Scott Macmillan,
Celtic Mass for the Sea
(Marquis, 1994)

In composing his Celtic Mass for the Sea, Scott Macmillan set himself a daunting task: to combine Celtic music and a theme of reverence for the sea with the formal structure of the mass. Not only does Macmillan meet the challenge, he exceeds all expectations. Jennyfer Brickenden's poetic libretto matches his efforts, word for note.

The CD opens with a spritely-sounding Celtic harp, followed by uillean pipes, both of which set the tone for the rest of the mass. The Introit is a joyful evocation of the sea and its creatures and of a power far older than humanity. The Celtic ensemble trades off seamlessly with the string orchestra, then returns for the third track with wild-sounding fiddle and pipes supporting the simple lyrics "He who tramples on the world / He tramples on himself." (I never thought I would find myself tapping my toes to a mass.)

The texts and melodies are all appropriate for the corresponding sections of the ordinary mass, from the Kyrie to the Sanctus to the Agnus Dei, although the jazzy beginning of the Credo is unsettling at first. Still, it works with the rest of the section. Brickenden's libretto includes touches of whimsy, such as the enumeration of sea creatures which includes the "crafty sea urchin" -- the arrangement seems to feature that one. Consistently, the text and music mesh beautifully, featuring textured arrangements that mimic ocean waves on a beach or else evoke other images of the sea. Overall, the experience is thrilling and uplifting.

No matter how beautifully crafted, a piece of choral music is at the mercy of the singers and the accompanists. In the case of Celtic Mass for the Sea, the Halifax Camerata Singers and the accompanying Celtic ensemble and string orchestra are well up to the task. Together, they convey the sense of joy and celebration that the piece deserves.

I love the ocean and could spend hours perched on a rock, watching the waves roll and crash. Since that is not an every day option for me, Celtic Mass for the Sea brings the ocean to me in all its majesty, mystery and splendor. See what it does for you.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 28 July 2001

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