A Twentieth Century Folk Mass

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On October 13, 1957, the British television audience was offered a live broadcast from St. Augustine's, Highgate, where the Communion service was being celebrated, it appeared, in a new fashion. Whatever was said by the solemn ecclesiastical gentleman who opened the program could hardly have prepared his viewers for what came next. The camera swooped around to reveal a baritone, a small vocal group reminiscent of those employed to record singing commercials, and a full-fledged dance band, complete with saxophones and high-hat cymbal. Whereupon the band emitted a penetrating screech, and all hands launched into a rendition of Psalm 150, which resembled nothing so much as an unnecessarily energetic parody of Ray Anthony.

This was "Twentieth Century Folk Mass," the product of one Fr. Geoffrey Beaumont, which has recently been recorded by the highly competent orchestra of Frank Weir (who is a sort of British Percy Faith). The Anglican service has been provided with music more usually associated with the world of TV variety shows and popular erotic ballads. Fr. Beaumont professes to write in the spirit of the old polyphonists, who wove popular tunes of their day into their masses. Most people in England, he argues, are responsive only to the kind of music purveyed on the mass-consumption mediums. What better way to enliven the average congregation's interest in the service than to greet it with the familiar, readily intelligible musical vernacular?

The English reaction to the "Mass" has been decidedly mixed. While the News Chronicle reported that "A few churchmen have been appalled ... but most of them are enthusiastic," the Musical Times was gravely wounded in its austere sensibilities. In the the lead article of its December, 1957, issue, the Times editorialized with scholarly ire, "The trouble arises at the present day because of the cleavage betwen 'popular' and 'serious' music, a cleavage unknown in earlier times." But the editor's revulsion could not be long held in check: "A certain kind of popular music is nowadays inevitably associated with the fetid atmosphere of a nightclub, dance hall or cabaret and its emphasis on cheap, moronic sexual allurement. But the service of the Holy Communion is, surely, something far removed from the idea of 'revelry by night.'"

The Times is right. Popular music evokes too many sensual associations to be much good as stimulus to meditation, spiritual or otherwise. The situation is aggravated on the recording by the arrangements of Peter Knight, although Mr. Knight has obviously done his best to keep a straight face. The chorus croons Kyrie Eleison over a lulling beguine rhythm, as bongos patter softly and violins execute Viennese glissandos. The whole idea has strong overtones of a collegiate hoax, but Fr. Beaumont has apparently convinced many people that the matter must be approached with deadly seriousness.

Most listeners are likely to agree with Alan H. Morriss, who commented that "A first glance at the score provokes the feeling that is is almost impossible to review it seriously." Passages like the sinister trombone blats at "Forgive us our trespasses," seem to encourage use of the Mass as a party record. But the piece has already been performed at a Providence cathedral, and there are rumor that it will be imported to Boston. One hopes that some time will elapse before the University Choir will be replaced at Memorial Church by the Hi-Lo's.