Pope John, during the course of the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, said that it was time to “open the windows [of the church] and let in some fresh air”.
And a relatively short time later, in summer 1967 there were two ‘World Firsts’ in Liverpool, both major parts of the programme of the Opening Celebrations of Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ The King, directed by Bill Harpe.
These were the first ever ‘Choreographed Mass’ (music by Francesco Cavalli), where the prayers of the Mass were not only brought to life by musicians and singers but also by a company of dancers, and the commissioning of the first ever ‘Electronic Mass’ (music by Pierre Henry) with the prayers of the Mass set to electronic music.
Dancers from the worlds of classical ballet and contemporary dance – at that time living in worlds apart – were brought together in a company for the first time.
Dancers trained to execute the pirouettes, leaps, and pointe work of classical ballet – and dancers trained to execute the bodily contractions and spirals of contemporary dance made famous by Martha Graham – came to perform together. Yet none of these hallmark features of these two distinct dance styles were visible in the Choreographed Mass.
The dancers used their virtuosity to express the prayers of the Mass as kinetic sculptures, moving tableaux, and developing images. Much of the choreography was technically difficult, whilst also looking essentially simple – as though members of the audience might choose to go home and recreate some of the moves themselves. One reviewer described the performance as looking “like a series of occasionally beautiful and solemn children’s games”. The choreography sought to honour both the heavens and the earth – with the dancers both ‘reaching for the sky‘ (an attribute mostly associated with ballet) and also ‘honouring the earth’ (an attribute mostly associated with contemporary dance).
Unavoidable circumstances prevented a second choreographed Mass being created and performed (as had been planned) to Pierre Henry’s ‘Messe de Liverpool’ during the Opening Celebrations. In the event, a first extract from Pierre Henry’s partially completed Mass was played as an introduction to a shorter choreographed work to four movements from his earlier piece (1965) ‘Musique pour les Evangiles’. We remain blessed that the completion of Pierre Henry’s ‘Messe de Liverpool’ later in 1967 gifted us such a great work.
These events are now celebrated on www.thedramaofthemass.com
with photographs of the dancers in rehearsal and performance, together with documentation from the original brochure, souvenir programme, press reviews, and concluding report as well as contacts and suggestions for further research and exploration.
Coverage of early electronic music (1968-70), including music by Pierre Henry, can be found on
We are hopeful that artefects from the Opening Celebrations – including costume designs, press cuttings, photographs, tape recordings and recorder, and sound recordings, etc – will be lodged in perpetuity with the Metropolitan Cathedral Archive.