Hattem in the Netherlands is not a big town. In fact, it’s tiny. But the magnificent acoustics of the Great Church – also known as St. Andrew’s Church – proved to be a wise choice for the premiere of Missa in Honorem Michael Jackson, a classical Mass based on the melodies of the King of Pop. The evening of 10th June 2016 proved to be worthwhile.
Michael Jackson Mass
The ‘Michael Jackson Mass’ – as Tijssen’s composition has been nicknamed – was the closing work of an evening programme by the Huygens Vocal Ensemble. The concert featured various works composed and directed by Tijssen to celebrate the choir’s 20th anniversary as well as Tijssen’s 50th birthday. To conclude the evening, the choir sang the a-capella Mass, which is based on the words and structure of a traditional Latin Mass, but follows the melodies and chord progressions of songs by Michael Jackson.
Kyrie and Gloria
The Mass opened with ‘Kyrie’ (‘Lord, have mercy’), which is a short petition and prayer of thanksgiving. It’s partly set to the melody of Jackson’s ‘She’s Out of My Life’, which forms an interesting contrast with the Greek words of this ancient prayer. The result is a haunting plea for mercy, in which the sopranos steadily weave the opening notes of Jackson’s song through the original melody of the ballad.
Tijssen’s playful ‘Gloria’ – in which the choir’s female and male voices partly alternate – shows both modern and traditional influences of sacred music. It’s perhaps the most complex song of the Mass, which makes Jackson’s ‘Rock With You’, on which the work is based, rather difficult to recognise. Tijssen’s song follows the chord progressions of ‘Rock With You’ and features some smaller traces of the original melody (e.g. “Girl, close your eyes, let the rhythm get into you”).
Sanctus and Benedictus
‘Sanctus’ (‘Holy’) and ‘Benedictus’ (‘Blessed’) are two prayers sung before the consecration of the Eucharistic bread and wine. In ‘Sanctus’ the opening notes of Jackson’s ‘Will You Be There’ can be easily recognised when the choir sings “Pleni sunt caeli et terra”. Since Jackson’s original melody has strong harmonies, it’s not surprising that Tijssen has left these untouched.
‘Benedictus’, however, takes a different approach. The prayer is based on the chord progressions of Jackson’s ‘Baby Be Mine’ rather than mimicking the song’s cheerful melody. This makes it quite challenging to find similarities between Tijssen’s brief composition and the song Rod Temperton wrote for Jackson’s Thriller album.
‘Agnus Dei’ (‘Lamb of God’), in which the faithful plead with Christ to have mercy, concludes Tijssen’s Mass. It features the iconic opening notes of ‘Billie Jean’ set to the prayer’s initial words “Agnus Dei, Agnus Dei”. The notes are then followed by a newly created melody set to the chords of ‘Billie Jean’. The result is – again – a haunting liturgical piece of music.
No easy sing-along Mass
Tijssen’s Mass – a remarkable musical achievement – is far from an easy sing-along version of Jackson songs made suitable for Mass. In fact, it takes a considerable level of musicality to be able to sing these classical pieces, which may not be feasible for every church choir. Tijssen, however, is quite willing to create a simplified version for choirs with less experience. In this way, Missa in Honorem Michael Jackson will hopefully find its way into the repertoire of church choirs and vocal ensembles of all levels.
Meeting Craig Huxley
After the premiere, Tijssen shared how he came to write a ‘Michael Jackson Mass’ in the first place. It all began in 2013 when Tijssen took a sabbatical, which he spent teaching music at the University of South California. In 2015, he returned to LA for the same purpose and, by sheer coincidence, ended up renting accommodation owned by Craig Huxley, a synthesist and sound engineer who had worked with Jackson for three decades.
“So I arrived, and it turns out that Craig had something to do with Michael Jackson. We started talking, and that’s how it happened. It’s a very strange coincidence”, Tijssen recalled. “Craig lives in a great place and still has a big studio over there. He has a few rooms where people can stay overnight when they’re recording in the studio. When there are no musicians, however, he rents out the accommodation.”
Serious Jackson fan
It didn’t take long before Tijssen and Huxley discovered their mutual interest in Jackson’s music. “I’ve always been a serious fan of Michael Jackson, although not so much of his later work, to be quite honest. I think one of his best albums was Off the Wall – a beautiful soul and funk album with great harmonies.”
Tijssen’s time with Huxley eventually inspired him to create a ‘Michael Jackson Mass’, based on five songs by the King of Pop. “The interesting thing is, that there’s not a note in the composition that’s mine, seriously”, Tijssen says. “In ‘Benedictus’, for example, the chord progression is identical to ‘Baby Be Mine’. The same is true for ‘Rock With You’ [sings part of the melody] which you then try to catch in abstract notes.”
Touch of humour
Besides familiar chords and new melodies, Tijssen also added a touch of humour to his work. “To the melody of ‘She’s Out of My Life’, we sing “Christe eleison” (“Christ, have mercy”), which is a plea for God to come into our lives rather than out of our lives. It’s exactly the opposite, which I find rather funny. But it’s still a beautiful and classical tune.”
Missa in Honorem Michael Jackson will be performed by the Huygens Vocal Ensemble on Saturday June 18 in the ‘Bergkerk’ (Berg Church) in the Dutch city of Deventer. The concert starts at 8:30 pm; tickets are available through www.huygensmusic.nl
© Annemarie Latour
Special thanks go to Hans Tijssen for sharing some of his personal memories.