Mass For The Unbelievers—a work in progress for unaccompanied choir

This page is a snapshot of the progress of my work on a group of choral pieces. Below you'll find lyrics, some audio (mostly pretty rough), and some discussion about what I'm up to.

 

What is this thing? Is it really a mass, or what?

 

No, because it doesn't follow the Christian liturgy. Yes, because each movement is related to a movement of the liturgical mass. 

 

How it came to be

 

I was raised in Christianity and feel at home there, but I'm not a believer.

 

I never cared much for most of the Mass settings I heard until I started singing them. Then, almost in spite of myself, I responded strongly to the way human needs are expressed in the words and music.

 

Later, as I began to write songs I became obsessed by the idea of a cycle of songs exploring some of the themes of each part of the Mass from the point of view of a nonbeliever.

 

Will it ever be finished?

 

Now that I have Monongahela Harmony to sing it, yes! I've reset sections of it for three voices and hope to be done with that soon. 

 

Kyrie. (Lord, have mercy)

 

After many struggles I abandoned my first idea and decided to use Blake's "The Tyger". The poem asks, repeatedly, what kind of Creator could frame the predator's fearful eyes, brain, and heart; it even seems to conflate the creating power and the predatory power with its question "what dread hand and what dread feet?" 

I kind of like that the mass thus begins with Bad Cat and continues with Good Cat. But I worry that it will turn into the Animal Mass. 

 

We (Monongahela Harmony) are learning to sing this now!

 

Tyger Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

 

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

 

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

 

What the hammer? What the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

 

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

 

Gloria.  (Glory be to God on high)

The Gloria glorifies God with the words "You alone are the Holy One", but I've chosen a text expressing praise of this world. I intensely wanted to use the famous "Cat Jeoffry" excerpt from Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno for this. I struggled for a long time and couldn't get it to work the way I wanted it to. Finally, without realizing that I was following in the footsteps of William Billings in his anthem-writing, I selected and rearranged the words to fit the sort of music I wanted. This involved walking around for several days in a sort of trance, singing the words over and over, mutating the melody and words until I liked them. 

 

Rejoice in God O ye tongues,
Let man and beast appear and magnify God's name together.

 

For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey,
He is the servant of the living God, duly and daily serving God.
At the first glance of the glory in the East he worships in his way,
By wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.

 

For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
He looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
He sharpens his paws by wood.
He washes himself and rubs himself against a post.
He looks up for his instructions and goes in quest of food.

 

For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
If he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
And when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.

 

For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
He keeps watch in the night against the adversary.
He counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
He counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.

 

For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
He is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
There is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
And there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
He purrs in contentment when God tells him he's a good cat.

 

If you think I've got a lot of nerve doing this after Benjamin Britten made such a fantastic setting, okay, I have a lot of nerve. I'm up to something a little different than Britten was. I wanted to emphasize the everyday-ness, the down-to-earth quality of Smart's description. It's a real cat.

 

Hurray! a recording of real live human beings singing it at last! 

 

Credo (I believe)

 

I used to find the Credo so boring. But the great settings take the storytelling aspect and run with it. It can be really exciting. 

 

But this is a Mass for unbelievers. This Credo is about miracles and eternity and perfection and purity but it doesn't affirm them.

 

I once did dwell in a golden city,
I once did walk a diamond road,
And in my hand was a pearl of wisdom;
With pure eternal light it glowed.

 

My sisters dear, do you call to mind
How we once walked that diamond way,
Do you remember that golden city
Where we lived as one in endless day?

 

They sent me away from the golden city,
They sent me down to the living world,
And I heard a voice of strict commandment,
Saying fix your eye on wisdom's pearl.

 

Through many a land of mist and shadow,
Through cloudy days and starless nights,
My wayward feet, they strayed and stumbled,
My wayward eyes forsook the light.

 

My brothers dear, do you call to mind
How we once walked a diamond way,
Do you remember a golden city
Where we lived as one in endless day?

 

Now the diamond road is lost in shadow,
The golden towers are turned to glass,
The human heart hides the pearl of wisdom,
The human voice is heard at last,

 

Saying did I dwell in a golden city,
Did I once walk a diamond road,
And did I hold a pearl of wisdom,
That with eternal luster glowed?

 

My friends so dear, do you call to mind?
Did we once walk a diamond way,
Did we once dwell in a golden city,
Did we live as one in endless day?

 

Here's a vocal recording of just the melody with an improvised harmony. 

 

 

Here's the Nameless Choir rehearsing a four-part setting.

 

 

Sanctus—Benedictus (Holy, Holy, Holy—Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord)

 

Sanctus settings usually evoke otherworldly realms—you can just see the 24 elders with their crowns singing Holy, holy, holy for all eternity. If my religion had a prophet, it would be William Blake, so inevitably my thoughts turn to his thought: everything that lives is holy. I'm not sure how exactly it came to me to adapt the African-American folksong Every Little Soul to go with it. I'll probably make some little changes to the words. This is how they came out as I improvised the whole thing in Garage Band.

 

O holy, holy, holy,
Everything that lives is holy,
Every little soul must shine, shine, shine,
Every little soul must shine.

 

Mr. Rabbit, Mr. Rabbit I will praise you,
Praise you for your ears so long,
Every little soul must shine, shine, shine,
Every little soul must shine.

 

Mrs. Fox, Mrs. Fox I will praise you,
Praise you for your cunning mind,
Every little soul must shine, shine, shine,
Every little soul must shine.

 

Master Thrush, Master Thrush I will praise you,
Praise you for your warble fine,
Master Hawk, Master Hawk I will praise you,
Praise you for your eye so bright,

 

Mr. Frog, Mr. Frog I will praise you,
Praise you for your jump so long,
Miss Snake, Miss Snake I will praise you,
Praise you for your swiftness sure,

 

Mistress Bee, Mistress Bee I will praise you,
Praise you for your honey sweet,
Mrs. Wasp, Mrs. Wasp I will praise you,
Praise you for your sting so deep,

 

Living things, living things I will praise you,
Praise your for your sweet short lives,

 

O holy, holy, holy,
Everything that lives is holy,
Every little soul must shine, shine, shine,
Every little soul must shine.

 

Here's a recording of the improvisation. Somehow I'll mutate it into a setting for Monongahela Harmony to sing.

 

 

 

The Benedictus says "blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord". My words come from the title of Tolstoy's story "Where There Is Love, There Is God Also," a favorite from my childhood.

 

Aaaand a recording!

 

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace)

 

The inevitable Blake again. Here's an excerpt from "The Divine Image" (Songs of Innocence).

 

To Mercy Pity Peace and Love
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

 

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

 

Then every one in every clime,
That prays in their distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.

 

Here's a setting overdubbed by me as usual. I hope to have a real recording soonish.

 

 

 

 

Ita missa est (Go, it is the dismissal)

 

Mass settings don't usually provide music for the priest's dismissal (the congregation's response, amusingly, is "Thanks be to God") but it has been done. (The Anonymous Four used one of these settings as an encore at their recent farewell tour concert in Pittsburgh. Who knew they were such wits?)

I want to finish with the mutuality of farewell.

 

Dear sisters (brothers/fathers/mothers) farewell to each other we must tell.
We give thanks for each friend that we love so well.
If we never meet again it will grieve our hearts sore,
But our friendship will bind us in union evermore.

 

I have a couple of recordings of this with slightly different words. One setting was made for the shape-note publication The Trumpet. Another rather strange one was done as an exercise for a music theory class. At first I didn't like it but it has grown on me and I wonder if I could use it here. It's a bit tricky to sing.