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Watson Bosler's notes on the music

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

Notes on the Music


2013 marks the 29th annual Service in Memory of Philip Lange. Philip has been remembered through performances of works ranging from Schubert’s Mass in G through a Bach cantata (Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, BWV 68), Mass settings by figures as disparate as Louis Vierne, Ariel Ramirez, Virgil Thomson, and Saint Peter’s good friend Walter Hilse,  and, three year ago, through music provided by the Glasgow Academy’s Pipes and Drums.


Throughout the celebration of Saint Peter’s sesquicentennial, the congregation has been celebrating the long and fruitful relationship it has enjoyed with the contemporary American composer and choral conductor, Gregg Smith. On Transfiguration Sunday 2012, in a preview of that ongoing observation, the music was Gregg’s Mass for Saint Peter’s, the only work specifically commissioned for and premiered at one of these services.  That premiere took place on February 13, 1994, on the occasion of the tenth Memorial Service; and the Mass was given its seconde at the following year’s Service on February 26, 1995. And as was true last year, this morning’s music has a special meaning, for, like Philip, it is warp and woof of this congregation, “born and raised” here: Gregg’s earlier Jazz Mass for Saint Peter’s. Gregg is one of only three composers—the others are Schubert and Mozart—who have had four Lange Memorial Services dedicated to their music.


Gregg needs no introduction to our congregation: his music has been part and parcel of our liturgies for many years; his chorus, the Gregg Smith Singers, has made Saint Peter’s its New York base for thirty years and more; and, in perhaps his most generous “loan-out,” his wife, Rosalind Rees, has been one of our soprano soloists since…well, let’s just say for a good (with an emphasis on the “good”!) long while.  Indeed, Gregg and Roz were married in the “old” Saint Peter’s on Christmas Eve 1970—between the seven o’clock service and the Midnight Mass. (In those distant days we had three Christmas Eve services: 4:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m., and 11:00 p.m.


With his community choral group, the Long Island Symphonic Choral Association (LISCA), Gregg recorded the Jazz Mass for Saint Peter’s in 1978, right here in its eponymous sanctuary. When the recording was finally issued in 1985, the composer supplied informative liner notes.  They follow, lightly edited and with 2013 annotations in [brackets].



Jazz Mass for Saint Peter’s

Dedicated to John Garcia Gensel and the Saint Peter’s Jazz Community


The Jazz Mass for Saint Peter’s was commissioned and written in two segments. The Sanctus-Benedictus movement was composed in 1966 for the Ithaca College jazz workshop when I was director of choral activities there. The other movements were composed in 1972 when the Rev. John Garcia Gensel, minister at Saint Peter’s who serves the famous New York jazz community, suggested that I expand upon the Sanctus / Benedictus and create a complete mass for the same forces, namely chorus, soloists, trumpet, electric guitar, string bass and percussion.


[A close review of church bulletins for 1972 and early 1973 reveals one mention of the Mass:  in the February 1973 bulletin—in this period, a whole month of services was included in a single bulletin— on the page devoted to the Jazz Vespers services for the month there is a note as follows under the heading “OUR LEADERS IN WORSHIP ARE” for February 25: “The Greg [sic] Smith Mass (choir and orchestra).”  As no individual bulletins were issued, this seems to be the only record of the Jazz Mass for Saint Peter’s premiere.  It is important to note that February 25, 1973 was the last “complete” Sunday in the old Saint Peter’s: the following Sunday, March 4, saw the departure of the congregation for their temporary home at Central Presbyterian Church prior to the demolition of the 1904 building.]   


Since then the Mass has enjoyed a history of repeated performances—several at Saint Peter’s itself but also throughout the United States. In 1978 the Finnish jazz composer Heikki Sarmanto wrote a beautiful jazz mass of his own, the New Hope Mass, which was premiered at Saint Peter’s.


[Sarmanto had performed at a 7:00 p.m. Jazz Vespers in the old Saint Peter’s on March 12, 1972.  Born in June 1939, he had studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and in 1971 had won top awards in combo and piano at the Montreux Festival.  The New Hope Jazz Mass, as Sarmento officially entitled the work, was premiered here on May 18, 1978.  It was described as “an important part of the dedication [of the “new” Saint Peter’s] year… symboliz[ing] the global dimension of Saint Peter’s ministry and the importance of the spiritual and cultural contributions of Finland to the life of the Church…[The work] has been especially commissioned for our dedication year. Participating in the service [which took place on a Thursday evening] will be…the Gregg Smith Singers.”  Gregg continues:]


The two masses share a natural affinity, and in a kind of “hands across the sea” gesture they were coupled in several programs in New York as well as in five performances for the Helsinki Festival in Finland. [The Sarmanto work was recorded during that visit, in the Temppeliaukio (Rock”) Church, with Gregg conducting LISCA.]


While the two works share many affinities, they differ in one respect. Heikki is a jazz musician who with his New Hope [Jazz] Mass brought his talents as a composer of popular music into the classical field. Conversely, I live in the world of classical music and therefore my Jazz Mass for Saint Peter’s is the creation of a classically trained composer working temporarily in the field of popular music. Such bridgings between the two fields are not uncommon, since many composers and performers have strong backgrounds and experience in both kinds of music. Unfortunately, however, this often results in the pigeon-holing-by-publicity that so many artists have to live with. Although as a performer and composer I have made brief excursions into popular music, my musical life and inclinations have been overwhelmingly classical. Nevertheless, I believe that simply because I am an American, popular music and jazz have permeated my musical thinking almost without my being aware of it.


Composing a classical jazz piece, therefore, has not only been a most interesting challenge for me, but also an experience that has brought me a new self-awareness. Although I could not begin to define the popular jazz elements inherent in the piece, I am sure that some jazz “authority” could do so, and I am almost as sure that those elements derive from jazz styles that are anywhere from ten to forty years old. [Bear in mind: these words were written ca. 1985!] Perhaps that is as it should be because a classical composer, after all, draws as much on the past as the present. Certainly most composers in the history of our Western civilization have drawn upon popular elements of one kind or another and fused them with their own style.


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. [For a discussion of the shaping of the Mass as we know it today, visit http://theintersection.pbworks.com to read a brief discussion drawn from last year’s Lange Service notes.] 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 Resurrexit”). An important aspect of the Mass is the use of spatial effects in performance: soloists and instrumentalists sometimes move off the stage and out into the hall for the purpose of creating various antiphonal sonorities. [In a liturgical setting, some of the “moves” italicized in the following analysis must needs be tinkered with; and while Gregg suggested deleting the following sentence, it is probably appropriate to include it, given the fact that the eighteen-year-old we are remembering this morning would most definitely have understood its import; those befuddled by its terminology need only to resort to the “information superhighway.”] As this recording was made in quadrasonic sound, these spatial effects can best be discerned through quadrasonic playback.


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.


GloriaThis movement casts the conductor temporarily in the role of a chanting priest as he leads off with a solo theme on the word “Gloria.” [In today’s performance, the tenor soloist will take on that responsibility!] This is echoed by the four instruments moving together vertically. Each soloist 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 [read: tenor soloist], 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.


CredoThe chorus opens this movement with an a cappella unison statement, “Credo in unum Deum, Credo” [“I believe in one God, I believe”].  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 resurrexit” 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-BenedictusThis 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. [As Gregg noted above, this movement was composed in 1966, while he was teaching at Ithaca College.]  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. [Wikipedia tells us that “aleatoric music is music in which some element of the composition is left to chance [“alea” means “dice” in Latin], and/or some primary element of a composed work’s realization is left to the determination of its performer(s).”]  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. [This is also true in Gregg’s Mass for Saint Peter’s, heard here last Transfiguration Sunday.]  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.




Gregg’s comments make clear the tension between genres and backgrounds that haunt any “crossover” creative endeavor.  And in the case of the Jazz Mass for Saint Peter’s, that tension is only increased by the lack of a hard and fast “definition” of jazz, or, indeed, a generally agreed-upon genealogy of the music itself.  The “New” Grove Dictionary of Music and musicians (actually the work’s sixth edition), published in 1980, two years after the composition of the Jazz Mass for Saint Peter’s and four years before Philip’s untimely death, makes that fact abundantly clear.  Max Harrison’s first words in the “Jazz” entry are as follows: “Attempts at a concise—even a coherent—definition of jazz have invariably failed.”  He continues: “Initial efforts to separate it from related forms of music resulted in a false primacy of certain aspects such as improvisation, which is neither unique nor essential to jazz, or to swing (the quality of rhythmic momentum resulting from small departures from the regular pulse), which is absent from much authentic jazz, early and late.”  Equally difficult to pin down, he avers, is any real evidence of “African survivals” in jazz, given the fact of the widely dispersed geographical origins of the slave diaspora, and the inevitability of the “native musical traditions from Africa [having] lost identity quickly and from earliest times [being] combined with European elements in a variety of ways…”  Harmony, that backbone of European music, was “probably the last” element of “white” music to be absorbed into the developing idiom, and wasn’t always a welcome partner: the “extremely varied mixture of folk and popular music from which jazz arose” created “incongruities,” Harrison notes, during the early twentieth century birthing of this music, citing as one example that directly relates to Gregg’s Mass the fact that “clashes between the microtonal inflections of Bessie Smith’s blues singing and the fixed pitch of her piano accompaniments” highlight the difficulty of “accommodating folk-derived melody to the more recently acquired harmony.’’


Gregg’s comments address these very issues. Clearly, for him (in 1985!) there was a very close relationship between his concept of “jazz” and improvisation. (As he notes, his delight in improvisation displayed in the Jazz Mass also closely tracks “classical” music developments of the 1960’s and ’70’s.) And the “clash” between what he refers to as a “Renaissance polyphonic style” and the “aleatoric” nature of much of the soloists’ material in the Jazz Mass is but a late-twentieth century reprise at the hands of a skilled “classical” composer of the “slowly assembled mixture of mutually influential folk and popular styles…” that finally resulted in the ever-evolving music we know as jazz.


In closing, it probably should be mentioned that the origins of the very word “jazz” are hardly clear.  Nowadays it is considered to be derived from an equally obscure slang word, jasm, itself perhaps derived from jism, a word now considered out-of-bounds, but formerly more “respectable”.  The earliest tracing the Oxford English Dictionary finds for jasm comes from Josiah Gilbert Holland’s 1860 novel, Miss Gilbert’s Career: “‘She’s just like her mother… Oh! she’s just as full of jasm!’.. ‘Now tell me what jasm is.’.. ‘If you’ll take thunder and lightening [sic], and a steamboat and a buzz-saw, and mix ‘em up, and put ‘em into a woman, that’s jasm.’” (Lest one wonders about Mr. Holland’s taste and/or character, it should be noted he helped found Scribner’s Monthly and was a close friend of Emily Dickinson!)


Jasm’s evolution into jazz seems to have initially taken root on the West Coast, where it was first applied in 1912 or so to the quality of a new fast-ball pitch.  Within the decade the combination of “a steamboat and a buzz-saw” was being applied to a form of music out of New Orleans.  And that same “get up and go,” that same “spirit, energy, spunk” (the polite definition of jism) characterizes much of today’s Jazz Mass for Saint Peter’s, as it did the young man we remember this morning.


Liner notes © Gregg Smith, 1985

Notes © Watson Bosler, 2013


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