Sumptuous PlanetThe Crossing/Donald Nally, conductor/David Shapiro

, composer


Composer David Shapiro and The Crossing release Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass, a work that extols a science based stance on the universe and the nature of existence while using a musical form that is firmly rooted in the Christian Mass. In this way, Shapiro straddles an interesting line, acknowledging and participating in the awe and reverence that musical masses are designed to express, while diverging from the tradition of associating that awe with belief in a divine being.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 73:43

Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass

01Introit – Unsung
Introit – Unsung
02Mercy – If There Is Mercy
Mercy – If There Is Mercy
03Glory – Magnificent Structure
Glory – Magnificent Structure
04Earth – Sumptuous Planet
Earth – Sumptuous Planet
05The Adoration – Staggering, Elegant, Beautiful Thing
The Adoration – Staggering, Elegant, Beautiful Thing
07Taking Away the Sins of the World – Sin
Taking Away the Sins of the World – Sin
08Spirit – Mystic Jelly
Spirit – Mystic Jelly
09Belief – The Truth
Belief – The Truth
10All Things Visible and Invisible – Tiny Things
All Things Visible and Invisible – Tiny Things
11Substance – Giant Megalopolis
Substance – Giant Megalopolis
12Death – The Lucky Ones
Death – The Lucky Ones
14Resurrection – One Life
Resurrection – One Life
15Holiness – One God Further
Holiness – One God Further
16Osanna – And We Dance
Osanna – And We Dance

In his Sumptuous Planet: A Secular Mass written for Philadelphia based contemporary choir The Crossing conducted by Donald Nally, composer David Shapiro uses the musical form of a Christian Mass, one of the most overtly religious structures for a piece of music, to advance a scientific, atheistic vision of the world. Drawing on texts by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, physicist Richard Feynman, and 17th century Dutch microbiologist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Shapiro builds on the majesty of the venerated tradition of the musical mass, adapting it for contemporary ideas about science and nature.

The “Introit – Unsung” opens with ecstatic, towering harmonies setting a quote from Feynman: “Is no one inspired by the present picture of the universe?” Imitation between the female and male voice sections captures the awe at the workings of the natural world. “Mercy – If There Is Mercy” captures the dichotomy between kindness and cruelty, alternating between spaced and crunchy, close voicings, observing that Nature is in fact indifferent to moral distinctions.

Shapiro uses counterpoint to set “Glory – Magnificent Structure,” a paean to the awesome majesty of the construction of the natural world. The intricacy of the material evokes the same exhilaration one might experience while listening to the canonic masses, inspired as they were by a belief in a divine being. It is only by reading Shapiro’s chosen texts carefully that we register the shift in the underlying theology. The pitch clusters at the opening, subsequent polytonal harmonies, and accumulating accented entrances in “Earth – Sumptuous Planet” capture the potent power of time’s patient impact on the Earth.

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“The Adoration – Staggering, Elegant, Beautiful Thing” opens with a lush, flowing setting of Latin text, translated as “Life started as nothing.” Shapiro then mixes fragments of English and Latin texts, layering “life started from nothing” in different voices before they come together in a unison proclamation, and word painting “staggering” with staggered fugal entrances. Shapiro’s decision to mix English quotes with Latin translations by Theodore Cheek further reinforces that the piece exists within the compositional lineage of the mass, as opposed to proposing an alternate form. “Thankfulnessglistens with closely spaced, sonorous voicings.

“Taking Away the Sins of the World – Sin” is the first of several movements that have extended texts. In contrast to previous movements where Shapiro expanded a relatively short amount of text through repetition, here the text itself drives the movement forward and allows for semantic development. Upon arriving at the words, “let us understand,” Shapiro turns to a tender, diatonic chord progression, returning to this material for “let us try to teach generosity.” “Spirit – Mystic Jelly” is ethereal and disembodied, with swells emerging and receding over a multi-layered texture before the background layers gradually grow in intensity and come to the fore.

“Belief – The Truth” introduces a polyphonic setting, with overlapping ostinati. “All Things Visible and Invisible – Tiny Things” celebrates the microscopic foundation of everything, opening with reverent, plainchant-like melismatic melodies which evolve into mellifluous descending scales over a long cantus firmus. “Substance – Giant Megalopolis” opens with an infectious 9/8 accumulating groove on wordless syllables, providing an infrastructure for swooping, angular lines. Shapiro puts a glowing halo on the concept of “Death,” setting Dawkins’ text of gratitude celebrating the improbability of our existence with luminous, soaring melodies and expansive harmonies. “Suffering” explores the other side of the coin; the incomparable pain experienced in the world expressed in Dawkins’ text receives a somber, discomfiting setting.

Shapiro allows himself a lighter, humorous moment with “Resurrection – One Life,” extorting the listener to live life to the fullest with a cleverly syncopated setting. In the penultimate movement, “Holiness – One God Further,” Shapiro brings the piece back to its initial premise, the refutation of godlike figures. We hear a list of names of gods from the ancient world, sung sotto voce, none of whom, Dawkins observes, receive the faith of most modern societies. The final, exuberant movement, “Osanna – And We Dance,” exalts the inexhaustible energy of life and renewal (DNA), a force that we dance in celebration of despite its indifference to our fates. Shapiro’s music rocks back and forth in triple meter, a detailed fabric of interlocking energies and impulses that brings the work to a joyous conclusion.

Despite his subversive premise of positing an atheist perspective within the structure of a Christian mass, David Shapiro’s Sumptuous Planet largely traffics in the same aesthetic sentiments and emotions as its religious predecessors, albeit with an updated harmonic palette. Perhaps that was strategic, after all—the wonder atheists and believers feel at the majesty of the world and creation can be similar, they just spring from divergent explanations. Buoyed by a spirited, virtuosic performance by Donald Nally and The Crossing, Shapiro has constructed a musical world worthy of his subject, teeming with complexity, shaded with layers of nuance, and overflowing with joyous mystery.

– Dan Lippel

Sumptuous Planet was recorded January 2-6, 2023 at St. Peter’s Church in the Great Valley, Malvern, Pennsylvania. It premiered July 8, 2022 at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill during The Month of Moderns, The Crossing’s annual summer festival of new music. Movement 4 was composed for The Crossing’s Jeff Quartets, in memory of Jeffrey Dinsmore, and was premiered July 8, 2016.

Recording Producers: Paul Vazquez, Donald Nally, & Kevin Vondrak
Recording Engineer: Paul Vazquez
Assistant Recording Engineer: Codi Yhap
Editing, Mixing, & Mastering: Paul Vazquez

Photos (Bloom, Green World, New Life, Micro Beings) by Ben Simon Rehn,
Design, layout & typography by Marc Wolf,
The Crossing photo by Clara Weishahn
Donald Nally photo by Becky Oehlers Photography

Donald Nally

Donald Nally collaborates with creative artists, leading orchestras, and art museums to make new works for choir that address social and environmental issues. He has commissioned over 180 works and, with The Crossing, has 28 recordings, with two Grammy Awards and seven nominations. Donald has served as chorus master at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Welsh National Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and the Spoleto Festival in Italy. Recent projects have taken him to Stockholm, London, Osaka, Cleveland, Boston, Edmonton, Houston, Helsinki, Haarlem, Riga, Los Angeles, and New York. His 72-chapter pandemic-time series Rising w/ The Crossing, has been featured in The Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR’s Performance Today; it is archived by The Library of Congress as a cultural artifact of our historical record. The 2022-2023 Season will include collaborations with Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Ventura Festival, November Music in The Netherlands, the Baltic Sea Festival in Sweden, and TBA21 in Spain. Donald is the John W. Beattie Chair of Music and professor of choral studies at Northwestern University.

The Crossing

The Crossing

The Crossing is a Grammy-winning professional chamber choir conducted by Donald Nally and dedicated to new music. It is committed to working with creative teams to make and record new, substantial works for choir that explore and expand ways of writing for choir, singing in choir, and listening to music for choir. Many of its nearly 170 commissioned premieres address social, environmental, and political issues. With a commitment to recording its commissions, The Crossing has issued 30 releases, receiving three Grammy Awards for Best Choral Performance (2018, 2019, 2023), and eight Grammy nominations.

The 2023-2024 Season includes performances in Stockholm, Helsinki, Houston, Amsterdam, den Bosch, and Philadelphia with major new works from Tania León, David, Lang, David T. Little, Ayanna Woods, Gavin Bryars, and the Philadelphia premiere of Tyshawn Sorey’s Monochromatic Light. Recent projects included Michael Gordon’s Travel Guide to Nicaragua, commissioned for The Crossing by Carnegie Hall and Penn Live Arts; John Luther Adams' Vespers of the Blessed Earth with the Philadelphia Orchestra, also at Carnegie Hall; Julia Wolfe’s unEarth with the New York Philharmonic’s in its inaugural season in the new Geffen Hall; Shara Nova’s Titration at Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam; a tour featuring a world premiere of Jennifer Higdon and additional commissioned works of Caroline Shaw and Edie Hill; and Ted Hearne’s Farming, premiering in a field at Kings Oaks Farm in Bucks County, PA, and touring to Haarlem, The Netherlands, and Caramoor Center for Music and Arts.

The Crossing collaborates with some of the world’s most accomplished ensembles and artists, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, American Composers Orchestra, Network for New Music, Lyric Fest, Allora & Calzadilla, Bang on a Can, Klockriketeatern, and the International Contemporary Ensemble. Similarly, The Crossing often collaborates with some of world’s most prestigious venues and presenters, such as the Park Avenue Armory, Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, Disney Hall in Los Angeles, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Menil Collection in Houston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, The Big Sing (formerly Haarlem Choral Biennale in The Netherlands, The Finnish National Opera in Helsinki, The Kennedy Center in Washington, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, Winter Garden with WNYC, and Yale, Harvard, Duke, Northwestern, Colgate, and Notre Dame Universities.

The Crossing, with Donald Nally, was the American Composers Forum’s 2017 Champion of New Music. They are the recipients of the 2015 Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence, three ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming, and the Dale Warland Singers Commission Award from Chorus America.

David Shapiro

David Shapiro has composed solo, chamber and vocal and instrumental works including commissions for The Crossing, Lyric Fest, Variant 6, The Philadelphia Singers, Choral Arts Society, and the Max Brod Trio (Berlin). He has won numerous awards, including the National Opera Association’s Chamber Opera competition for his opera, The April Witch, after a story by Ray Bradbury.

David earned a doctorate from the Peabody Conservatory, and studied composition and piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London, Vassar, Tanglewood, Sandpoint Festival Idaho, and jazz piano with Ellis Marsalis.

David has taught at various Philadelphia area colleges, such as Swarthmore, Temple, and West Chester University. He currently teaches music and choir at Masterman, a magnet school in the School District of Philadelphia.

Aside from his musical pursuits, David enjoys the outdoors, his family and Ultimate Frisbee.

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An Earful

It’s a rare year indeed when we don’t get a least one magnificent recording from this special choir under the direction of Donald Nally. But this sustained exercise in silvery singing is no placeholder, but rather an honestly uplifting series of movements based on the texts from Richard Dawkins Richard Feynman, and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, hence the “secular” subtitle. In a still-new century that calls on us to be brave with disturbing regularity, we could likely use some new rituals; let this be the soundtrack.

— Jeremy Shatan, 1.04.2024


American Record Guide

David Shapiro (b 1969) writes that his secular mass Sumptuous Planet (2021) “is a statement and celebration of belief in a scientific view of how life and the universe work [glorifying] an unvarnished, openeyed way of looking at the world as it is, without dressing it up with myths or miracle stories”. Most of the text he sets comes from Richard Dawkins, famous for his work in evolutionary biology and for his ardent, prickly atheism. I have no particular love for Dawkins nor for much of the discourse surrounding atheism, so I approached this album with some reluctance. I was pleasantly surprised to find my suspicions unfounded.

Shapiro, in a stroke of daring subversion, brings the mystery and reverence of the mass tradition to the absolute rationality of the texts, elevating the piece beyond mere ideas and into something—paradoxically—spiritual. Hallmarks of the sacred choral tradition—such as medieval polyphony, counterpoint, and melismatic writing—mingle with freer, dance-like styles. Above all, it maintains vitality, warmth, and majesty—far from the cold indifference described in the text. It certainly challenged my perception of atheism (even if it didn’t convert me). Donald Nally and the Crossing are the perfect choir to give this piece life—brilliant performances with brilliant sound. Full texts included.

— Robert A Moore, 3.19.2024



Sumptuous Planet is an enticingly optimistic title (although the climate-change crisis makes the mere mention of the word “planet” a cause for gloom), and the subtitle, “A Secular Mass,” offers an intriguing paradox. By definition, a Mass isn’t secular, and only in structure does composer David Shapiro loosely follow the form of a traditional Mass, beginning with an Introit but unfolding largely with anomalous tiles—“Adoration,” “Thankfulness,” “Belief”—that can be interpreted religiously or not. Other movements are neutral or secular—“Earth,” “Substance,” “Death,” “Suffering,” etc.

Musically, the piece is set for a cappella choir, a role beautifully performed by The Crossing, a contemporary chorus based in Philadelphia numbering 25 singers. For the most part Shapiro has chosen a traditional harmonic idiom, along with counterpoint and canon going back to Monteverdi, although at time the melodic line is punctuated by dissonant chords and chromatic passages to lend a more modern flavor. As a mostly gentle, uplifting piece of choral singing, Sumptuous Planet can be easily enjoyed. In passages of floating beauty and ethereal lightness, one’s appreciation is on the same level as, say, the Fauré Requiem.

On the other hand, such an approach would also be drastically misleading. The slant of Sumptuous Planet is strongly scientific, not religious, and there’s an unavoidable streak of militant atheism that makes the use of a traditional Mass structure very peculiar. Frederick Delius already stretched the boundaries of the Mass with A Mass for Life, which takes its text from Nietzsche rather than the Bible or Catholic ritual, and there are at least two great Masses by avowed atheists, the Verdi Requiem and Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. Such was his aversion to organized religion that Janáček wouldn’t even step into a church. His motivation in writing a Mass centered on Czech patriotism. As he expressed it, “I wanted to perpetuate faith in the immutable permanence of the nation, not on a religious basis but on a rock-bottom ethical basis, which calls God to witness.”

With Sumptuous Planet Shapiro stretches the boundaries still further. The work’s 16 movements express scientific opinions of an anti-religious bent. Although not mentioning God by name until movement 15, titled Holiness, the Almighty takes constant sideswipes. For example, the Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who is a militant atheist, declares, “[If] there is mercy in nature, it is accidental. Nature is neither kind nor cruel but indifferent.”

Such a sentiment will leave a sour taste with many and is far from celebrating a sumptuous planet. Even when a hint of celebration is offered, a trace of anti-humanism is suggested, as in the text attached to the Glory movement, again from Dawkins: “Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.” You can’t help but feel that if you have a positive outlook about God, spirituality, organized religion, or secular humanism, you need to be put in your place. As evidence, consider this line: “Be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and presumptuous desire for a second one.”

This is worth mentioning because it casts Shapiro’s description of his Mass in a doubtful light. He writes, “Sumptuous Planet is a statement and celebration of belief in a scientific view of how life and the universe work.” In actuality, 15 of the 16 movements are based on Dawkins, who isn’t shy about pushing his atheist agenda. A more honest subtitle would be “A Richard Dawkins Mass.” The single quote from anyone else comes from another avowed atheist, Richard Feynman, in the Introit: “Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers.… This is not yet a scientific age.”

In those words I find a purpose I can relate to, which is to extol the glory of creation revealed by science. That’s tantamount to turning science itself into a religion, but it needn’t be. A composer can adopt the majesty of Nature as a musical subject, along the lines of Haydn’s Creation and The Seasons. Of course, one will still have to contend with the smug, at times obnoxious, atheism presented by the Dawkins text, which I will leave to individual listeners and their beliefs.

One drawback is that The Crossing doesn’t always enunciate clearly, and I can’t honestly tell what the sung texts actually are—Latin words appear alongside the Dawkins text. Personally, the blurry diction helped me to ignore the words, focusing instead on the beautiful singing. Others might find it easier to align themselves with Shapiro’s comment, “Composing a Mass on [Dawkins’s] words was an idea I found to be pleasingly paradoxical.” You pays your money and you takes your choice.

— Huntley Dent, 5.03.2024

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