It has been 6 years since the new English translation of the Mass came out, which means that the new mass settings that were written for it are now 6 years old. Having lived with these mass settings for 6 years, it is an opportune time to review which settings work and have lasting value, and which settings should be sent to the liturgical music graveyard. Sadly, in the various churches I have attended and played at in this timeframe, I have yet to hear a mass setting I can wholeheartedly endorse, yet I have encountered some that I do recommend while acknowledging their flaws. These are my thoughts; I encourage you to comment below about what mass settings you like and don't like.
Mass settings will be evaluated according to the following criteria:
1. Harmony between text and music. The most common failure mode of new mass settings has been that the words fit the music awkwardly. Strange rhythms and melodies are a sign that words have been forced against their will to go where they don't belong.
2. Beauty and musical quality.
3. Singability to a congregation.
There are three contemporary mass settings I will recommend. The first two I have personally played for congregations: Mass of Renewal by Curtis Stephan and Mass of St. Anne by Ed Bolduc. The third I have heard recordings of only - Mass of Communion by Matt Maher. I rank them thus:
1. Mass of Renewal. This is a strong mass setting all the way through. Its strengths are harmony of text and music and singability. The Alleluia is my favorite of any setting and is both joyful and incredibly singable. However, in its other parts, its weakness is that it tends towards the functional and lacks an overwhelming sense of beauty. Nevertheless, in my experience, this Mass setting produces the best results in congregational singing of any I have come across.
2. Mass of Communion. This mass setting is hot and cold. The Kyrie and Lamb of God are stunningly beautiful while remaining singable and textually harmonious. Their melodies mimic chant and intersperse Greek and Latin with English. The Sanctus and Memorial Acclamation are very good. The Sanctus borrows the opening of NICEA (tune of hymn Holy, Holy, Holy). However, the Gloria, Alleluia, and Amen are bland. The Gloria is difficult to pick up and took me many listens before I could enjoy it. The Alleluia engages in what I consider the very bad practice of singing "Allelu" before singing the full word. The Sanctus throws in a word not in the official text "singing Amen." I am surprised the USCCB allowed this and I would recommend removing the superfluous word "singing" if using this setting. Overall, this setting has some excellent parts that I recommend supplementing with another source for the Gloria, Alleluia, and Amen.
3. Mass of St. Anne. This mass setting does a very good job of having the words naturally fit the melody and is an objectively good piece of music. However, I find the style to be a little over the top in sounding like a rock performance. However, speaking from personal experience, the recordings online overstate the pop-rock feel of this mass, which can be diminished by more judicious accompaniment choices in a parish setting. The Gloria is the high point of this mass setting, and the Alleluia is the low point. I recommend subbing out the Alleluia for the Mass of Renewal Alleluia.
The mass settings in this category are some kind of blend between traditional and contemporary. Most of these settings can sound good both on an organ and on a piano. I recommend in this category Mass of Wisdom by Steven Janco, Revised Mass of Creation by Marty Haugen, and Mass of Christ the Savior by Dan Schutte.
1. Mass of Wisdom. This is perhaps my highest recommendation of any of these, with the caveat that I have only ever heard recordings of it online. The text and music fit each other perfectly, and it is a work of undeniable beauty. My only criticism is that the melodies are not particularly memorable. I should point out that from listening to this it seems to me that it would take a choir with some talent to pull this off - this would be a much more meager work without the harmonies you hear the the recordings. Recordings are available with both organ and piano accompaniment. I highly recommend that any parish with the requisite talent give this a shot.
2. Revised Mass of Creation. Moving on to a setting I've actually played for congregations (and moving down considerably in quality from Mass of Wisdom), we have the Revised Mass of Creation. Strengths: familiarity and utility. Haugen was able to revise the Mass of Creation while keeping its original character substantially intact, although the former product is superior to the latter. My congregation sings it, albeit a bit tepidly. People know this setting and are at least somewhat willing to sing it; on the other hand, I don't think anyone is excited by this setting or blown away by its beauty.
3. Mass of Christ the Savior. I think this is an objectively better work than Mass of Creation, however it has some serious pitfalls. I got really excited when I first heard the recording of this. The recording with organ and brass sounds grand and majestic while being incredibly easy to sing. Unfortunately, at the parish level, often sans organ and brass, this quickly starts to sound like a collection of trivial children's songs. There is also an unfortunate resemblance to the theme song of My Little Pony. Another oddity is that the Gloria repeats the phrase "on earth peace," however, it is done in such a way that it sounds like the text is "and on earth/peace on earth/peace to people of good will." If you look closely, it is a simple repeat of "on earth peace" but it took me a very long time to figure that out. Nevertheless, there is a reason this is OCP's top selling mass setting: it is incredibly easy to sing, and can be very beautiful when executed correctly. The Gloria and Sanctus are particularly strong; as with some of the other settings here, the Alleluia is weak.
The mass settings in this category will sound best on the organ and are either hymnodic or chanted. I recommend Psallite Mass by the Collegeville Composers Group and Mass in Honor of St. Isaac Jogues by Jeff Ostrowski.
1. Psallite Mass. I recommend this to anyone with a truly phenomenal choir. It is phenomenally beautiful, but this beauty, at least in the recording, relies on flawless acapella singing of harmonies by a choir. Yet, despite all the harmonies, the melody is clearly distinguishable such that a congregation could sing along. They went all out with this setting, setting every text you could possibly need, from I Saw Water Flowing to the Pentecost Sequence. The style mimics Gregorian Chant but in a way that feels natural to the English language. In this sense it reminds me of Taize. Thanks to Adam Wood for bringing this setting to my attention. Liturgical Press claims this setting can be used with organ, piano, or guitar, but the recording is entirely acapella.
2. Mass In Honor of St. Isaac Jogues. This setting is an English Gregorian Chant setting. It is available for free form Corpus Christi Watershed. Recordings are available in three varieties: SATB acapella, Unison (Modern), and Unison (Gregorian). Modern and Gregorian merely refer to the type of music notation displayed in the performance videos. For the most part, the mass setting consists of simple melodies that a congregation could easily sing along to. The Gloria, Sanctus, and Lamb of God are particularly strong pieces. The Kyrie is beautiful but a bit more of a challenge. The Mystery of Faith I find to be nice but slightly uninspired. I was surprised by how much of a difference the vocal harmonies made to my appreciation of this setting. I found the unison recordings to be unlistenably boring, while the SATB recordings drew me in and got me singing along. I take this to mean that this setting should only be attempted with a choir with the skill to nail these harmonies.
1. Revised Mass of Glory by Bob Hurd and Ken Canedo. This has a very catchy gospel-esque feel. Additionally, there is excellent harmony between text and music. The Gloria is a high point of this setting, however, it may have been better received had they not put clapping or snapping fingers in the recording, which I do not personally feel comfortable doing. The rest of the setting does not live up to the Gloria. I further believe that the Sanctus, Mystery of Faith, and Amen are not the place for these jazz motifs. Alleluia Give the Glory is an awesome piece of music but I question while the USCCB allowed the composers to add the text "give the glory and the honor to the Lord."
2. Revised Celtic Mass by Christopher Walker. Before the new translation came out, Celtic Mass was awesome and the words fit the music very well. The same can not be said for the revised Celtic Mass. There are some obvious discordant phrases where a text is awkwardly crammed into a place it doesn't really fit. Nevertheless, there are still some great portions of this setting. While the Gloria has some serious flaws, the rest of it largely came out alive. Even if some of this revision is too awkward for use, listening to it was a nice trip down memory lane.
3. Mass for a New World by David Haas. Contemporary in the sense that people from the 1960s are still alive - however, the Gloria is very well done, as is the Alleluia. I do not think as highly of the rest of this setting. This is pretty much a classic folk mass, for better or worse.
4. Mass of the Desert by Tom Booth. This sounds good on the recording. I question the ability of a parish choir to reproduce this sound without the tools available in a recording studio.
These are the Mass settings I love to hate. Despite their seeming lack of positive attributes, they have persisted in blighting the liturgical landscape for the past 6 years. Links to publishers will not be provided in this section as to give them as little free publicity as possible.
1. Storrington Mass by Marty Haugen. Haugen's publisher wanted something that sounded like Mass of Creation but to a new melody. The new product is terribly bland. Note to composers: do the first something awesome rather than making inferior imitations of something else good.
2. Mass of Joy and Peace by Tony Alonso. The goal seems to have been to sound joyful while being easy to sing. The actual result is something that sounds like a nursery rhyme song. I think such music trivializes the liturgy. Unlike Mass of Christ the Savior where such a sound is a result of bad performance, the original recording of Mass of Joy and Peace sounds this way.
Few experiences of Mass can be worse than one ruined by bad guitar playing accompanying a bad song. Sadly, the versatility of guitar voicings that can create a sacred sound has been lost upon most of a generation due to the incompetence of the average Joe playing one in a typical Sunday Mass. I intend to demonstrate in this post how the guitar can be played liturgically and what guidance the church documents on the liturgy give about this matter.
I'm dissapointed that conversations on this topic often start with blanket statements such as "guitars are irreverent" or "the guitar has no place in mass." These statements occur nowhere in church documents on the liturgy and represent subjective opinions. Attempts could be made to argue to such positions starting from the documents, however, I will attempt to demonstrate that a better reading of Musicam Sacram supports the use of the guitar when played in a liturgical voicing.
Musicam Sacram defines sacred music as "that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form" and states that "The following come under the title of sacred music here: Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony in its various forms both ancient and modern, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious" [paragraph 4.(b)]. Note that the Church considers some "popular music" to be sacred and that "other approved instruments" may be used in addition to the organ. While this information is sadly lacking anywhere I can find on the internet, I did find this note while reading a reference book: "In the same year , the U.S. Bishop's Liturgy Committee approved the use of contemporary music, as well as guitars and other suitable instruments, in the liturgy." [Dr. Matthew Bunson, Catholic Almanac, 2011, pg. 187].
Contra the idea that liturgical music should be exclusively traditional, Musicam Sacram in paragraph 61 states "Adapting sacred music for those regions which possess a musical tradition of their own, especially mission areas, will require a very specialized preparation by the experts. It will be a question in fact of how to harmonize the sense of the sacred with the spirit, traditions and characteristic expressions proper to each of these peoples. Those who work in this field should have a sufficient knowledge both of the liturgy and musical tradition of the Church, and of the language, popular songs and other characteristic expressions of the people for whose benefit they are working." Note that this paragraph does not state that only mission areas may use local musical genres. I must address an argument that claims this paragraph refers exclusively to music that was already considered sacred for its use in pagan worship prior to cultures converting to Christianity. I point out that such an interpretation is inconsistent with reference to "popular songs" and further that such an interpretation subjugates the actual text of the document to a "Spirit of Vatican II."
Paragraph 63 continues: "In permitting and using musical instruments, the culture and traditions of individual peoples must be taken into account. However, those instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration and from popular devotions." What are the culture and traditions of the American people? I note the the guitar is common to nearly every style of folk music in the United States, from African Spirituals, to Appalachian folk, to Gospel. The use of guitar in music is deeply ingrained in the fabric of our culture and as such we should be seeking to harmonize its use with the liturgy. But what if the guitar is "by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only"? I answer that it is not. The traditionalist seeking to eliminate the guitar has a lot of ground to cover in establishing that the general population of Catholics in our country considers the guitar "suitable for secular music only" in light of its widespread usage in Catholic parishes. Note that "it's obvious to me personally that it doesn't belong" reflects your personal subjective opinions and says nothing about the general population. Further, such an argument flies in the face of the existence of Gospel music which has been using the guitar for a sacred purpose for over 100 years. I suggest rather that this paragraph is referring to harmonicas, kazoos, and accordions (joke instruments in our culture, by and large) and the sort of techno/computer synthesized instrumentation that accompanies pop music and is in fact considered by everyone to be suitable for entertainment purposes only. As a final note, the judgement of which instruments are "suitable for secular music only" is to be made by the local bishops' conference, which in our country has judged in their favor.
All that considered, the following are some practices that can allow the guitar to have a sacred sound. Bad experiences of guitar music in mass often are the result of entire songs being aggressively strummed without consideration for the appropriateness of this technique to the song. The result is a characterless monotone that distracts from the human voice. Strumming is an easy technique for beginners and such guitar playing reflects an "anything goes" culture where guitarists are allowed to play for mass before they are qualified.
Good liturgical guitar players know how to play their instrument in a manner that supports the human voice as the primary liturgical instrument and help to give structure and form to the song. One way to do this is to finger pick and carry the melody on the guitar. I consider the following to be a virtuoso example of how to do this. I specifically picked Silent Night for an example because this is an old hymn originally written for the guitar.
Tasteful strumming can also help to give structure to a song while maintaining the human voice as the primary instrument. I consider 10,000 Reasons by Matt Redman a great example of a contemporary song with a hymn-like structure and theological depth. This video shows strumming done right:
I've heard some people say that they consider the acoustic guitar appropriate for mass but not the electric guitar. If anything, this is backwards. The electric guitar is among the most versatile instruments known to mankind and its incredible range of voicings allow it to support the human voice better and in a more worshipful feel than the acoustic can easily achieve. Certainly, we should avoid the motifs of hard rock, metal, and the like. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the electric guitar has some abilities that make it particularly suited to worship. The Catholic Church gives the organ pride of place in worship in part because of its ability to produce a sustained sound, like the human voice does, rather than a discrete sound that starts to die as soon as the note is struck. Sustain on an electric guitar produces such a continuous sound! Furthermore, while the acoustic guitar can have a harsh pop to it, clean (distortion free) amplification channels can produce a much gentler sound. Here are some examples of this:
-Church documents allow for the use of guitar in the liturgy
-Finger picking can help support the human voice by following the melody
-Strumming should be subtle and not overpowering the singer
-Sustain and clean channel amplification can create a sacred sound on the electric guitar
My hope is that this gives you a broader perspective on how the guitar can be used in the liturgy!
I am a Catholic liturgical musician seeking to understand the role of the laity in worship and particularly the role of lay musicians in worship.
Discussion of Liturgy:
Music Gift of God
Musica Sacra Forum
Parish Book of Psalms
Simple English Propers
Public Domain Hymns