Patience and Presence: A Study of Two Mass Settings

MA Theology, Uncategorized

Author’s note: all page numbers refer to the digitized pagination of Theology, Music, and Time by Jeremby Begbie unless otherwise noted.

What is the purpose of music? Some is made for entertainment and self-expression, while other pieces are made for liturgy and turn our hearts to Christ. Both music and Eucharistic worship connect the past of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection to our present reality and our future hope. They teach us patience and presence as our time is healed by participation in the re-presentation of our Lord at every Mass.

Album art for Missa Dunelmi

The first Mass setting, Missa Dunelmi by James MacMillan, includes four pieces: the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei. “MacMillan feels compelled, primarily for theological reasons, to integrate conflict into his work” (150) and uses dissonance as a reflection on the inextricable connections and tensions between the death and resurrection of Christ. As we reflect on our sins during the Kyrie, temporal and eternal realities intertwine through overlapping melodies: sometimes clashing, sometimes returning to a single unison note, but always leaving a sense of incompletion, longing, and even darkness despite the pitch and timbre of the soprano and alto lines. “Musicians are adept at generating expectations which are deliberately deferred through a myriad of devices: diversions, digressions, pauses and so forth” (99). As the piece continues, it becomes more subdued to the end of each phrasing, until the third phrase is led exclusively by the men’s voices into darkness and eventual silence.

MacMillan’s Gloria is intoned by a tenor and the sopranos return with the haunting, overlapping melodies. The piece builds in both unity and intensity as the harmonies become more tonal and melodic, waxing passionate at first but waning again to a more subdued darkness mid-Gloria (the “have mercy on us” timbre returns). The Goria then returns to the original melody, but this time the voices and harmonies are aligned to unified breaths, phrasing, and interconnectedness.

Unlike its predecessors, the Sanctus begins with united movement and phrasing between the voices, bringing our minds to the glory of the eternal and exalted. It’s a stark reminder of the dialectic tension between the already-and-not-yet of the kingdom. The Benedictus is positively sublime in its melodic and angelic pitch, an audible energy of purity and perfection. The piece builds and grows throughout the Sanctus, as if holding its breath during the consecration, until it rejoices in the Real Presence in the Benedictus.

The final piece, Agnus Dei, is slightly less bright and angelic than the Sanctus. It brings back some of the darkness and sobriety of Kyrie and Gloria, while remaining firmly harmonic and tonal. It leaves us lingering in the silence of its aftermath, as if waiting in expectation for the individual’s personal response to the Lamb of God, re-presented in our midst. “Eucharistic repetition both stabilizes and destabilizes” (166) by intertwining our salvific past with our current worshipping present. “This is a meantime created by deferred gratification, a delay of that day when nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:35-9). The meantime entails patience” (104) as we await the eschaton with a spirit of repentant and joyful hope.

Album art for Missa de Sanctis

Missa de Sanctis, by the Dominican Liturgical Center, includes three pieces: the Kyrie, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei. This setting is different in many ways: it uses the vernacular (in this case, English), and follows a more commonly expected structure. It’s significantly shorter and feels more chant-like while still retaining a constant meter. The Kyrie’s full harmonic range moves in-step with the other voices, washing over the listener in waves as the phrases are intoned and repeated. The Sanctus’s melodic movements, too, feel at once familiar and refreshingly new. Almost all the phrasing is in unison, giving a communal, processional feel as the piece moves steadily, faithfully, forward the liturgical climax. The Benedictus is more firmly connected to the Sanctus in this piece, matching the post-Vatican II structure of the liturgy. Finally, the Agnus Dei, in keeping with the whole, maintains a sacred solemnity, matching its textual phrasings with the rise and fall of its musical phrasings.

“The process of salvation can be conceived […] as an ongoing healing of our time through participation in the temporality established in Jesus Christ” (Begbie, 151). By our participation in the liturgy, we participate in a very fluid understanding of time, within which we grow in holiness and humility toward eternity with God. Both Masses draw the community into worship in different ways, but if I had to choose one of these two Masses to be used in the Roman Rite today, I would choose the latter. While still beautiful and elevating our hearts to Christ, Missa de Sanctis is more accessible to the laity, and we are called to full, conscious, and active participation in our worship experience (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14).

These two Mass settings, in their own way, help us to sanctify time and encounter Christ through worship in the present moment. Music brings us to the foot of the cross and the mouth of the empty tomb, connecting Christ’s Passion and Resurrection to our present reality and our future hope. Music, by its tension and release, toward an eventual resolution, helps us practice patience as our time and our lives are renewed through participation in the liturgy.

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