Mass For The Oppressed

Notes by Father Michael Driscoll

Composing a setting of the Latin Mass is a long established convention for serious composers. Even Eastern Orthodox Christians and non-Christians have availed themselves of this genre from the Latin Church. For example, Igor Stravinsky, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, gave us his Latin Mass in 1948 using the liturgy of Western Christianity. Sometimes composers have used the Mass genre to express other things. Brahms, for example, uses the Mass genre to compose his German Requiem without using the standard texts associated with the Requiem Latin Mass. Instead he used the words of the Lutheran Bible which he considered as German literature. In a similar fashion Benjamin Britten composed his War Requiem in 1962 for the rededication of Coventry Cathedral which had been totally destroyed in the Second World War. For the text of the War Requiem, Britten interspersed the Latin Mass for the Dead with nine poems written by Wilfred Owen, a World War I foot soldier who was killed a week before the Armistice. In a similar vein, Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein, uses the Mass genre when he composed his theatre piece, Mass, for the dedication of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Originally, Bernstein had intended to compose a traditional Mass, but instead decided on a more innovative form. The traditional Latin text is interspersed with tropes or inserted texts many of which speak to the crisis of belief, especially in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Now we have another example of an alternate use of the Mass genre in Emerson Eads’ Mass for the Oppressed. He composed this piece in response to the release of the Fairbanks Four, indigenous people who had been wrongly convicted and imprisoned for eighteen years. He uses the traditional form of the Ordinary of the Mass (KyrieGloriaCredoSanctus and Agnus Dei); however the Latin texts are amplified with tropes written in English by the composer’s brother Evan Eads, or in the case of the Credo, an alternate text from the diary of the young Pope Francis as a seminarian is substituted for the traditional Latin text. The effect is one of deep questioning about living in a society which is at times very unjust. In the Kyrie the tenor proclaims, “This is my revenge. I’ll dig on my knees in the deep earth until there grows trees!” Converting the death experience of those unjustly imprisoned, resurrection is his response. In the Gloria he asks, “How can I sing Gloria? How can I sing when I’m not free?” Yet in spite of glaring injustices, the composer discovers a place for deep-seated hope. As a Catholic priest and a singer who participated in the concert and the present recording, I must confess to having been deeply moved by the experience, at times being unable to sing I was so choked up! Just like other composers who used the Mass to give expression to faith and doubt, to despair and hope in their age, so too Emerson questions the current situation of patent injustice, all the while offering a tone of hope in the face of such unfairness. l


by Brian Patrick O’Donoghue, University of Alaska Fairbanks

For 18 years, state law officials had a ready response for those who questioned if justice was served following a Fairbanks teen’s murder.

“Three Alaska juries, in three separate trials, weighing essentially the same evidence,” said prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant, in a formula later embraced by his successors, “all reached the same conclusion.”




Protests of innocence from the four young men convicted failed to sway officers of the Law. Neither did evidence pointing toward others, nor the recanting star witness. Even after confessions surfaced from a pair locked up for other murders: nothing shook the faith placed in verdicts sanctified by 27 jurors.

Early that Saturday in October 1997, police inFairbanks, Alaska’s second largest city, were investigating a brutal beating downtown. The unidentified young victim, found unconscious in the street, wasn’t expected to survive.

Lawmen appeared to catch a break when Eugene Vent, a 17-year-old Athabaskan, was intercepted fleeing a reported armed scuffle with a motel clerk.

Vent, heavily intoxicated, soon cracked under interrogation. “If the blood is on my shoes, I must have been there.”

Actually, there wasn’t any blood. Detectives had lied, confident that no innocent person would confess.

John Hartman, 15, remained in a coma until his death that Sunday evening. By then, police had confessions from both Vent and 20-year-old George Frese, a fellow Athabaskan. An Emergency Room nurse flagged Frese after he limped in Saturday afternoon, on a foot hurt in a fight he was too drunk to recall.

The pair implicated themselves and two others, Marvin Roberts and Kevin Pease, both 19. All four were current or former students at Howard Luke Academy, Fairbanks predominantly Alaska native alternative high school.

No further suspects were sought, said the city’s chief detective, announcing the four arrests. He characterized the crime as “a spree of random violence

* * * * *

The district attorney assured grand jurors that one or more of the suspects would testify against the others. That never happened. Indeed, both Vent and Roberts, the salutatorian of Howard Luke’s ‘Class of ’96, spurned deals that would have capped theirsentences at 5 years.

Police found no DNA or any other physical evidence linking the four suspects to the victim. Roberts, alleged driver of the getaway car, produced several alibi witnesses, who swore he was dancing at a wedding reception a half mile from the crime scene.

The state’s case against the four rested on a witness who said he glimpsed them robbing a man outside the reception hall not long before. It wasn’t until the third trial that a police officer owned up to measuring the distance separating the state’s witness from that mugging only he observed.

It was 540-feet. The officer, pressed under cross examination, couldn’t explain why he left that out of his case reports.

Alaska has no death penalty. The Fairbanks Four, as they became known over the years that followed, received sentences ranging from 33 to more than 70 years.

* * * * *

As appeals inched through Alaska courts, tribal supporters held rallies and protest marches. Residents of Tanana and other Yukon River villages with family ties to several of the men convicted raised questions about the case in letters published by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Fact checking those letters to the editor, I found myself questioning whether justice was served. In 2001, I began looking into the Hartman murder case assisted by my undergraduate journalism students at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Our reporting about jury misconduct, published in the News-Miner, briefly overturned the verdict against Pease. In 2007, his conviction was reinstated.

Alaska Supreme Court heard arguments on the same issue in 2009, but declined to intervene. Pease, meanwhile, never saw a day out on bail.

While court reviews continued, we published a series detailing other flaws the state’s case against the four.

By then, Alaska’s newly formed Innocence Project agreed to represent Roberts, Frese and, eventually, Pease.

The plight of the four gained broader attention through the efforts of crusading blogger April Monroe. Her team’s “Free the Fairbanks Four” blog and social media campaign packed political and financial weight behind Alaska Innocence Project’s efforts to reopen the case.

Five men guilty of Hartman’s murder were finally identified in 2013 when AKIP’s Bill Oberly, filed for declarations of “actual innocence” citing another inmate’s confession. Vent’s long-time attorney Colleen Libbey soon joined forces, with additional legal assistance from the Dorsey and Whitney law firm.

In December 2015, after two years of review, capped by a five-week evidentiary hearing before Alaska Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle, the state put a price on freedom.

Original charges and verdicts would be erased from the books. In return, the terms called for these four men– incarcerated 18 years—to each sign papers forgoing compensation and stating that police and prosecutors did nothing wrong!

By then, Roberts had received parole. Vent had less than two years to serve. However, Frese and Pease faced decades more behind bars.

And the Law officials insisted: the four must agree, or all could take their chances on the judge’s ruling, perhaps seven months away.

As the terms were announced in court: the victim’s oldest brother, though convinced of the four’s guilt, denounced the state’s position

“If they’re innocent — if you believe that all of a sudden now,” Chris Kelly told the judge, “I don’t see why you could even justify doing this to them.

“And if they’re guilty? I don’t see how you can justify making a deal.”

The last working day before Christmas, four men in their late-30s, still asserting their innocence, signed the state’s papers. The three still wearing shackles had them removed.

Stripped of faith in courts and laws, these Four, long oppressed, yet undefeated, embraced freedom and joined supporters dancing at the tribal hall.

Notes on the Piece by Emerson Eads

The Mass opens with an orchestral ritornello built upon a rising hexachord cut short by the choral exclamation, “Kyrie eleison!” The combined forces of soloists and choir sing “Is there no help for the widow’s son?”, set upon a varied version of the opening orchestral ritornello. Then the Kyrie begins with the choir singing the Greek text on an ostinato, while the tenor soars above them opening the first scene of the Mass representing the voice of innocence behind bars. There is rage, but ultimately the desire for revenge turns into redemption: “This is my revenge, I’ll dig on my knees in the deep earth until there grow trees!” Then the ritornello returns in earnest with all voices: “Is there no help for the widow’s son?

The celebratory nature of the Gloria text seemed, at first, to be at odds with the sober subject of this composition, and I was tempted to exclude it. However, I ultimately chose to set it in order to show the indomitability of the human spirit and to celebrate the freedom of the mind in opposition to physical incarceration. I have split the Gloria into three sections or scenes. It opens with a scene loosely based on the rather strange and delightful biblical story of Paul and Silas who were wrongfully imprisoned in Acts 16. They begin singing in their chains and the walls of the prison disintegrate. This is set in an accompanied recitativo style. When they begin their duet on the word “gloria,” the choir and orchestra burst into a rollicking “Gloria in excelsis Deo” as if the walls of the prison have just been knocked to the ground, the second scene.

The third scene of the Gloria begins with a soprano aria accompanied by chorus on the text: Domine Fili unigenite leading into an aleatoric section with the chorus whispering “Miserere nobis!” A four-bar theme representing the Fairbanks Four — a four-note motif separated by intervals of a perfect fourth — begins in earnest in the strings. The chorus then develops the quartal theme in another four-measure canonic phrase on the text, “You alone are holy, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the most high, Jesus Christ.

The Gloria culminates with an Amen for chorus and orchestra that undergirds the final interpolated scene. This scene is loosely based on the story from the New Testament, in the book of Luke, where one of the thieves being crucified along with Jesus, turns and asks Jesus to remember him as they both die. The tenor soars to a high B-flat over the orchestra and chorus, begging the baritone to remember him. The baritone answers his friend with a fortissimo: “I will remember you, always!”

I chose to replace the traditional Nicene Creed with a setting from the diary entry of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis), before he was ordained a priest, in which he poetically renders the Credo with a striking alteration: he wrote four very powerful words, “I wish to believe.”

The Credo movement is written on four excerpts from this truly inspirational reflection. It begins with the baritone singing the opening words, as an introspective yet ecstatic aria of praise. The movement flows into a tenor aria with a direct modulation without allowing the baritone’s line to reach a proper cadence, suggesting doubt that the “Kingdom of Life” truly awaits him. The tenor sings: “I wish to believe in my history…” over the steady, aching ostinato in the strings and piano. In this section, the degree of musical difficulty is a reflection of the struggle described in the text. The tenor line has a perilously demanding passage on the line: “[God] who crossed my path and invited me to follow…” a four-measure melisma that climbs and winds through the passaggio.

The mezzo-soprano responds with an aria of her own: “I wish to believe in my pain, in which I find refuge…” The low strings pluck a painful pizzicato on an unstable, if not painful, suspended chord, with the upper strings searing the texture without vibrato, which creates a piercing quality. When “pain” becomes a “refuge”, the solo violin takes up the soprano melody in canon as if a lone witness of this transformation. This is repeated and ends on the same dry pizzicato ostinato.

The fourth section of the “Credo” is orchestrated for the entire ensemble. The choral Amen from the “Gloria” is transformed and used with soloists decorating the top lines “I believe I wish to love in abundance, to love without fear.” The piano has huge stacked chords that affirm and punctuate the most important words of the text. On the next stanza, the chorale is repeated in complete homophony throughout all the voices. The only variation from this texture is a duet between the violin and the viola using the musical material from the tenor and baritone duet from the finale of the “Gloria”.

The finale of the “Credo” reprises the A-section, lifting the melodic lines of the opening baritone aria in canonic repetition. The secondary theme area sets the text: “As I await that final day, when I meet that magnificent face!” The quartet of soloists sings this intimate and ecstatic moment bringing the momentum of the finale to a halt, only momentarily for brief reflection. The forward rush of momentum is kicked off when the basses enter, followed in fugato by the rest of the chorus and soloists. The “Credo” ends with a fortissimo chord that continues to reverberate in forward motion on the text “eternal life”.

The “Sanctus” opens slowly and mysteriously, unfolding with a spacious feel. Out of the sonorous mist in the strings, the tenor sings, “Holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts”, echoed by the soprano. The choir reprises a theme from the “Kyrie” movement on the word “sanctus”, but instead of climaxing with a plea for mercy, this repetition builds to an introduction of the bass soloist: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna!” The bass soloist rises and sings a setting of Evan Eads’ poem, “Echoing King”. This text is at the very heart of the Mass and the aria encapsulates the larger work’s themes: the frustration of hope deferred; the horror of injustice; but ultimately, the power of love and mercy to conquer evil.

The final movement, “Agnus Dei”, was actually the first movement composed, just days after the Fairbanks Four were released. This movement begins sparingly orchestrated, with a solo soprano singing the opening lines, joined by the choir in an impassioned plea for mercy. This is repeated and led by the tenor soloist. The Agnus Dei closes as a prayer for peace, with the piano pealing like bells, anticipating a time when peace and justice shall reign supreme.


Mass For The Oppressed

includes text by Evan Eads

Kyrie eleison!
(Lord, have mercy!)

Is there no help for the widow’s son?
Is there no help for the widow’s son?

Kyrie eleison!
(Lord, have mercy!)
Christe eleison…
(Christ, have mercy)
Kyrie eleison!
(Lord, have mercy!)

They seek my name, I have no other
Shall I be chained? Am I a number?
I hold this hope, small as a mustard seed,
That truth shall conquer, and bound men freed!
This is my revenge: I’ll dig on my knees,
In the deep earth, until there grow trees!

Is there no help for the widow’s son?
Is there no help for the widow’s son?

Is there no help for the widow’s son?

includes text by Evan Eads
Scene 1: Paul & Silas in prison (Acts 16:16-40)

Sing Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Sing in your chains like the sea.
Gloria. Gloria!

Gloria, how can I sing Gloria?
How can I sing when I’m not free?
I’ll sing Gloria. Gloria!

Scene 2: Gloria

Gloria in excelsis Deo
(Glory to God in the highest)
et in terra pax
(And on earth,)
hominibus bonæ voluntatis.
(peace to people of good will.)

Laudamus te,
(We praise you,)
benedicimus te,
(we bless you,)
adoramus te,
(we adore you,)
glorificamus te,
(we glorify you,)
gratias agimus tibi
(we give you thanks)
for your great glory,
(propter magnam gloriam tuam,)

Domine Deus, Rex cælestis,
(Lord God, heavenly King,)
Deus Pater omnipotens.
(O God, almighty Father.)

Domine Fili unigenite, Iesu Christe,
(Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son,)

Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris,
(Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,)
qui tollis peccata mundi,
(you take away the sins of the world,)
miserere nobis;
(have mercy on us,)
qui tollis peccata mundi,
(you take away the sins of the world,)
suscipe deprecationem nostram.
(receive our prayer.)

Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris,
(you are seated at the right hand of the Father,)
miserere nobis.
(have mercy on us.)

Quoniam tu solus Sanctus,
(For you alone are the Holy One,)
tu solus Dominus,
(you alone are the Lord,)
tu solus Altíssimus.
(you alone are the Most High,)

Jesu Christe, cum Sancto Spiritu:
(Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit,)
in gloria Dei Patris.
(in the glory of God the Father.)

Scene 3: Remember me! (Luke 23:42)

Remember me, my friend,
When you’re free again,
Remember me to my children!
Remember me!

I will remember you!
I will remember you!


text from the diary of Pope Francis

I wish to believe in God the Father,
who loves me as a son, and in Jesus, our Lord,
He fills me with the Holy Spirit,
So that I may smile and thus carry me to the kingdom of eternal life.

I wish to believe in my history, which was infused with the loving gaze of God,
Who crossed my path and invited me to follow…

I wish to believe in my pain,
In which I seek refuge.
I wish to believe in death,
Which burns but smiles,
And invites me to accept it.

I believe I wish to love in abundance,
To love without fear.
I believe in the embracing patience of God
As gentle as a summer evening,
To love without fear,
To love in abundance without fear.
I wish to believe in God the Father,
who loves me as a son, and in Jesus, our Lord.

As I await that final day, when I meet that magnificent face!

So that I may smile and thus carry me to the kingdom of eternal life!

includes text by Evan Eads

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus… Holy, holy, holy . . .
Hosannah! Hosannah!

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Darkness can’t chase the night,
And killing can’t dispel hate,
An eye for an eye,
And spite for spite,
And wrong for wrong
Until there’s no right!
What forgiveness is there, what grace?
To carry and bury the brave young dead
To mourn and sing and embrace
And build the broken place!
I have decided to cleave to love!

I’ll sing to stars, and dream past clouds,
Until justice rolls down…

And truth kisses love!


Agnus Dei,
(Lamb of God,)
qui tollis peccata mundi,
(who takes away the sins of the world,)
miserere nobis.
(have mercy on us.)

Agnus Dei,
(Lamb of God,)
qui tollis peccata mundi,
(who takes away the sins of the world,)
miserere nobis.
(have mercy on us.)

Agnus Dei,
(Lamb of God,)
qui tollis peccata mundi,
(who takes away the sins of the world,)
dona nobis pacem.
(Grant us peace.)

He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands

By Emerson Eads

For soprano and bass soloists, mixed choir, strings, piano, and percussion

This traditional African-American spiritual was arranged for this occasion. I have always heard this spiritual as a joyful celebration of the belief that God has everything under control. For me, this song is a song of hope, which is expressed later on in the text from Mass for the Oppressed’s Credo movement, “I wish to believe…” My setting of this traditional spiritual aims to underscore the sadness and utter despair of a world that is so obviously not in control. This is depicted by canonic repetitions of the motif “He’s got the whole world…”, as if rhetoric can define reality and make it so. The central moment in the arrangement is when the choir sings of brotherhood and sisterhood a cappella preparing the way for the soprano to sing atop the full choir and orchestra in what is intended to be a very intimate plea. Ultimately, the unified voices in the choir’s return to the starting key of the composition assure us that things just might work out, if only we lift our voices together.

De Profundis

By Emerson Eads

For mixed chorus a cappella

Oscar Wilde’s “letter”, De Profundis, written while the author was in prison, opens with these lines: “…Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain.” Wilde understood oppression.

Imprisoned for his homosexuality, he wrote this letter where he eventually draws a parallel between his own situation and that of Jesus from the Bible. Wilde’s idea of our lives orbiting around “one centre of pain” inspired my setting of Psalm 130 whose text addresses despair in a universal way. If it weren’t for the bleak opening of the text of Psalm 130, we might not so appreciate the immense mercy and compassion that is expressed later on in the psalm.

While I didn’t set any of Wilde’s text, this returning always to pain or its memory is played out musically with melancholic stacked chords on the words Domine (Lord), propitiatio (forgiveness), and misericordia (mercy). These act as signposts to remind the listener that great beauty can come out of pain, and musically these act as structurally unifying devices in a largely through-composed setting. De Profundis begins in F major and ends in F major, but in completely different affects. The opening is angry, and clamoring. The end is peaceful and resigned: pain and beauty become inextricably bound.


De Profundis

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
(Out of the depths, I have cried to you, O Lord.)
Domine exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuae intendentes in vocem deprecationis meae.
(Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.)
Si iniquitates obervabis, Domine, Domine, quis sustinebit?
(If you, O Lord, will mark my iniquities: Lord, who may abide?)
Quia apud te propitiatio est; propter legem tuam sustinui te, Domine.
(But with the Lord there is merciful forgiveness: and by reason of your law, I have waited for you, O Lord.)
Sustinuit anima mea in verbum eius.
(My soul has relied on his word)
Speravit anima mea in Domino.
(My soul has hoped in the Lord.)
A custodia matutina usque ad nocte, speret Israel in Domino.
(From the morning watch even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord.)
Quia apud Dominum Misericordia, et copiosa apud eum redemptio.
(Because with the Lord there is mercy, and with him plentiful redemption.)
Et ipse redimet Israel ex omnibus iniquitatibus eius.
(And he shall redeem Israel from all its iniquities.)

—Psalm 130 (129)