Mass Setting Review: Mass of the Sacred Heart, Timothy R. Smith – OCP

Over two months ago I got a nice email from a composer asking me to review a Mass setting he had composed. I told him that I have several “in line” ahead of it, and that I’m very behind (I have not even close to caught up, as you might could tell from the dates on the last few posts here). But, as he sent me recordings (hint, hint for anyone else), I was able to at least listen to them while I did other things. I listened to them right away, just to have them on in the background.

Well, I wrote him back almost immediately and let him know he had just jumped to the head of the review line. Unfortuinately, it has still taken me over two months to sit down and write.

What got my attention almost immediately was the style and the quality.

I grew up on what you’d call “Catholic folk music.” In the 1990s. I loved (almost) every second of it (musically speaking), and even now- as much in love as I have become of other, more “serious” styles- this is the music I come back to again and again in my own devotional life.

Since the first wave of new settings of the new translations started coming out, I started to listening, and writing. And despairing.

The two most inspired settings I have found so far are in styles that remain somewhat foreign to me. Chris Mueller’s amazing choral setting is heavenly, but it isn’t mine. Ed Bolduc’s contemporary “Praise & Worship” setting is also truly awe-inspiring (“GLO-RY!”), but again- as much as I like it, it isn’t really mine.

But there was nothing inspiring about the folk-styled offerings.

I have listened to the new settings from the heroes I grew up wanting to be like: Haas, Haugen, Hurd, Schutte, Walker… I’ve listened to and/or played through almost every single one. I don’t know what’s going on. Perhaps these old singer-songwriters have just run out of musical ideas. Perhaps the (supposed) ideology surrounding the new translation was joy-kill to this company of progressive-minded “pastoral musicians.” Perhaps their market-oriented publishers didn’t give them the time or the freedom to explore new things.

I don’t know.

But what I do know is that every folk-styled setting I have experienced so far has seemed boring, derivative, and devoid of passion. This fact, more than any success on the part of the “Reform of the Reform” crowd was making me hear death knells for the musical style of Catholic childhood.

Ah, but then… Timothy R. Smith writes me an email.

His setting, Mass of the Sacred Heart, is being published (I’m shocked, really) by OCP. My home parish used mostly “Breaking Bread” hymnals growing up, so I got used to having a weird sort-of ambivalence to this publisher: great music guys, now why am I supposed to buy this ugly newsprint thing every year?

So, after a being a little over-the-top in my ranting about their new Mass settings, I’m very pleased (and not as shocked as I made it sound like) that they are publishing this excellent setting. (Side note: I also want to give OCP props for making it so you can purchase and download sheet music on their site. Fantastic!) Now, if only they would promote it a little more or include it in a hymnal.

So, on to the setting.

The style is meditative folk (so to speak, I guess). It is gentle, not boisterous or overhappy. It is accessiblem singable. It is instantly familiar, without feeling old or derivative. I really, really like it.

The play-by-play:

Immediately singable. The unresolved chord at the end is wonderfully evocative. Simple, without being trite. Penitent, without wallowing in guilt.

Refrain-style. This is perhaps a downside- but refrain is excellent. Verses are not out of reach for a congregation, which is my usual big problem with refrain-style Glorias.

The musical stop (da-Da-DA-DA! [break!]) going back into the refrain is just great! But it is different in each verse. The writing works best in vs2. Perhaps using the same writing each time would have made the device more effective.

The accomp motif in the refrain almost as critical as the melody line. It is very nice.

Gospel Acclamations

Musically nice, but a weakness here is that the short “le-lu” of the second alleluia is counter-intuitive, and does not line up with the natural accents of the word. Also, the end of the versicle melody (the quick slured descent on the last syllable) seems a little forced.

Lenten Gospel Acclamation
This is constructed better than the Alleluia, but I find it difficult to want to hear this during Lent.

This is the weakest point in the setting.

Holy Holy
Simple, singable, attractive. Also, blessedly short.

There’s a certain amount of nostalgia and longing that I experience listening to this. I don’t know if it is by design- I can imagine that it is. It may simply be me re-experiencing what it was like to be learning and singing the Mass as a 90’s era Catholic youth. But I do think, at some level, Timothy Smith is trying to help us enter into the mystery of the Eucharist through a certain longing- the longing to return to the heart of God. While there is a danger here of veering too far into the sentimental, for someone of my background (and there are a lot of us, I think) it is very effective.

Memorial Acclamations
Of the three, “Save Us Savior of the World” is my personal favorite, but all three are nice. Again- the sense of nostalgia is very present. They are extremely easy to sing, and a very well suited to their place in the Liturgy.

Straightforward, easy to sing, perfectly suited to the music that preceeded it.

Lamb of God
I’ve always felt that while the “Amen” closes the Eucharistic prayer, the Agnus Dei re-opens the Eucharistic mystery for we who are about to recieve the Body and Blodd (so to speak… really it is nothing like that simple). This setting, particularly the writing in the accompaniment, does an excellent job of propelling the listeners/singers into a meditation on Who has come into their presence.

Final Thoughts
This setting is really lovely. It is certainly not as showy and flashy as (for example) the Mass of St. Anne nor (obviously) is it traditional, except for those who consider the folk-style a “traditional” Catholic musical heritage (hmmm…).

Of the settings I have had the opportunity to review (which is a lot), it is the best “inheritor” of the golden-age of Catholic Folk writing- better, by far, even than the new settings by the composers who set that standard back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

While I am an active supporter of the traditional music movement, I have said over and over that what I hope will happen is that the ancient music (chant and polyphony) will become normative again in a way that does not completely displace the music (both individual works and the style generally) that so many of us have come to love and cherish. The problem with the post-concilliar Liturgical reform was not the addition of new things, but the loss of so many old ones. I fear that the dual trends of Praise and Worship music on the one hand and Traditional Sacred Music on the other are increasingly displacing not just music (which comes and goes) but the people who sing and worship with it.

So, as we look forward, and especially as we find ways to “deal with” the New Translation, I’m heartened that there are still some composers who remember the Church that I grew up in.