Gospel Mass grew its audience over time

Gospel Mass article - Jan 16, 2009



Robert Ray

Thirty years ago, Robert Ray sat down to write Gospel Mass, an experimental work, for a one-time performance. To his surprise, the piece caught on and became a seminal work of African-American music, performed by choirs and churches all over the world.

There’s no doubt in Ray’s mind that God played a role in the writing of his now famous Mass, which sets the words from the Catholic Mass to the rhythm and harmony of African-American music.

“God controls everything I do,” said Ray, a composer, conductor and music educator. “It was written in about a two-week period. The hard part for me was not being a formally trained composer. The creativity was a result of divine inspiration. He was working with me.”

But it was also, he agrees, the right time and place. The Black Power movement was pushing cultural pride and identity, Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of inclusion still felt fresh, and white audiences were eager to embrace gospel music.

Ray will conduct the 30-minute Gospel Mass Sunday at First Methodist Houston Westchase, with a combined choir of 75 singers and musicians. His appearance is part of the church’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations.

And while the joyful toe-tapping mass reflects King’s life and message, changes in the Roman Catholic Church also played a role.

The Gospel Mass, Ray explains, is a direct result of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-’60s and its decision to hold Masses in the language of the host country rather than in traditional Latin.

That opened up the mass to other changes. The Rev. Clarence Rivers, a musician and the first black Catholic priest in the archdiocese of Cincinnati, was an advocate for the use of African-American spirituals in the Catholic liturgy.

Ray, a graduate of Northwestern University in music and piano performance, was asked to be on Rivers’s liturgical team.

“We went around the country, advocating the use of jazz and African-American music in the liturgy,” Ray recalled. “We pretty much talked to black Catholics and got a mixed reaction. Some people had joined the Catholic church because they wanted to get away from that traditional music.”

In spite of that, Rivers and Ray continued their workshops with the National Office of Black Catholics. Ray had just begun teaching at the University of Illinois-Urbana, when he was asked to try composing an African-American style Mass.

From the beginning, Gospel Mass was wildly successful.

The official premiere was in 1979 at the University of Illinois-Urbana, with a chorus of Ray’s students.

“There was an incredible response,” Ray recalls. “We performed to jam-packed houses. I was very, very excited. To have that kind of response to the first work you have ever written was very gratifying. Like I said: ‘It was the hand of the Almighty.’ ”

Even so, Ray never expected Gospel Mass to be performed again. He packed the music in storage and went on with his life. Several years later a friend asked to use Gospel Mass in a high school concert.

That concert hooked up Ray with the Hal Leonard music publishing company, which published Gospel Mass and all Ray’s other work.

The piece, he believes, struck an ecumenical chord that “allowed people of all denominations or faith to embrace the style.”

The music for the Mass, like other pieces Ray later composed, was based on his own musical experience, growing up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

When Gospel Mass is performed in a Catholic church, it is sung around Communion. On Sunday, the Mass’s six movements will be performed as a concert, without Communion. Some churches use one movement during a service, such as the credo, “I Believe,” and “Hallelujah.”

Keith Williams, director of Contemporary Worship & Fine Arts at Westchase Campus, says the diverse congregation and visitors can expect wonderful singing with a conductor who is “very lively, exciting and energetic.”

No matter how many times Ray, 63, has conducted Gospel Mass, it’s as exciting as the first night.

“Everything about each performance has been special,” Ray said. “It’s different each time because of the nature of the choirs, the soloist and the instrumentalist.”

Like any parent, Ray has his favorite sections, such as the “I Believe” credo and “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord.”

“There is a special story behind ‘Hallelujah,’ ” Ray recalls. “It was written the night before the premiere and taught by rote to the chorus. I came in and taught it that night.”

barbara.karkabi@chron.com Jan 16, 2009 By BARBARA KARKABI