Music of the Episcopal Mass
A Humorous approach
On Sunday, December 3 I attended the Solemn Mass at the Church of the Advent, in the North End. Now, you have to understand that I am religiously challenged, at best. I’ve been to my share of weddings and funerals, but growing up I averaged one regular church service every year or two. When I did go, it was either to Hardshell Baptist or Dunkard Bretheren services, with my father or mother’s side of the family, respectively. Both these denominations focus heavily on simplicity and egalitarianism. The churches are usually one room, wooden affairs with a simple lectern. The music draws heavily on the English folk tradition, and the service is delivered in a straightforward manner.
Imagine my trepidation, then, when I walked into this church, with its high, vaulted ceilings and an enormous, emaciated, and slightly malicious-looking Christ figure suspended thirty feet among my head. As I came through the entrance, the prelude began. It sounded like nothing less than the soundtrack to a horror movie, as the slasher is about to leap out and dice an innocent schoolgirl. The organ wailed in threatening, building minor chords and did nothing to allay my trepidation.
I quickly found a seat in the back of the room. Then, what did I behold, but a procession of similarly robed, somber looking men waving banners, crosses, and other crystal and gold implements above their heads. As the leader passed me he began swinging a golden canister about his head, and noxious fumes poured out. My eyes and throat burned, and I thought some sort of crazy cultists had gassed me. The moment passed, however, and I realized that they were the leaders of the church, and it was nothing but incense. After parading in laps around the sanctuary, the procession moved to a raised platform upon which they performed strange rituals before an enormous granite-looking monolith. I later found out that this monolith was the altar, the first of many things in this service the churches of my childhood would have found wicked and sinful.
Following the procession came Hymn 360, which all 100 of the parishioners present sang, while accompanied by the organ. It seemed to my untrained ear to go from major to minor and back to major, but the major ending was significantly more solemn than the joyous beginning. Then came Hymn 486 (not to be confused with RU486), which was also sung by everyone and accompanied by organ. It blended seamlessly into the Cantus Missae. In fact, I didn’t realize a new piece had begun until it ended and the Kyrie eleison followed. The Kyrie is something I am at least marginally familiar with, having studied it in HT 2. It was sung by the choir, without accompaniment. I think I heard some fugal elements in this piece, when different vocal sections would follow each other with identical musical lines.
The minister (priest, friar, monk, reverend, etc. I don’t know what to call him in their denomination) performed the Collect of the Day, which was very similar to recitative operatic style. It was definitely musical, but it held one note predominantly and moved almost entirely rhythmically. This would have been unheard of in any church I had set foot in before. A Bible reading followed, about the end of the world. This was to be the topic of the day. The choir and organ then performed Psalm 60 in a musical style more melodic than the Collect, but still predominantly rhythmic. This was followed by another apocalyptic Bible verse. These allusions to the end of days put me on a familiar footing: they were a favorite in the Hardshell church. Little did I know what was coming.
A period of call and response chant between one of the officials of the church and the congregation came next. Then, there was yet another reading, this time from Luke, but again regarding Armageddon.
Then came the Sermon, which was both the most familiar part of the service, but also the strangest. The preacher (again, I don’t know what to call him) addressed the congregation in a congenial tone from a pulpit that, although raised, was not too dissimilar from those I had seen before. He began with a description of the events that are to accompany the end of the world, as found in Revelations and other books of the Bible. Preparing for the Rapture, the Second Coming, and Armageddon is a big part of the churches I had attended in the past, so this was friendly ground. Then, he began finding parallels in scientific theories. The big bang and universal contraction were addressed, and he put all the millennial predictions into scientific perspective. Both the churches I am familiar with believe in literal interpretation of the Bible, and they would have found this dilution of God’s supposed Earthly reign absolutely blasphemous.
The congregation, choir, and officials began a series of prayers at this point. The first was sung by all, with accompaniment by the organ. Then came two prayers led by the officials in a spoken form. Concluding this section of the service was a ritual in which the congregation turn to one another, shake hands, and say Peace, like they’re some kind of holdover sixties hippie dirt merchants.
The first part of the next section was the Offertory Anthem, which was performed by choir and organ, with some of the high notes sounding like badly synthesized trumpets. It began somewhat somberly, but the second verse was decidedly uptempo and joyous. Of course, it should sound joyous when your trying to convince people that they need to tithe 10%, and you want them to drop their hard earned cash into a jewel-encrusted gold plate. Next came another recitative prayer, sung solo by someone I couldn’t quite see from my seat.
From this point until people began taking communion, I became fairly badly lost. The prayers and hymns alternated fairly regularly between recitative style, choir pieces, and those performed by all, with one call and response section in the middle. After people had eaten their oh-so-holy crackers, another thing my grandmother would have been flabbergasted to see, the choir produced the Communion Sentence, which also had a very fugal feel.
The service began to draw gradually to a close at this point. I think we studied motets in this class, and that’s great because that’s exactly what the choir and organ performed next. It was very upbeat and more happy-sounding than anything since the Offertory had been. The Post-Communion Prayer was accompanied by organ, as was the Blessing and Dismissal. Everyone sang along with the Organ on the last hymn. Then, the organ played another slasher tune to mark the Postlude, and the cultish figures in robes made some more laps around the sanctuary and vanished out a side door. As they passed people started breaking for the door, before the organ had even stopped moaning. I stuck around until the final chords had been ground out and the candles had been extinguished, then I tried to gracefully leave, and was only mildly rude to the guy in a robe and a hat with a topknot standing outside who kept asking if I was going to come back next week.