Monday, September 12, 2011

Mass of the Mediatrix by Patrick O'Shea

Like many Catholic musicians, I've listened to what seems like a hundred Mass settings over the last year, and I'm not sure that I trust my own sense of what I hear anymore.

So I've developed rules of thumb about what I favor, and most readers probably already know: I favor plainchant over metrical settings, vocal over instrumental, modal over major/minor, simple over complex, and so on. When I was sent the Mass of the Mediatrix, I immediately saw that it fell on the other side of the ledger. I prepared not to like it.

Then I looked and listened. It took me a while, but I began to realize that this is very sophisticated material. It is rich and colorful and complex. It is accompaniment dependent, to be sure, but this enables the melody line to be relatively simple. It is not formulaic in any sense. There are long lines here, and passages that offer a real musical challenge. The more I followed along with the score, the more I was persuaded that this is an excellent piece of work. Yes, it runs counter to all my rules of thumb, but such is the way art works. As soon as you try to can it, fix it, box it up, it escapes and something beautiful emerges that you least expect.

However, I would be very interested in your own reaction. I give you Mass of the Mediatrix by Patrick O'Shea. And of course high praise for the medium of delivery and distribution here.

Incidentally, as a check to my own instincts, which I no longer fully trust, I sent the link to our co-blogger Charles, who had high praise for the Gloria, which is the one part he had a chance to listen to. He wrote the following back to me:

I found the initial melodic motive of the Glory to be at once subtle and intriguing in its “painting” of the text. The opening ascending perfect fifth (and even corresponding descending perfect fourth in the tenor) upon “God” naturally elevates one’s intention towards praising God, but then is further propelled into the “plagal” melody of scale degree 6-5 on “hea-ven” which is adorned with a prepared suspension of 2-1 in the tenors, a very sweet added Major ninth effect for that one beat. I wonder why Dr. O’Shea did not have the tenors declaim “in the” with the other three voices and simply slur the quarter to half assignment to “high-“ est. But it’s not a primary concern. The plagal character is reiterated (tone painting again?) with 4-3-2-1, “and on earth, peace to people of good will…” , which also features a lovely traditional suspended dominant chord resolution. The strength and noble simplicity of this opening motive will serve later portions of the Glory both directly and indirectly, which is always a good “bonding agent.”

A one measure organ interlude is both a modal nod, using the flat VI to flat VII to tonic “cliché (not meant as derogatory!), but also as a preview of a tonality shift soon to follow with the four exclamations: “We praise….etc.” The melody uses the “rising hands” of the minor third (A-C natural) against a I to V minor in which the basses firmly establish “we” on beat one, with the other three voices entering on beat two to finish the exaltation “We praise You.” Then Dr. O’Shea restates the prepared Major 9th suspension within another lovely-prepared plagal cadence (adore YOU), again in the tenors, to then essentially shift from tonality to modality for the remainder of the text to “O God, almighty Father,” at which also we encounter a moment of tonal surety at the prescribed key signature shift to C Major. The descending 4-1 phrase is also quoted again twice within that portion, “heavenly King, O God, almighty Father,” which a congregation should absorb quite easily after a couple of hearings/singings.

The next section and motive, setting the text beginning with “Lord Jesus Christ” again uses the ascending flat VI/flat VII progression to I (C Major) that served as a precursor to another subtle shift yet to come. But Dr. O’Shea repeats that progression that, however, leads to an unprepared suspended III chord (Esus-E) which seems to then serve as a bridge between E and A minor, but not as dominant to tonic, apparently. He uses the C natural key signature and “C” itself to again serve as the ascending flat VI/flat VII/I with E as the tonic, affirmed at the terminal cadence of “mercy on us.” I should mention that the melody in the soprano emulates the economy of chant melodies in both tessitura and scale/step motion, but doesn’t seem mere craft, but an obviously sacral entity in character itself, or as if sung a cappella.

The chromatic/enharmonic cascading suspension harmonies of the “You take away the sins….” segment is simply gorgeous writing as well as a nifty treatment leading to a iv-Vsus-V progression that leads to a grand restatement of the opening motive at “For You alone….”

I really don’t need to exhaustively analyze the melodic or harmonic structures much further, except to mention an obvious and thoughtful treatment of “Most high” that should not tax the congregation as it is a sort of culmination of the original ascending motive, just saved (as best) for last. I would characterize this rhythmically as hymnic or strophic in character. But that should not be any sort of deterrent to any choir or schola looking for an innovative and luscious harmonic treatment that isn’t imitative of the so-called “Faux Kings College” or Gebrauchsmusick-like settings that came into being after the 1970 Missal.

This has both inspiration and art wedded by craft. It should take its place with capable choirs alongside new settings such as Chris Mueller’s, Jacob Bancks’, Royce Nickel’s and other new choral composer voices, as an alternative to always singing the Schubert/Proulx Deutchemesse or similar classical treatments.