2003 NOVEMBER 30 #334
There's been a lot of religious music posted here at the 365 Days Project, mostly for its shock value or entertaining awfulness. Well, here's a cut that I'm posting because it's awesome and amazing and wonderful and you just gotta hear it.
If you spend any time digging through thrift store LPs, you've seen this album. Shiny black cover, usually but not always a gatefold, with three blue stained-glass windows on it. What you may not have known is that this nondescript-looking 1957 release, recorded in England, was one of the most controversial Christian music albums ever. And it's REALLY GOOD.
Fr. Geoffrey Beaumont (1904-1971), a Cambridge-educated vicar and musician, wrote this mass setting in an attempt to make the mass relevant to the churchgoers of the 50s. The style of the album is definitely not folk--it's more MGM Hollywood Musical than anything else. This mixing of popular music with sacred texts didn't sit well at all with traditionalists. The merits of the album were debated at length in religious publications, and it apparently sold like hotcakes in the US, mostly to choir directors who would stash it in a dark corner of their music library closet, whipping it out occasionally to amaze the more progressive-thinking members of the congregation.
While much of it now sounds pretty conventional and in some cases familiar (Fr. Beaumont's music having since wormed its way into several mainstream Christian hymnals and liturgies), other parts still have jaw-drop power today, in particular this cut. It's a setting of the 150th Psalm for cantor, choir, congregation and orchestra. It starts out rather normally if a bit bombastically, but then whappo--they suddenly start SWINGING! A full-on big-band swing arrangement with solos and brass breaks and strings and drums and everything, with the cantor and congregation singing the Psalm in call and response over top of it all, and it works!
The album also includes the infamous waltz version of the old hymn "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy." Your church choir director probably has a pile of copies of that choir arrangement stashed in the corner of the closet next to this album, with a yellowing note from the pastor asking to Please Never Sing This In Our Church Again.
From the liner notes:
Words get overlaid by habit, becoming buried under the weight of custom or tradition. Sometimes an entirely fresh context is needed before their message shines clearly again. In an attempt to emphasize the meaning and drama of the Mass rather than its historical beauty, Geoffrey Beaumont has composed the 20th Century Folk Mass. It will, he hopes, provide men and women living in the modern world with an expression of faith that is close to their own experience.
Fr. Beaumont . . . defines "folk music" as the normal, everyday popular melodies and rhythms enjoyed and understood by the majority of men and women in Britain today. It is a part of their cultural background, the music that heightens the dramas they watch in cinemas or on television, the idiom that expresses their sentiments and emotions. To use this idiom in churches is to go back to the days when "religion" and "life" were merely aspects of the same social existence.
And yes, this is the same Frank Weir who had the top-10 US hit in 1954 with "The Happy Wanderer."
TT-4:20 / 2.5MB / 80kbps 44.1khz
Cantor: Charles Young
from the album "20th Century Folk Mass" Fiesta FLP 25000 (1957)