How a Haverhillite Brought the Vatican a Special Choral Contribution on Christmas Eve, 2016

At St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Eve 2016, the Solemn Pontifical High Mass was celebrated by Pope Francis. As the mass continued, Francis recited the Eucharistic prayer, elevating the consecrated chalice and paten in turn, and then added incense to the thurible and proceeded to cense the altar.

While these sacred rites were performed by the pontiff, the papal personal choir, the Sistine Chapel Choir, or officially the Coro della Cappella Musicale Pontificia Sistina in Italian, sang. This unto itself is not unusual. But this time, there was a connection to Haverhill. As Francis circled the altar, leaving a trail of incense in his wake, the music being performed was “Quem Pastores Laudavere,” a choral composition by Haverhill native James Bassi.

“Quem Pastore Laudavere,” translated as he whom the shepherds praised, was written for unaccompanied mixed chorus (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). It was commissioned and premiered in 1999 by Dennis Keene and the Grammy-nominated Voices of Ascension, one of the world’s premier professional choral ensembles. Since then, the piece has been performed internationally and has rapidly become a seasonal favorite. Its lush choral lines create a stunning sound with a considerable depth that never fails to inspire the audience.

The original melody, with the Latin lyrics to verses 1,2 and 4, dates back to a 1410 manuscript found in the Hohenfurth Abbey in Germany. It became popular in the mid-16th century German songbooks. The words are essentially one very long sentence––the verb doesn’t appear until the second to last line. Verse 3 was added later, interrupting the original run-on sentence with an appeal to rejoice with Mary and the angels as they praise the infant Messiah. Bassi preserved the text while setting it to his own new melody.

Maestro Bassi was born on Silver Hill in Haverhill. A composer, pianist and musical director, he has become a well-known figure in New York music circles. He has played concerts for a variety of artists, ranging from opera stars Deborah Voigt and Jessye Norman to cabaret singers Ute Lemper and Tovah Feldshuh. He has served as music director at Lincoln Center Theater and in numerous Off-Broadway and regional productions and has toured Europe as a performer.

His compositions have been heard at major venues, including Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. His music has been performed by noted artists such as Judy Collins and Frederica von Stade, as well as the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Voices of Ascension. More recently, Bassi has branched out and produced two CDs for C4, the Choral Composers/Conductors Collective, a vocal group specializing in contemporary music. His new musical “The Red Carpet,” for which he is writing music and lyrics, is currently in workshop. He is now writing a new piece commissioned by Voices of Ascension, for whom he has written many works over the years. His music publisher is Oxford University Press.

“Quem Pastore Laudavere” is available on several CDs currently available. The premiere performance by Voices of Ascension can be heard on YouTube here.

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