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New Mass Setting With Texts From Two Millennia


The Trinity Wall Street Chorus and Orchestra under composer and music director Julian Wachner is one of the two most respected choral institutions in NYC (the other being the contingent from St. Thomas Church). That Wachner is bringing Boston the world premiere of Boston composer Ralf Yusuf Gawlick’s Missa gentis humanæ attests to the importance of the work, an eight-part a cappella piece, combining elements from the Mass Ordinary with texts of East and West (over a 2000-year span) in 21st-century polyphony. Boston College will host the premiere on February 17th at the neogothic Parish of St. Ignatius of Loyola. We recently spoke with the composer and then the conductor.

BMInt: What’s given you the courage to make such an undertaking? You seem to be attempting nothing less than a grand synthesis of the literature of the East and the West over two millennia with musical commentary.

Ralf Yusuf Gawlick
Ralf Yusuf Gawlick

RG: As a composer setting the Mass Ordinary, I am part of a great tradition that reaches back hundreds of years. Every composer must find his or her place in this living tradition through the work. For me, setting the Ordinary is indelibly tied to my faith and my relationship to the Mass. The ritual of the Mass is both a remembrance and celebration of God’s sacrifice for every human life. This sacrifice, his Crucifixion for our sins, is the most profound act of love and the redemptive essence of this ritual celebration. The  source and origin of my Mass setting lie in including Christ’s call to love from the Gospel according to St. John into the traditional texts of the Ordinary: ‘This is my commandment: That you love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15:12). Love, so central to human existence, inspired me to augment the Latin Mass texts with literary reflections, meditations, and exhortations concerning it by authors throughout the centuries, drawn from the main branches (Slavic, Germanic, Koine Greek, Latin) of Indo-European language families. Phrases and extended passages by Borges, Virgil, Brecht, Dostoevsky, Plautus, Herbert and Scott establish broad aesthetic, devotional, linguistic and literary perspectives that engage with the Mass texts and with one another. The Mass thus becomes a multilingual vessel of cross-referential commentary, interpretation, reflection and even textual substitution for portions of the Ordinary. This dramatic fusion of different languages, ideas, beliefs and Augustinian-type ‘confessions’ creates a profound dialogue with doctrine. Yet regardless of varying literary aesthetics and traditions, all texts, including those that the Mass Ordinary comprises, are reconciled by the common appeal/commandment: love and to love. By embracing different languages and texts, the appeal becomes universal, and Missa gentis humanæ humbly reveals itself as mankind’s mass.

Does your musical language assimilate as many styles as your texts do?

The texts I set in the Missa span millennia; by contrast, the musical language is contemporary and does not reflect a similar assimilation of styles. In essence, the musical language unfolds in a process of modal clarification: varying stages of chromatic densities throughout the Mass movements transform into diatonic modalities by the end.

When a text was written does not dictate the musical style; rather, the placement of the texts is intimately tied up with the musical textures. Each language emerges, from humming to mouth-half-open singing vowels to singing vowels, then syllables, phrases and finally complete sentences. This process unfolds for all voices, suggesting the creation of each language from its parent branch.

Try to describe what it’s going to sound like. Are there YouTube examples of your work?

The listener will hear textures ranging from pointillism to homophony to 8-voice polyphony. The voices and lines unravel in kaleidoscopic combinations and textures in ever-changing tapestries of sound. Give ear to a live performance my Kinderkreuzzug here and to recordings thereof here and here.

With its interweaving of texts from the Latin Mass, “phrases and extended passages drawn from Borges, Virgil, Brecht, Dostoevsky, Freud, Herbert, Scott and the Gospel according to John,” how important is clear understanding of the words?

The words and texts I set in the Missa are the fons et origo of the work—thus reflecting on/studying the texts, individually and in their interrelationship, is crucial. The way the texts substitute for passages of the Latin Mass Ordinary, how they complement and comment on one another, sets in motion a rich web of references and connections. Each listener is given the opportunity to extract and construct meanings from those connections. As a musical work, added layers and dimensions are given the texts by the musical text-setting of the words. Thus the connections are not only literary, not only musical, but a compound of the two, where meaning is both derived from and put forth by the interaction of music and word.

Do we need to be literary scholars to place all of your rich allusions into context?

No, many listeners will be familiar with many of the authors, which should offer them an entryway. However, one does not need to be a scholar, or familiar with all of them, to engage with their meaning and interconnectedness. Ultimately, every listener brings his or her own background to the aesthetic experience.

How comfortable is the piece for singers? Just as there is a continuity between humming and articulation of words, is some of the material declaimed rather than sung?

The eight Singers from Trinity Wall Street
The eight Singers from Trinity Wall Street

This 8-voice a cappella Mass (lasting an hour) places tremendous demands on the ensemble in terms of pitch, intonation, stamina and interpretation. Aside from bocca chiusa (humming) and bocca quasi chiusa (mouth half-open), I do not use any extended vocal techniques; everything is sung—there is also no spoken declamation. And although the work presents linguistic and musical complexities and difficulties, it embraces the beauty of the voice and of singing: whether in dense homophonic or contrapuntal passages, everything I call upon the voice to do is vocally idiomatic, always in service to letting the voice sing.

Will we think we are in the Middle Ages at times, when we are hearing eight a cappella voices in a reverberant church?

The great polyphonic a cappella tradition does date back to the late Middle Ages and continues in various genres into our present day. By choosing to compose a Mass for a cappella choir, I consciously embrace and allow myself to be in dialogue with this tradition. And yes, although the Missa is not meant for the liturgy, as a Mass it belongs in the sacred, spiritual space of the church, to resonate as fully as possible aurally and internally with the audience. The acoustics in the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola are perfectly suited to highlight the fabrics of the work’s polyphonic textures. And if music, as was believed in the Middle Ages, is a gateway to the divine, to the harmony of the spheres and cosmos, then yes, perhaps the listener might feel part of a different time and place.

Will we also realize immediately that we are in the 21st century?

Both the musical language and multilingual texts will clearly reveal that this is a contemporary work. And yet, as a modern Catholic sacred work, it builds on a corpus going back over 1000 years. As each piece in this canon mirrors its time and age, settings of the Mass Ordinary invariably reflect a state of discovery: up to the late 19th century, composers set only the original Latin and faced the challenge of freshly engaging with a centuries-old text. In the past 140 years, the diversity of approaches has increased, as composers not only include secular and vernacular texts in their settings and thus dramatically redefine the form of the Mass but also use it as a sociopolitical vehicle of expression: noteworthy examples range from Bernstein’s theatrical Mass to Britten’s pacifist Mass for the Dead (War Requiem) to Hindemth’s Requiem Mass based on Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” In regard to Mass settings, however, Missa gentis humanæ is singular: there is no precedent for such a multilingual infusion into the Mass.

In composing it I essentially look into horizons before and behind me, since, as one of the most celebrated musical genres of human expression, I have the opportunity to partake in a living tradition.

How did Julian Wachner and the Trinity Wall Street Chorus get involved? Was this piece a commission?

Missa gentis humanæ was written 2008-2010, and is the largest work I have composed. Writing for 8-voice a cappella choir was an extraordinary experience calling upon over two decades of study of Masses from the late Middle Ages to the present. For close to a decade I have had the good fortune to be surrounded by leading experts in the field of musicology. Particularly stimulating and inspirational has been the remarkable research in Spanish Renaissance music, along with his award-winning recordings with Ensemble Plus Ultra, by my friend and colleague Michael Noone, chair of the Boston College music department. Initially, the Missa was to be performed by then; their sound was in my ears as I composed. Yet for a variety of reasons, a performance by them did not occur. Fortunately, another friend and colleague, Peter Watchorn, used his musical connections. He is one of the world’s great harpsichordists and also president of the internationally distributed not-for-profit label Musica Omnia, which that carries three of my recordings. Peter has worked on several projects with Julian and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, providing performing editions and/or producing several recordings including Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (in this case Wachner conducted the Boston Bach Ensemble;  Peter Watchorn was his co-director), Bach’s complete motets, and the 2012 Grammy-nominated first complete recording of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt. In early 2011, a year after the work’s completion and three from its compositional beginning, Peter brought it to the attention of Julian, who was committed to premièring the work and recording it with the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. Four years later, the work is about to be brought to life.

The Trinity Wall Street Chorus will be recording the piece in Boston during the period of the performances. Tell us about that.

I feel blessed that Julian Wachner and eight soloists of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street will première the piece. Julian brings profound artistry to his work as both conductor and composer. And these soloists are among the most brilliant singers in the United States, equally at home in common practice and contemporary music. Within four days they will record the work for Musica Omnia; the performance on Monday February 17th will be the centerpiece of their Boston College artist-in-residency. Such a schedule requires enormous physical and psychological stamina that can be accomplished only by great artistic commitment. They have my unbounded gratitude.

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Julian Wachner
Julian Wachner

BMInt asked noted composer and the Trinity Wall Street Music Director Julian Wachner about his commitment to this project.

FLE: What it is about Ralf’s music and this piece in particular that induced you to commit to these performances and recording?

JW: Ralf’s music is beautiful, well-crafted and singable. This work is a serious statement that simultaneously honors the ancient past while wrapping varied and striking texts with the language of the present. The craft is solid and profound, creating an otherworldly beauty.

What do you hear in the music that makes you think it will enter the canon and speak to audiences?

We exist in a world where the sacred, para-liturgical, spiritual and mystical are merging with contemporary improvisatory techniques. Ralf’s work plays perfectly into this emerging paradigm—in a sense, in a more contrapuntal version of Pärt, Gorecki, Whitacre, and the recently deceased John Tavener.

Is there anything specifically Catholic about it other than the Mass texts?

I would suggest that its Catholicism exists within a small “c” catholicism, one where true universality is attempted.

Can it be used for worship services?

Not in a pure liturgical praxis, but portions of the work could lend themselves to liturgical participation. The work as a whole, however, is a type of worship experience.

Is it also entertaining?

Interesting question. I would say that if one found a Dufay or Obrecht Mass entertaining, then this work would also entertain. I would also use the words stimulating, transforming, and provocative.

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