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A Heavenly Mass for the Endangered From Gallicantus

September 25, 2020

Language isn’t usually a salient consideration in a Christian Mass. Yes, a composer gathers her musical forces to create a compelling and inspiring expression of the text. But the words of the Kyrie, Credo, Agnus Dei, and the other sections are often a given, a devotional template for vocal and instrumental elucidation and transformation.

If Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Mass for the Endangered doesn’t exactly turn that formulation inside out — two of its six movements are set to the familiar Latin texts — what the piece has to say is of primary importance. In its focus on an imperiled natural world, poet Nathaniel Bellows’s superb and alliterative, sublimely singable libretto is at once a lamentation, lyrical celebration, and call to action. While a divine being is invoked, the language is largely addressed not to a deity but to us and to the exquisite and fragile planet Earth.

“World have mercy,” goes a line in the Kyrie.

On all wing, paw
all creed, claw.
Mercy on this refuge,
this braided, boundless wonder.”

In her setting of such lines, of which there are many more moving examples, Snider summons from her chamber-scale forces of 14 singers and a six-member band a lustrous wonder of her own. Performed by the English ensemble Gallicantus ensemble under Gabriel Crouch’s keen direction, this captivating Mass is available in a New Amsterdam and Nonesuch Records release.

By turns diaphanous and urgent, exultant and wary, the music both immerses us in this perilous era and stirs us to examine our collective conscience. A feverish, propulsive Credo spins out a strophic catalog of convictions. “We believe,” begins line after line in Bellows’s libretto. Those vows start with phrases of commitment to “pelt and fin, hoary hide and shell” before moving on to vows of empathy and common cause. “We believe in all offset, outcast, voiceless, stranded, stalwart, fearless, dauntless, promised.” That final “promised,” as in promises unfulfilled, deftly complicates the second line. Ambiguity, reversed polarities, layered meaning are all attributes of this striking libretto.

Snider’s music in the Credo, the most richly composed and colorful section of the piece, meets the febrile character of the language. The voices are set off against each other in shifting patterns of contrapuntal complexity. The orchestral music builds a driving upward momentum, culminating in a swirl of woodwinds that suddenly, achingly dies away.

The composer is very good throughout at combining solid musical architecture with splendid atmospherics. An oscillating piano figure, which serves as gentle ramp into the Kyrie that opens the piece, recurs near the end, in the Agnus Dei. Other motifs surface in subtly shaded guises. Some are furtive and wispy, others percussive and proud.

Snider, who is perhaps best known for her 2010 song cycle Penelope, writes gorgeously for the fine singers of Gallicantus. Some of her long, sweetly harmonized phrases harken back to earlier sacred works. Bach, Byrd, and Britten can be detected in the work’s musical DNA. But there’s nothing derivative or borrowed. Harmonies pile up in chromatic clusters, then break free in vaulting solos and murmurous choral meditations.

Each section has its own distinctive character. The Gloria, sung in Latin, is full of restless melodies over a delicately pointillist orchestral fabric. Pulsing strings and gently strummed chords give the Alleluia its gentle sway. The Sanctus makes a lovely male solo the kernel for a discursive development.

Yet there’s also a unity of purpose, a sense of inevitable flow through all the variety. Anything but a dogmatic eco-Mass for like-minded listeners, Snider and Bellows’s collaboration is a meeting of questing, unsettled minds. Like the themes it undertakes — the enlistment of human thought, spiritual commitment and direct action in the face of our shared damage — there are no consoling tonic chords. At several points, this Mass seems to turn back on itself, renounce its own premises, fall into abrupt silences. In a piece that’s all about paying close attention to who and where we are, stillness is its own form of eloquence.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.

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