By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERUQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – September 17, 2015) — The word “mass” is taken from the Latin word, missa. In antiquity, missa meant “dismissal” or “go.” The Christian church adopted the word and gave it a more robust meaning, something akin to “mission.” During the 2nd century, hints of the worship service (mass) were found in the writings of Justin Martyr (c. 100-150 AD) and Tertullian (c. 155-240 AD). Later, the Roman Catholic Church began to use the word in relationship to its church service, seeing the mass as a sacrament of Jesus’ sacrifice.
By the Middle Ages, the mass took on a definite shape and form, including five distinct sections: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Further developments of the mass took place in Orthodox and Protestant circles, particularly Lutheran and Anglican, though variations of name have been implemented in the place of the word mass (Divine Service, Eucharist, etc.).
As would be expected of services dedicated to the worship of God, music was a key feature of the mass. The confluence of scripture, communion, and music played a vital role in the history and life of the Christian church. Since its inception, composers as diverse as Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Verdi, and Dvorak have employed the framework of the mass to compose masterpieces of western music.
On a warm late summer afternoon I drove to meet a modern composer who has written two masses, both of deep beauty and musical brilliance. Warner Hutchison (b. 1930) began his musical journey at age 17 as horn player and composer in his hometown of Denver, Colorado. After a brief stint as a church musician, Hutchison went on staff at Houghton College in New York. It was during his years at Houghton that he met and studied with Roy Harris, composer of the famous Symphony No. 3. Later, at the University of North Texas, Hutchison studied composition with Samuel Adler.
Hutchison was hired at New Mexico State University as the French horn teacher in 1967, but later promoted to Department Chair. He remained at NMSU for the remainder of his career, where he was the composer-in-residence. Since his retirement, a festival named in his honor, “The Warner Hutchison Contemporary Arts Festival” has been enacted.
With over 170 works to his name, the two masses (Requiem Mass for Abraham Lincoln  and Mass –1992) stand as small reminders of the totality of his output. I met up with Warner to discuss and listen to one of his masses, Mass (1992).
Why did you choose to write in a mass form—as opposed to other musical styles?
“I had often wanted to write music for a mass because it contains so many deep praises to God and stimulates the hearts of believers. Additionally, it has a musical heritage that spans centuries. So I supposed you could say it was for heart and historical reasons.”
How did the Mass (1992) come about? What inspired you in its composition?
“I was approached by my colleagues at New Mexico State University to compose a piece for them. The mass seemed like a natural fit. I was looking for something that was powerful and cherished. The mass is both grand and intimate, and at the time showcased our wonderful choir. And when I’m able to highlight Biblical themes in a public setting, the mass became the obvious choice.”
You wrote the Mass (1992) for a symphonic wind ensemble, which has between 30-40 players. Why did you choose this orchestration over a more traditional format?
“When thinking about the composition, I felt that I needed to pave a new path forward with the piece. I decided upon the symphonic wind ensemble because it was very complementary to the university choir at NMSU, led by J.A Alt—who incidentally conducted the piece during it’s world premier. I enjoy the unique tonality of a wind ensemble, it offered strength, but also the texture I was looking for.”
What do the five parts of the mass mean, and why are they important to the church service?
“The five parts of the Ordinary Mass are: The KYRIE which means, “Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy.” Traditionally, the Kyrie was recited by the congregation as part of the worship service, providing congregational participation. The GLORIA means, “Glory to God in the highest.” The CREDO means, “I believe in one God” The SANCTUS means, “Holy. Holy, Holy.” And finally, The AGNUS DEI is translated as the “Lamb of God.” These are important because they lead people towards Christ, highlighting various attributes of God’s nature. And as I pointed out already, there is a long, illustrious tradition of composers—both Roman Catholic and Protestant (of which I am)—writing masses. I yearned to put my own stamp on the honored tradition.”
How long did it take you to compose the Mass (1992)?
I think it took about 3 months. I was on a good pace early on, but needed to speed it up a tad towards the end to make the deadline.”
As the composer of Mass (1992), are there any standout moments for you in the piece?
“Compositions are like children, you love them all. But the standout sections for me are the Gloria and Sanctus. Not only do I love to celebrate God’s glory, but also His holiness. Musically, there are some moving sections in the Gloria and Sanctus that make them personal and inspiring. I still listen to them with delight. I thank God that I was allowed to compose this particular piece of music.”
As I sat with Warner listening to this splendid work, I watched as he flipped through the score, following along with the recorded piece. I thought to myself, “I’m sitting with a marvelous musical mind, one passionate about composition and God, a true artist.” Though history paves it’s own course in relationship to compositions and composers—who is remembered and revered, I knew then Warner had given the world a gift—his music and his faith. And as the two aspects of Warner’s life—music and faith—conjoined in Mass (1992), I learned back to listen, letting the final Amen act as a reminder of God’s glorious mission: to proclaim the good news found in Christ.
And if Christ is at the heart of the Mass—the mission of God—I say let the music play on.
Photo image: Warner Hutchinson. 2) Warner at work. 3) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA) and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon
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