Several months ago, after my reviews of OCP’s and GIA’s new Mass settings, I got an email from Paul Ford asking me if I would review the new Psallite Mass setting.
I said I would.
And, until now, I haven’t sat down to write a review. The problem?
It was too good.
I was so excited about the setting when I first heard it, that I knew I had to write a really excellent review to make sure there was no doubt that this was a wonderful Mass setting.
But I didn’t have time to write such a long, wonderful, and specific review. So then, a few weeks later, I started to think, “Gosh- now that I’ve waited, I better make sure I write an even better review than I originally intended.”
Of course, that extra requirement made it even less likely that I would have the time to do it. So months passed. And passed.
I decided today I just have to write it. Even if it’s not going to be the most well-written review ever, and isn’t everything that this new setting deserves. It certainly deserves my best-available effort, at least.
I’ll briefly describe the style, go through the individual movements, and then wrap up with why I think it’s a great setting.
The Psallite Mass is (potentially) unaccompanied, chant-like, unmetered, and scored for SATB choir.
(I say potentially, because there is also a keyboard part and lead-sheet chords provided. A very very judicious use of piano or guitar may be worthwhile in some places. I’ll talk about that later.)
English, Latin, and Spanish are all included. I think I have heard that it will be available in other languages (maybe a commenter can add some info on that point.)
The style is essentially Psalm-tone in nature.
A repetition of the congregational response for each “eleison” provides a sort-of “back-door” restoration of the nine-fold Kyrie. Also, I’m pleased with a lack of an English alternative here (Everyone can learn three words in Greek. Also, since it was foreign to Latin speakers in the Latin liturgy, it might as well stay foreign in a verncaular liturgy.)
The melody is very straighforward, and not particularly interesting (that’s a good thing here). The choral harmonization blooms only in the last phrase, which is really pretty. The voice leading (as it is thorughout) is very clean and something about it here reminds me of Renaissance music.
This is one of the simplest and most prayerful Gloria settings I’ve ever heard. I really love it. The structure (several lines to a melodic/harmonic formula, then a new formula for several lines, etc) makes the structure and logic of the prayer text itself more apparent than any English setting I’m aware of (this is, of course, aided by the new translation). This really seems as if the music was written FOR THE TEXT (and I bet it was!).
When I first heard it, the simple melody seemed easy to sing while still being prayerful. Forgive the clumsiness of this, but: It sounds like what modern ears want Gregorian chant to sound like, except real chant never does. That is, it has the heart of chant, but is written for people still expecting contemporary harmonic/melodic vocabulary.
That’s a feeling I have throughout the piece, but it is especially the case for the Gloria.
I honestly don’t understand why people want to sing/chant the creed. I know the traditionalists are mostly really pro-chanting the creed, and obviously in a fully sung Latin Mass, it needs to be sung along with everything else.
That being said, the tone written for the Creed is very straightforward, easy to sing, and provides excellent forward-motion, so that it doesn’t feel like the Creed is taking FOREVER (which is how I usually feel about sung creeds).
This one, I could get into it. And I’m sorry that my personal bias on this point means that this is about all I can say about the Creed movement of this excellent setting.
Like everything else, very nice.
Here is probably my only criticism of the whole piece, and it may be entirely based on my misunderstanding:
I have always understood the Latin:
Sanctus sanctus sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth
as being two phrases broken thusly:
Holy holy holy…. Lord God of Hosts
That is, “Lord” belongs to “God of Hosts” (or to “God”) more than it belongs to “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
This was confused by the old-ICEL translation:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord…. God of power and might.
But is blessedly corrected in the new, actually accurate, translation.
Musically then, I would want the melodic writing to match the grammar. Which here, it does not. The writing makes the phrase, “Holy holy holy Lord… God of Hosts.”
The same thing is done in the Latin as well.
This is, however
1) Not that big a deal
2)Easily overcome by thoughtful singing
3)Possibly a completely incorrect understanding of the Latin grammar.
Otherwise, I like the Sanctus a lot.
One of my big problems with most contemporary, non-chant Mass settings (even ones I like) is that they seem to pluck the congregation out of the Eucharistic prayer for a short (or too long) unrelated musical aside. It’s almost like a cartoon joke about musical-theatre. (And it’s why there are more Mass settings that I would listen to in a car than there are ones I would program in a normal liturgy).
This Sanctus is short, beautiful, and to the point. If you were using instruments, there would be little more than a chord strum as an intro. It matches the text (almost) perfectly, and allows the people to participate (actively! fully! conciously!) in the prayer without being distracted from what is actually going on.
The Lord’s Prayer
O goodness, that’s pretty! I’m listening to it right now as I write this. So simple.
My Thoughts on Instruments with this Setting
I first learned to chant in a small chapel at a retreat center run by Franciscans. The Brother who provided music for Mass and the Daily Office accompanied Psalm Tones and other harmonized chants with a piano.
I know that there are many a purist who find piano completely out of place in liturgy. And even more who might find a limited use for it but would nix its presence for chant. (Likewise with the guitar.)
While my strong preference here is for unaccompanied singing (which, besides being the normative choice in the Roman Rite is also just unbelievably beautiful), I can definitely imagine a very restrained and unobtrusive use of either piano or guitar to accopany this Mass setting. Besides the tonal support this would provide (some choirs need it!), this could go a long way toward helping a congregation steeped in contemporary/folk/pop music transition to a more solemn (and really, more contemporary) form of sung prayer.
One of the things I like best about this setting is that it doesn’t draw attention to itself- it gets out of the way so that the people can pray. In many places, it would draw LESS attention to itself when accompanied by a piano or guitar, and I think that is a good thing.
I’m of the strong opinion that the ICEL chants are the way to begin with the new translation of the Mass. But soon after Advent 1 of this year, the words of the Ordinary will be what they are now: words we are used to saying and/or singing Sunday after Sunday. So it won’t be too long before we are all going to be wanting to select other options for our parishes.
The Psallite Mass should be near the top of everyone’s list. It is solemn, contemporary, easy to sing, inspired by chant (the official music of the Roman Rite), and just beautiful. It will (I hope, I hope, I hope) provide a bridge between the increasingly separate factions within Catholic music.
I imagine the folk mass crowd suddenly discovering that they actually like simple, unaccompanied singing. I imagine the chant-only traditionalists realizing that there are wonderful possibilities for contemporary musical sensibilities within a solemnly-undertaken vernacular liturgy. I imagine a long-suffering RotR music director at a “Spirit of Vatican II” parish secretly smiling to herself as the progressives actively participate their way through a chanted Ordinary. I imagine contemporary-music lovers getting the chant bug, and finding their way from this beautiful setting into a Latin Kyriale or an Anglican psalter.