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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.