Missa Appalachia

Missa (Latin “mass”) refers not only to the act of sacramental worship, known by different names such as Holy Communion, Holy Eucharist, and the Lord ’s Supper. Missa also conjures up numerous musical settings, musical forms, and a variety of composers, at least for those of us in the sacred music community.

Missa brevis (short), Missa solemnis (solemn, for festive occasions with orchestra), Missa ferialis (weekday, omits Gloria and Credo), Missa sine nomine (without a name, literally), Missa cum jubilo (with singing) – composers throughout the ages have written every Missa imaginable.

Some years ago, my longtime friend and colleague Jonathan Dimmock wrote a Missa Appalachia that we have regularly used during Lent each year in our Sunday evening Celtic liturgies. His mass setting is published in both Wonder, Love, and Praise and Enriching Our Worship, supplements to our hymnal The Hymnal 1982.

Jonathan and I almost crossed paths as graduate students at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music but then met some years later at an Association of Anglican Musicians summer conference.

All church organists know each other, they say.

Last year he came to town and played a stellar organ recital for the Memphis American Guild of Organists at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. We had a brief but fun reunion, taking selfies in the chancel and posting them on Facebook, just like college or grad school students.

A native of Staunton, Virginia, which is beautifully nestled in the very heart of the Appalachian Mountains, Jonathan knows that his ancestry is at least 40% Celtic (Scots/Irish).

And interestingly, musicologists will confirm that Celtic music is very close in style and sound to the mountain music of Appalachia.

Celtic and Appalachian music both employ pentatonic scales (the black keys on a piano), melodies shaped with gentle rises and falls, and harmonies are basic and unencumbered. Such folk music is often accompanied by simple instruments, a single melody instrument, or no instruments at all.

Jonathan’s Missa Appalachia uses all of the above and works with all of the above.

Knowing all of these musical characteristics, Jonathan says that he set out to write his Missa Appalachia by focusing completely on melody, which is immediately noticed. Another friend and colleague of mine in Memphis would quip, “It practically sings itself!”

With five Sundays this month, we will sing and enjoy Jonathan’s mass setting on Mar. 24 accompanied by flute, Irish whistle (AKA pennywhistle), and guitar. And on Mar. 31 we will use hammered dulcimer, fiddle, and guitar.

I am grateful for friends whose music I can share and celebrate, music that works so well for our congregational use, music that is quickly and easily engaging, and music that brings authenticity and beauty to our liturgies.

So, thanks, Jonathan.

Posted by Dr. David Ouzts at 9:31 PM
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