Thursday, November 21, 2019

Dr William Mahrt on The Mass of the Americas

Our publisher Dr William Mahrt attended the recent celebration of the Pontifical Mass in Washington DC, the first time Frank LaRocca's Mass of the Americas was performed with the celebration of the Extraordinary Form, and was kind enough to share this review with us. A complete video of the ceremony is included below, and several pictures of the Mass, courtesy of photographers Matthew Barrick and Jeffrey Bruno, and the Benedict XVI Institute.

On November 16, a Solemn Pontifical Mass in the Extraordinary Form was celebrated at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., by His Excellency Salvatore Cordileone, Archbishop of San Francisco. Sponsored by the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship, it was designated the “Mass of the Americas”; the idea for it came from the close occurrence of the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the San Francisco celebration of the Guadalupana, the festive observance of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The archbishop wanted a liturgical observance uniting the two traditions, and so he commissioned composer Frank La Rocca to produce music incorporating traditional Mexican tunes, especially “La Guadalupana,” into the music for the Mass in the manner of a Renaissance parody Mass. This was celebrated in the Ordinary Form on December 8 of last year in San Francisco, and will be celebrated again on other occasions across the country; its celebration in Washington in the Extraordinary Form was part of this project. While the Mass in San Francisco included some texts in the vernacular, the Extraordinary Form admits only of Latin, and so La Rocca revised some of the music to create one of the most beautiful and impressive celebrations of that Mass in a long time.

The ceremonies of the old Mass were extensive and highly significant. Assisting the archbishop was the assistant priest, four deacons—two of the throne, two of the altar—a subdeacon, a master of ceremonies, two miter bearers, and numerous acolytes; each minister was in a distinctive vestment which showed forth the distinct function of his ministry. Two familiares, who aided the archbishop in washing his hands, were vested in ferraiolae, black floor-length capes that showed them as the lowest, yet valuable participants in the ceremonies. A significant and rarely seen part of the ceremonies was the vesting of the archbishop. At least twelve distinctive vestments were brought to him in turn, each of which is donned as he says a prayer. Particularly interesting were the tunicle and dalmatic, the vestment of the subdeacon and deacon, and the chasuble, proper to a priest; that a bishop wears all of these symbolizes his possession of the fullness of the priesthood. The hierarchy of vestments of the ministers corresponded to the hierarchy of the elements of the ceremonies, which involved a complex of formal actions and gestures; even the congregation was included when they were honored with incense, when they sang the responses to the archbishop, and, of course, when they received Communion.

The vestments were created specifically for the Mass of the Americas. They incorporate the turquoise color of Mary’s cloak in the famous Guadalupe image, as well as the sun behind her; twelve stars on three of the principal vestments derive from Mary’s crown in the Book of Revelation. A Scriptural verse visible on the vestments refers to the consequence of the revelation to St Juan Diego at Guadalupe—the conversion of Mexico to Christianity: “Non fecit taliter omni nationi” (Ps. 147:20, He hath not done thus for every other nation.)

Omni nationi!
It was the music that brought the whole liturgy together. All the music for the Extraordinary Form had to be in the ancient liturgical languages, and so some pieces were newly composed, for example the Kyrie, an alternation between Gregorian chant and polyphonic elaboration using the Kyrie cum jubilo for Masses of the Blessed Virgin. This stunning composition set the tone for the whole liturgy, where music ranged from traditional Gregorian chants sung by a schola of either men or women, to elaboration upon the chants, to settings incorporating the traditional Mexican melodies in music of transcendent liturgical expression. Some movements began with chant-like melodies, only to go far beyond them in extraordinary musical textures. Before and after the Mass, during the vesting and de-vesting of the archbishop, music in Latin, Spanish, and Nahuatl, the Aztec language spoken by St. Juan Diego, was sung.

All the music had a discernable focus in a harmonic language that could be understood by an intelligent listener; it could be called tonal, but it departed from traditional tonal techniques. There were familiar kinds of dissonance, but it took them far beyond conventional contrapuntal practice. It used some traditional harmonic language, but with new and exciting progressions and sonorities. At its most complex, it achieved a use of harmonic language that emerged from creative use of conventional contrapuntal and harmonic practices. This is the hallmark of La Rocca’s composition: he began as an academic composer of skilled but abstract music; then he realized that there was more to music than the esoteric language of academic composition. He now uses his skill as a composer to create music that is harmonic but innovative. This music is modern but comprehensible, classical but not archaic. He avoids, on the one hand, the slightly remote style of Arvo Pärt, and, on the other hand, the luscious, indulgent style of Morton Lauritsen.

The pieces of the Ordinary of the Mass are of remarkably different purposes: the Kyrie, drawn-out and hieratic, the Gloria, exultant and joyful with moments of lyrical introspection. The Sanctus is a most evocative anticipation of the mystery about to be enacted, while the Benedictus, which speaks of Him who has just come, is a warm but hieratic welcome to the presence of the Savior. The Agnus Dei reflects both the pathos of the sacrifice of Christ and the love by which that sacrifice was offered. Some of the Propers of the Mass were sung by a schola in pure Gregorian chant, but others were given eloquent polyphonic settings, either based upon chants or upon free melodies.

Eternal Word Television Network broadcast the entire liturgy, and deserves credit for many aspects of a very skillful presentation, not the least of which was the absence of any superimposed commentary: the liturgy and its music could be observed directly and speak for themselves. The entire church (the largest Catholic Church in North America) was filled with worshipers, including many young people.

Archbishop Cordileone’s sermon focused upon the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a means of uniting—“that all may be one”—East and West, Old World and New, Aztecs and Spaniards, rich and poor. He approached the question of how one can mount such an elaborate liturgy as this in so beautiful a church, while the poor are in need. He quoted Dorothy Day: we must feed the bodies of the poor but also their souls—satisfy hunger for bread, but also hunger for beauty. Of the transcendentals truth, goodness, and beauty, beauty is most lacking today, and this leads to the purpose of the Mass of the Americas: to bring beauty to the life of the church.

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