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Gregg Smith's description of Jazz Mass for Saint Peter's

Page history last edited by Sam Hutcheson 7 years, 11 months ago

Jazz Mass for Saint Peter’s consists of the five parts, or movements, of the traditional ordinary of the mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus-Benedictus and Agnus Dei. With the exception of the Credo, I have used the traditional Latin text throughout. In the Credo I decided to have the four soloists sing the English version of the Nicene Creed, punctuated throughout by the chorus with key Latin phrases (“Credo in unum Deum,” “Crucifixus,” “Et Resurexit”). An important aspect of the mass is the use of spatial effects in performance: soloists and instrumentalists sometimes move off the stage out into the hall for the purpose of creating various antiphonal sonorities.


Kyrie—The mass begins with the four vocal soloists and four instrumentalists positioned in pairs at the four sides of a hall: soprano and trumpet in the back, tenor and vibraphone on one side, bass and string bass on the other side, and the alto and electric guitar on stage with the chorus. Except for the opening Kyrie theme, which is stated by each soloist in a fugal manner, all elements are improvisatory within certain pitch (but not rhythmic) limitations. The entrance of the chorus in the “Christe” section is written in a Renaissance polyphonic style, and with the return of the Kyrie the two styles, jazz (soloists and instrumentalists) and classical (chorus), are fused.


Gloria—This movement casts the conductor temporarily in the role of a chanting priest as he leads off with a solo theme on the word “Gloria.” This is echoed by the four instruments moving together vertically. Each singer then improvises a melody, which is imitated by his or her instrumental partner in what I like to call a “shadowing” process. This opening section has one specific purpose, namely to allow the performers enough time to return to the stage after their individual solos (the onstage alto and guitar of course being last). After one more statement by the conductor, the chorus and instrumentalists move into a quick tempo with “Et in terra pax…” Each phrase is followed by a repeated instrumental figure which allows each player to have an improvised solo section of his own. Basically in ABA form, the slower “Quoniam tu solus” casts the choir in the role of harmonic support for the melodic statements of the trumpet and guitar. A short restatement of the “A” material leads into a coda in which repeated chordal patterns sung by the choir (to “Amen”) provide the foundation for final improvised solos on the trumpet, guitar and string bass.


Credo—The chorus opens this movement with an a capella unison statement, “Credo in unum Deum, Credo.” This nine-note melody in unison chorus punctuates the music throughout. The movement is basically a song (some musician friends say it contains folk elements) sung by a dueting alto and bass. The middle section, “Crucifixus,” turns the dueting over to soprano and tenor at the back of the hall, who sing in a completely different style, namely Gregorian chant. With the words “Et resurexit” the solos are again taken by the alto and bass. The ending repetition, with instruments, allows the singers this time to improvise as they please.


Sanctus-Benedictus—This movement reflects some of the styles and textures that many classical composers were experimenting with throughout the 1960s: speaking, whispering, tone clusters, improvised pitches, etc. The opening Sanctus is based on a 12-tone row (not atonal, however) based on a series of fifths. Each instrument states a part of the row (four notes) while the chorus creates a wide range of vocal sounds. Near the end of the Sanctus the chorus sings an aleatoric “Pleni sunt coeli” that segues immediately into the Hosanna. The Hosanna, a fugue basically in 5/4 time but with many meter changes, is the most demanding section for the chorus as well as the most intensely dramatic part of the whole mass. The Benedictus to my mind is a “blues” section featuring a long solo for female voice. The row melody underlies this section but it is now harmonized in blues-like chords for the guitar. As a background the chorus begins in unison and then spreads out into thick tone clusters, which are sung pianissimo throughout in order to create a kind of pastel effect. Following tradition, the Hosanna is repeated, but this time in the final measures the chorus produces a 20-note-scale tone cluster while the trumpet, guitar and string bass state the row theme in unison.


Agnus Dei — As in many traditional masses, the Agnus Dei returns to the melody of the opening Kyrie. However, because of the different mood of this part of the mass the character of the melody is changed: what was once an intensely syncopated theme is now a gentle, quiet one. As before, each soloist states the theme, after which it is sung by the whole quartet. And again the chorus sings in a Renaissance polyphonic style that fuses with the melodies of the quartet. The final “Dona nobis pacem” evolves from the choral theme.


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