‘Paul Winter’s joyous, rhythmic, contemporary EARTH MASS. is performed by the Paul Winter Consort, and features the voices of wolf, whale and loon, a massed choir of hundreds of voices, gospel singer Theresa Thomason, and the Forces of Nature Dance Theatre in a grand celebration of the entire Earth as our sacred home. 

In 1980, invited to compose a contemporary Mass for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Paul Winter set out to create a work that was both ecumenical and ecological, one that would embrace all the voices of the Earth. “I wanted to feel the Earth-power of percussion in harmony with the serene voices of the choir, and to share with the congregation that spirit of celebration we know with our concert audiences,” Winter explains.  

EARTH MASS/MISSA GAIA was premiered on Mother’s Day, May 10, 1981, celebrating Mother Earth, with a sermon by David Brower, founder and president of Friends of the Earth. The Mass was recorded that September on two nights in the Cathedral with invited audiences, and on St. Francis Day October 4th, honoring the beginning of the year of the Saint’s 800th birthday. Now the MISSA GAIA or EARTH MASS is performed in New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the first Sunday in October every year as part of the Cathedral’s Celebration of the Feast of St. Francis. (Learn more about the music here.)

This year the Earth Mass will be performed on October 1, 2017. The service begins at 11 am, with a prelude beginning at 10:50 am. Bring your pet! Following the service, join us for the St. Francis Day fair, with pet blessings, activities, refreshments, and performances on the Pulpit Green.

Admission is free; passes are required. Plenty of “day-of” passes will be available on October 1st on a first-come, first-served basis. The line for these passes does form early. (For more information, visit the Cathedral’s website by clicking here.)

The service concludes with the Procession of the Animals, a silent parade of creatures great and small down the Nave of the Cathedral. 

Following the Procession, the Cathedral hosts an outdoor fair, with  animal, environmental, and other social justice organizations sharing information on their efforts. You can also grab a bite at one of the vegetarian-friendly food trucks, line up on the Pulpit Green to have your creature companions blessed, have your face painted, or enjoy a performance by the Mettawee River Theatre Company. 

The Creation of the Earth Mass / Missa Gaia

Paul Winter remembers:
“My first visit to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was in the spring of 1974, for the funeral of Duke Ellington. The experience of hearing the extraordinary music of this service in the awesome space of the Cathedral was profoundly moving. A succession of renowned jazz soloists, all alumni of the Ellington Orchestra, played and sang great Ellington songs to a congregation of 10,000. This music felt entirely appropriate in the Cathedral. These songs were hymns of our lives.

“As we were leaving, recordings of Ellington came through the sound system, and I can still hear the velvet, liquid tone of Johnny Hodges’ sax soaring way up in the vault of the Cathedral. I had then no clue that several years later I myself would have the opportunity to play in the Cathedral; and the last thing I would have dreamed is that I would be making music for liturgy.

“In 1977 the Consort and I played for the annual conference of the Lindisfarne Association, a gathering of scholars, seekers and artists who were meeting that year in a small church in Lower Manhattan. After the concert, a man introduced himself to me, saying he was James Morton, Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and that he would love to have us play there. I was surprised, and honored, but in my mind I didn’t feel quite ready. With the memory of that first experience still resonating, I felt that for the unique space of the Cathedral, with its seven-second reverberation time, we would have to create a very special music

“I ran into Dean Morton again, two years later at another Lindisfarne conference, this time in Colorado. My vision had expanded, and my confidence; when the Dean asked if the Consort and I would like to be artists-in-residence at the Cathedral, I was thrilled… and I knew we were ready.

“In New York, for my first meeting with Dean Morton, he asked if I wanted to try the acoustics. I took my horn in the empty Cathedral, stood awhile in the reverberating silence, and began to play. The sounds, floated, and hovered, and seemed to glow with a richness I had never before known. It was mesmerizing. The Cathedral seemed a perfect acoustic space for my soprano saxophone. Then the Dean, with characteristic enthusiasm, wanted me to improvise with the Cathedral organist, Paul Halley. As if I weren’t intoxicated enough with the sound of my own horn, that first duet with Paul was overwhelming. He wove gorgeous tapestries of sound on the organ, supporting and surrounding my melodies with harmonies that were both earthly and sublime.

“A series of events were planned,including ‘The Tao of Bach’ with Al Huang, TURTLE ISLAND with poet Gary Snyder, the premiere of the music from our sea-mammal album, CALLINGS, the first annual ‘Winter Consort Winter Solstice Whole Earth Christmas Celebration’ and ‘Day of the Seal’. From my own experience of sounds in the cathedral, I understood that the purpose of the great cathedrals is to awaken in us a sense of the sacred; and that ‘sacred’ means a sense of connectedness with the Universe.

“Then a unique idea came from the Dean: he suggested we create 20th Century music for the Mass.

“The idea of writing a Mass seemed far-flung. I had never even been to a Mass! Trying to imagine what I would want to hear in a truly contemporary Mass, I realized I would want to create a Mass that was both ecumenical and ecological, one which would embrace all the voices of the Earth. I wanted to feel the Earth-power of percussion in harmony with the serene voices of the choir, and to share with the congregation that spirit of celebration we know with our concert audiences. The title would be EARTH MASS.

“Could a Mass celebrate a vision of the entire Earth as a cathedral?
Dean Morton assured me it could.
Could Mass music be based on themes from whales and wolves?
‘You can write a Mass on anything’, the Dean said.

“I was enlisted; my work was cut out for me. Feeling like a freshman on the first day of college, I began gathering recordings of the great historical masses, from Dufay, Machaut and Palestrina through Bach and Stravinsky, Poulenc, Kodaly and Britten. I learned that the Mass has been the cradle of eastern art music for the last 800 years, and has provided the context for some of the greatest music ever written. I was heartened to know that at the root of many of the elaborate polyphonic masses of the Middle Ages were simple folk and popular tunes, the most famous being the chanson ‘L’Homme Arme’, a drinking song used by Dufay and 20 other composers as the theme of their masses.

“I had no drinking song in mind, but I did have a fine melody from a wolf that fit perfectly with the words ‘Kyrie Eleison’.

“The EARTH MASS evolved over the next four months. Our friend Mary Schoonmaker suggested the alternative title MISSA GAIA, using the Greek name for Mother Earth and acknowledging the Gaia hypothesis of scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, who proposed that the entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales to viruses,and from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity, capable of manipulating the Earth’s atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and power far beyond those of its constituent parts’.

“If the ‘Gaia hypothesis’ is about synergy, then the process of our creation of the EARTH MASS/MISSA GAIA is truly a manifestation of Gaia. For what developed was an interweave of creative ideas from all the members of the Consort; and our process was self-balancing, by virtue of the common instincts of our little musical tribe. While no one of us knew all of what was appropriate for the music for this Mass, together we found that we did know.

“EARTH MASS/MISSA GAIA was premiered on Mother’s Day, May 10, 1981, celebrating Mother Earth, with a sermon by David Brower, founder and president of Friends of the Earth. The Mass was recorded that September on two nights in the Cathedral with invited audiences, and on St. Francis Day October 4th, honoring the beginning of the year of the Saint’s 800th birthday. Now we perform the MISSA GAIA each first Sunday in October, at the Cathedral, in a grand celebration that includes the dancers of the Forces of Nature Theater Company, stilt dancers, and a choir of three hundred.

“The EARTH MASS/MISSA GAIA has been for me a journey that hasn’t ended. It has opened doors to places, within and without, I had never known, and it has led me to remarkable meetings with fellow students and teachers”.

Ever since St. John’s Day, December 27, 1892, when the cornerstone was thrice stuck into the living rock of Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, St. John has aimed to be ‘a House of Prayer for all People.’ To its great bronze doors have come all the faithful – Christian, Jew, Buddhist, existentialist, best-dressed, lesser-blessed, socially distressed – seeking joy and triumph over the universal demons. In the arboreal stillness of its towering columns and arches, they have listened to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Buckminster Fuller, the Dalai Lama, Rene Dubos, the Mayor of Jerusalem, Jesse Jackson, Secretaries General of the United Nations, Vaclav Havel, Senator Albert Gore, Cesar Chavez, Margaret Mead, Thomas Berry, Nelson Mandela, the Paul Winter Consort, and poet Gary Snyder. Under the jewel light of its 10,000 pane Great Rose Window, they have prayed together for war’s end. Though its keynote is distinctly American, as is that of the Episcopal Church, the Cathedral – affectionately known as ‘Big John’ – peals a message around the globe: ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to all.’”
-Wendy Insinger
(from “Hosanna for St. John the Divine,”
in Town and Country magazine)

Remarks of the Very Reverend James Parks Morton,
Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine

The Earth Mass, commissioned in 1981 by the Cathedral of St. John 
the Divine, presents contemporary men and women with several
interesting philosophical questions, and some practical 
considerations as well. Isn’t it pagan for a mass to celebrate 
nature? (What is a mass anyway?) Aren’t cathedrals supposed
to be other-worldly – not full of whale and wolf calls? 
Can the Earth Mass be performed in any church anywhere?

To answer these questions let us start in reverse order with 
the simplest and most practical. Fundamentally the Earth Mass 
is a collection of modern religious music all of which can be 
performed anywhere, in schools, colleges, choral groups as well 
as in churches. Six of the compositions are hymns for group singing, 
and six are occasionally liturgical pieces (traditionally called 
preludes, anthems, motets, voluntaries, etc.) for solo voice, 
chorus, organ or instrument. But the title “Mass” comes from
the name given to the four most important compositions, 
which together constitute the core musical framework for the
Holy Communion – that most ancient service of Christian worship, 
which is variously called the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper,
the Divine Liturgy of the Mass.

The words for these four texts come from the Bible and first 
formed part of the worship of the temple and synagogue 
(for example, the exact words of the Sanctus are used in 
the Hebrew Sabbath Morning Service), but over the years 
they have come to be known by their Greek or Latin abbreviations 
taken from the first word in each choral line. Today this unvarying 
fourfold pattern of Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei
enjoys wide ecumenical usage and forms the fixed musical 
backbone for Christian worship throughout the world, irrespective 
of denomination or composer. The hymns and other occasional
pieces of music are also used in the mass, but placed in between 
those four unchanging elements, which give both structure
and universality to worship.

Earth Mass, therefore, takes its place in the long historical tradition 
of liturgical music, beginning with the Hebrew chant of the
synagogue and continuing with the Greek and Latin, the 
renaissance Palestrina, baroque Bach, classical Mozart and Haydn, 
romantic Beethoven and Berlioz, and contemporary Stravinsky.