“Artful repentance” — Josquin des Prez composed the first major setting of Psalm 51 (Miserere mei, Deus). Its subtle structural details make it worth many repeated listenings.
“Bach to basics” — The phrase “Lutheran Mass” may sound like a contradiction in terms. But Luther really liked almost all of the traditional elements of the Mass. Bach wrote four works known as “Lutheran Masses” which get far too little attention.
“Bend down thy gracious ear” — A paraphrase by Martin Luther of Psalm 130, set to a haunting melody, is the foundation for powerful choral works constructed by J. S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn.
“Christus Victoriae” — Born in a Spanish city famous as the home of a mystical saint, Tómas Luis de Victoria was a man of intense faith and the rare capacity to convey in music the awe and fearful wonder that the great mysteries command.
“The depths of solemn grandeur” — The best liturgical music is an effort to convey the depth of joy, sorrow, gratitude, and awe that Christian experience invites. But having ears to hear requires a willingness to decline the thirst for instant aesthetic gratification that is encouraged in modern culture.
“Echoes of glory” — Faith becoming music,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger once observed, “is a part of the process of the Word becoming flesh.” But the modern segregation of “faith” from “culture” resists this incarnational dynamic. Composer James MacMillan has boldly reintegrated faith and culture.
“Eloquent lamentation” — The Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus worked in a wide range of styles. Two of his longest works explored the theme of lamentation. Psalmi Davidis Pœnitentiales is based on the texts of seven psalms with penitential themes, and Lagrime di San Pietro, “The Tears of St. Peter,” expresses the apostle’s woe at having betrayed his Lord.
“Made clean by His body” — Membra Jesu Nostri (“The Limbs of Our Jesus”) is an hour-long cycle of seven cantatas written in about 1680 by Dieterich Buxtehude (ca. 1637-1707). Best known as an organist and composer for organ, the Danish-German Buxtehude was also a prolific composer of vocal music.
“A mysterious sense of rightness” — The motets of Anton Bruckner capture both the depth and simplicity of faith. If Bruckner’s symphonies are cathedrals in sound, his motets are intimate side chapels, inviting prayer and contemplation.
“Not just a one-hit wonder” — The tune to which we sing “O sacred Head, sore wounded” and “Commit thou all that grieves thee” was composed by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612), but its original purpose was a bit different from how it was eventually employed.
“Sacred song and the Tudors” — Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) served under four different monarchs during the most tumultuous time in the history of the Church of England. But his skill in composing music for liturgical use never failed him (or us).
“Schütz: Baroque before Bach” — Born exactly 100 years before J. S. Bach, Heinrich Schütz played an important role in injecting the glorious musical style of the early Italian baroque into the German musical bloodstream.
“The sound of perpetual light” — Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem and his four motets based on Gregorian melodies remind us how plainchant developed into polyphony, and demonstrate how the Church’s music can be both traditional and innovative.
“A Tudor tutorial” — In the 1920s, a bequest from a Scottish-American industrialist ambled the recovery of some of the English-speaking church’s richest musical treasures.
“The wondrous mystery in song” — The Virgin birth and the Incarnation are not (in the words of an ancient hymn) in “the normal scheme of things.” Such mysteries are conveyed in music more adequately than in mere propositions.
“The wonder of his works” — Franz Joseph Haydn’s 1798 oratorio The Creation presents in sound a sense of the quiet happiness of the world before the Fall, a world whose order “comforts and salves as much as it astonishes.”