As individual cosomologies develop, expand, gain acceptance and generate social power, artists inevitably transform the new ideas into perceptible vital emotive forms. Every potent social movement has its song. When that song is also a masterpiece, the movement is indeed graced. If, in addition, that masterpiece transforms the past into a new present stunning enough to shape the future, the culture has received a great gift.
The ecosophical movement has its song in Paul Winter’s masterpiece Missa Gaia Earth Mass, for the Missa Gaia embodies a moving and convincing vision of the grace of nature and provides an opportunity for wonder and praise in the face of an interdependent cosmos. Furthermore, the extraordinary power of the music of Missa Gaia makes it worthy of being considered a part of the long musical tradition of Mass composition. To this tradition the Missa Gaia also contributes the vital interests of members of this late twentieth century earth-community.
On May 10, 1981, Missa Gaia Earth Mass was premiered in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The date for this premiere had been carefully chosen. May 10 was Mother’s Day and the Earth Mass celebrated Mother Earth. Associations between time and performances of the Missa Gaia went even deeper. One of the recording sessions was held on October 4, 1981 to commemorate the birthday of St. Francis of Assisi. In addition, the year 1981 was the 800th anniversary of St. Francis’ birth. The Mass was dedicated to St. Francis, an early ecosophist, because of the eloquence and persistence of his vision of the cosmos as an interdependent family. Therefore, sections of St. Francis’ “Canticle of Brother Sun” both open and close the Missa Gala.
Like St. Francis, Paul Winter communes with the wind, the wolf and the birds. St. Francis, however, was only able to record his communion in words. Modern sound recording and reproduction made it possible for Winter to expand St. Francis’ vision by having the voice of other animals join with human voices and instruments in a cathedral, a capability available only to sculptures and painters until recently. Songs of whales, seals and a river join with human songs in an urban cathedral–a wonder that probably would have won St. Francis’ admiration. One reason this Mass is a rightful expression of our time is because of Winter’s imaginative use of sound technology to enhance his and St. Francis’ cosmology.
Essential as contemporary sound technology was in realizing the Missa Gaia, its use alone does not make this Mass unique. Bernstein’s Mass, for example, calls for taped sound, sound amplification and electric instruments. What is unprecendented, however, is the content of the taped sound and its importance in the Earth Mass. The sounds of nature became essential components of the Mass’s structure. Cries of the Alaskan wolf, the hump-backed whale, the harp seal and the loon are songs to Paul Winter. They are part of the sphere’s music. As such they played a basic role in shaping the musical material of the Missa Gaia. Natural and human music were integrated so completely, that should the song of the humpbacked whale be removed from the Sanctus, the Sanctus would collapse. Collapsing the Sanctus, in turn collapes the integrity of the entire Mass. Basically, however, the Missa Gaia is so profoundly dependent upon these earthsounds because of Winter’s ecosophical vision.
The first component of this vision is the realization that we are of one household (ecos). Using modern technology and musical techniques from the past, Paul Winter “cocomposed” a Mass with other animals to demonstrate the family nature of the relationship between humans and all other cosmic forms. The successful aesthetic integration of human and other songs with the traditional structure of the sung Mass makes Missa Gaia an ecosophical song.
Ecosophy refers not only to human wisdom regarding nature as a household, but to the earth’s wisdom as a bio-spiritual organism. In Nissa Gaia the second meaning is expressed by means of a monumental initation journey into earth-wisdom, a journey that encompasses nearly the entire first-half of the Earth Mass.
Our musical initiation into the wisdom of the living earth begins in response to the cry of the chorus “Kyrie eleison,” “Lord have mercy upon us.” The response to this chorus is a solo “Beatitudes” accompanied by the chorus, the cathedral choisters (boys chorus)
and piano. The conclusion generates jubilant congregational clapping. “Beatitudes” is the answer to “Kyrie eleison,” affirming the blessedness of all of the earth’s inhabitants. The gift of mercy is here within the living earth. The mercy is this spiritualized biosphere. Missa Gala introduces us into a new world-view, quite opposed to current scientific materialism or philosophical nihilism.
“Beatitudes” is followed by the communion hymn “Mystery.” As the mystery of the order of the earth overtakes us, we are transported to a point in outer space. From this point, the beauty of the earth is now irrefutable. An instrumental musical journey through that beauty commences (“Return to Gaia”). Paul Winter, playing the soprano saxophone, joins Paul Halley, the organist for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Beginning on the pitch that ended “Mystery,” Paul Winter spins out a thoughtful, serene melody supported and propelled by a progression of wonderful organ harmonies reminiscent of late-romantic music. As Winters’ improvised solo fades, Paul Halley begins an immense improvised crescendo that ultimately utilizes the full power of the Cathedrals’ colossal organ. At the climax the melody “For the Beauty of the Earth” sounds and the music begins receding. This improvisation is the most sublime music in the Mass. The representation of a return to earth from outer space is so moving in its power that it stands alongside the greatest recorded improvisations of the century.
The journey ends in the depth of the Grand Canyon. The call of a loon welcomes us back to earth and we rest gently on the canyon floor, the oldest exposed part of Mother Earth. Her heartbeat becomes audible through an American Indian drum. The sounds of the cathedral organ melt into the gentle flow of the Colorado River. Accompanied by the river, the drum, and occassional birds, Paul Winter improvises on the chant melody “Adoro te devote.” A mood of profound peace blossoms.
The expansive musical structure undergoes further transformations. As the sound of the organ had become the sound of the river, the river’s sounds now dissolve into those made on a tambura, a musical instrument from India. Accompanied by a tambura, the symbol of an ancient tradiation of sacred music, the boys choir begins singing “Adoro te devote,” symbolizing the Western sacred music tradition. The return to the foundation of the Mass, a Gregorian chant, combined with the accompaniment of Indian music, is a moment of great beauty.
The response to this sublime journey is one of deep admiration expressed in the hymn of praise “For the beauty of the earth, sing, oh sing, today.” These words of affirmation conclude the initation as the congregation is lead in singing by Susan Osborne. Her solo “Mystery” began our initation. Symbolically, one individual’s personal vision of the interrelated sacredness of the cosmos becomes a shared communal vision. A purpose of Missa Gala has been achieved: remembering “through music our Mother Earth, our sacred connection with the Universe” (Winter). Expressing the integration of Mother Earth, its mystery and heartbeat, makes St. Francis’ “Canticle” our canticle and the full meaning of ecosophy is expressed in song.
The initation is a vast musical design based on a single melody, technically a cantus firmus, a pre-existing melody serving as the foundation for a musical composition. While this compositional device was invented in the late middle ages, Renaissance composers, in their efforts to unify diverse movements of a Mass, frequently constructed every movement on the same melody. Such a Mass is called a cantus firmus Mass.
A Gregorian chant from the fourteenth century is the cantus firmus (fixed song) for Missa Gaia. The melody is of a Latin hymn “Adoro te devote” with text by St. Augustine. In addition to appearing as a chant, often the basis for improvisation, “Adoro te devote,” appears in the Missa Gaia in its nineteenth century Anglican version, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” with a text by Folliet Pierpont (1864).
When Paul Winter constructed a number of movements in Missa Gala on a Gregorian chant, he revived a practice widely used by Renaissance composers. Before Winter, however, composers only used a cantus firmus to unify the movements of the sung Ordinary, that is, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedicamus and Agnus Dei. In Missa Gala, “Adoro te devote” is used chiefly in movements that are not part of the sung Ordinary. Such a use is definitely unconventional and probably unique. In this, as well as in ways described already, Paul Winter’s Missa Gala contributes to the long and varied tradition of Mass composition.
Missa Gaia is not only an ecosophical song, it is an ecumenical song as well. When Paul Winter described the making of the Earth Mass, he “wanted to create a mass that was both ecumenical and ecological, one which would embrace all the voices of the earth.” While all the voices of the earth are not heard in the Mass, their diversity is extraordinary. It is unique, in fact. No previous Mass integrates as many different kinds of singers. In addition to human singers, a wolf, a whale, a seal, various birds and water are heard. Eight of the seventeen sections of Missa Gaia depend upon non-human singers. The variety of musical styles found in Missa Gaia is also unique. No other Mass is rooted in as many sacred music traditions. The music was shaped by traditions of North India, American Indian, Black American, Western European, AngloAmerican, African and Afro-Brazilian. A variety of Western compositional styles influenced the music as well. Paul Winter described how, as he started to plan the Mass, he “began gathering recordings of great historical Masses, from Dufay, Machaut and Palestrina through Bach to Stravinsky, Poulenc, Kodaly and Britten.” The Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Reverend James Morton remarked,
“Paul Winter’s Earth Mass, therefore, takes its place in the long historical tradition of liturgical music, beginning with the Hebrew chants of the synagogue and continuing with the Greek and Latin Gregorian chants of the early church, medieval plain-song, renaissance Palestrina, baroque Bach, classical Mozart and Haydn, romantic Beethoven and Berlioz, and contemporary Stravinsky.”
As Dean Morton’s comments indicate, for hundreds of years musically significant Masses were composed by individuals, not communities. Though one composer might base a Mass on another composer’s melody, the final product was his/her work alone. Such Masses are, however, the exception. On a daily and weekly basis the Mass utlizes a prescribed liturgical text with music from various composers. Missa Gaia is close to the norm, since it too contains music by different composers. Paul Winter acted more as a chief architect than as a typical Western composer. In planning the Mass he asked Dean Morton, “Could a Mass celebrate a vision of the entire Earth as a cathedral?” Dean Morton assured him that it could.
Great cathedrals embody communal thought and effort. No individual constructs a cathedral. Thus a cathedral embodies ecosophical ideas, for it is a sacred space made of interdependent units. A cathedral represents the universe. Missa Gaia is a musical cathedral because its genesis is rooted in interdependent communal musical action for a sacred purpose. More than half of the songs in Missa Gaia are not by Paul Winter. Others are either improvisations by Winter or are collaborations. Paul Winter described communal composition:
“What we developed was an interweave of creative ideas from all the members of the Consort; and our process was self-balancing, by virtue of the common taste we share in our little musical tribe. While no one of us knew all of what was appropriate for the music of this Mass, together we found we did know.”
Thanks to this cathedral community, ecosophists have their song and the world has its first truly ecumenical mass, a gift from the Winter Consort in the style and spirit of the late twentieth century.
Paul Larson, D.M.A., is an Associate Professor of Music at Moravian College, Bethlehem, Pa. and Treasurer of the Institute for Ecosophical Studies.
Note: Missa Gaia Earth Mass has been recorded by Living Music Foundation, Litchfield, Connecticut 06759.