I first heard Missa Gaia / Earth Mass in 1999 or 1998. I was singing in another of Karen Schuessler’s choirs at the time, and Karen invited me to a Missa Gaia dress rehearsal because I had never heard the work before, and I couldn’t make it to the actual concert.
I was spellbound.
I joined KSS as an alto for the 1999-2000 season, and one of the highlights of my musical life has been learning and performing Missa Gaia, and participating in the KSS Missa Gaia recording. This work, which celebrates our relationship to the earth and all its creatures, almost defies description… but I’m going to try.
Canticle of Brother Sun
The concert opens with Canticle of Brother Sun, which uses the words of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. “All praise be yours through Brother Sun, all praise be yours through Sister Moon…” The chorus paraphrases a quote from the book of Job in the Bible: “Ask of the beasts, and they shall teach you the beauty of the earth.” To this day, every time I hear the text, my eyes fill with tears.
What also struck me about this song, and many of the others in the Missa Gaia suite, was its uptempo fusion of jazz and world beat-inspired rhythms. If, when the song ends, you wish it would continue, don’t worry – it’s reprised at the end of the show. The following video gives you just a sample its charms:
If Canticle of Brother Sun got my toes tapping, the beginning of the Kyrie initially stunned me. The silence is pierced by a recording of a wolf howling. A saxophone then plays the exact same notes – making haunting music of the animal’s call! The wolf howls again… and this time a tenor’s voice sings the notes, to the Greek words kyrie and eleison, which mean “Lord have mercy.”
In the Christian mass, the Kyrie underscores humankind’s need for redemption; in Missa Gaia, Paul Halley’s Kyrie poignantly underscores our fellow creatures’ plight at our own hands. Towards the end of the song the music swells after an instrumental solo, and every time I sang this part, I felt a sense of urgency at our planet’s future.
The video below features a 1982 recording of the Kyrie:
The Beatitudes is probably one of my favorite pieces from the entire show. A moody introduction gives way to complex gospel harmonies interweaving with a male vocal solo, and the song ends with multiple repeats of a driving, double-time refrain.
More than anything else, it was the clapping that originally attracted me to this gospel tune. There’s a stunning moment right at the end when the instruments cut out and the choir continues a capella, accompanied only by its own clapping. I was thrilled when, after joining the choir, Karen chose me to be one of the designated “clappers.”
During our 2000 recording session, Karen went to listen to the result after the first take of Beatitudes, and came back with the pronouncement that the claps were too loud, and not precise enough. (It’s not as easy as you think to clap and sing synchopated rhythms at the same time!) The ranks of the clappers were reduced to five, and we were given strict instructions to keep a close eye on each other during the next take, to make sure that we were in unison.
I was standing in the front row with the rest of the clappers behind me, so I half-turned to include them in my peripheral vision, and sang the entire take from memory, never taking my eyes off the hands of one of the tenor clappers. Karen immediately disappeared to the temporary “recording booth” set up in our recording venue, St. James Westminster Anglican Church, and came back with the good news: That take would do. Good thing, because all of that clapping had left my hands raw.
The video below is the only recording of the piece that I can find on YouTube. Most of it is much slower than our own performances and recording, but it gives you an idea of the excitement of the ending:
Mystery is a haunting folk song by an American physician, Jeremy R. Geffen – an integrative cancer care specialist whose holistic practices are informed by the healing traditions of the world, including Ayurveda, Tibetan Medicine, yoga, meditation, and other approaches to health and self-awareness.
The lyrics speak of the divine in a way that can be embraced by many faiths:
But when I listen deep inside, I feel you best of all.
Like a moon that’s glowing white, and I listen to your call.
And I know that you will guide me, I feel you like the tide
rushing through the ocean of my heart that’s open wide.
As sung by Denise Pelley, the song is a highlight of Missa Gaia for many listeners.
Return to Gaia
An instrumental piece, Return to Gaia, is another audience favorite, since it features the full power of the venue’s pipe organ. The song is meant to suggest the thrill of seeing dawn creep across the face of the earth as viewed from space.
“The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.”
Aleksei Leonov, Russian astronaut
“My first view – a panorama of brilliant deep blue ocean, shot with shades of green and gray and white – was of atolls and clouds. Close to the window I could see that this Pacific scene in motion was rimmed by the great curved limb of the Earth. It had a thin halo of blue held close, and beyond, black space. I held my breath, but something was missing – I felt strangely unfulfilled. Here was a tremendous visual spectacle, but viewed in silence. There was no grand musical accompaniment; no triumphant, inspired sonata or symphony. Each one of us must write the music of this sphere for ourselves.”
Charles Walker, US astronaut
Sanctus and Benedictus, and Promise of a Fisherman
Sanctus and Benedictus features the eerie song of the male humpback whale. Hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, the humpback whale has made a comeback in the world’s oceans, but is still at risk from entanglement in fishing nets, collision with ships, and underwater noise pollution from offshore drilling.
Both Sanctus and Promise of a Fisherman use the joyous rhythms of Brazilian music, and I’m afraid I could never stand still whenever I sang either of them. One of the things I love most about the animal calls and the music of Missa Gaia is that they seem to permeate every cell of your body, so that you leave the concert feeling fundamentally changed.
The video below shows a live performance of Sanctus and Benedictus:
Without a doubt, Ubi Caritas is one of my all-time favorite choral pieces ever. I have had the pleasure of singing it not only several times with KSS, but also with a mass choir in a South London choral festival, and at the Church of St. Timothy in North Toronto with the incomparable Joe Sealy Trio.
Ubi Caritas begins with a well-known Gregorian chant, which fades to a quiet piano solo that swells and ebbs like waves on a lonely beach. Then, in one of those quintessential moments that composer Paul Halley is known for, the mood turns on a dime with the introduction of African drumming, and the chorus comes back in with a traditional African chant. Many times I have thrilled to watch percussionists Rob Larose and Dale Brendon intently ply the skins of their drums as the song builds to a thundering crescendo, accented by the counterpoint of the Latin and Yoruban singing.
The video below includes the piece in its thrilling entirety:
The evening comes to a close with a prayer from the traditional Christian mass: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.”
In this song we hear the call of the harp seal – the animal which Moravian missionaries in Labrador used to explain the concept of the Lamb of God to the Inuit, who had never seen sheep. Seal hunting continues to be a controversial animal rights issue, and images of seal pups mercilessly bludgeoned for their pure white fur during annual seal hunts are forever burned into our cultural memory.
There are songs I haven’t mentioned: For the Beauty, Sound Over All Waters, Blue-Green Hills of Earth… each with their own moments to savour and hold dear. Missa Gaia is a work designed to transform its listeners (and its performers), then release them into the world to spread the energy of life and hope. I’ll be sitting in the audience on June 4, eager to hear the animals speak once again. I hope you will join us.
Michelle Lynne Goodfellow has been KSS’ Director of Communications for the past two years. She was also a chorister for our 1999-2000 and 2008-2009 concert seasons.
Categories Behind-the-Scenes, Choral Singing, Concerts, Denise Pelley, Missa Gaia Earth Mass, Paul Halley, Paul Winter, Subscription Season | Tags: choral concert, Denise Pelley, London Ontario, London Ontario choir, Missa Gaia, Paul Halley, Paul Winter
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