OU on the BBC: Sacred Music - About the series
Taking the viewer on a pilgrimage spanning six centuries Simon presents a rich mix of personal, political and musical stories. Each episode features some of the greatest music ever written, all performed by the award-winning choir 'The Sixteen' conducted by Harry Christophers in appropriate architectural settings.
In the opening programme 'The Gothic Revolution' Simon begins his journey at St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London, where he spent many years as a boy chorister. From here he travels to Paris to discover how, at the close of the twelfth century, plainsong (chant) became polyphony (music of ‘many voices’) – the birth of harmony in the west.
Simon discovers how, as the vast new edifice of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame began to tower over the medieval city, the most famous of all medieval music manuscripts - the 'Magnus Liber' or 'Great Book' of Notre Dame - was also taking shape.
The early two part compositions it contained, such as the setting of the psalm ‘Viderunt Omnes’ by Léonin, were preserved in some of the earliest clear musical notation, and represent the birth of harmony in Western music-making.
The next stop in the series is Italy. In 'Palestrina and the Popes' Simon uncovers the links between the papal intrigues of Renaissance Rome and the music of the enigmatic Palestrina, 'The Prince of Music'.
Palestrina’s work is considered by many to be unsurpassed in its spiritual perfection, but running underneath it is the turbulent story of the counter-reformation, which would have a dramatic impact on the composer’s life and music. The glorious architecture and art of the High Renaissance complete a compelling picture of this golden age of sacred music.
In episode three 'Tallis, Byrd and the Tudors' Simon discovers the effect of Henry VIII’s break with the Pope and the subsequent tumultuous history of the founding of the Protestant Church in England through the careers of two professional church musicians who were also superlative choral composers.
Simon hunts through documents and manuscripts to bring to light revealing glimpses into both their craft as composers and the personal dilemmas of their faith. As members of the monarch's own personal choir – the Chapel Royal – they were both close to the heart of state politics yet both retained strong, and sometimes open, Catholic sympathies at a time when it was dangerous to do so.
Finally, Simon’s travels end in Germany where Luther’s Protestant Reformation led to a musical revolution and ultimately to the glorious works of Johann Sebastian Bach.
In 'Bach and the Lutheran Legacy' Simon discovers how Martin Luther, himself a composer, had a profound effect on the development of sacred music, re-defining the role of congregational singing and the use of the organ in services as well as developing the hugely important tradition of singing in the vernacular.
In the city of Leipzig Simon discovers how these reforms – and the century and a half of music that followed – shaped the world of Bach and inspired him to write some of the greatest works in the history of sacred music.
A 90-minute celebratory concert accompanies the documentaries with music from the series for Easter Sunday performed by Harry Christophers and 'The Sixteen', specially recorded at LSO St Luke’s in London.
On Sunday 6th April 2008, BBC Radio 3's Early Music Show spoke to Harry Christophers about Tallis and Byrd and plays work by both composers.
Selected episodes of Scared Music will be shown again on BBC Four in Winter 2012. For further broadcast details and to watch online where available, please visit bbc.co.uk.
Sacred Music in more depth
Sacred Music the series:
Copyright & revisions
Originally published: Tuesday, 19th February 2008
Last updated on: Friday, 23rd November 2012
- Body text - Creative-Commons: The Open University
- Image 'Small group of singers' - Copyrighted: Production team
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