Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Music of Angels

By Mitchell

Over at Stella Borealis, our esteemed colleage Ray keeps us all up to date on developments in the Catholic liturgy. Recently, Ray posted his desire for a more revenent Mass, whether it be the "Tridentine" traditional Latin Mass, or a richly celebrated Novus Ordo. I think this is something may of us hope for as an outgrowth of the Pope's recent Motu Proprio: not necessarily a wholesale return to the "old" Mass, but rather a restoration of the solumnity, reverence and rich tradition, applied to the contemporary Mass.

For many, the bane of the current Mass lies in the often banal music that is frequently heard. (See this site for an explanation, if you need one.) Ray goes so far as to remark that in his perfect Mass, "any music with music or lyrics created after 1945 would be specifically prohibited."

Now, is this possible, or even desirable? Is everything from the postwar period nothing but hopeless dreck? And what are we to do with those who insist on performing contemporary music within the Mass? Well, although many may be unaware of it, there is a host of quality, reverential music composed after 1945 which is suitable for the Mass, and also suitable to rebut the suggestions of "progressive" liturgists who insist on eschewing the old in favor of the new. With a little help from our cohort Drew, we've come up with some suggestions for more modern music that would definitely be an asset to the restoration of the reverent Mass.

Among my favorites are the Masses of Gian-Carlo Menotti (1979) and Igor Stravinsky (1948). These are both classical Masses which, nonetheless, were written for liturgical use and can be presented by any competent parish music program. Although Menotti’s Missa O Pulchritudo lacks the Credo (for reasons too complicated to go into here; see here for a little more info), it was composed for use in the Mass. Most parishes will prefer a spoken or intoned Creed anyway.

Of his Mass, Stravinsky once commented, “My Mass was not composed for concert performances but for use in the church. It is liturgical and almost without ornament. In making a musical setting of the Credo I wished only to preserve the text in a special way. One composes a march to facilitate marching men, so with my Credo I hope to provide an aid to the text. The Credo is the longest movement. There is much to believe.” At 17 minutes, it is a setting that is eminently doable within the (admittedly arbitrarily) one-hour timeframe fo the Novus Ordo.

Of even more recent composition is the Missa Seraphica composed by the Rev. Br. Scott Haynes (b. 1971—) of the famed St. John Cantius in Chicago. The music program at SJC, which also includes contemporary works such as Joseph Phibbs' Ave Verum, is among the very best anywhere, and musicians from their tradition are not to be doubted. SJC also features the Missa Brevis in D by one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976). Assumption Grotto in Detroit is another parish with a rich music tradition, and in their repertoire is Paul Paray’s, St. Joan of Arc Mass. Although composed in 1931, it remains an excellent example of reverent contemporary music. Arvo Part’s Berliner Messe of 1990 was composed for Pentecost; he is also the composer of the Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem (The Passion According to St. John ) in 1989.

Lest we forget, there is Ralph Vaughan Williams, who died in 1958. Many of the hyms we hear at Mass today were set by Vaughan Williams; he also composed the Christmas oratorio Hodie in 1954, and a setting of The First Nowell in 1958. (He also composed the Mass in G in the earlier part of the 20th Century.)

And finally (just for starters) there's the haunting O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Laudidsen (1943 - ), one of the most gorgeous contemporary pieces you'll ever hear, a piece made familiar locally by the renowned Dale Warland Singers.

As I suggested, this is not by any means to be taken as a comprehensive list. Our intent is to merely remind everyone that not everything written since the end of World War II is to be thrown out, and to give hope that there are outstanding composers out there, both living and of recent vintage, who share a desire for reverent liturgical music and who, along with the late Msgr. Richard Schuler, view sacred music, beautifully composed and performed, as a window - however brief - unto heaven.

Cross-posted (with revisions) to Stella Borealis Catholic Roundtable.


  1. Thanks Mitchell and Drew for your detective work. I knew Britten had written some Masses but I had no idea about the others: esp. Stravinsky!

    Gee, it's been MONTHS, Mitchell, since you found a way to mention Menotti in a post! :-)

    Oh, if anyone was at La Boheme this weekend (I wasn't), I enjoy reading a review.

    Demanding Reader

  2. I was surprised to read about Stravinsky. Was it "music to the ear?"

    Good post. I wasn't thinking of Masses. Didn't Dominic Argento do one? Or was that an opera?

    I went to Nativity in St Paul on Sunday. They have a wonderful musical group with a great baritone at the 5:00 p.m. Mass. The music wasn't sappy, but it was not to my liking. I just don't find it to be reverent. I meant to grab a copy of the pieces, but forgot.

    It was accompanied by a piano. Maybe when they get more organists who can use their beautiful new instrument, and a new pastor, the music might change.

    Good post, Mitchell

  3. Ray,

    As far as I know, Argento has not written a Mass, although his opera "The Masque of Angels" does have a Gloria and Sanctus that are excerpted (but not, I believe, for liturgical use). He has written pieces such as "The Revelation of St. John the Divine" and a Te Deum, but I don't think those have been used liturgically.

    Incidentally, the New York Times had this wonderful description of "The Masque of Angels," in which the reviewer says it "described life in the Episcopal Church more than it did Christianity." And isn't that a sad commentary on what's become of the Episcopal church?

    As for Stravinsky, it's clearly a modern piece and somewhat atonal at times, but in my opinion certainly acceptable for liturgical use, and from the sounds of it better than what you're describing from Sunday!



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