Looking at the Mass of Creation

4586549.gifIt deserves a serious look. Music reviewers of its day certainly had things to say about it, much of it was critical.

Those who bristle at its popularity overlook many important factors (if not facts) as they dive in to criticize its shortcomings. To understand its role in post-conciliar worship, a little perspective is needed.

First, trained church musicians weren’t always doing their post-conciliar job in promoting quality, especially in Mass music. Organists such as Bob Batastini promoted hymnody. Mass settings were often an afterthought. I knew one organist who taught his choir new Masses each Christmas and each Easter. Then he never used them again. I can only imagine what the people in the pew gleaned from this experience.

Among the folk groups I was involved with in the 80’s, it was enough of a chore to develop psalmody and a common Mass setting across the parish. No “classical” composers were doing it: writing a Mass setting that could be used by organ choirs, guitar groups, and cantors all. Imagine the thought that one could have a parish celebration or even a diocesan one and everybody would know the Mass ordinary. The fact is that Haugen did it first, and GIA published it first. Yeah, too bad it wasn’t a better effort, blah, blah, blah.

For all the criticism heaped on Marty Haugen for the first Mass setting he ever published, I think there’s more scorn, perhaps, to be levelled on Proulx, Peloquin, and others who were entirely capable of doing a better job. But they didn’t bother.

My sense is that GIA saw contemporary ensemble music as an unmined gold field. Thanks to the failures of FEL, PAA, NALR, and others, the 80’s gave them a wide open field. That wide open field also allowed them to cut corners in editing, presentation, and in musical judgments. In every parish I’ve ever worked, I’ve had to edit, mark up, and adjust both words, music, and guitar chords on GIA material.

Sorry, but I have little sympathy for people who complain about “illicit” texts (“problematic” is a more accurate term) or poor part-writing in contemporary music. If you’re going to use it, change it. If you have better music, use it instead.

It’s wishful thinking to expect that a more slavish translation of the Ordo Missae will magically improve the quality of music. It won’t. For that you need effort in the actual composing of sacred music itself, not some warm fuzzy expectation that loyalty and obedience will breed quality. “Oh goody; faithful English words will rout out those guitar vermin.” Dream on, I reply.

I doubt GIA will be so eager to let go of the cash cow that is the Mass of Creation. It will be a far easier sell to re-engineer the setting than to actually sell a work from a straight-A composition major. And in a market-driven world of sacred music, what you can sell drives the show. Like you, that strikes me as being more grave a sin than illiceity. Funny how the curia and Rome seem to miss the important stuff, eh? But don’t bet any time soon they’ll be commissioning serious composers to do a better job than what Haugen achieved at his first crack.

RP and others often paint me as a Haugen apologist. That would be a matter of perspective. I think Mass of Creation was something of a rush job. Organ goo under the first half, but nothing after the memorial acclamation? Word changes to avoid the publisher from cutting in ICEL on royalties? It would have been sensible for somebody to sit down with Marty and work on the voice and instrument writing for the basic skeleton of the Mass. But you know what? It wouldn’t surprise me if nobody wanted to bother. GIA knew it wouldn’t help sales. Richard Proulx and many others have never understood the guitar nor wanted to be bothered by ensemble playing. How many organists do you know who play chamber music with other musicians?

Many conservatory musicians are cultured to be lone rangers. What classical musicians have ever been part of great songwriting teams? Oh sure, Stokowski waited two centuries to orchestrate Bach. Ravel dressed up a nice piano piece from Russia. Big whoop. Collaboration, despite the fact it worked so well for musical theatre and jazz and the great pop songs of the last century is simply not a value for many musicians, especially some church musicians.

I welcome people who want to continue to play the blame game in the comboxes here. Keep bashing Marty Haugen, too, for all I care, but don’t make it personal. Just be aware that there’s more criticism to be levelled, and precious few are immune from their own role in failing to promote the very best pastoral music.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Liturgical Music. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Looking at the Mass of Creation

  1. Liam says:

    I guess the issue of licit/problematic text is it’s at least a no-brainer now (even if it wasn’t as clear to many in the mid-1980s) : now we know there’s no sufficient reason to try to craft settings of the ordinary for sale to Catholic parishes that do not conform to the approved translation. I hope music publishers get that much and a lot more (along the lines that Todd notes ably – though that doesn’t excuse the text issue, of course) through their heads.

    And tons of classical music composers were part of teams (though hardly in the Rodgers & Hart or Lerner & Lowe model, which I trust was *not* your intended visual for that term). A lots of classical church musicians still are – that’s a cheap shot that’s utterly beneath you, Todd, and really shows your bile more than your head. I know organists of first rank who are accompanists on other keyboard instrumetals and sing and play in ensembles. Some of them are jerks, but many aren’t. And I know plenty of guitar and piano liturgical musicians who were just as mule-headed as any guitar-despising NGO guy/gal.

    I for one have not personally bashed Haugen in this regard. I only critiqued the musical merit. And noted the context and what was positive.

    That said, there were serious composers who did some admirable work setting the postconciliar vernacular texts of the ordinary to music. As always, Ted Marier comes readily to mind. But he wasn’t commissioned by the big publishers, and arranged to self-publish, as it were. And the tussles over the liturgical texts for the past generation (not entirely ICEL’s or the hierarchy’s fault, but both share considerable responsibility) have basically made it a “don’t waste your time until this is settled” proposition.

  2. Todd says:

    Liam, thanks for the correction. We do have good sacred music teams like Carol Doran and Tom Troeger, Carl Schalk and Jaroslav Vajda, Omer Westerndorf and Robert Kreutz. But I do think the ones in classical composition are much harder to find. I was thinking in terms of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lennon & McCartney, Ellington & Strayhorn, and Gilbert & Sullivan. One of the reasons I do much less writing these days is the difficulty in finding collaborators–I just have no strong impetus to write without a partner or a purpose.

    I would say that piano and guitar musicians trend more collaborative because of the nature of ensembles. Rather than giving in to the cult of the director, many ensembles truly have a sense of cooperation and collaboration. It does happen among organists, just not as often. One of the challenges there is that except for musical communities and very large parishes, there are no musicians with the training to compare with conservatory-trained organists.

    And obviously in my own situation, I benefitted from never playing in really poor ensembles. I’ve found I can employ the lingo and concepts of jazz or early baroque or rock bands or authentic folk groups to get the message across to produce good liturgical music. I suppose I should be more cautious about letting personal experience cloud my judgment on such things.

  3. Liam says:


    I think your flaw is here is the instrumentalist/lyricist model of those pairings. They are not the best model for liturgical music. For one thing, a lyricist is not going to develop the text of the the ordinary or propers; at most, a lyricist would tend to the best musical expression of given texts. That’s a big difference, and cannot be got around. But it’s one myriad classical composers have had little trouble with over the centuries.

    I know many classical musicians who are in ensembles: choruses, scholas, chamber groups. Singers who are organists, and vice-versa. Collaboration is part of the air they breath, and at a high professional level. It’s as real as guitar/piano ensembles. I do think you need to step back more than a bit from your bile about organists and restrain your itch to overgeneralize and be “provocative”. It’s not necessary for your argument, and it undermines its credibility. You’ve got issues; hide them better under a rock.

    I’ve run the gamut in terms of ensembles and organists and pianists. Great and awful and everything in between all over. I will say that, if I had my druthers, my ideal music director would be someone who is professionally (or otherwise) trained

    – As a singer (my experience over and over is that music directors who subordinate the voice to the instrument are less desireable than those who don’t – and this is, in my experience, actually more common among pianist-directors than organist-directors, for what that anecdotal experience is worth)
    – In classic counterpoint vocal composition (which teaches an awful lot about the strengths and weaknesses of voices singing together)
    – As an organ soloist/accompanist and keyboard (piano and harpsichord) accompanist
    – As a choral music conductor.

    That’s a lot to ask for, but there are churches that understand what it takes to seek and retain such talent.

    I love piano and will advocate at times for its appropriate use in liturgical music; probably most of my liturgical music singing has been done with piano rather than organ, because I was in smaller communities. That said, for large church spaces, a fine pipe organ is simply unequalled for its expressive range and ability to support and counterpoint congregational, choral and even solo singing, and even ensemble playing. Its chief weakness it the lack of percussive timbre that some works benefit from, but that’s a minimal weakness. And there are times I might prefer an orchestral harp to a piano in a smaller church space.

  4. Todd says:

    Liam, the best I can figure is you must’ve hit a blind spot of mine or something. I’m not an organist, but I’ve worked with organists on staff and on special occasions.

    It’s more likely I’ve seen organists work with other instrumentalists on those special occasions. I confess that as a pianist, it’s “easier” not to bother with a student musician or even an accomplished instrumentalist. But more often than not when I play at my parish–and this has been a twenty-year trend for me, I invite and encourage collaboration with other musicians, not just the songleader. In my experience–an important caveat I think–I just don’t see organists doing that day-to-day. I have no doubt–and I know organists too who do this–that these folks sing in groups or play outside of church in ensembles. But not all.

    An interesting question would be to inquire of organists: how do they alter their registrations for playing with various instruments, including guitar? That would be very telling in terms of their approach to collaboration. Do they play to permit another player to fit in the overall sound? Or do they just make sure the music’s in the same key?

  5. Liam says:


    In large churches, guitars simply don’t cut it without amplification, and the amplification of guitars with natural acoustic voices and organ is a problem – I’ve lived through that nightmare for several years in a prior life. Yes, the organist would use light registrations, but the problem was with the amplification of the guitars. But the guitarists insisted, and were deferred to (because they were the leaders of the music ministry).

  6. Lynn says:

    Speaking as someone who sings in the choir and also sits in the pews from time to time, I love Mass of Creation. I came from a Peloquin/Proulx organ-driven parish, and the first time I heard MOC with guitars and piano, it was like a window opening up. People sang it, and didn’t just listen to the choir. The assembly is supposed to respond, and it sounds so great when the whole congregation is singing. MOC is not perfect–but it works, in that it gets the people to respond. It’s now the de facto “common Mass parts,” at least in the Midwest USA, where I’ve attended various parishes. Anything that unifies such a diverse group as American Catholics is positive, in my book. Maybe, 20 years later, we can get Mass of Creation II soon, with the new text modifications and some fine-tuning on the melodies and harmonies. I’m all for beautiful classical Mass compositions, because they really do make the spirit soar. But when I’m bogged down in the hectic everyday stress and strain of real life, give me something simple and elemental like MOC, because the singing is like breathing, and the personal response is on such a basic level that it seems a natural part of living. Isn’t that what our faith is supposed to be like–a natural part of our daily living? MOC works for me on that level.

  7. Gavin says:

    how do [organists] alter their registrations for playing with various instruments, including guitar?

    Why do the Gospel readings where the pharisees ask pointed questions come to mind? How odd.

    To respond to the question and not the clear polemic, I would say volume is the main factor. The organ is a mighty instrument, and easily the loudest on earth. I myself hate artificial amplication, so I always want to make sure the guest musician is heard, even if that means 8′ Viole on the swell with the box shut. Of course, yes my concerns about sound would rule out accoustic guitars in all cases but a house organ.

    Once I know my volume, I worry about historical context. What was the composer looking for, what style is it, what would have been common in their day? For example (and this may shock you) I had a high school student play violin with Bach’s “Wachet Auf” chorale. I used a 8′ Principal, a 4′ Flute, and a pedal coupler. The point was to mimic the sound of a continuo organ. For a march with trumpet, I may use a low mixture and a reed for a warm English sound. If I were playing with accoustic-electric guitar, I’d probably use some warm strings, and with electric guitar I’d use a lot of reeds and mutations. And of course the later concerns are over if it sounds good. You can’t accompany a flute with flute stops, no matter how soft.

    To address the polemic, I can speak for myself in saying that I LOVE using other instruments. If it were up to me, I’d make like St. Agnes (forget where) and have a full orchestra every Sunday for a Mozart Mass. And I don’t particularly care for Mozart, I’d just want the instrumentalists. Many accomplished organists that I know enjoy playing in ensembles. My teacher would do a Mozart Church Sonata every Easter. Look at the great concertos for organ by Rheinberger, Poulenc, Dupre. These weren’t written by elitists who looked down their noses at other musicians. Even at Oberlin, which I’m sure you’d poo-poo as an elitist conservatory (and I may agree), they had a concert with electric guitar and organ. Hell, look at ELP! One of their musicians is an organist, and I have some CDs of their rock music played with organ! I’d even go so far as to say the organ is the best instrument for rock – it’s loud, deep, and exotic! That said, I have to add I’d NEVER play ELP for Mass.

    For those who don’t enjoy using other musicians, I offer the apology that the organ, unlike the guitar, horn, or piano, is a complete instrument. It needs nothing added to it. Observers, and even the Pope will note that the organ IS an orchestra, one really can play (figuratively) near infinite different sounds with a modest organ. You want brass? Bring on the reeds. You want to play some contempo-church song? Why would you want to do that? But if you do, bring on the strings. Now, my opinion is that other instruments just make things better, but there are those that may argue the case that the organ needs nothing more.

    Rather, let’s turn it around. How many guitarists would seriously consider playing with the organ? And since you ask of “conservatory trained” organists, I ask of untrained-show-up-on-Sunday-and-pick-the-song guitarists. Many of them would eschew the organ as “old fashioned” and insist their strumming is what people want. This reminds me of my early ambitions in music, which were to play in a rock band (I was in high school…) Then I found out that none of my friends who had bands had any real respect for the sound of a synthesizer in rock music. Of course, I should mention that I LOVE 80’s pop music… Anyway, I think even the most untrained guitarist (and of course the trained one) would hear, say, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” played strongly on an organ and say, “I can’t add much to that, I’ll just enjoy it.”

    And then you may ask why don’t I play with guitars in Mass? #1 I don’t do music appropriate to a guitar style. #2 before you mention classical guitar, I don’t presently have an appreciation of classical guitar, so I have no desire to try it. Then again, if I had a conservatory education, maybe I would…

  8. RP Burke says:

    Todd, you know that my principal disagreement with you is over the difference between judgment and opinion: the former you confuse with the latter and dismiss out of hand as “personal taste.” So you are not, in my view, necessarily an apologist for Haugen, except to the extent that you blow off any musical or textual criticism as mere taste. Perhaps the better term is that you act as a shield for him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s