IN: Reviews

Gawlick’s Missa Gentis Humanae Debuts


Julian Wachner and his stunning Choir of Trinity Wall Street delivered a sensational world premiere of Ralf Yusuf Gawlick’s Missa Gentis Humanae on Monday evening in St. Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill.

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street is deservedly one of the most renowned choirs in the world. Julian Wachner has created an ensemble that has received rave reviews recently in London, sung with the Rolling Stones, and been nominated for a Grammy award for Israel in Egypt. They are super-stars of choral music, and having them in residence at Boston College is a major coup for that institution. One knows (well before the downbeat) that, as a listener, there will be few better opportunities to appreciate a score than with this ensemble and director, and so hearing them in a world premiere is very exciting, and automatically feels like a ‘moment in history.’

Whilst Gawlick’s new work is very much its own thing, with it he joins the handful of composers who have added additional texts to the Latin Mass, creating an interplay between the immutability of the Mass expressed in an ancient form, and the world of human affairs in time. By far the most serious essay in the genre would be Britten’s great War Requiem, but lesser works by (if we must) Karl Jenkins and John Rutter also spring to mind. From the 15th century, paraphrase Masses and parody Masses deliberately quoted from other musical sources (often secular) in a way which brought about an interaction (of sorts) between the sacred and secular musical worlds (for example, it is the Renaissance tradition of Masses on the theme of L’Homme Armé that inspired Jenkins’ pacifist chestnut!).

We know, from other works that intersperse liturgical with secular texts, that juxtaposition is not the same thing as inter-textuality. Gawlick’s work is unusual in this genre as he seems to seek to present a coherent re-presentation—maybe even “re-philosophization”—of the Work of the Mass; this aim is perhaps yet more ambitious than that of the ‘War’ Requiem’ (where Owen’s poetry stands as a reproach to undermine complacent reception of the text of the Mass; the visceral interpretation of the Owen perhaps even making the Latin sound emotionless or disinterested, or as if it were the only cool balm to sooth the fiery lament), Macmillan’s ‘Búsqueda’ (in which the text of the Latin Mass acts as a foil to the poetry of the Argentinean Mothers of the Disappeared, presenting their loss as a sin that cries out to heaven, in the context of the Mass as an expression of God’s overwhelming parental love) or, less substantially, Rutter’s Mass for the Children (where he places the poetry of Blake and Bishop Thomas Ken, putatively children’s literature, in the context of a Missa Brevis, perhaps to make a single helpful point about the necessity of Spiritual Childhood). Gawlick seemingly aims to create something more than a dialectic between secular and liturgical texts – rather, a synthesis, or humanist reinterpretation (“In my music, I wish to address issues of the human condition”); this emphasis on the incarnational theology is evident in Gawlick’s selection of canonical texts that could be seen to apply mostly only to the Second Person of the Trinity. The worth of such of an approach lies in the suggestion that the Mass is an oblation of human experience, as a ‘work of human hands’, elevated in unification with the Holy Sacrifice and dignified by the Incarnation.

Like the War Requiem, Gawlick’s work is united by a coherent musical style. However, his writing creates a sound-scape in which the different texts are presented as mutually building (an effect emphasized by the rotational scheme, and the evolutionary unfolding of the texts from closed to open mouthed delivery). The only direct precedent for Gawlick’s multi-lingual approach is Jenkins’ Armed Man, in which Jenkins tropes texts from Kipling, Tennyson, Sankichi Toge and the Mahabharata, with the Latin text. Jenkins’ work is willfully populist (an aim in which he was most successful) and very specifically pacifist. Gawlick’s work is much more complex and subtle. He chooses texts that are pithy, direct and of literary merit. One might say that, especially compared with previous works in this vein, the Missa Gentis Humanae is permeated with Love and Reconciliation (amongst humanity, and with the Divine), a theme evident in the epigraphic use of John 15:12, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’. The recurrent themes of the selections are the fallibility and fragility of humanity (‘the acts of men are worthy of neither fire nor heaven’, ‘Man is a wolf to man’, ‘keep looking at your clown’s face’), the beauty and joy of Creation, particularly of carnate life (‘see how all things rejoice’, ‘love every thing’, ‘Happy are the happy’), of humanity caught up in the Life of God as being characterized by reconciliation and unity (‘Happy is he who forgives others, and who forgives himself’, ‘Murderers and victims go hand in hand’) and the great paradox of salvation (‘you will attain the good you will not attain’, ‘I was called – weren’t there better ones than I? Be faithful Go.’). As such, Gawlick’s work is not so much interested in the Mass per se, as the way in which it might be used as an emblem for Universality.

Sometimes the sequence of texts seemed to narrativize the action of the Mass, sometimes points of harmonic consonance created an interpretative dynamic between disparate texts; these effects were supported by the razor-precision of the ensemble, and the attentive interplay between the singers. Clearly, Gawlick knows this kind of choir; it is almost as if this piece had been written with this ensemble in mind. Wachner has chosen these singers for the ravishing beauty and variety of their sounds (their virtuosic mastery of pitch and expression go without saying). Gawlick writes in a way that luxuriates in the individual voice, and yet incorporates it into a seamless whole, by way of beautifully voiced chords; a wider mouth brings out certain harmonics over a lips-closed hum, much as a great pianist will balance voices for certain pianistic effects. The performance was emotionally epic: every kaleidoscopic transition of texture and timbre was controlled perfectly, with great intelligence.

The musical style is certainly contemporary; it is at times richly dissonant, and incorporates certain rhythmic freedoms, all of which go to create a captivating collage of vertical and horizontal sonic effects. Whilst evocative of various musics of the past (notably some ‘early music’ textures and movement), with notable references to style ancien in setting of the Ordinary; there was some lively Bicinnium and Trio writing, for example in the Laudamus Te, and Qui Tolis Peccata Mundi, which were beautifully sung with attention to interplay and balance.

However, it’s clear Gawlick has his own post-20th-century sound-world, which serves a coherent sonic and interpretational project.  The score seems to gravitate towards a kind of F major, where it is at its most settled and sublime. The quote from the Gregorian Requiem Mass, which starts the Agnus Dei creates a sense of emotional ‘full cycle.’; this movement, in my view the most emotionally comforting of the whole work, echoes (in position) the In Paradisum of the War Requiem. Almost in inverse of the Britten, (which famously concludes in restful F major) what follows is much sterner, as the voices ask ‘weren’t there better ones than I’ and the answer comes (‘be faithful Go.’) ending in a much more challenging unison G sharp. If there is resolution, it is a post-modern consolation.

Whilst not overly experimental in vocal technique (some slightly varied humming effects were employed at times), the piece would be extremely challenging for singers of lesser skill. Pitch accuracy is absolutely essential, as is supreme control of tone. Wachner’s singers made light of it (making the considerable effort of rendering the music ethereally, as if it were effortless), and clearly enjoy the challenge, which is merely a mark of their own elevated abilities. This difficulty of this work, and the substitution of canonical texts, makes it hard to envisage future contexts of performance. The excellence of last night’s rendering suggests that this work will rarely be performed so expertly again, and that the forthcoming Musica Omnia recording will be the primary means of its future reception.

This is music which has taken itself beyond the ‘Holy Minimalist’ genre, and embraces counterpoint and tension in a way which sustains it in the wider scale. One was left with the impression of great richness of reference, bound together very lovingly.

 John Robinson is director of music at St. Paul’s Parish in Cambridge and his wife Emma Kerry read literature at Oxford.

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  1. Thank you for this perceptive and insightful review. I just spent the last three days supervising and producing the CD recording of this beautiful work and I believe that the composition is a masterpiece on many levels: for its extraordinary use of texts; for its almost-encyclopedic references to many of the high points of Western musical style; through its contrapuntal skill (rare among contemporary works, in my experience) and, finally, for its depth of emotion and intrinsic musical beauty. This will be our fourth CD devoted to Ralf Gawlick’s music, and I think the work represents his masterpiece (so far). Because of its complexity and wealth of detail, this Missa is tailor-made for recording, where its beauties will be revealed fully on repeated listening. We’re proud to be associated with this work and with the magnificent achievement of the singers from Trinity Wall Street and their music director, Julian Wachner. A remarkable achievement all round.

    Comment by Peter Watchorn — February 20, 2014 at 10:14 am

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