by Allison R. Shely
Missa gentis humanæ, a Mass setting composed by the Boston College Music Department’s Professor Ralf Gawlick, premiered at St. Ignatius Church on Monday, February 17, at 8 p.m. Members of the Grammy-nominated Trinity Wall Street Choir, conducted by Julian Wachner, performed the work, written for eight a cappella voices. Just under an hour long, the Mass setting made use of both male and female voices as well as several types of musical texture, including what Professor Gawlick describes as “multi-voiced polyphony, [something] rare in twenty-first-century choral works.” At its conclusion, the audience, which filled the nave of the church, gave Missa gentis humanæ a thunderous standing ovation. A recording by Mr. Wachner and the original performers will be available through the label Musica Omnia this summer.
Translated as “Mass of the Human Race” or “Mankind’s Mass,” the title comes from the multilingual nature of the work’s text. Working from Jesus’ commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” from St. John’s Gospel, Professor Gawlick selected texts that meditated on love from various Indo-European languages and interwove them with the words of the Mass Ordinary. The included languages are a representative rather than exhaustive selection, Professor Gawlick notes. The inspiring verse, John 15:12, appeared in its original Koine Greek as part of the Introit before repeating in Latin. Verses from Virgil’s Eclogues and a line from Plautus also represented Latin as did the words of the Ordinary. Selections from the poetry of Bertolt Brecht introduced German into the work and passages from Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, Russian. Excerpts from the poets Jorge Luis Borges, Zbigniew Herbert, and Walter Scott brought in Spanish, Polish, and English, respectively. The result, Professor Gawlick writes in the concert program, is “a multilingual vessel of cross-referential commentary, interpretation, reflection.”
In an interview with The Torch, Professor Gawlick gave some insight into the process of composing the work. It took him almost half a year to compile all the selections included in the text. One writer would lead him to another, as in the case of Borges’ mention of Virgil, which drew him to the Eclogues, once viewed as a foretelling of Christ, linking it back to the Mass, which Professor Gawlick called “a ritual celebration of love,” specifically divine love. However, Professor Gawlick stressed that love is a universal human experience. He said that a beautiful Mass setting may move atheists and agnostics as well as believers, though in different ways. Likewise, the words of Brecht, an atheist and a Communist, can express the desire for unconditional, universal love as much as those of Dostoevsky, Scott, or Christ. To any who may feel discomfort at the notion of joining, or even replacing, the prayers of the Mass with secular texts, Professor Gawlick offered the idea that “art makes us reassess…and bring things into our lives”. Drawing on music history, he detailed the development of the form of the Mass setting from its fourteenth-century origin in liturgical use to “a sacred piece for sacred space,” even if only the interior sacred space of the listener’s soul, a work of art, after the Renaissance. In his interview, as in the concert program, Professor Gawlick upheld dialogue as something to be embraced and as the purpose of his Mass setting. Not only a dialogue among cultures, Missa gentis humanæ is also a “handshake across centuries” that testifies to the highest expression of humanity’s common experience: love.