As a complete amateur but a lover of music, I have for about half a lifetime had only one musical desire: to hear Stravinsky’s Mass transcribed for organ and sung in a church, and to thereby make this composition accessible to the whole Church.
It is a somewhat audacious ambition, because it is well known that Stravinsky himself thought of the organ as “a monster that never breathes”. I don’t know the origin of this quote, or its context, but I have a speculative explanation. Stravinsky, born in St. Petersburg, was a Russian Orthodox Christian all his life. The typical organs of Stravinsky’s time and place were often indeed monsters, buried deep inside dark cathedrals, or modest instruments relegated to a minor role in accompaniment of the choir, if present at all.
As you know, organs have been used in the church since its early days, but the organ achieved its pinnacle in the Baroque era in Western Europe, an era presided over by Bach, who played on the large and brilliant organs of builders such as Arp Schnitger, the Stradivarius of organ-builders. Such master-mechanic German Protestants made the organ into an instrument that could carry music completely on its own, not merely as an accompaniment to voices and certainly not as the imitator of an orchestra. The revival of interest in classical organ sound, led in this country by E. Power Biggs in the 1960’s, is reflected in the sound of organs such as the Aeolian-Skinner in this church. Played on such an instrument, Bach’s organ music most certainly breathes, and it cries, and it screams, and it whispers in a still small voice.
I think that it is a good time to bring together these theological traditions: the Russian Orthodox composer, the Catholic Mass, the Lutheran Protestant organ and the Presbyterian Choir. It is also a good time to bring together the best of many musical worlds: the medieval chant, which Stravinsky adapts to the style of the 20th century, accompanied by the classical organ that can breathe, all with one voice singing to the glory of God.
So I propose that Stravinsky’s Mass be transcribed for organ — but in a way that is respectful of what I see as the intent, if not the words, of the composer. The Mass is written for a double quartet of wind instruments — no strings, so we are already halfway there! However, care must be taken to allow the choir and the instrument time to breathe. The dynamics of this piece are limited, so it is certainly not a showpiece for the organ. Along with the choir, it is, if anything, a showpiece for the sacred text. Therefore, getting the registration right is critical, and that is why it is necessary to develop it on a rich and versatile instrument such as our own, and with the ears for registration of a master organist.
The original recording of the Mass, which was conducted by the composer, was on the Columbia label, now owned by Sony, I believe. The rendition by Bernstein is excellent, although the tempos are a little different from Stravinsky’s. I think it is also important to get the tempo just right.
I don’t know enough to give any guidance on the voices, with one memorable exception. The soprano in the Gloria on the original recording had a very pure tone, very much like a choir boy. I think this adds a lot of spirituality to the solos. The piece is sung with very little vibrato or rubato, as one would expect. Needless to say, pitch accuracy is essential to hearing the way Stravinsky’s chords resolve at the ends of lines.
In order to enhance accessibility for the audience, I believe the text, along with its English translation, should be provided to them. Many Protestants are not familiar with the text of the musical Mass, and I think evangelicals in particular will be surprised at how “biblical” it is.
So with a sense of temerity and humility, but with high anticipation, I offer this challenge to any ambitious church that is equipped with a suitable choir and pipe organ.
For the glory of God,
Nov. 16, 2004