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.

Top 10 Reasons Liberals, Progressives, and Heretics Should Sing Gregorian Chant

1. It was big in the 90s.
2. Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avilla, and every other awesome feminine mystic you like to reference (but never actually have read) prayed in Latin Chant every single day.
3. It makes Elton John sound even weirder.
4. It was big in the 70s (the 1070s, the 1170s, the 1270s, the 1370s…).
5. It’s in a foreign language. That means its exotic and awesome, right?
6. Vatican II said so.
7. Why should conservatives have all the fun?
8. You can print it in your worship aid for free (legally).
9. Less time picking out songs every week means more time for practicing the Conga Drums.
10. Bowties are awesome!

Feminist Hymn to the Trinity

I have been a little hesitant to talk about my writing of music that explores a feminine understanding of God, because I am trying to build bridges between progressives and traditionalists, and I don’t want to offend the conservatives out there, nor cause a comments war between theological factions. Also, I am loath to associate myself with some of the more ridiculous strands of feminist and liberal theology (I like to use the phrase “otherwise orthodox”).

Also, I am aware the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church has strictly forbidden use of explicitly feminine language for God in the context of the Liturgy. Please understand that I DO NOT publicly support liturgical innovation or breaking of liturgical law, and therefore do not suggest that Catholic parishes use this hymn in Mass.

That being said, not all of the readers of this blog are Catholic. I know of at least one Lutheran (my first commenter!) and a handful of Episcopalians (talk about diversity!) who might be able to sing this in their Trinity Sunday services. Even the Catholics among you might find the text helpful for personal devotions or para-liturgicals.

That being said, I felt quite inspired to write this two years ago (on Trinity Sunday) and feel now inspired to share it here, regardless of the consequences.

Any parish or worshiping community is welcome to use the text freely. I originally had the tune HOLY MANNA in mind when writing it, but other tunes would work as well. Please include the copyright notice (look down), and PLEASE leave a comment or send a personal email to let me know you are doing it.

Music for Ascension Sunday

There are some who seek to remove all vernacular hymns and contemporary music from the Mass, and return to using only the Proper chants, preferably in Latin. There are others who may or may not even know what a Proper is, but even if they did they would prefer the modern practice of replacing them with hymns and songs in the local language.

You may know by now that I try to walk a thin line between these two positions. I’m a lover of both chant (in English and Latin) and contemporary music. Like the USCCB, I find there is a strong pastoral case for vernacular hymnody, but I also think that Sacrosanctum Conciliam has been wildly misinterpreted by those who have completely banished the music of our heritage from the Liturgy.

In my (sometimes) weekly song suggestions for Sunday, I normally suggest vernacular songs and hymns relating to the lectionary readings, as opposed to the Propers. I do this for two reasons:

  1. The vast majority of parishes in the US are doing vernacular songs and hymns, and those are the people I’m trying to help out.
  2. If you are doing the Propers, you don’t need suggestions. You just do the Propers.

But when thinking about the Ascension Sunday, I couldn’t help but think that chanted Propers would be a particularly fantasic choice given the nature of the Solemnity and the texts of the Lectionary, and I wanted to expound on that thought a bit, as it may provide one more opening for chanted propers to find a way into Liturgy at your parish.

The Ascension is an event in which the Apostles (and we with them) witness the marriage of Heaven and Earth as Jesus, in His living body, is lifted from this world to His Throne. The angels come to testify to this event, asking the twelve why they are standing there “looking at the sky.” The earthy heavenliness of unaccompanied chant provides a particularly apt aural framework for experiencing this event in our present time. The otherworldliness of Chant, especially Chant in Latin, is evocative of the voice of the angels (especially since the Introit and optional Offertory are both the words of the Angels).

Gregorian chant is unmetered, that is, there is no forward movement of rhythm (of harmony, for that matter). The musical effect of this is that Chant feels set apart from Time- we do not experience the passage of time with Chant the way we do in metered music. This characteristic of Chant evokes the words of Jesus in the first reading, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.”

Another characteristic of Chant, it’s very nature as anonymously composed music of the Church (as opposed to music written by an indentifiable individual) evokes the epistle’s sanctuary not “built by human hands.”

If you are of a mind to do some Chant (or it’s close cousin, Sacred Polyphony), and have been trying to find a way to “work it in,” Ascension might provide the perfect opportunity. If your parish has never done the Propers, I wouldn’t suggest suddenly doing all of them. Since it it often the place for what the Protestants call “special music,” the Offertory is probably the best place to start. This would give you the opportunity to try out Chant in your community, and gauge its reception.

(Here is a recording of the Gregorian Offertory.)

Apart from the addition of chanted Propers, I don’t have much in the way of song suggestions for this Sunday. I highly recommend that you continue to carry forward songs from the Easter Vigil throughout the Easter season, so those choices will be very specific to your community (that’s why I haven’t been providing music selections for the Easter season- I plan to resume the practice with Ordinary Time).

If you are going to start using the Propers in Mass, I suggest you start with simple chant in English. The American Gradual or the Anglican Use Gradual are probably the best sources for chanted English propers. For the Latin chants, the English edition of the Gregorian Missal is a much more practical option than the Graduale Romanum, as it has English rubrics and translations (also, I’m currently unaware of a free, downloadable PDF version of the CURRENT Graduale Romanum).

If you are a bit more daring, and want to try some Polyphonic Propers, check out this index of Polyphonic Propers, assembled by Aristotle Esguerra. It is a growing listing of polyphonic settings of the Propers available free online. It looks to be all settings of the Latin text, and I am currently unaware of any major collection online of free polyphonic settings of the Propers in English.

My Personal Church Music Preferences

Please note!
The following has nothing to do with correct liturgical practices, or what would be pastorally appropriate in particular parish. It does not represent what I would actually do if put in charge. It does not represent my understanding of Sacrosanctum Concilium or the USCCB’s guidelines on anything.

The following is what I, personally would like to experience as a consumer of music at Mass.

Generally speaking:
1/3 Plainchant, mostly in English, sometimes in Latin
1/3 “Contemporary Catholic” music from the last 30-40 years: St. Louis Jesuits, a lot of David Haas, Dona Pena, Bob Hurd, Talbot, the Iona Community, Taize
1/3 A mixture of everything else- mostly Protestant Hymnody (especially early American), Sacred Polyphony (mostly Palestrina) and Choral music (mostly British), with a smattering of Contemporary Praise and Worship, Black Gospel, and other ethnic styles from time to time.

The choir and instrumentation:
Big choir.
Mostly piano based, with a rhythm section. It’s great if you can have a separate set drummer and hand drummer. A mandolin or other small lute instrument is a nice addition.
I usually can’t stand organ, so it would be no loss to me if there wasn’t one. (Again- this is just about what I personally like).
Most importantly, though- everyone doesn’t play on everything.
In fact- there should be a strong preference for acappella singing whenever possible, even with contemporary styles. Up to half of the music heard should be unaccompanied.

Which brings me to some specifics:

I want the Ordinary of the Mass (all the dialogues and all the acclamations) chanted, unaccompanied. In English (except perhaps the ones everyone knows well like the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei). There are some composed Mass settings I really enjoy as music, but all that stuff really clutters up what I think should be incredibly simple.

I enjoy the common “four song slots” practice- Gathering (Processional), Preparation (Offertory), Communion, and Sending (Recessional). Those would generally be the Contemporary music styles, with some taken from the last 1/3rd when textually appropriate.

In addition to hymns and songs, the Propers would be sung or chanted. For example- after the contemporary congregational singing during the procession, a Cantor or Schola would solo or lead the Introit. A similar practice would be taken with the other Propers. This would probably lengthen the Mass considerably- which would be fine with me (my preference, here, remember). Some compositional attempt would be made to connect the music of the Propers with the hymns and songs they are being paired with. That is a project I would gladly work on each week.

When the congregational communion song runs out of verses, the choir has the opportunity to sing some (textually appropriate) Palestrina or Tallis or Rutter or Faure or something beautiful along those lines. Sometimes the children’s choir sings. Sometimes we have instrumental music. This music is allowed to go on after everyone has received communion- there is no rush to get the Mass over with.

The congregation, of course, sings contemporary pop hymns and ancient chant equally well, full of joy and earthy heavenliness.

The Ordinary Form is used, and the Priest faces the people. (Prayers are addressed up and out, to God). Gestures are large- slow, and deliberate.

There is incense. There are bells at the Elevation. There are Gothic style vestments and deacons in dalmatics. Altar servers wear the traditional black and white. Processions take a long time. Everything takes a long time. There is plenty of silent space around each action, each reading, each prayer. There is no ad libbing (AT ALL), but the spoken prayers are read so sincerely that we all think they are the Celebrant’s own words. When we do clap, we clap on 2 and 4.

This wide variety of songs and styles will be very well planned out, so that it will feel like a unified whole and not a random collection of things. Great care will be taken with each element individually.

I’m probably missing some details. And I know that this hypothetical Mass would be two hours or more, and that lots of people would dislike at least 1/3 of the music. Some will call it too solemn, others not solemn enough.

I understand all of that. And again- I am not writing this to teach others about proper Liturgical programming. I just thought some of you may be interested in knowing what perfect Mass I have in my head when I dream about Liturgy.

So- rather than fill up my comments telling me that I’m wrong (since I can’t be wrong, because this was really just about what I want), I would like to encourage everyone to write about your perfect Mass.

Not what you think is right. Not what you think is Pastorally appropriate. Just, for the fun of it (maybe more), describe your ideal Mass- the Mass that would most completely cater to your needs, tastes, and desires.