Friday, 27 August 2010

Mass and Metre

Today the booklets for the Papal visit arrived; hundreds of them, so it is just as well that we are not going to be asked to pay for them, because I cannot imagine shifting them all if we had to ask money; it is going to be hard enough persuading people that they want them for nothing.
That being said, it is true that the booklets are really rather well put together. I would buy one. They have everything one might require for assisting at the Papal Liturgies, and a good deal more.

What I immediately went to have a look at was the setting for the Mass throughout, by James MacMillan. It's only a melody line, so one has to imagine the harmonies, but for the most part this isn't difficult.
(Later note: You can see a link in the comments box, from Mac [thanks!], to a synthesized sound version)

I wrote a post about a week or so ago which I never put up on the blog for various reasons. Damian Thompson had been having a go at some music written by a friend of mine, which actually I thought was quite good. In the course of his piece, Damian extolled again the music of James MacMillan, and compared it (in general) to this other piece. It got my mind working. The bit that I wrote was to make the point that actually it is rather hard to write a Mass setting for unison congregational singing that doesn't resemble, by and large, all the others: MacMillan has a setting already in the general repertoire called, if my memory serves me right, the St Anne Mass, and it's a nice piece in a rather Scottish manner, but not head and shoulders above, say, the Dom Gregory Murray Mass or any number of others. His new Mass for the Papal Visit even uses what is for me the kiss of death, cantors singing lines for the congregations to sing back to them. (Again, see Mac's comments)

I think that the problem lies with a too-close approximation of these Masses to hymn tunes; I mean the feeling that one has to set the sacred texts to a four-square melody, more or less one syllable to one note, with the occasional melisma or modulation for interest. However, because most of the Mass texts are not metrical, but plain prose, the longer pieces, such as the Gloria do not sit easily with this style of music. To put it plainly, I don't think you can set the Gloria in 4/4 (or any other beat) at all without it sounding dull, and the same goes to a lesser extent for the other movements of the Mass. The Gloria especially is too long for a memorable melody; tunes simply wander around going nowhere in particular. You can spice it up in other ways (different movements, different forces, different keys) but if you're not careful it can end up sounding either like a Broadway musical or simply dull.

There are good congregational Eucharistic settings in English, but the best two I can think of are Merbecke's setting of the Communion Service and Shaw's Folk Mass (not at all what that title conjures up these days), both Anglican pieces. These two eschew time signatures, employing free rhythm and modal tonality—in short they have more in common with plainchant than with a hymn tune. Neither uses melismas, though, these being forbidden by Cranmer; this is a pity as they might have given further interest. Both settings work very well congregationally, and manage never to be dull.

In a Catholic context, I think of the astounding Missa Cum Jubilo of Maurice Duruflé. This is a unison setting for seminarians, and draws very heavily on Mass 9. It also requires a strong lead from an able choir, and an above-averagely skilled organist. But it is probably doable in a larger church, and has the advantage of being an important work in the classical repertoire in its own right.

The same (in a completely different way) can be said of Schubert's Deutsche Messe. However, in practice, as things stand, only the Sanctus of this Mass can realistically be used, because all the movements have been versified and paraphrased within an inch of their lives, and this practice, thankfully, is to be discouraged in future, I understand.

Paul Inwood has produced a Mass based loosely on the opening phrase of the Kyrie from Mass 11. I am familiar with the Sanctus from this Mass, and can say that it stands head and shoulders above anything of his that I have heard before. I am not so keen on one or two of the other movements, which would seem to return to a former style, but if this signals a greater interest in the 'feel' of plainchant, then it is good news. His Sanctus does have a time signature, but has enough atmosphere and, actually, brevity, to make it work; the music does not dominate the text but gracefully illustrates it. This setting has been commissioned by the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton for its forthcoming jubilee in 2015 (the diocese having failed to interest James MacMillan in the project). If Paul Inwood can be encouraged in the direction he has started out in for his Sanctus through the remaining movements, this Mass could be a serious contribution to a newer and better register for congregational settings, and this is something we need seriously to develop very soon, before we bed down again into the old tired style of which, I fear, our Papal Visit Mass may be simply one more example.


Mac McLernon said...

The website which has the words and MP3 files of the melodies for the Papal Mass actually explains that the repeating bits (cantor and people) are only for the Papal Mass in Bellahouston Park... as written, there aren't any repeats.

(And the reason that they couldn't have MP3 files with the words being sung was something to do with copyright)

Tom said...

Picked up a copy at my local parish earlier this evening.

I can't say I'm impressed by the majority of the hymn selections (too many (words and/or music) of non-Catholic origin), but there are a number of good commentaries throughout the book. So it will a good source of spitiual reading as well as texts for the various liturgies.

However, it is a pity that it wasn't proof-read more carefully. There are a number of simple typos that should have been picked up. But the thing that really caught my eye were the two musical settings of Credo III, which leaves something to be desired - not least because for the most part it is set (in modern notation) in the key of 'C' but, inexplicably, moves to 'D' for the last few lines. Might be troublesome for some of the 2000 or so musicians not familiar with plainchant, yet capable of reading music - they might assume a key change (similar to what one often hears in modern musical ditties), which could make for an interesting, modern interpetation of the ancient chant.

Alan Harrison said...

I'll be interested to hear the Macmillan, Father. I quite like Murray. In its third incarnation as the "New People's Mass", his work has become the setting of choice in Anglo-Catholic parishes using a congregational setting. The church in which I was confirmed used its second incarnation as "A People's Communion Service", and I've heard the original Latin version at Brum Oratory years ago at a Sung Mass on a holy day of devotion. But I don't think I've ever heard it sung in English in a Roman Catholic church.

My slight worry about Macmillan arises from a recent experience when my polite companion at a concert described one of his works as "challenging". A person of less ladylike mien might have been less polite.

I hope that your new translations may help, but I fear that the Roman Catholic probelm of poor liturgical music isn't just English. I write after a wince-inducing performance this motning in the land of Palestrina, ina parish of the diocese of Verona which had better remain unnamed.

pelerin said...

I picked up my copy this morning. It is a pity that it has obviously been produced in a hurry but it will be good to be able to follow the ceremonies with it.

I see Thursday 16th is followed by Thursday 17th which is followed by Friday 17th! I do hope people attend the correct ceremonies on the correct days - confusion reigns!

Andrew J said...

You can't go past Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, or Vivaldi's Gloria for stirring Mass music, but I do recognise that either would be beyond the capability of most parish churches.