Blog #5: Music and the Mass

For the first 18 years of my life, I always attended mass every weekend at Resurrection Church in my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. Resurrection had a handful of visiting priests that would give different types of homilies, but overall, the format of the Mass was the same. Even the hymnals never changed in all those years. The songs that were sung were rarely mixed up, usually lead by the same people as talented singers were hard to come by. As a result, I grew used to the music used in each mass. I didn’t think much of the music, just singing (read: mouthing) along, usually grumbling if they went on for an extra verse. This week’s readings and songs encouraged me to think more deeply about this music. I know there was a music coordinator — so why did she select these hymns? Why were they chosen to be sung at this point in the mass? This point in the liturgical year? I have learned, sacred music is an essential part of the mass, intended to not only communicate with God, but to manifest His presence. Had I analyzed each song in mass as I did for this assignment, I know I would have enjoyed mass much more deeply.

First is John Tavener’s Missa Wellensis. People have interpreted this mass & music in a wide variety of ways. Some find his music to be “a route to eternity”, while others describe it as “drastically limited” (Begbie p.129). Regardless, the mass is one that is defined by many distinct characteristics. There is multiplicity in his Missa Wellensis, with the Kyrie’s rhythm consisting in a constant repetition of an ascension followed by a fading out. Further, the music fades in and out very abruptly and almost without notice. So much so that when I first listened to the Mass, I did not notice that one song had changed to the next. There is no end, nor beginning, therefore this music is eternal in the sense that it is going on for all of time and space. Thus, we are entering into ‘God’s time’, as “the music emerges out of silence and drifts seamlessly back into silence, giving the impression of being in the midst of previously (and subsequently) unheard music” (Begbie p.139). These constant patterns and almost imperceptible beginnings and endings require a dwelling in the music itself, in the time of the music, since it is not screaming out at you. Rather, one must learn to listen to the music and to God who makes our speech and music possible. This necessary attentiveness to the music translates into how the human person should operate within God’s time. Much like one must pay close attention and train oneself to listen to the music, this is how we should approach all our tasks in contrast with the “destructive, distracting, and alienating busy-ness which is so much a mark of our culture and, surely, far from what God intends” (Begbie p.144).

Secondly, MacMillan’s Missa Dunelmi drives tension and contrast, rather than the softer unity of Travener. MacMillan’s music is rooted in sacrifice and focuses on the point that although there is uplift in resurrection, it only exists through death. Begbie’s statement that music is a “configuration of tension and resolution” applies directly to MacMillan’s execution (Begbie p.38). The Kyrie and Gloria carry solemn moods with each vocal register executing an entirely different part, only uniting in moments of silence. There are strong discord notes and a sense of opposition within something that should be harmonious. However, his mass continues to work as a whole, with the Agnus Dei connecting all of the lower and upper registers together, presenting a unified front. MacMillan’s work takes you on an entire spiritual journey, representing God’s battle with evil, his triumph at the sacrifice of Jesus, and the celebration that comes after. This format actually reminded me of the structure and historical meaning of The 1812 Overture. This format emphasizes the seriousness of Christ’s sacrifice and its glorious implications, inspiring passion and dedication from the listener. From MacMillian, a listener can feel empowered by their faith and prepared to avoid sin and temptation in their own life.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store