Sacred music: Listen to the music

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Listen to Richard Langham Smith, Head of the Music Department at The Open University, talk about Allegri's 'Miserere', Bach's 'Komm, Jesu, Komm' and the 'Agnus Dei' from Byrd's 'Mass for Four Voices', interspersed with extracts of the music.

By: Richard Langham Smith (Music Department)

  • Duration 10 mins
  • Updated Thursday 13th March 2008
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under TV, Sacred Music
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Copyright BBC

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Hello, I’m Richard Langham Smith, Head of the Music Department at the Open University and I’m going to be talking about three pieces of sacred music, all performed by a celebrated choir called, ‘The Sixteen’, conducted by Harry Christophers. They were performed at a televised concert at St. Luke’s church in the East End of London in 2007. It was a programme of sacred music from four cities which in their time were major centres for fostering of sacred music. The term ‘sacred music’ is usually reserved for fairly elaborate musical compositions setting biblical or liturgical texts for performance in some kind of musical service.

Now, Christian sacred music went right back to the earliest years of Christianity but closely linked to the western tradition of sacred music was the evolution of musical notation, giving us the means to preserve church chants and to disseminate them throughout the Christian world. This eventually resulted in particular chants being used all over the Catholic world for the same day in the church’s year: a powerful use of music to create a unified church.

I’m going to play you three pieces, one from Rome, one from Leipzig and one from London. I’ll give a few pointers to landmarks in the pieces, set them in their context, and explain some of the ways the music relates to the words.

The first is Allegri’s ‘Miserere’ which must be one of the most celebrated pieces of sacred choral music of all times. Its composer, Gregorio Allegri worked at the Papal chapel in Rome during the sixteenth century and this piece, with its stratospherically high notes for the boy treble or soprano has become staple fare for evensong on Ash Wednesday in cathedrals all over the United Kingdom. It still draws in the crowds perhaps for entirely the wrong reasons. The faithful are often more drawn by the high notes than by the need to purge themselves of their sins before Lent.

It's a setting of Psalm 51 essentially, a penitential psalm. ‘Miserere Mei: Have mercy upon me O God, blot out my transgressions, wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin’. The music as we hear it these days may bear only a passing resemblance to Allegri’s original for it has been tampered with by many subsequent editors. But it’s a winner! Its repetitions are particularly haunting: a well-tried formula for religious music, like a litany the repeated words are a central component of musical prayer.

It’s a piece for several distinct choirs: polychoral is the sophisticated name for this technique where the different sections: the men, the full choir and a small ‘inner’ choir take up positions in various parts of the building: often at opposite ends of the church, or with one section singing from a gallery. Imagine the effect in a gothic vault lit only by candlelight! Truly magical. One person who thought so was Mozart who heard the piece, probably in Holy Week when it was traditionally performed every day in the Sistine Chapel. He was so taken with it that he is said to have written it down from memory. True or apocryphal it’s a good story and certainly a mark of the particularly memorable effect of the piece.

The first 'Miserere meus' is extended into a long phrase sung by the full choir: they sing to us the essential words of the penitential psalm: ‘Have mercy upon us’

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By contrast, subsequent sections are less emotional: intoned by the men singing only one line, ‘according to the multitude of thy tender mercies’.

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The semi-chorus (small choir) respond with the celebrated section – repeated several times – with a very high note near the end. It’s a magical effect.

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I don’t want to lead you any more through this piece because these are the basic elements which repeat and repeat, almost trance inducing like a litany. Listening to it in its entirety, you’ll hear what a profound effect the alternation of the men, the semi - chorus and full choir have. Imagine yourself in a candle - lit cathedral on Ash Wednesday, or in the Sistine Chapel. This music has power tremendous.

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Now we come to J.S Bach. Not much is known about his ‘Komm, Jesu, Komm' except that he wrote it in Leipzig and is one of a handful of motets written for choir alone or perhaps with a soft organ continuo holding things together. A motet was a sort of free-standing piece not precisely related to a particular place in the liturgy but often sung on special occasions a bit like a Church of England anthem really. Unlike the cantatas which are in several distinct styles and movements, and have elaborate instrumentation, the motets are relatively compact but make considerable demands upon the choir. This one uses two verses form a funereal text on the favourite Lutheran theme of a longing for unity with Christ in death. Within the eight parts, the choir is often divided into sections who sing to each other, echoing each other and then coming together with tremendous effect.

Like many of the hymns which formed the mainstay of the Lutheran services its text uses the technique of invocation and the imperative voice. 'Komm Jesu, Komm', ('Come Jesu Come’) it's repeated across the choirs, at first separated by pauses.

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Listen to the two choirs singing to each other one interjecting the words, Komm, Komm over the other.

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You’ll hear a phrase ‘Die Kraft verschwind', my strength fails, passed around the chorus, it forms a new motive.

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Listen now for the phrase ‘Ich sehne mich': 'I yearn for thy peace'. Bach is pretty good at yearning: hear how he repeats the words ‘ich sehne’, I yearn and weaves it into a web of longing for release from earthly pain.

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The pain intensifies. ‘Der saure Weg wird mir zu schwer’: 'Life’s bitter journey is too hard for me'. Bach word - paints - as it’s called - with a little musical phase containing a really disturbing interval. This is quite difficult to sing and it gives that feeling of hardness, bitterness, the stony path. This time everyone sings it one after the after, in musical language, it’s called a fugue. Notice how it begins low down in the voices and how it rises up until the high register of the top voices increase the intensity of the idea of this dissatisfaction with life itself. This is dark, profound stuff.

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After this, the mood changes. No more pleading, the music becomes more detatched: let’s create something for God! The voices now chase each other to sing that they’ll give themselves to God. It's jolly rather than pleading: exuberant, happy, fulfilled.

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We’ve moved from darkness to light. 'Du bist der rechte Weg', ‘Thou art the way, the truth and the life’: a biblical quotation from St John’s Gospel. The key moves to the major – optimism at last. And the full choir sing it with a lyrical tune on top. It’s purposefully longer than the preceding sections: after all it’s the message for believers: pure music which repeats the words for several minutes.

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After that everyone sings a hymn, even if it’s a slightly more elaborate one than usual. It begins 'Druf schliess ich mich in deine Hände' - ‘Thus I yield myself into they hands, and bid the world good night. My soul is prepared, it shall rise up with its creator’. This is belief - song at its best.

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Now we come to the English composer, William Byrd. 'The Agnus Dei' from his Mass for four voices, adopted these days as staple fare by cathedral choirs but possibly originally intended for more intimate and even secretive, closet singing in the time when Protestants and Catholics were in severe dispute. It dates from the 1590s.

William Byrd and another composer Thomas Tallis were favourites of Queen Elizabeth I and were together granted royal permission to print Latin church music: amidst the new official protestant religion. It was an open secret that Byrd remained a Catholic.

The piece begins with one voice quickly imitating another. Byrd lets us delight in this two - voice texture by letting the voices run on together for quite a time before the third voice is added.

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Here’s the third and fourth voices:

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This texture goes on for a while, the voices weaving a wonderful polyphonic web, polyphonic just means many voices together.

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'Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccate mundi,' they’ve been singing, 'the Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world'.

For the final words 'Dona nobis pacem' – grant us peace. Byrd introduces an entirely new musical idea. Sometimes composers inject the music with a new peaceful spirit at this point, but in this mass, Byrd doesn’t. There is still anxiety, tension, a sense of the need to be absolved in this music: listen to the way the lamenting, falling phrases create little tensions with each other. The musical term is dissonance. I like to think of man’s humility in asking the Lamb of God for respite from suffering, the dissonances are like the sign made on Ash Wednesday, the grating of ash on one’s forehead.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed the three pieces we’ve heard. Is enjoyed the right word, I wonder? Actually, I think so, for wherever you stand in relation to religion, atheist, agnostic, believer. I think this music can give you a deep and lasting enjoyment.

MUSIC fades.

Just the music

If you would like to listen to the music in full, click on the selected work below.

Allegri

Gregorio Allegri's 'Miserere' performed by 'The Sixteen' and conducted by Harry Christophers.

Copyright BBC

Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach's 'Komm, Jesu, Komm' performed by 'The Sixteen' and conducted by Harry Christophers.

Copyright BBC

Byrd

William Byrd's 'Agnus Dei' from his 'Mass in Four Voices' performed by 'The Sixteen' and conducted by Harry Christophers.

Copyright BBC