Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman, by James MacMillan

Randolph Nichols has reviewed the Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman, which is available from Boosey & Hawkes.  Of course many of us wished that MacMillan had access to a different distribution model; this paper and ink from afar model is anachronistic. The reviewer had to wait six weeks for it to be delivered. Seems like Mayflower time. In any case, we put up with this because of who MacMillan is and what he has done for Catholic music:

Among the initial music settings of the revised Ordinary translation, none generated more interest than the “Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman” by James MacMillan, first heard within the Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI at Bellahouston Park on September 16, 2010, in MacMillan’s home city of Glasgow and repeated on September 19th at the Mass celebrating the beatification of Cardinal Henry Newman at Cofton Park in Birmingham. The allure of the new Mass stems from its being by a composer whose impressive stature rests on contributions made outside the narrow confines of liturgical music.

There is an abiding misunderstanding that “serious” composers can’t or don’t write music for congregational use and that simplicity and craft are mutually exclusive. Sometimes this holds true, but it is hardly a rule of thumb. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ hymn “Come Down, O Love Divine” and Healy Willan’s “Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena”, composed by men respected in the concert field, are among the most enduring congregational compositions ever written. Furthermore, Stravinsky’s “The Five Fingers” and Bartok’s first volumes of “Mikrokosmos”, not to mention Bach’s “Anna Magdalena Notebook”, demonstrate that a composer’s stylistic essence can be distilled in the simplest forms.

MacMillan’s new Mass for congregational use, published by Boosey & Hawkes, is certainly a high-brow meets low-brow offering. While accommodating utilitarian demands the work nonetheless reflects a subtle harmonic complexity and lyricism that departs from the clichéd predictability often associated with congregation-friendly liturgical compositions. Though there is some angularity to the vocal writing, it is no more difficult to sing than the music one encounters on a weekly basis in parishes trying so hard to be culturally au courant. Though each movement has an individual character, recurring motifs and harmonies give the Mass a formal cohesion. The organ is designated as the accompanying instrument but a piano could suffice. Unfortunately there are no manual-pedal designations to guide the organist in playing the lower line.

With the exception of the “Kyrie” (MacMillan uses Greek and Latin titles) and the “Great Amen” each movement has a four-part chorus to supplement the congregational vocal line. The chorus vocal range goes from a low F in the bass to an upper G in the soprano. (I see no reason why the Mass cannot be sung without the presence of a choir.) Rental arrangements for two trumpets, two trombones and timpani are available from the publisher.

“Kyrie” is the simplest movement and uses the same harmonic and melodic material as the “Agnus Dei”. Being the most immediately accessible of the Mass movements, it would seem wise to introduce these two movements first. The opening harmony (a sustained A minor chord underlying a melody line beginning on f-sharp) is reminiscent of the first chord of “On Eagles’ Wings” with it’s non-chord c-sharp resolving to the subdominant chord tone b. In this case, however, the f-sharp resolves a half-step upward and the singer has the advantage of hearing it introduced by the organ. Thus there should be none of the painful intonation offenses that so frequently plague that OEW c-sharp. At the final “Lord have mercy” there is an engaging harmonic turn that momentarily establishes the subdominant “a” as the tonic ending; the organ steps in, however, to reaffirm “e” as the true tonal center.

For the “Gloria” MacMillan has composed a rather exotic Eastern sounding intonation but wisely provides an easier ossia which I expect will be the favored option. As with the “Kyrie”, the “Gloria” introduces motifs that bond it to other movements. For example the opening four-beat eighth note pattern in the organ bass line reappears in the “Sanctus” and the Acclamations. At first hearing I was drawn to the effective use of the major subdominant (B major chord) within the key of f-sharp minor and the striking modulation at the words “you take away the sins of the world.” The ten measures that comprise this change in key provide a lesson in the distinction between a skilled craftsman and a mere composing enthusiast. The deft use of chromatically moving inner voices is hardly representative of what liturgical music usually offers.

Unlike most “Holy, Holy” movements, MacMillan gives us an eight bar introduction whose purpose seems to be to set a mood of almost joyous whimsy. It’s a bit “new-agey” and the one moment that seems to reflect the composer’s national origins. Perhaps sensing that some will find it disruptive of the flow of the Eucharistic prayer, MacMillan places it in brackets with a note that it can be omitted. I’m guessing most will. This is an intriguing movement that will never lend itself to autopilot performance. Rhythmic accuracy and precise articulation are required in the repeated eighth-note “Hosanna” section. Most intriguing is the peculiar ending in which the choir continues after the congregation has finished. Also, and this happens as well in the “Kyrie”, the congregation’s vocal line does not end on a resolved tonic but must wait for the organ to wrap things up.

The three Memorial Acclamations, introduced by the pedal passage heard in the previous movement and briefly presented in the “Gloria”, are set to the same music and employ the unusual ending of the “Sanctus”. Music to the “Great Amen” is lifted directly from a passage in the “Gloria” (“with the Holy Spirit”) and restates that distinctive B major chord, this time within the key of A major.

The “Agnus Dei” is perhaps the loveliest movement in the Mass and will undoubtedly be the choice of parishes that might otherwise forego the rest of the work. This begs the question of whether the Mass will be widely programed in the United States.

There are a couple reasons to suggest it will not. One is the matter of its being published by a firm that neither specializes in liturgical music nor markets in the manner of OCP, WLP, or GIA. Most parish personnel are conditioned by and dependent on major liturgical publishing houses, so committing themselves to a foreign publisher devoted primarily to concert music will require unusual initiative.

After placing my order on-line at the Boosey & Hawkes website, it took a month and a half to receive my copy of MacMillan’s score. That does not bode well for increased recognition. Furthermore this is a work requiring repeated listening to appreciate its worth and the decision to implement a new Mass setting will probably be made by several staff people favoring immediate accessibility. Another obstacle is the modest level of music leadership in so many parishes. For this Mass to be successfully implemented, competent and confident leadership from cantor, choir, and organist is essential. If your parish meets this criterion, then by all means give this Mass setting a try.