Roberto Sierra: Missa Latina
By Thomas May
Roberto Sierra has become known for infusing classical forms and genres with Latin American idioms. The vibrant result of these stylistic amalgams—a process the composer refers to as “tropicalization”—is proving to be intensely involving for those who encounter his music. It thrives on live performance, on the synergistic feedback between performers and audiences. And it is music that appeals to head and heart alike.
But the journeys that Sierra undertakes are not only geographical. His compositions also travel far and freely across time, drawing on a wide spectrum of Western music—from the traditions of the classical past to modernist experimentation with alternate tonalities, metrical complexity, and striking textures. For example, his Guitar Concerto (Concierto barroco), which was inspired by Alejo Carpentier’s historical novel, treks back in time to conjure the novelist’s imagined meeting of Handel and Vivaldi with a slave from the New World who arrives in Venice.
Personal memories, too, provide a nourishing source for Sierra’s musical imagination. One of his earliest pieces (written for Kronos) is a string quartet that is in fact titled Memorias Tropicales. Its second movement, the composer notes, “reflects the image of the endless horizon as I remember it, especially during those beautiful summer afternoons where one’s gaze gets lost while looking at the vast ocean.” Moreover, aspects of a spiritual odyssey inform several of Sierra’s works. His oratorio from 1992, Bayoán, is based on Eugenio María de Hostos’s novel about a quest for identity, with its protagonist reversing Columbus’s journey from the Caribbean to Europe.
This sense of a spiritual journey is at the center of the Missa Latina, the largest achievement in a prolific list of works that Sierra has composed to date. Here, the composer’s personal memories of a Catholic boyhood merge with cultural memories of liturgical music that stretch back for centuries. “I still recall vividly hearing the Mass in Latin in my own town in Puerto Rico when I was a child,” Sierra told an interviewer right before the work’s world premiere in February 2006. He refers to the “sense of mystery” evoked by hearing this “dead language” in the context of ritual and Gregorian chant—a mystery “combined with both power and compassion.”
Sierra, 55, has lived in the United States since 1989 (he now holds the position on the music faculty at Cornell that Czech composer Karel Husa vacated in 1992). But he remains intimately connected to his Puerto Rican heritage and the vernacular music that was a part of daily life growing up in Vega Baja, on the northern coast of the Enchanted Isle. “Because I am Puerto Rican,” Sierra declares, “my music is Puerto Rican. Always. The wealth of images I have in mind refers to that place where I grew up, to the sounds, the colors, the sunshine, the Puerto Rican sky. Even the more abstract music has an accent that points to where I was born. Then again, Puerto Rico is part of the world and, like the rest of the world, it eventually merges into something larger.”
In some ways, Sierra’s sense of musical identity involved a process of rediscovery during the composer’s first extended sojourn abroad. He taught himself piano till the age of fifteen, and then, at the Puerto Rico Conservatory, turned his focus toward a career as composer. Sierra went on to live in Europe for several years (from 1976 to 1982), furthering his studies in London and Holland. Eventually, György Ligeti invited him to his studio in Hamburg for private study. Here—at one of the epicenters of European modernism—Ligeti encouraged Sierra to stay true to his roots.
“I realized I didn’t want to be a little Ligeti,” Sierra jokes. In fact, the budding young composer left his own stamp on the famous master, introducing him to Caribbean and other world music. Ligeti would later acknowledge his student’s influence in turning him on to the “marvelous polyphonic, polyrhythmic music” of Central Africa, which became a fascination in his later compositions. But the priceless lesson Sierra took from Ligeti was an essential guiding principle: “I learned to find my own way. I believe that the music I have to write and say is my own.” For Sierra, being committed to expressing his Puerto Rican identity means resisting homogenization. “I’m trying to express myself with my own peculiar accent,” Sierra points out. “Even when I look at the Western tradition, it will be filtered through my own tradition and experience.”
This personal accent permeates the Missa Latina. Decades before, Sierra had expressed interest in turning to a musical setting of the Mass, and the opportunity finally arrived thanks to a commission from Leonard Slatkin (like the conductor Zden?k Mácal, an ardent champion of his work) and the National Symphony. Previously, they had commissioned the orchestral piece Fandagos to great success, but the Missa Latina was a far more ambitious undertaking. Sierra spent two years (2003-2005) composing the concert-length work. “I was attracted to the idea of a Mass,” says Sierra, “because it’s a grand tradition as a concept that was very alluring to me for its secular possibilities as well.”
Indeed, Sierra also brings his personal voice to the selection of texts in a way that connects the ritual to the present-day world. The five main sections of the Missa are the familiar, unchanging parts (what is known as “the Ordinary”). But to these Sierra decided to add prayers drawn from sections that change according to the liturgical calendar (‘the Propers”). These include the opening section (the Introitus, which occurs during the ceremonial procession to the altar) and the Offertorium, which is placed between the Credo and the Sanctus and is the prayer of presentation before consecration.
Sierra’s selections are prayers for peace, which is a guiding theme of the Missa Latina. “We have been living in turbulent times. When I began composing, we were just starting the Iraq War,” Sierra says. “And I thought of how the 20th century, and now the 21st century so far, has been so much about war. So I wanted to write this as a plea for peace, and these struck me as such beautiful texts.”
In this sense, Sierra hearkens back to a gesture that is movingly evident in Haydn’s late Masses and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Sierra’s intensity of purpose and rich development of musical ideas also show the influence of the Missa Solemnis. Sierra points to inspiration from the Deutsches Requiem of Brahms as well for his choice of soprano and baritone soloists—“It’s a combination that works so beautifully.” Sierra’s mastery—one that’s all too easy to take for granted—extends to his balancing of large forces that have a great deal to say independently. Although his vocal writing is quite demanding, it is highly singer oriented and remains transparent against a sweeping orchestral canvas, which includes a colorfully expanded percussion section.
Sierra deploys these gigantic forces to effect stunning contrasts, from moments of intimate introspection to overwhelming climaxes. The first two movements introduce a polarity that is at the heart of the Missa. The Introitus (for soprano solo and women’s chorus) suggests a connection with the distant past in its chantlike aspects, intoning a plea that is both gentle and full of longing. But the Kyrie shocks with its jarring, vehement sense of fatalism, so apparent in the slowly falling line of the opening section.
Throughout the entire work, Sierra oscillates between emotional extremes. The composer expresses a fascination for the “dramatic line” in these texts. “You hear some Masses,” he notes, “and don’t even know whether you’re in the Kyrie or the Gloria. But there are joyful moments, confessional moments of absolute dejection, the Passion of Christ, and so on. How can you not set these texts in a way that differentiates them?”
We get a taste of Sierra’s dancingly joy-filled music in the Gloria, where he rejuvenates the expected sense of triumphant proclamation with a rhythmic motto (or clave) that is seeded throughout the Missa: the 3+3+2 pattern that Sierra points out is a permeating feature of Latin music. In fact, he introduces this pattern unobtrusively toward the end of the Introitus, deep in the bass. Cuban cha-cha rhythms enter in the Laudamus te, while in the Gloria’s conclusion Sierra marries fugal textures with driving Latin meters and colorful treble descanting.
The twenty-minute Credo makes an especially powerful impact, in part because of how Sierra defies expectations. Instead of a confident communal assent, a feeling of anxious doubt pervades the opening, underlined by fog-like, unresolved harmonies and pained accentuations. Sierra looks back to the baroque in the vividness of his word-painting—particularly for the sections on the life of Jesus—but turns to the present age in dealing with the idea of organized religion. At the phrase “one church,” the textures become multilayered and dense—“Where the chorus is in effect saying that there are a multitude of churches,” Sierra explains, as well as personal faith, all striving for the same revelation.
After a violent orchestral prelude for the Offertorium, the baritone solo sings another plea for peace, with melancholy-tinged countermelodies from the orchestra, while the concluding choral Alleluia foreshadows the conclusion of the Missa. Sierra’s music becomes outright joyful in the infectious Sanctus but also conveys a sense of awe, and the Benedictus is melody at its liltingly most beautiful. This shortest movement also encapsulates the unique hybrids that are Sierra’s signature.
Peace is at the core of the Agnus Dei. It features an a cappella passage for soprano and chorus—masterful in its use of sotto voce and long-limbed melody—that sets an additional prayer promising peace. Sierra concludes the work with an ebullient, meringue-splashed “Alleluia” whose local color is universal in its affirmation.
Thomas May is the author of Decoding Wagner and editor of The John Adams Reader. He writes frequently about music and theater.