Monday Musical Moment: Mass for the Endangered

Justin Langham   -  
Happy Monday!
Today I wanted to share with you an excerpt from a relatively new piece I heard this weekend.
On Saturday night, the Houston Chamber Choir and local chamber group Loop38 presented “Mass for the Endangered,” a six-movement, 45-minute piece that combines the traditional Latin text of the Catholic mass with text that both celebrates and elegizes the natural world, including animals, plants, insects, and the planet itself. The mass was written by American composer Sarah Kirkland Snider and was originally commissioned and premiered by Trinity Church Wall Street to promote a powerful appeal for greater awareness, urgency, and action.
About the mass, Snider explains, “The origin of the Mass is rooted in humanity’s concern for itself, expressed through worship of the divine—which, in the Catholic tradition, is a God in the image of man. Nathaniel and I thought it would be interesting to take the Mass’s musical modes of spiritual contemplation and apply them to concern for non-human life—animals, plants, and the environment. There is an appeal to a higher power—for mercy, forgiveness, and intervention—but that appeal is directed not to God but rather to Nature itself.”
Growing up in Princeton, NJ, Snider attended the American Boychoir School’s co-ed summer camp and fell in love with choral singing there. She later sang with the Princeton High School Choir, which was at the time one of the most celebrated high school choirs in the country. Both experiences made her very at home in choral music, but until the mass had not yet had a chance to explore it in a significant way. This mass was her first large choral commission, which she then explored and modeled after choral works for the greats such as Mozart, Brahms, and Fauré Requiems, the Palestrina and Byrd Masses, the Bach chorales. If you are familiar with any of these works, you will undoubtedly hear their influence in this work.
One movement that I found particularly meaningful was the “Alleluia.” Traditionally a song of praise to God in the Catholic church, Snider’s musical setting offers a different tone. The strings clash and intertwine to create a heartbreaking and lamenting mood, while the chorus sings descriptive texts about the earth, such as:

Heart of stone, of tar, of lava,

Shelter, shielding mother.
Oh, save us, mother!


To me, this setting of “alleluia,” which repeats several times throughout the movement, feels more like a song of pleading for mercy instead of the traditional song of praise. The combination of the text and musical setting creates a powerful juxtaposition.
I hope you enjoy this movement from “Mass for the Endangered,” and maybe consider checking out the whole piece.
Have a great week!