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new music that's already classic

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Remarks of the Very Reverend James Parks Morton,

Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine

 

The Earth Mass, commissioned in 1981 by the Cathedral of St. John
the Divine, presents contemporary men and women with several
interesting philosophical questions, and some practical
considerations as well. Isn’t it pagan for a mass to celebrate
nature? (What is a mass anyway?) Aren’t cathedrals supposed
to be other-worldly – not full of whale and wolf calls?
Can the Earth Mass be performed in any church anywhere?

 

To answer these questions let us start in reverse order with
the simplest and most practical. Fundamentally the Earth Mass
is a collection of modern religious music all of which can be
performed anywhere, in schools, colleges, choral groups as well
as in churches. Six of the compositions are hymns for group singing,
and six are occasionally liturgical pieces (traditionally called
preludes, anthems, motets, voluntaries, etc.) for solo voice,
chorus, organ or instrument. But the title “Mass” comes from
the name given to the four most important compositions,
which together constitute the core musical framework for the
Holy Communion – that most ancient service of Christian worship,
which is variously called the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper,
the Divine Liturgy of the Mass.

 

The words for these four texts come from the Bible and first
formed part of the worship of the temple and synagogue
(for example, the exact words of the Sanctus are used in
the Hebrew Sabbath Morning Service), but over the years
they have come to be known by their Greek or Latin abbreviations
taken from the first word in each choral line. Today this unvarying
fourfold pattern of Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei
enjoys wide ecumenical usage and forms the fixed musical
backbone for Christian worship throughout the world, irrespective
of denomination or composer. The hymns and other occasional
pieces of music are also used in the mass, but placed in between
those four unchanging elements, which give both structure
and universality to worship.

 

Earth Mass, therefore, takes its place in the long historical tradition
of liturgical music, beginning with the Hebrew chant of the
synagogue and continuing with the Greek and Latin, the
renaissance Palestrina, baroque Bach, classical Mozart and Haydn,
romantic Beethoven and Berlioz, and contemporary Stravinsky.