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  • Cantata Sunday: The World Beloved, A Bluegrass Mass

    May 20, 2018, 10:00 AM

    The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass [2007]

    Music by Carol Barnett (b. 1949); Libretto by Marisha Chamberlin (b. 1952);
    Scored for Chorus, Soloists and Bluegrass Band (fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, and string bass).

    Please join us for a very special Cantata Sunday! The Choir will present composer Carol Barnett’s and librettist Marisha Chamberlin’s The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass – a joyful affirmation of life, expressed in sophisticated choral sound and jubilant bluegrass harmonies. The work is a brilliant and exhilarating blend of the classical mass, modern choral sophistication, insightful poetry and traditional bluegrass instrumentation. The piece was premiered in 2007 by bluegrass band Monroe Crossing and professional chorus VocalEssence under the direction of Philip Brunelle.

    Traditional Latin Mass texts form the basis of the lyrics, interspersed with Chamberlin’s evocative poetry. She writes, “Bluegrass is more than a sound. The lyrics of so many bluegrass songs display an unpretentious, earthy philosophy that is easy to sing and easy to understand. Love is the major theme, and although secular romantic love is huge in bluegrass, so is the love of God, and the Gospel tradition. This launches our Bluegrass Mass as an earthy and immediate story of love between Creator and creation.” Chamberlin takes traditional texts and modernizes them, and in a sense, Americanizes them, by using folk-like verses to unify the entire work. She takes liberties with the text and, in so doing, interprets traditional Christian texts in a universal way.

    Foundationally, the piece alternates between “ballads” (in which the story of God’s love reads like a folk song) and the traditional elements of the Catholic Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Credo, and Agnus Dei.

    Some of these traditional movements remain in the original Latin and Greek: “Kyrie” (Lord have mercy…), “Sanctus” (Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts…), and “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…). Both “Gloria” and “Credo” are daringly and beautifully retooled by Chamberlin with new words and new meaning. As a structural device, the Bluegrass Mass is bookended by a repeated refrain: “they say God loved the world so dear, He cast aside his crown and cloaked Himself in human shape.”

    Perhaps the larger theme of the work is found at the heart of the “Credo” movement. In it, the traditional Credo text (“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”), perhaps the backbone of our Christian faith, is unexpectedly replaced by an all-embracing, justice-minded theology:

    “Oh, I do believe a resting place awaits us, ‘cross the Jordan.
    We’ll toss our coats, throw off our hats and take the seat of ease.
    And it’s not the seat of riches and it’s not the seat of power,
    Row on, row on, and no one goes alone.”

    By the eighth movement of the work, “Ballad: Third & Fourth Verses and Refrain,” we encounter pure suffering in the world. After a vivid and passionate description of fire, flood, and displacement, the poet asks, “Where are you now, our Savior dear, when we are all undone?” For the answer, Chamberlin upends her own refrain. Urging us to respond to the world’s pain, the choir sings in first person voice:

    “It’s true I love the world so dear I cast aside my crown and cloak myself in mystery, so I can come on down and dwell in and among you now.”

    A poignant Benediction brings us nearly to the end of the Mass. In it, composer and poet remind us that life is an ever-evolving blessing – “and may you embrace God in guise of human grace.”  At the very close of the piece, the refrain returns, and God’s gender is recast as female:

    “They say God loved the world so dear She set aside Her crown and cloaked Herself in human shape.”

    We look forward to bringing this festive and meaningful work to life. With the support and leadership of our soloists, Susan Navien and Peter Owens and our keyboardist Jeffrey Mead, the choir is working faithfully to bring this enduringly beautiful and prayerful piece to life. As always, the texts will be available for prayer and reflection. 

    In faith,

    —Jane Ring Frank, Minister of Music and Worship Arts