Music with a Cause: A Discussion with Henry Mollicone

“We all know that homelessness is such a major problem…and it doesn’t seem like the government is really handling it very well. The burden seems to be on private citizens… There must be some way that artists can do something.”

Henry Mollicone
Henry Mollicone

Henry Mollicone is an active freelance composer of opera, symphonic, and new music. A widely sought-after commissioner, Mollicone‘s résumé includes an impressive list of work for ensembles like The San Francisco Opera, The Minnesota Opera, The American Composers’ Alliance, and The National Endowment for the Arts. The composer also ranks as a leading composer in writing new works for social justice-related issues. One of these works is Beautitude Mass (for the Homeless).

Beatitude Mass
Beatitude Mass (ECS#6518) for Soprano & Baritone Soli, SATB Chorus (divisi), and Piano or Chamber Ensemble or Full Orchestra

1. What inspired you to write Beatitude Mass?

I received a commission from Mid-Columbia Mastersingers America, and was told by director Jana Hart that I could write “anything I wanted to.” What a nice opportunity for a composer to be told that!  I have for years wanted to set some classic Latin prayers, and this was my opportunity to do so.  These prayers were familiar to me from my youth, and included the famous “Ave Verum.”  Of course every classical music music lover knows that prayer because of the exquisite Mozart setting, which I must say caused me to feel a bit intimidated— but having a composer’s ego, I got over it and did it!

2. Beatitude Mass incorporates both Latin and English texts. Tell us about the origins of these texts and why you chose them.

Beatitude Mass is very special to me— not so much for its musical content, but because it deals with the issue of homelessness, and was written to raise money for organizations dedicated to helping the poor.  I encourage any choruses doing the work to donate at least some of the funds they raise to such organizations, and it has so far raised over 150,000 dollars for various organizations.  I encourage choruses to choose the organizations that will receive such donations.  Some nice events have occurred over the years since I composed the work with my librettist playwright William Luce.  Some groups have decided to donate to more than one organization; others have featured art created by homeless people, and have sold  paintings and sculpture, donating the funds to charities, while others have invited poor people to attend performances.  It is so important, i feel, for poor people to know that we are aware of their situations, and want to assist them, as often in the world, they feel alone and abandoned. Of all my works, it is my fervent hope that this one continue to get performances and to make such donations.

I thought it would be a good idea to use the standard Latin Mass texts for the choral movements, while having a baritone and soprano sing the solo roles representing homeless individuals (Evelyn and Adam); their stories were put together from interviews with several homeless people in shelters conducted by Mr. Luce (in Oregon) and myself (in San Jose).  In each of the interviews conducted, the individuals had one thing in common: Hope.  They all wanted very much to make their own situations better, and worked hard to do so.  Some suffered from mental illness, some from addictions, and many from simply not being able to make enough money working to pay rent and support their families.  Mr. Luce took all of the interviews, and it was his brilliant idea to use them as the basis for the individual stories of Adam and Evelyn.  When I asked him— well after the premiere— why he chose these names, he told me that Evelyn is usually called Eve, and that Adam and Eve after leaving the Garden of Eden were the first homeless people on the planet.  And I didn’t even think of that before he told me!  In terms of the music, the big choral movements (representing the Divine Spirit) is different from that of the soloists (representing homeless people).  The latter music even uses elements from vernacular (popular) musical styles.

3. All of your royalties for this piece have been donated to organizations that support the homeless. Do you know which organizations have received these funds?

As I have been blessed with performances by several choirs, I do not have all of that information readily available, but I can name a few: So Others Might Eat (SOME) in Washington DC and St. Joseph’s Social Ministry in San Jose, CA also comes to mind.  The nice thing about these performances is that they were in many different locations in America, so several organizations benefited.

4. When was Beatitude Mass premiered?

The San Jose Symphonic Choir, under my direction premiered the work at St. Joseph’s Basilica in San Jose, CA in the spring of 2006.  The music director of the choir, Leroy Kromm (a wonderful baritone) sang the role of Adam, and his equally talented wife, Nancy Wait Kromm, sang the role of Evelyn.  The commercial recording was made from that performance.

Complete List of Performances:

  • San Jose Symphonic Choir
  • Stone Church of Willow Glen (San Jose, CA)
  • Prince of Peace Church (Saratoga CA)
  • The Unitarian Universalist Church (Palo Alto, CA)
  • Our Lady of Angels Cathedral (Los Angeles, CA)
  • St. Mary’s Church (Los Gatos, CA)
  • The Monterey Symphonic Chorus (Monterey, CA)
  • The Georgetown Chorale (at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC)
  • Santa Clara University (Santa Clara, CA)
  • Combined choir performance (United Kingdom)
  • St. Edwards University (Austin, TX)
  • Polyphony: Voices of New Mexico (Albuquerque, NM)

Reviews of Beatitude Mass:

Like so many of Mollicone’s works, the Beatitude Mass  draws on his exceptional musical gifts of melody and harmony to exalt the simple, anguished words of homeless people into haunting and moving expressions…it takes on the universality found in so many great musical settings of the Latin mass. It adds for its finale the ‘Salve Mater Misericordiae’ and, like Brahms’ German Requiem, reprises the opening beatification, ‘Blessed are the poor.’ – Scott MacClelland, Monterey County Weekly

“The Beatitude Mass proved an affecting and powerful work, brimming with talent and heart…All who gather under the halo of this choral work — singers, musicians, volunteers, audiences, charitable agencies, tech crews, etc — do so in a spirit of service to their fellow humans. The Beatitude Mass is designed this way. It attracts and supports community fellowship, generosity, kindness, selfless actions and warmhearted artistic excellence. As such, it serves as a true vessel of good that may not only inspire many people to participate in the Mass‘ unique performance legacy but also composers willing to undertake projects similarly dedicated to charitable action. Mollicone‘s masterpiece of music and service seems just the right antidote to constriction in a time of belt-cinching and economic worry. It says, ‘Give happily to those less fortunate and let music lead the way!’ Wouldn’t it be something if the Beatitude Mass  sparks a joyful contagion of great music written for charity!?” – Barbara Rose Shuler, The Herald

Henry Mollicone had been volunteering at a homeless shelter. Then a priest friend put an idea in his head: As a composer, Mollicone might have a more far-reaching way to help. ‘As I was writing the piece,’ Mollicone said, ‘it occurred to me that the chorus (in the Latin sections) represents a kind of spiritual quality — God, if you will. And the … soloists represent humanity, in a very general sense. What I noticed in a lot of these people was hope. They all had very strong ideas about getting their lives back in shape…We all know that homelessness is such a major problem…and it doesn’t seem like the government is really handling it very well. The burden seems to be on private citizens… There must be some way that artists can do something.'” –  Steven Brown, The Charlotte Observer


Other available works for social justice by Henry Mollicone:

Misa de los Inmigrantes (Mass for the Immigrants)

Mass for the Immigrants

Misa de los Inmigrantes may be performed omitting the narration sections between the choral movements, although it is my preference that they be included. The work was written as a tribute to all immigrants in the hope of raising awareness of the injustices in our present immigration system. Its narrative depicts the true story of Guadalupe and her family, and their difficult journey from Mexico to the United States in search of a decent life. My wife, Kathy, interviewed Lupe several times, as Lupe shared all the details of her odyssey for the purpose of making her story public. Her experiences are not unique; they are, in fact, similar to those of so many others who are forced by poverty and violence to leave their homes and seek a better life in America for themselves and their families.” —Henry Mollicone

Click here for more information about Misa de los Inmigrantes (Mass for the Immigrants) for Mezzo-Soprano or Soprano Solo SATB Chorus (divisi), Instrumental Ensemble, and opt. Female Narrator. 

A Song for Our Planet 

“All the world’s great faith traditions give thanks for the glory of God’s creation. In recent years they have also worked on environmental stewardship individually, in interfaith partnerships and with private agencies and governments. A Song for Our Planet celebrates that work and integrates sacred texts from the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Taoist traditions. Out of respect for the beliefs of many Muslims, no verses from the Koran are included out of respect for the beliefs of many Muslims that the Qu’ran must not be set to music; rather, we include passages by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Ruml, the 13th-century Muslim poet, theologian, and Sufi mystic. The libretto has an arching form that moves from praise of God’s creation and acknowledgement of humanity’s harm of the earth to a commitment for change. It concludes in hope for peaceful coexistence and celebration of all earth’s creatures. We hope that performances of A Song for Our Planet may inspire people to explore ‘creation-friendly’ practices both in their daily lives and in their sanctuaries, classrooms, and concert halls.” —Vicky Thomas and Henry Mollicone

Click here for more information about A Song for Our Planet for Soprano and Baritone Soli, SATB Chorus (divisi), and Chamber Orchestra. 

 

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