Mary Lou William's Mass (?)
  • Maureen
    Posts: 678
    A 2005 re-release of a 1975 release of a 1969 Mass commissioned by the Vatican from a black Catholic jazz composer and musician. Pay close attention to the 1969 part.

    The liner notes are free to download and include a lot of very interesting information. Mary Lou Williams converted in 1957, burning with love of God and the Church and eager to serve her fellow man. She was a daily Massgoer for the rest of her life. My general impression is that this was yet another talented, earnest lady who was badly misled by progressive Catholics around her. The foreword is by the Jesuit priest who served as her manager. He sounds like he's sincere but badly misguided, too. The liner notes also explain what the heck all that extraneous non-Mass stuff is doing on the album. Again and again, it sounds like her work was meddled with by her misguided friends.

    The samples... well, clearly it's not suitable for Mass. But it's clearly well intended. As music, it's good; and the bones are good. I wouldn't like the whole thing to end up a piece of musical history but a liturgical waste; I hope something could be salvaged.
  • Maureen
    Posts: 678
    There's another album by this lady, called Mary Lou Williams Presents: Black Christ of the Andes. It's an album of both religious and secular compositions. Once again the liner notes are free to download and full of interesting/heartbreaking photos and information.

    The foreword is again by her spiritual advisor/manager, and... I don't want to criticize, because it was not a real prudent time, but accepting a Jesuit seminarian fanboy as your manager is not going to get you any good results. Not usually. He seems like a nice enough guy, but where were his superiors?

    The setting of "Anima Christi" is very interesting. When you're setting a little devotional prayer like that, you've got more creative freedom. I don't know why more people who want to do weird music don't do that.
  • "My general impression is that this was yet another talented, earnest lady who was badly misled by progressive Catholics around her."

    I'm not so sure she was misled. She was after all a major figure in the development of jazz. All the major personalities paid homage to her (Ellington, Gillespie, Armstrong, Monk, etc.). It was only natural that she express spiritual convictions in her natural language, jazz. The performance of her Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral (1964?) still inspires debate (it comes up from time to time on the dot.commonweal blog). Those who see it as an exemplary example of valid stylistic liturgical diversity often tend, however, to overlook the obvious. She was a pro who surrounded herself with pros. This was not your run-of-the-mill parish praise band. In other words, it would be hard to duplicate.

    Mary Lou Williams was from Pittsburgh, by the way. Pittsburgh was also hometown to Erroll Garner, another giant of the jazz piano. Makes me envy those folks attending the Colloquium.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 9,182
    Pittsburgh was also hometown to Erroll Garner, another giant of the jazz piano.

    ...not to mention jazz pianist Johnny Costa, who influenced the musical ears of a generation of children by his work on television.
  • Maureen
    Posts: 678
    I didn't mean to question the quality and interest of the compositions as music, or even as religious music. It's the wisdom of the pieces as liturgical music that I question. I mean, if conga drums at Mass were going to be a problem (and I can't see where this couldn't have been predicted), why wouldn't anybody advise her, "Ix-nay on the ums-dray"? And if drums were a problem with Mass A, why would you then proceed to write drums into Mass B? Was everybody just assuming that in a year or two, drums would be okay? (Actually... seeing it was the Sixties... they probably did think that. And I guess they were rihg)

    That said, I was really really appalled by the Vatican thing. Why did they even invite her to present her Mass setting at all, if they weren't confident about the content being appropriate? Weird.

    Re: not everybody's parish has famous jazz players, obviously everybody's parish doesn't have opera singers either. It's okay to aim your Mass at cathedrals or other major music centers, or possibly at great solemn occasions of national religious importance. If somebody wrote "Mass for those times when the Pope stops by your stadium", it wouldn't be crazy to do it. (Actually, given the weird acoustic situation in stadiums, it might be helpful if somebody wrote a Mass for Honking Big Stadium Masses.) But yeah, I would assume a composer would compose differently if he wanted to sell five zillion copies of the sheet music to every St. Normal's Catholic Church in the USA, than if he wanted to sell only to parishes with access to the musical forces of countertenors, bagpipes, and Chinese erhus.
  • Chrism
    Posts: 869
    The danger in composing a Mass as art is that someone, somewhere might think it's suitable for liturgical use.
  • DougS
    Posts: 793
    I think the criticism that Mary Lou Williams was "misled" or "misguided" is unfair. Church authorities asked her to write the music knowing full well that she was the first lady of jazz and had been for a long time. The point I think Maureen could be missing is that no one was advocating for the widespread dissemination of her music in parishes nationwide. She led it from time to time while on tour, and that's about it. After she moved to Durham, NC, she led greatly pared down versions of it in a local African-American Jesuit parish (Holy Cross), but she could do it herself and didn't need to rely on all the extraneous musicians. In this parish she wasn't putting on a show to the extent that she was in larger venues. Her manager, by the way, was definitely very controlling and a "typical post-Vatican II Jesuit" if that means anything to anyone.

    This entire discussion raises other important issues. First, African-American Catholicism experienced a revitalization--indeed, simply a "vitalization"--during and after Vatican II. Although some of the theological and liturgical invigoration of black Catholicism was heavily laced with progressive interpretations of the conciliar documents (and led to one radical separation from Rome altogether), much of it was a genuine attempt to determine how to bring the rich heritage of African-derived and African-American cultural forms to the table. It is hard to say, then, where Mary Lou Williams's music fits into the bigger picture. Most of it isn't suitable for run-of-the-mill liturgy, but neither is a lot of "acceptable" music out there. Jazz itself isn't "secular" per se, because it has strong roots in African and African-American spirituality. Does it fit our typically narrow definitions of sacred? Probably not, but most of us do not fully consider other cultural perspectives when laying out those definitions. For me, Mary Lou Williams's music should be a case study in larger discussions, not an item for easy dismissal.

    Interestingly, when Mary Lou Williams was writing her sacred compositions, another African-American musician was coming at the problem of inculturation from a vastly different angle: Fr. Clarence Rivers. If you read Tammy Kernodle's notes carefully, she mentions Rivers's American Mass Program. Rivers and his supporters were advocating for musical inculturation using a blend of Gregorian chant and "bluesy" melodic formulas. The result is different, but quite striking. I transcribed and arranged some of the music from his LP for the Alleluia verse at my own wedding (the "God is Love" selection from 1 John 4). Unfortunately this music was forgotten because the split between "traditional" and "folk" happened so quickly that the question of how to compose "new," "good," and "appropriate" music became unimportant. One of the weaknesses of the CMAA, in my opinion, is that there is little advice for composers in this regard.

    Lastly, I don't think there is a distinction between "art" and "suitable for liturgical use," because art is simply that which tends toward Beauty. Isn't the liturgy itself beautiful? I'm not saying Mary Lou Williams's music is art, suitable, or even beautiful (because the shrieking is really disconcerting), but I don't think the logic behind calling it "art" and therefore "not suitable" really holds. But maybe Chrism was being sarcastic.
  • JDE
    Posts: 588
    No one in his right mind would consider doing the Beethoven Missa Solemnis or the Rossini Petite Messe Solennelle as liturgical music. At least I can't imagine who would . . . maybe if Mass were being celebrated onstage at La Scala.

    There is no doubt, however, that (preferences or taste aside), those pieces are both regarded as "Art." Nonetheless they are completely unsuitable for worship. And think of the Verdi Requiem . . . can you imagine all that bombast while the body is lying in the church? (Can't you see he's trying to rest?)

    Anyway. The distinction between "artistic but not suitable" and "both artistic and suitable" is worth noting, in my opinion.

    As for the cultural stuff . . . we're supposed to conform ourselves to the mind of the Church, musically speaking -- not the other way around.
  • Having just sung Haydn's "Lord Nelson Mass" this last Saturday night, Chrism's comment reverberates quite a bit within me. (And, yes, I've pondered the issue of the Viennese Mass as licit liturgical practice vis a vis Colloquium 09 and the articles in Sacred Music.)
    No matter how devoted to God a composer is personally, no matter how sublime that reverence is revealed in the composition, if said opus draws the ear and soul in balance more towards its own ingenuity than towards an unambiguous connection to God, then we are going to perpetually have disagreements about the what's and why's of all musical settings meant to be "sacred."
    Perhaps therein lies the wisdom of the Church's elevation of chant and worthy polyphony as the unambiguous models for musical expression at worship. Notice Yurodivi's citation of the Verdi; would the same questions arise if the setting chosen for a requiem Mass was penned by Faure or Durufle?
  • DougS
    Posts: 793

    My only point about art and suitability is that many of the things we consider suitable are also artistic. Isn't chant beautiful? Why limit our notions of "art"? I think you might have read me the other way around, because I agree that artistic music isn't ipso facto suitable and never suggested as such. There is no need to reinforce age-old notions of artistic autonomy.

    As far as "conforming ourselves to the mind of the Church," wouldn't you say that the Church is incarnate within culture? And if so, isn't culture important? Many times I read from the proponents of Gregorian chant that the Church is supra-cultural or transcends culture, but this attitude neglects the theology of Incarnation altogether. As the Body of Christ, fully human and fully divine, the Church shares traits of both. Also, if culture weren't important, then why have non-Roman rites at all? Your position doesn't hold muster theologically or historically. Culture is more than just "stuff."
  • "And if so, isn't culture important? Many times I read from the proponents of Gregorian chant that the Church is supra-cultural or transcends culture, but this attitude neglects the theology of Incarnation altogether."

    Dr. Shadle, could you expound a little further on your last phrase, "neglects the theology of Incarnation altogether?"
    Thank you.
  • JDE
    Posts: 588
    DShadle, you are quite correct that art and suitability are not mutually exclusive. However, if the choice is between the Gregorian Chant Introit "Requiem Aeternam" and the Verdi, even though I have sung the Verdi many times, I'm still going with the chant. The chant is more suitable even though the Verdi is arguably a musically superior composition.

    The Church is indeed incarnate within culture, but venture too far down that line of reasoning and we wind up at the corner of "Sing a New Church" St and "Anthem" Blvd. Sure culture is important . . . but the chant is supposed to be universal, and it should be the foundation stone of everything else. We should not treat chant as just another of a chinese dinner menu of musical choices - one from column A and two from column B.

    Remember: "principium locum" is not just a suggestion. Musically speaking, everything else proceeds from it.

    Also, to answer Charles in CenCa, in my not-so-humble opinion, the Duruflé is the only accompanied setting of the Requiem I know that I would consider suitable for Mass. The Fauré is beautiful, but unfortunately too theatrical in character. There is a marvelous a capella setting by Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), but I'm not sure if it really meets the standard for Sacred Music to be used as part of the liturgy.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 9,182
    Welcome to the forum, Dr. Shadle (as you are a new user).
  • DougS
    Posts: 793

    I was a little bit sweeping in my statement, I guess. To be more precise, I would say that it ignores an ecclesiology rooted in the theology of the Incarnation.

    I am not a theologian but what I mean is that all music--Gregorian chant, jazz, or otherwise--is the product of a given cultural context. To speak of it as if it weren't does it and those persons who created/disseminated it a disservice. Is Gregorian chant one of the great achievements of the Church? Yes. Universal? Absolutely not, because authentic church music preceded it, coexisted with it as it was taking shape, and continued with little regard to its progress. How can something like that be "universal"? I don't mean to rehash longstanding arguments about this, but I have never seen a satisfactory response to this challenge. The argument, for example, is made plainly in the Sacred Music FAQ on this site but it is not a reflective argument and has little to no evidence supporting it. Just because someone calls something universal doesn't make it so.

    To continue with your question about theology, if we think of the Church as an analogue to music (the wrong way 'round of course...but for the sake of argument), then the Church is being born anew, or incarnated, in every time and place. That the Church participates in Christ's divinity through its catholicity goes without saying, but it is more difficult to see how the Church participates in Christ's humanity. Culture is a central and primary way. It was important, for example, that JPII was a Pole; Centesimus Annus was undoubtedly shaped by his and his country's struggles against Communism. Culture shapes the Church in ways that are difficult to pinpoint, but we can celebrate diversity within universality. One might add that it was also important that Jesus was a Jew.

    In sum, if we treat those human aspects of the Church as if they were divine, we are missing something.


    Thank you very much! I've been a lurker a long time. One of my research specialties is the music of African-American Catholic parishes so I felt compelled to comment on this thread.


    Thank you very much for clarifying. I think we are on the same page, and you made me feel a lot better. My only point about artistry was that chant is artistic and beautiful, even if most people think of "art music" as the Mozart, Beethoven, etc. of the world.

    William Mahrt and others often speak of the polyphonists as having breathed sacred life into secular musical styles. Of course the lack of this "breath of sacred life" in contemporary American music is to be lamented, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Mary Lou Williams's was a poor attempt, but Fr. Rivers's was much better. The only way to do it is to take the best of a local culture and transform it into something great. We shouldn't limit our possibilities to the old stuff. "Pride of place" doesn't mean "the only place." I don't know much music today that successfully blends chant with other idioms, but I would love to hear/see some. And we need to encourage composers to write more!
  • JDE
    Posts: 588
    Dr. Shadle,

    agreed! We should definitely encourage composers. Music did not stop being valid when the calendar turned over 1600, as some directors seem to think. I also agree that chant need not be the only music, just the first choice. Since what we are doing in most American churches is making Option Four the default setting.

    This summer I may submit a piece or two of my "stealth chant" for the New Music reading session at the Colloquium. The pieces are contemporary in style, but contain harmonized Psalm tones. The idea is not new; it's been done many times. But in my case it is the best way for the camel to get his nose under the tent. People hear, learn and sing chant (at least Psalm tones) without knowing it's "good for them."
  • eft94530eft94530
    Posts: 1,577
    The posts to this Discussion reminded me of my
    extensive hand-typed material at ...

    I will have to read all the liner notes provided in the above posts
    and construct a timeline to discover any connections.
  • DougS
    Posts: 793
    It seems important that the Williams works were commissioned by Church authorities, most notably Msgr. Joseph Gremillion, secretary for the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace. Most of the documents you posted emphasize that lack of episcopal approval was the crux of the matter at the time. Perhaps Gremillion was the wrong kind of authority...

    Also, the only stipulation given to Williams (to my knowledge) was that she use approved liturgical texts--style being entirely secondary. The question of style that Bugnini so blithely painted as black and white in the press conference is treated with much more subtlety in the document. What makes jazz (which/whose jazz, at that) "obviously" profane or unfit to express the power of prayer? Clearly Bugnini had concrete ideas, but he was not looking at the issue from an "Afrocentric" perspective, as it would later be called.

    Not trying to argue any one position here, but raising issues related to the documents.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 9,182
    Perhaps Gremillion was the wrong kind of authority...

    Well, yes. Bp. Gremilion's role at the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace would not be related to liturgy or sacred music, so his choice of Williams as a composer couldn't be taken as an endorsement by the most relevant Vatican authorities.

    A press release for a commemorative event about Mary Lou Williams says:
    In March 1969, Msgr. Joseph Gremillion, secretary of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and
    Peace, commissioned Williams to write a Mass using approved liturgical texts for the Votive Mass for
    Peace. She called this “Music for Peace.”
  • DougS
    Posts: 793
    I totally agree with you (hence the ellipsis) but money talks.
  • Donnaswan
    Posts: 585
    This is the sort of discussion I really enjoy reading on this Forum. I don't know anywhere else to go to get this stuff. So much more interesting than 'snarking' about small things or perhaps not-so-small things, like 'is someone fit to direct a music program in the Catholic church if he/she's an Episcopalian? LOLOL Anyway, I'm liking it.