The Best Liturgical Folk-Style Music Ever Written?
What comes to mind immediately is Martin Shaw (1875-1958)’s Anglican Folk Mass of 1942. In this article, I discussed what we might term “authentic” as opposed to “inauthentic” ( think Dan Schutte) folk music. Shaw’s website describes his folk Mass as being “founded on native hymn melodies.” As one can see, Shaw’s folk Mass is notated in a chant-like style. Listen to his Creed setting here, as well as instrumental versions of his Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.
In this article, I discussed the genre of French organ Masses for Low Mass - sets of approximately 20 minutes of organ “background music” for a priest’s hushed (or even silent) Low Mass. There, I also discussed the genre of Low Mass with Hymns - the practice of singing hymns (usually, in our times, opening/Offertory/Communion/closing hymns) at a priest’s Low Mass.
Franz Schubert’s famous, 35-minute Deutsche Messe (German Mass) of 1827 grew out of the Low Mass with Hymns tradition of that time. Schubert’s Deutsche Messe does not set the Ordinary texts of the Mass (Kyrie/Gloria/etc.); rather, it consists of 8 non-liturgical, vernacular poems (hymns). The Mass was designed to appeal to “the widest possible congregation”, and Schubert wrote the music such that it would be suitable for congregational singing.
English/Catholic (with German influence)
In 1979, Richard Proulx (1937-2010) adapted Schubert Deutsche Messe’s melodies for the 1973, ecumenical English translation of the Mass Ordinary cycle (as opposed to the hymns of Schubert’s Low Mass). Proulx’s German Mass appeared in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, in addition to Catholic and Lutheran hymnals that were published in the 1980’s. Proulx’s translation was updated in 2010 to match ICEL (International Commission on English in the Liturgy)’s new translation of the Roman Rite. As far as 1970’s-to-contemporary Catholic folk Masses go, Proulx’s adaptation of Schubert’s folk Mass is about as authentic as a Catholic folk Mass can get.
Schubert, Shaw and Proulx’s work shows how possible it is to use musically-accessible, authentic folk influences and remain in the tradition of Western high art. In this article, I discussed the natural, organic synergism between high art into “low” folk art and popular culture in the West.
Here, I am reminded of the tremendous influence of folk music on English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who from 1903-1904 went into the English countryside, notating folk songs, lest they (and the oral tradition in which they rested) be lost to history. (Other early 20th-century composers went into the countryside collecting folk tunes as well, such as the Hungarian Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly. Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was also tremendously influenced by folk tunes.)
From 1904-1906, Vaughan Williams served as editor of The English Hymnal (released in 1906), which is likely the best English-language hymnal ever produced. Of that time, Vaughan Williams said, “I now know that two years of close association with some of the best (as well as some of the worst) tunes in the world was a better musical education than any amount of sonatas and fugues.” One of Vaughan Williams’ most famous folk-melody hymn harmonizations is that of the English melody “Kingsfold” (the lovely, poetic text “I heard the voice of Jesus say” was written by 19th-century Scottish minister and hymn writer Horatius Bonar).
One Last Note
The folk Mass with which I grew up is Roger Gillen’s Mass for the World. Gillen’s Mass is different from Shaw and Proulx (and Schubert)’s work in that it uses guitar, piano and drums (instruments that I do not recommend for use in the Catholic liturgy, as I explained in this article). However, I am convinced that the Mass for the World’s melodies (and instrumentation) are so tastefully done due to Gillen having being trained in traditional, authentic Irish/Celtic/folk music.
As always, I welcome any thoughts and comments below!