and so forth) selected by the publisher as representative of the whole, for the stated purpose of music directors making decisions.

    As these reviews have gained me a small modicum of attention, WLP has taken notice and sent me full scores of over a dozen new and revised settings. Paul Ford (Psallite Mass) specifically reached out to me, and I gave his work a great deal more consideration (writing a full post on it, after listening to and studying the full score). Chris Mueller, an independent composer of great talent, has also personally reached out and provided recordings, scores, and commentary. In these cases, obviously I will spend a bit more time on the review. Fr. Joncas (Mike!) actually responded quite graciously to my not-particularly-nice review of his new setting, and I plan to write a followup now that the full score and more recordings are available.

    For the rest: I hope that these reviews are at least moderately helpful. If something about what I say strikes someone’s interest, they can go look at the actual Mass setting online. I have no obligation to GIA, OCP, or anyone else to give dozens of Mass settings a thorough study, and I frankly don’t have the time. If that makes these reviews less useful than they could be, that’s just the unfortunate circumstance of reality.

    Also- I have to say: I have found a certain benefit in a inch-deep/mile-wide view of these new settings. While sacrificing the in-depth view of the orchestrations or voice-ranges of any particular setting (which can be easily found if needed), the gain has been a certain amount of wide-angle perspective on what the major publishers are doing. This view- which I have to admit has been wholly disappointing- is important to the discussion of liturgical praxis in the United States.

    For example- you mention my repeated complaints about the “Disney” style of liturgical music. While a single instance might easily dismissed as either a coincidence or as a common-source borrowing (as in your Lion King example), the larger picture is that the publishers are pushing forward (likely based on market-demands) a way of thinking about and doing music which is decidedly theatrical, in the specific direction of mid-1990s Disney theme park music (trust me- I grew up in Central Florida- I know what I’m talking about). You might think that this direction is okay, or you might not. But we, as a community of musicians and liturgical practitioners, cannot discuss that if we are mostly unaware of it.

    Finally- I do want mention….
    I worry that the negativity in my reviews makes it seem as if I am a music/liturgical traditionalist, or that I dislike contemporary music or otherwise find the many styles of Catholic Contemporary music. (This view of me is probably compounded by my warm relationship with the CMAA, and my generally positive view of the new translations.)
    But the fact of the matter is- I love Contemporary Catholic music. I grew up on Haas, SLJs, Joncas, etc., and still regularly program pieces from that genre (along with a rather wide variety of traditional sacred music) at my present job (an Episcopal parish).
    I’m not against any particular style.
    I’m against flat, uninspired music. I’m against Mass-as-entertainment, Mass-as-concert.
    And I’m against the (too easy to fall into, even for myself) tendency to confuse the emotional manipulation of Disney-style music with actual experiences of God’s presence in the community.

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