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:

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

Gloria
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

Alleluia
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.

Amen
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.

The problem with the problem with “And with your spirit.”

The new English translation of the Roman Missal is not without problems. There is much to recommend about it, and much to be concerned over. While I have chosen, after some early hesitation, to be a supporter (in my limited way), I have no doubt that most of those who feel called to publicly speak about their concerns are doing so sincerely.

However, I find some of their tactics (if you can call them that) and specific issues of concern to be seriously unhelpful generally, and (in some cases) particularly harmful to the cause of progressivism and liberality (a cause generally supported by critics of the new translation).

The type of frequently-raised issue that concerns me the most is the raising of conern over “too literal” Latin translations of specific phrases. I’m not talking about the stilted rhythm of translated Latin grammar, sometimes found in the Collects, Prefaces, and other longer prayers.

I’m talking about the phrase which has almost come to define the translation saga:

And with your spirit.

The problem raised is never bad translation or stilted poetry, but rather theology, ecclesiology, and (something like) pastoral sensitivity. “We don’t really think of (whatever) that way, so we shouldn’t translate it that way.”

This came up (yet again) in a recent Table Article:

But it [Eucharistic catechesis] does not supply a convincing reason why, for instance, “and with your spirit” is a better reply to “the Lord be with you” than the present form, “and also with you”. In the absence of any explanation for that and similar linguistic infelicities, people will feel bemused and no doubt somewhat irritated.

(BTW: “infelicity” is an odd word choice to describe literally faithful translation).

The writer here, and many other similar critics, act as if there needs to be a better reason than “that’s what the Latin says” in order to translate this very simple phrase. And others have argues that the new translation doesn’t really match present thinking in the Church about something.

But there’s a real problem with that: How exactly can you (sanely) argue that “the Church” doesn’t really think or beleive something that is said over and over in its ritual prayers for two millenia?

They argue that way because in the back of their minds (or the front, sometimes) they know or suspect that “And with your spirit” is related to a certain brand of clericalism which they decry, and which they think the Church has or should have moved away from.

But this is a serious tactical error on the part of progressivism.

By claiming that fidelity to the official Latin text is not a good enough reason to translate something, by demanding a well-thought-out theological rationale for this phrase, the critics are forcing the conservative defenders to spell out exactly what the liberals feared: an ultra-orthodox, cleric-centered justification for “And with your spirit.”

The progressives have then ceded control of the conversation, letting the traditionalists and reformers of the reform set the agenda for interpreting what the Mass is and what it is about.

Imagine you are asking a wise old Buddhist to explain some point of his doctrine, which you know little about. The old man speaks only Chinese, and you do not- so you brought along two interpreters who know Chinese very well and also practice Buddhism.

The old man says that the wisdom is just like a… a something. The two translators each say a different thing. One translates the word as “flower.” Wisdom is like a flower. The other says that the old man said wisdom is like a weed. You ask the old man to explain the saying, but he just smiles and shrugs.

You ask the first translator to explain. “Wisdom,” he says, “is like a flower because it is beautiful. It is good for looking at, but it dies very quickly.”

You ask the second translator to explain. “Wisdom is like a weed,” he says, “because it is everywhere. Always right where you don’t want it. And it is impossible to kill.”

While you’re pondering which of these ideas is true, the old Chinese master leans forward and says in English, “the word I said was flower. Weed is a very bad translation.”

Now, he could have meant that Wisdom is like a flower because they come in lots of different colors. He could have meant that they keep blooming no matter how many times you prune them back. Or that flowers and Wisdom are both useless. Or hard to cultivate. Or any number of things which could have mirrored or diverged from the philosophy of either translator.

But who’s interpretation are you now going to think is “right?”

And what if the seond interpreter tried to justify himself by saying, “Yes, well. Buddhists used to teach that Wisdom died quickly because the Buddha didn’t want us to attend to temporal things. But now, after the cultural shifts of the last 50 years, in response to changing attitudes towards Buddhism among the young, in English we translate the word to ‘weed’ because it better expresses are modern tend away from elitism and alienation.”

The old master repeats himself, “The word is flower. In India, flower. In Japan, flower. Vietnam, Korea, flower. And English-speaking Buddhists who split off 400 years ago- they also say flower.”

The old man still hasn’t interpreted the proverb for you – two lesser minds have offered their understanding. They could both be wrong. They could both be right. But, what would you think was the truest interpretation of the proverb’s meaning?

What about if you got an encyclopedic dictionary of Chinese linguistic history, and found out that the word the old man used definitely means “flower,” and has never, in history, been used to mean “weed.” And then, just for good measure, did a little more research and found out that the original proverb in Sanskrit also used the word, “flower.” And then you found out that translating the word into “weed” was started by a committee in the 1960s, many members of whom weren’t even Buddhists. What would your opinion be about the second translator, and his statement on what Buddhists beleive about Wisdom.

If progressives want their theological ideas to survive and influence the thinking of future generations of Catholics- whether about the nature of God, the Church, the priesthood, or anything else- they cannot yoke those ideas to a translation which was clearly incorrect in reference to the original.

And clearly, the incorrect ICEL version is not required in order to have a progressive understanding of the Mass or Liturgy. Every philosophical and theological position possible, from extreme orthodox to damn heretic, exists among every liturgical-language groups, including those who only ever experienced Mass in Latin. Progressivism is not unique to English-speaking Novus Ordo folks.

Those who have a problem with the way conservatives and neo-trads are doing liturgical theology these days need to come to terms with the new translation, especially with those sections where it is the most faithful to the Latin, and they need to find a way to ground their theology ever more firmly in the original and authentic prayer texts of the Church.

Shaker Mass Update

I’m almost finished with my new Mass setting inspired by Shaker chants and spirituals.
Few noteworthy things:

Reviews of Mass Settings with New Translations – WLP’s New Settings

Finally, the long awaited conclusion to my series of reviews of new settings of the new translations of the Ordinary from the “Big Three” publishers.
Unknowingly, I saved the best for last.

(GIA settings here, and OCP settings here).

Please note, I have only been looking at new settings, not revised settings. Also, (for the sake of disclosure) please note that WLP was the only major publisher to actually reach out to me and send me scores and so forth. I believe, however, that my more positive view of their offerings was not influenced by them being nice to me.

Links to all of WLP’s New and Revised Mass Settings can be found here.
(There’s something wrong with the styling on that page, and if someone sends me a corrected link, I will update here.)

So here we go…

Mass of Grace – Lisa Stafford

I’ve been looking forward to this setting ever since Jeffrey Tucker mentioned it in our interview. It is chant-inspired (Diet Chant!), which is, right out the gate, a good thing in my view.

The Kyrie is simple and straight-forward, if a little boring. That last point is not really a criticism, since I have yet to hear a Kyrie that was both “exciting” and actually appropriate.

This setting includes a setting of the Asperges Me, which is pretty outstanding in and of itself. It’s not amazing, but it’s nice and it’s easy to sing.

There are two (musically related) settings of the Gloria, one with a refrain and one through composed. This is a fantastic idea. Also, this is the first (yes, the first) refrain-style setting of the new Gloria text I have heard that I actually liked. It’s very nice, and the Psalm-tone-like verses are excellently set down. The through-composed setting I do not care for as much, but it is certainly not bad at all- and the perusal score make an amazig sugestion: try singing it antiphonally. What a wonder.

Since I have received a bit of criticism of my reviewing methodology after the GIA and OCP posts, I have actually taken more time to listen and read-through this score (and the rest of them), so I actually am familiar with every movement of this setting. But I have to say about the same thing for each movement: Nice. Nice. Decent. Not amazing, but nice. The strength of this setting is not that Lisa Stafford is a fantstic composer (she might be, I have no idea). This is not incredible, amazing music. It is good music- strong, sturdy, easy to sing, easy to learn (that is mentioned all over the marketing material), and is intended to adhere closely to the ritual needs of a contemporary, but solemn, vernacular Mass with a congregation that wants to sing. It can done unaccompanied (my preference), or with either an organ or piano- this means it could serve as a common setting at a parish with three or four different “styled” Masses on the Sunday schedule, and even at a daily Mass without an accompanist.

(Side note: Given the simplicity of the accompaniment, I rather think chord symbols would have been easy to add and helpful for some congregations. Also, what I’d really like to hear from this setting would be a choir singing the written accompaniment without instruments (it’s mostly homophonic) which the congregation sings the melody. I think that would be lovely.)

It is solemn without being boring, easy without being trite, chant-like without being foreign. This setting is exactly what many Catholic parishes need right now.

Mass of Awakening – Scott Soper

So- this is really cool… The CD (and website sales page) for this setting includes two recordings of every movement: One labeled “Traditional Style,” the other labeled “Contemporary Style.” Just from a marketing standpoint, this is brilliant. Now, of course- they mean something different by “Traditional Style” than I do. I would mean unaccompanied chant, they mean organ and big choir (and handbells and brass), as opposed to piano/guitar/winds/ensemble (Contemporary Style). Still- this is really great as it shows the different options available, and also shows how a single Mass setting can “unite” a parish with differing musical forces/styles at different parishes. (I have heard that the reason Mass of Creation was so successful is that it was written intentionally to be ensemble-size flexible.)

(Side note to the producer of the “Contemporary Style” tracks: A bit more sustain pedal on the piano would have been more authentic. Also… I don’t think anyone plays guitar like that.)

Anywho…

I like this setting.

The Kyrie is musically intersting, contemporary in style, and appropriate to the liturgical action at this point in the Mass. It is chant-ish in its melodic structure, and very singable.

I really like the Gloria. It is refrain-style (I know, know… that’s a downer for some of you), but the refrain is actually worth singing several times over, and each verse is scored differently in a way that makes musical sense to separate them the way a refrain does (like a classical use of the ritornello. I particularly like the change in modality in verse 2.

The Gospel Acclamation is musically very nice, although I (personally) prefer a bit less to-do for the Gospel Acclamation (I program unaccompanied settings exclusively in my parish work). The Sanctus is also very good. I usually pull away from elaborate (over-scored, overly festive) settings of the Sanctus, because they usually seem foreign to the Eucharistic Prayer. I’m thinking my reaction there may be tied to the length of the piece (syllabic setting and tempo) and also the length of the introduction (how long from “this hymn of praise” to the hymn of praise actually being sung). I say that because I don’t get that discomfort with this setting, even though it is very “done up,” both in its writing and in its scoring/recording. Even with all the exciting goings-on, the singing is straightforward and the piece moves right along. The same thing could be said for the other acclamations and the Amen.

The Lamb of God is nice, and I particularly like the choral writing in the response, but I wish it was scored that way the first and last time as well. This setting (like many others) includes an option of using many Christological invocations in place of “Lamb of God,” a practice which is specifically disallowed. Interestingly, though (and unintentionally, I imagine) this setting provides a way to follow the rule (only say “Lamb of God”) while dealing with the reality of needing to make the Agnus Dei last for a longer period of time: the 2nd and following invocations have a slightly different melody than the first and last. This provides a musical clue that we have, indeed, arrived at the last repetition.

Overall, I really like this setting. It is absolutely contemporary in style (Folk-born Contemporary Catholic… not Contemporary like P&W), so my traditionalist readers will just want to skip on by this one. Also (and I think this is true of a lot of “big” settings) this setting is very “festival,” if that makes sense to you, and I think it’s energy might be a bit much for Sunday-after-Sunday use throughout a long season. I might only program it (for example) during for the Christmas season, the Easter Season, or perhaps the Ordinary Time between Christmas and Easter.

But this is one of the best (maybe the best) contemporary-styled settings I have heard. So those of you (like me) who love Catholic Contemporary music, but are increasingly frustrated by the trite, the banal, the childish, and are looking for a shining example of excellent music in this genre- this is the Mass setting for you.

Thank you Scott Soper!

Missa Simplex – Michael O’Connor, O.P. (inspired by Gloria Simplex by Richard Proulx)

Yet another excellent setting from WLP.

It’s hard to really talk too specifically about the individual movements of this setting, as they all sound very similar- they are each based on the same single piece of music, and so the same melodies, the same harmonies, the same phrasings get used over and over. The upshot of that is sort of the opposite of my GIA favorites: a setting that works very well in an actual liturgy but makes a horrible car-ride CD. (BTW: That’s how it is supposed to be.)

This is a wonderful setting that is also chant-inspired and yet contemporary. It is through-composed, rather than Psalm-tone-like (although there is a fair amount of what I would call recitative. The melodic material is not chant, though- it is folk. I think this is a very good thing: it brings the practical aspect of chant (good for public prayer, good for prose texts), without the alienating foreignness of the modes and typical Gregorian melodies. (I know that’s a big down-side for my chant-loving friends). The text setting is excellent, which should be more normal (don’t most of these composers speak English?) but sadly is somewhat rare.

This is a really wonderful setting, and I think would serve well in most parishes. I particularly think that a Music Director who is trying to move a typical parish toward more solemn Mass music, but does not (or can not) plan to go all-Gregorian, would find this an excellent step in the right direction, or even a decent place to stay for a while. Also, I think this setting is durable enough to last for a long season (OT from after Ascension to Advent) without wearing out its welcome.

We were all saddened by Richard Proulx’s death last year. This setting is a wonderful tribute to his legacy.

Mass of Wisdom – Steven Janco

The recordings of this setting also offer both a contemporary and a traditional orchestration. So apparently this is part of a wider-campaign on WLP’s part to be awesome and useful. (In contrast to some other publishers, which are frequently neither.)

The Kyrie has two options: one with invocations and one without. Most settings do one or the other, but not both- so that’s a plus right there. Also (like most of WLP’s settings) both English and Greek are provided in the score. The Kyrie sounds oddly familiar (in a good way), and is both contemporary and simple. I can’t imagine using the provided scoring for woodwinds in a Mass (I just feel like maybe the Kyrie should be a bit more subdued), but the writing there is really nice and would sound wonderful if you chose to use it.

The Sprinkling Rite music (The Waters of the River) is excellent. It’s fun, it’s full, and I think would be easy to learn and perform. I think it would be well-liked. It’s choral, American-sounding (contemporary white Gospel) with a soloist singing verses over a SATB refrain (which the congregation is supposed to sing along with, although I’m not sure about that). I don’t think, though, that it makes a lot of sense to use it for its intended purpose. Unlike most of the other parts of the (OF) Ordinary, the liturgical action at this point is not “singing or speaking the given text,” but rather the sprinkling itself- the singing being an accompaniment/enhancement to that action. For this reason, I’m not sure a piece of music which draws as much attention to itself as this one does would be appropriate here. However, I could see using this piece as a choral anthem or as a general song of praise.

“In response to more than a few requests, and drawing upon my own experience as a parish music director, I’ve written a through-composed Gloria.”
I love that his reason is not “That’s what you’re supposed to do” (which is basically true), but rather “because it’s demonstrably better, and also people like it,” which is just awesome. The setting itself is really neat. It’s also very large. Even if you were to strip away all the scoring (which you’d almost certainly do in a normal parish on a normal Sunday), it has a big, concert-feeling just to the melody alone. When you add in everything else that you could, it’s one of the best big-contemporary-festival-Cathedral-concert settings (for lack of a better word) I’ve seen, and it reminds me of Rutter’s more exberant pieces. This is the sort of setting I really want to hear on Christmas or Easter morning. I’m unsure about how I would feel about even a stripped-down version on a week-after-week basis. I think it would depend a lot on the musical-culture of the parish generally (I’m sure any parish that had Steven Janco as its music director would be into it).

The Gospel Acclamation is excellent as music, but it’s more like music for a Gospel Parade than for a Gospel Procession. (I mentioned earlier my preferences on that.)

The Holy Holy, while very exciting to listen to (and probably a lot of fun to sing), is just way too much- too long, too complicated- for its liturgical function. My impression here is that the Eucharistic Prayer (perhaps the most important series of words ever spoken) is being interrupted by a concert piece. The other acclamations are disturbing in a similar way, and the Amen is almost frightening. The Lamb of God is not as bad, but it’s getting there.

Musically, I like this setting, but I have strong reservations about it’s use in normal parish life. Unfornately, I don’t think anyone out there is doing Contemporary-styled Concert Masses, as I think that would be the best venue for this work. But if you really like it, my advice: use the Kyrie and do something else for the rest of the Ordinary. Save the Gloria for Christmas morning (and hire an orchestra).

Mass of Charity and Love – Steven C. Warner

This setting is based on the hymn-tune CHRISTIAN LOVE by Paul Benoit. I wish that hymn has been included with the Mass in the recordings and score. (Oh well).

The Kyrie is simple, stright-forward, and a little boring. But it’s also solemn and easy to sing, so no complaints there. It is given without any invocations (my preference, BTW).

The Gloria is alright but not great, and the text setting is a bit weird in a few places. I think the melodic material is perhaps not that well suited to the structure of the prayer.

There is no Gospel Acclamation included- which is really more “right,” as the Gospel Alleluia (or Tract in Lent) is actually part of the Proper, not the Ordinary, of the Mass. (I don’t think most Catholic musicians know that, which is pretty sad.)

The Sanctus is similarly uninspired, and again the text setting is tough (“Blessed” as a single-syllable… no). The rest of the acclamations and the Agnus Dei have the same problem. I think perhaps I just don’t like the original hymn-tune.

(Update: That’s actually not the case. Apparently, the tune is based on the Gregorian hymn Veni Redemptor Gentium, which is really nice.)

Overall- this Mass just sort of bores me.

Mass of St. Ann – Ed Bolduc

While there are a number of “Contemporary” settings available, most of them are folk-based-Catholic (which isn’t exactly contemporary). This is the first I’ve seen (are there others?) which is specfically in the Praise & Worship style (which is actually Contemporary). I think if word of this setting gets out, it will become very popular.

The Kyrie (free of invocations) is very nice. The composer has found a way to be meditative within the pop style and the result is very prayerful.

Once again, the Gloria is given in a refrain-style setting and a through-composed setting. The writing here is just very exciting (I think the P&W crowd uses the word “uplifting”). Given the specific needs/habits of the P&W crowd, I imagine the refrain-setting would be more useful. Thankfully, the refrain here is actually worth singing four times. Also, I have to comment on the text setting: I was not at all sure that this new translation would fit contemporary styled-music very well. Mr. Bolduc does an excellent job with this, it sounds completely natural and idiomatic to the genre.

The Gospel Acclamation is (as with most of these) a bit much for its liturgical use. I think it would be more than excellent, though, repurposed as a general song of praise. (And introduce a Gregorian Alleluia into your LifeTeen Mass… they’ll love it… trust me.)

The Sanctus is weird to me. I could get over my usual thing about over-done Sanctuses (Sancti?), but this is one is just… I don’t know… odd. Perhaps, it’s actually a bit too short for its style (P&W music usually goes on and on with a lot of repeats). Perhaps it’s the out-of-character 16th-note pickups to “Hosanna.” I think the ending is also very abrupt. Whatever it is, it’s just not quite working for me.

On the other hand, the other acclamations are musically very nice, and (in the context of the style) work very well. I particularly like the melody and I find it to be very singable. However, the Amen is just too much. Way too much.

The Lamb of God is nice, but a bit generic-sounding as compared to the first two movements and the Mystery of Faith acclamations.

If you’re not into the style, or think it’s not appropriate for Mass, this review hardly matters to you. For the rest of you: this setting is very promising. I think the Kyrie and the Gloria are excellent, and if I was running doing music for a P&W-styled Mass, I would definitely use them. I’d hate to lose the Mystery of Faith acclamations, but I think I would look for a different setting of the Eucharistic Prayer sections (or write something myself designed to fit, so I could use the part I like here). I could take or leave the Agnus Dei, depending on if something better was available.

Summary:

Several people mentioned that WLP’s settings were the best of the Big Three. That certainly turned out to be true.

WLP embraces a diversity of styles within Catholic liturgical music. GIA and OCP do also, but the new Mass-setting offerings (and the hymnal output) from OCP and GIA has made me quite worried about even the idea of contemporary liturgical music. WLP has restored my belief in the possibility and power of diversity within the unity of the Roman Rite.

I know nothing at all about the goings-on or the motivations behind the decision making at any of these publishers, but I get a sense from their output that OCP and GIA are committed to “diversity” and contemporary music styles because of their perception of market demand, while WLP is committed to diversity (no scare-quotes) and contemporary styles because of an actual belief in catholicity. I think they really “mean it.”

New Mass Setting Reviews: Missa pro editio tertia, Chris Mueller

I was recently made momentarily famous by Jeffrey Tucker, who first linked to my blog, and then interviewed me, on the Chant Cafe.

In an attempt to cling desperately to that shred of notoriety, I put out a general call that I would be more than happy to review any other new Mass settings for the new translations. Even though I write about liturgy and music, compose new settings and write hymn texts, apparently I am most famous for making snap judgements over the work of other, better composers. Ah well.

After making that general request, I got an email from Chris Mueller asking me if I would review his Missa pro editio tertia.

General Characteristics

The Mass is scored for SATB choir (unaccompanied ideally) and also includes optional scoring for Unison with Organ. The style is clearly Sacred Choral, with a contemporary harmonic sensibility (Contemporary in the Art Music meaning, not Contemporary like Pop).

It’s really beauitful.
Chris Mueller definitely knows how to write some gorgeous music.

That out of the way, let me talk for a minute about the only “problem” with the setting (if you could even call it that) and then come back to what’s so lovely about it.

Not Congregational

Naturally, there are many schools of thought about just how much singing the congregation should, could, or wants to sing in a Mass. My opinion (the Ordinary belongs to the people) is really just one among many legitimate options. Moreover, different types of Masses, on different days, in different places, for different occasions, have different musical needs.

So, you may find this to be a weakness, a strength, or really neither, but- This Mass does not strike me as something a congregation is going to sing. The composer includes a Unison/Organ setting, ostensibly for the purpose of a cantor leading a congregation. But I find it really weak that way. The beauty of this work is the choral writing. Besides, I just don’t think a congregation is going to sing this the way they would sing a plainchant Ordinary or one in a popular style.

Ridiculously Beautiful, though

I don’t really know how else to say it. The music is gorgeous. The writing is as good as anything from the big-name choral composers. Except, I think, it’s actually better than that because it’s clear (at least, to me) that the composer has a Catholic liturgical grounding, as opposed to, say, a musical sense geared for concert performance or to the traditions of Anglican church music. Even though I believe this music is decidedly not congregational, it is still devotional in nature, something I usually would not say about even the most beautiful contemporary choral art music.

Kyrie

The intoning of the Kyrie by a solo singer is reminiscent of chant (I don’t know if the melody is wholly original or if it is borrowed from a chant source).
The response for each call flowers into quite stunning choral harmonies that actually made me tear up a little the first time I heard it.

Gloria

As it was with the Psallite Mass, it’s hard to talk about this setting wihout mentioning the new translation. The new Gloria text goes beyond a word or phrase having changed- the structure of the Latin poetry is restored. New settings which notice this structure, and work with it, get my strong vote of approval.

This setting certainly “gets it.” The composer used the natural sense of the short, litanic phrases (“We bless you, we glorify you” etc) to inform the musical structure, without becoming too choppy (on the one hand) or attempting to string them into a longer, more “classical” melodic line (on the other). This is writing in the spirit of Palestrina: using the full range of contemporary theory and technique, but subordinating that skill to the needs of the text. It’s a glorious thing to hear.

Sanctus

The first thing I noticed about this movement was the amount of space I feel in the first “Holy.” The sound is open and giant. I’m reminded of the feeling (not the sound, just the feeling) of a Copeland suite. Also (oddly) of the “Echo” Chorus from Dido and Aeneas.

The second thing I noticed was that the music clearly fit (my understanding of) the text, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts.” (See my rambling explanation of this in the Psallite Mass Review). I still don’t know if my understanding of the Latin/Hebrew grammar is right, but at least I’ve found one composer who shares it.

Beyond that I’m having trouble finding more ways to say “I really love it, and think it’s really beautiful.”

Agnus Dei

The Agnus Dei is remarkably comforting. Yes, I find myself thinking, You have taken away the sin of the world. I know You will have mercy, even on me.

I said this disparagingly about a pop-based setting, but now I find myself making the same analagy in a complimentary way: The feeling here is reminiscent of the “3/4s piece” in a musical theatre work. That’s a song about three-fourths of the way through the show that is intended to reassure you that the exhausting journey of the show is almost over, and that everything will be alright in the end. The final battle (or whatever) is still to come, but you should know it’s going to be alright.

When this is done in a cheezy or cliche way, it’s really inappropriate to worship. (If it works, it’s emotional blackmail. If it doesn’t, it’s cartoon music.) But here it is happening unselfconciously. The composer isn’t trying to make you feel any particular way (I don’t think), the composer is simply providing you an opportunity to ponder the great mystery.

Because of him kings shall stand speechless;
for those who have not been told shall see,
those who have not heard shall ponder it.

Overall Thoughts

As I said, it is my opinion that this is not congregational music. And I think the only weakness in it is the composer’s non-acknowledgement of that fact. I don’t know if he really thinks that could be sung by a congregation, or if he is just feigning ignorance because he knows everybody wants music that the congregation can sing. Tough to say.

I, for one, found myself rethinking my own strong bias against a non-congregational setting of the Ordinary while listening to this work. The usual answer from people who do not care for/about congregational singing is that the people should “actively listen” and that “actual participation” involves interior meditation, not outward activity (such as singing).

Well- I wouldn’t go that far. As I said before, I think the Ordinary in particular belongs to the people. However, in some situations (touristy cathedrals, solemn “High” OF masses, etc- not to mention concerts and concert Masses) I can imagine a desire and/or a need to have a good choral ordinary. This first Mass settings I’ve heard that, to my ears and heart, sounds like it would fit the artistic needs of a choral ordinary while actually serving the needs of a praying congregation beyond the usual beautiful “earwash” mood music.

I compared the setting to Palestrina earlier, and I would extend that comparison further to Byrd’s few-voice Masses. I don’t mean that comparison musically (apples and oranges, really), but rather in the spirit of the thing: this music sounds new. It is not a copy of some earlier, falsely venerated style. But it’s not new for the sake of new, either. Here we have a very gifted composer (who should be more famous, by the way) marrying his craft to the needs of the liturgy and, more, to what I can only assume is his very deeply held personal faith.

I’d like to extend my gratitude to Chris Mueller both for writing this setting and for asking me to review it. It was a pleasure.

You can listen to samples from this setting, and purchase scores for your own parish use, here.

Sanctus – New Setting of the New ICEL Text – Missa Sakanala

I’m not done with the whole setting, but I think I may be soon, so I thought I’d let people see and hear the Sanctus from my Missa Sakanala.

The Mass is based on (inspired by… copied from…) early American Chant, particularly Shaker chant. Many people are aware of Shaker songs, but fewer seem to be aware of their chant tradition. I find it quite refreshing and wonderful, and I really think this (rather than pop/rock) is really what is meant by “enculturation.” The idea here is to keep the inherent solemnity and simpleness of Latin plainchant, and yet write in a music (melodic) idiom that is not quite so foreign to contemporary American ears.

The name of the Mass setting is Missa Sakanala. (UPDATE: Actually, that’s not true anymore. See below.)

Sakanala is, according to Shaker tradition, the name of an angel who delivered to one of their members a lengthy message about God’s protection over their community through all strife. The tune of the song forms the basis of the Sanctus melody, and the story of the original text is (while I don’t believe in Shaker cosmology) appropriate to our time- indeed, to all time.

I hope you enjoy.

UPDATE!
Under advice from my wife and Fr. Anthony Ruff, I have changed the name of this setting to Mass of the Blessed Fire. Please take a look at the website for this setting and sign up to get email updates about its completion.

New Mass Setting Reviews: Psallite Mass, At the Table of the Lord

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.

Overall Style

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.

Kyrie

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.

Gloria

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.

Creed

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.

Sanctus

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.

Anyway…
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.

Final Thoughts

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.

This is, by far, the best new setting of the Ordinary I have heard or seen since the new translations were announced.

Reviews of Mass Settings with New Translations – OCP’s New Settings

The second in a series that started with the GIA settings of the New English Ordinary. These settings, all new compositions published by OCP, can be found here.

Belmont Mass – Christopher Walker

The Gloria (or “Glory to God,” as it is labeled) is fine piece of work. Straightforward, chant-inspired, a bit contemporary. The organ seems a bit like overkill, but that could certainly be a matter of taste. The Sanctus (“Holy”) is very nice as well. The Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) is a bit long and boring, even in the context of a mass described as “Style: Chant.” I did not care for the Our Father at all- it seemed oddly sentimental, and reminded me a bit of the type of choral music in early Disney films (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty). That might just have been the harp.

Overall, this seems like a very nice setting for a parish that likes organ music already, and is trying to move towards a chanted mass but is a bit skiddish about unaccompanied music or has some hostility toward “Chant.” It would also be worthwhile for a parish or small cathedral that wants to sound “High Church,” but simply doesn’t have the time/talent to do a full (SATB) choral setting of the Ordinary.

Excellent work, Mr. Walker.

Mass of Christ the Savior – Dan Schutte

There were three styles of “folk Catholic” that developed during that genre’s heyday. The hum-n-strum guitar stuff from the mid-1970s gets the most attention (positive and negative), and that is the music most closely associated with Dan Schutte. The second style is the faux-Cathedral choral music, which developed more in the mid 1980s, and (if I have my timelines right) peaked in the early 1990s. This Mass setting is firmly rooted in that later development: big choir, organ, trumpets, strings- but still with a very singable melody and a contemporary feel. (The third style is the world-music trend of Iona and late David Haas).

I found this Mass to be very easy to listen to- quite nice musically. It would present a pretty exciting and worthwhile musical challenge to a parish choir not used to a big choral ordinary. It is a bit over-composed, though, and I think it would get really tiring week after week in Ordinary time. Best venue: a large suburban parish that likes contemporary liturgical music, during the Easter Season.

Mass of New Life – Scott Soper

This Mass attempts the style I just described of Dan Schutte’s new Mass, but Soper simply does not handle it well. The tunes are tedious, the harmonizations overwrought, and the orchestration seems schizophrenic. I am not a fan.

Mass of Renewal – Curtis Stephan

This Mass is well written, but I’m a bit conflicted about the style. It’s a big soft-rock ballad, the kind you write when you have a choir of notable celebrities singing about ending the war or believing in yourself. I’m just not sure that’s the rigth atmosphere for the Mass. Beyond that, I simply can’t imagine how anything like an average church can pull this off. Even if you have a full praiseband (hmmm), the scale of the instrumentation and the productino values on the recording basically dooms you to “this doesn’t sound as good as I remember it.”

If you like this sort of thing (and I have to admit that I do), buy the CD and keep it in your car. But don’t inflict it on Sunday worshippers.

Mass of Spirit and Grace – Ricky Manalo, CSP

I have to confess, I have never really cared for Fr. Manalo’s music. Every piece I have ever heard from him has seemed a bit weak, a sort-of lilting, easy to get through music that neither requires nor delivers very much. This Mass feels the same way. A lot of noise, a lot of triple meters, a lot of layers of (probably synthesized) strings and brass and woodwinds which all seem to attempt to distract you from the fact that the melody just isn’t that good.

On a personal note- I spent time in a parish staffed by Paulists (Fr. Manalo’s order). I am quite sympathetic to what seems to be a common progressive theology and ecclesiology among the order. But liturgy at the parish was a disaster. For example (and here’s the tie-in), we did Manalo’s “Come, O Spirit” as the Sequence at Pentecost. This piece, while based on the Sequence text, is not the sequence- it is neither proclamatory (for the congregation to hear the text) nor supplicatory (prayer directed at God), but rather a sort of easy-listening pop-song with a religious text that might give you a warm fuzzy feeling, if you like that sort of thing.

Mass of St. Francis Cabrini – Kevin Keil

I just don’t get this Mass setting. It seems designed to be as boring as stodgy as “folkies” think Chant is, but without being anything like Chant. The organ drones away (not literally) on square-metered minor chords while a choir of what sounds like sad Episcopalians uses their “legitimate voices” to screach out the oh-so-predictable SATB harmonization. I’m not sure who this is written for: the chant and polyphony crowd surely won’t find it solemn enough, and it pretty much exemplifies why the contemporary-music crowd hates the organ. Maybe you can find an Anglican-Use parish that really hates happiness.



Mass of St. Gregory the Great – Luke Mayernik

The name of this setting makes a promise linked to the musical genre with the same namesake. I’m sure Gregorian purists would find much wrong with this setting, but I think it’s got a lot of promise.

The Kyrie (in Greek!) opens with just the slightest flavour of Renaissance polyphony, and then proceeds into chant-inspired, but wholly contemporary in feeling, choral writing with very decent organ accompaniment. The Gloria went on a bit too long, and I don’t understand what seemed like made-up words for the Lenten Gospel Acclamation. The acclamations for the Eucharistc Prayer are lovely, but I have a hard time imagining an “average” choir doing a particularly good job. Same with the Agnus Dei, which reminds me a lot of the popular British choral writing of the 1970s and 80s (John Rutter).

The real gem here is the Kyrie, and there’s no reason you couldn’t do just that with another setting for the rest of the Ordinary.

Mr. Mayernik is young (about my age, I think) and I’m sure that his output in the coming years will be stellar, especially as the Kyrie here hints at what I hope will be a way to musically bridge the “old guard” (contemporary music, progressive theology) with the new movement in the Church (traditional music and liturgical orthopraxis).

Mass of St. John – Bobby Fisher

This has the out-dated “folk mass” feel that even the most of the folkies are starting to get tired of. The Gloria sounds, quite literally, like the rousing opening number of a theme-park pavilion show. (You know it’s going to be bad when the snare drum hit is the first sound of a track). The Gospel Acclamation sounds the same as the Gloria (exactly the same). The Lenten Gospel Acclamation feels as far removed from Lent as I can imagine.

The theme-park pavillion show thing pretty much sums up the entire experience, including the changing of style and feel as the Mass goes on, to match the “placement” of each piece in time, corresponding to a typical musical/emotional arc of a theatre piece. A deft music director could select just the right four songs to go along with this, and you’d almost have a whole production for Sunday.

Mass of St. Paul the Apostle – Christopher Walker

This setting simply does not work nearly as well as the other Walker setting reviewed above. It’s in the faux-Cathedral style I mentioned for the Schutte setting, which Walker helped pioneer. He has a much better control of the genre than Mr. Soper, but this setting suffers from some overwrought choral writing and an ill-advised attempt to emulate dance rhythms. One of the things that really confuses me is the insistence that this Mass (like ALL settings from the major publishers) is geared for congregational singing and “active participation.” No one who writes contemporary music seems to want to admit, “I wrote a concert Mass.” With a change in emphasis, the basic materials of this setting could have been a really good concert Mass setting. As it is, it doesn’t do that or congregational singing very well.

Mass of the Resurrection – Randall DeBruyn

Yet another almost-High-Church setting. I’m starting to think OCP is picking up a trend toward more “worthy” music for Mass.Like the Mass of St. Paul the Apostle above, I think the composer (or the marketing department) is fooling itself into thinking that a congregation will sing this easily. It seems all the world to be a lot of well-crafted noise, with a lot of correctly-written harmonies and brass parts and all the things you’re supposed to have in a big festival-styled Cathedral Mass. But it sounds uninspired and boring.

Mass of St. Cecilia / Misa Santa Cecelia – Estela García-López & Rodolfo López

I always wonder if Spanish-speaking Catholics really want mariachi music at Mass. It seems somewhat reductive and insulting to foist this on a congregation, but who knows- it could be exactly what they want. I doubt it, though. Especially this cleanly-produced and oh-so-preciously orchestrated recording that sounds like high-quality children’s music. (A side question might be- Why does Children’s music have to sound like that?)

The Kyrie was the only piece of interesting music in this setting, and I would have been interested in hearing a Mass with the plaintive, chant-like folk singing found therein. Instead, it’s mostly Mexican band-in-a-box: as spiritually enriching as Vacation Bible School, and as culturally authentic as public school cafeteria Taco Tuesday.

Summary:

Seriously some hits and misses here, but overall it seems that OCP has a better handle on getting quality Mass settings published than GIA does. I find the incessant pseudo-High-Church style to be a funny trend (epseically when you listen to several settings in a row), but one that may eventually lead toward bridging the gap between the liturgical music traditionalists and progressives. I will continue to say, though, that I don’t think any of these settings are a good choice for the First Sunday of Advent, 2011. The ICEL chants, unaccompanied, are your best bet, regardless of your parish resources, preferences, or demographics.

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.

New ICEL Chants for the English Ordinary of the Roman Missal

Jeffrey Tucker, my new friend and leading candidate for the position of “my arch nemesis,” was kind enough to send me the entire set of the new ICEL chants that go with the new translation of the Roman Missal. First of all- thanks!

Let me preface my thoughts on the new settings with some context about me. I like contemporary music in Mass. I like pop and folk based composed through Mass settings. I generally consider myself a progressive when it comes to music in Liturgy. I do not particularly care for the new translations, and I strongly disagree with the need to implement them.

I’m saying all of that because I want my next statement to surprise you:

I think every parish in the English speaking world should start using the chants when they begin using the new texts. In fact- I think the chants are going to save the new translations.

At this point I’ll hedge my progressive street cred a bit by saying- I like chant anyway. BUT normally I would not advocate chant over other styles of music as a universal norm (I’m much more of a case-by-case basis kind of guy). Also- I’m trying (as best I can) to separate my thoughts on the effectiveness of the chants from my personal tastes.

So, let me elaborate a bit.

Part of what I dislike about the new translations is that they are (as was intended) more Latinate and hieratic. As much as “Et cum spiritu tuo” makes sense in Latin, “And with your spirit” sound ridiculous in English.

Let me correct, though- It sounds ridiculous in spoken English. As soon as I chanted it (even by myself in my apartment, hunched over my crap keyboard) it made so much more sense. (Especially the tune used in the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer).

Page after page I had that realization. These texts (in my humble opinion) are awful…. when spoken. They are lovely when chanted. (And the few that aren’t lovely are at least passable when chanted). Even my absolute least favorite line of the new text, “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…” works when chanted in a way that simply does not work spoken.

And, while I can’t be sure without hearing some attempts, I have a pretty strong feeling that these simple chants will be much more effective than composed through settings in any style (contemporary or classical). I can tell you at least from my own experience- I’ve been trying to write a Mass setting with these new texts since I first saw them and have been completely unable to do so.

I would be very sad to see a wholesale reform of the Liturgy that excludes the singing of contemporary music. However, I think that simple chant, rather than composed-through settings, is the most viable way forward for the new translations of the Ordinary. The ease of the tunes, and the nature of unaccompanied monophonic congregational singing, brings both a powerful earthiness and a solemn heavenliness that most Mass settings lack (even the ones I like). Also, their unadorned nature means they will sit well in any other musical milieu- that is (while the real champions of the chants may disagree), this will feel equally “right” sitting next to Palestrina, David Haas, or Blue Grass- something no composed-through setting can ever accomplish.

Besides their inherent quality, I also think that using the new chant settings will help everyone “reset” their brains. It’s going to be very hard to use an adapted Mass of Creation: everyone will just sing what they already know. Likewise spoken dialogues such as the preface- what’s going to stop everyone from just saying what they’ve been saying for 40 years? Having to think about a chant tune, that’s what.

Also, these chants are free to use. That’s a whole lot better than having to buy 20 more choir editions (each) of the Mass of Creation, the Mass of Light, the Mass of Glory, the Mass of Endless Descants, the Mass of Faux multi-culturalism, the Mass of White People Clapping, and all the other Mass settings your parish has been mixing and matching acclamations out of for the last decade.

So- Use the chants.

Especially those of you least likely to use them: progressive suburban parishes that don’t like the new translations. I encourage you, before you give up on the new translations, or decide to grin and bear it while you wait for the Ecumenical Catholic Church to set up shop in your home town (ain’t gonna happen), give the new chants a try. Really- I’m way more like you than I am like them- and I think they’re exactly what we need.