I’ve heard it said that God sometimes speaks to us through music. For me it took several centuries to realize it.
Even as a teen I would abstract the vocal portions of classical pieces, regarding them as the tones from just another instrument—like the timbre of a flute or violin. It’s never been important that I understand the language to appreciate its musicality. Increasingly, though, I’ve come to recognize that many pieces from my collection are straight from the liturgy of the Mass and serve as an archaeological record of Christian worship and its preservation.
J.S. Bach’s (1685-1750) Mass in B minor was very familiar, having purchased the English Baroque Soloists recording (1990 Archiv Produktion) long ago. I was particularly in love with the Et in unum Dominum composed as a duet for soprano and alto voices. Of course I recognized some of the words but did not recognized that the entirety of the Credo – the Latin version of the Nicene Creed which was crafted at the first ecumenical council in 325 AD — had been broken up into a number of musical compositions. At the time I knew something of the Credo but not the entirety and certainly not the Latin form as I do now.
Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) Selva Morale e Spirituale is an anthology of liturgical pieces published in 1641 and one of my favorite works/recordings (1993 Capitol, Andrew Parrot, Taverner Consort). Punctuating every work is the Glory Be, which I only just realized after learning that prayer in its Latin form: “Sicut erat in principio…” As it was in the beginning…
Palestrina’s (1525-1594) Ad Coernum Agni Providi by the Brabant Ensemble (2013 Hyperion) has vocal portions one could mimic with poorly-tuned glossolalia. During a lengthy portion, after a pregnant rest, the bass soloist heralds the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” familiar to most Christmas carolers1 but immediately followed by a greater choir carrying the work forward in elaborate polyphony—quite astounding. Now, the Latin words that followed were not all that intelligible to me at first. But suddenly one day, during a listen in the car, it occurred to me what they were: “Et (et) in terra (terra) pax hominibus…” — the Greater Doxology sung every Sunday immediately after the Kyrie in the Latin Rite.
Missa in gallicantu by Thomas Tallis (1505 – 1585) one of England’s greatest composers, appears on Christmas with the Tallis Scholars (2003 Gimell Records). For fourteen tracks on that compact disc one can hear, verbatim, the same words sung by the congregation at the Solemn Latin Mass every week including this portion called the Sursum corda which dates back to the third century AD:
Vocalist (Priest): Dominus vobiscum.
Choir (People): Et cum spiritu tuo.
Vocalist (Priest): Sursum corda.
Choir (People): Habemus ad Dominum.
Vocalist (Priest): Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro.
Choir (People): Dignum et iustum est.
Going back even more…
A recording by the all-female Norwegian Trio Mediaeval called Worcester Ladymass (2011 ECM Records GmbH) is a votive Mass to the Virgin Mary composed around 13th and 14th centuries and attributed in part to W. de Wycombe. Among the short and beautiful devotional motets are the expected liturgical components like the Kyrie and the Credo. The very interesting part is that this Mass was reassembled from the Worcester Fragments, once sheets of sacred music bundled together later to be torn asunder under King Henry VIII and his Dissolution of Monasteries in the first part of the 16th century. In this particular case of destruction, the Worcester Fragments survived as book binding material and were reclaimed in later centuries when things cooled down politically and theologically.
Unbeknownst to me for many years, my collection of sacred music spanning late medieval to early baroque has been serving as a record of what Christians had been doing at church for centuries and, at least for Catholics, hasn’t changed appreciably. As far back as Hildegard von Bingen, 12th century abbess composer, early sacred music acts as an archive of the liturgical and the theological. The same elements, particularly in Latin, can also be heard through the works of Busseron, Rosenmueller, Schutz, Rovetta, Demantius, Mazzocchi, Lassos, Mouton, Ockeghem and countless other composers spanning centuries.
At least for me, God had been speaking to me for decades using a language that was several centuries old: sacred music. But only recently have I really started to hear Him.