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Western classical music is one of humanity’s most sublime artistic traditions. Significantly, this great musical language—encompassing genres from symphonic and instrumental music to choral works and opera—was created through the meeting of art and faith.

The first music schools in Europe were associated with the Catholic Church. Originally, the Church commissioned music, as composers and the clergy used the power of music to exalt God. The lineage of sacred works not only forms a glorious tradition within Western music, but also ultimately produced some of the greatest masterpieces in Western art, and created the foundation of the Western musical canon as we now know it. This phenomenal tradition includes works of genius such as:

  • Josquin des Prez’s Ave Maria, gratia plena, an exquisite polyphonic motet, and one of the first masterworks of sacred music;
  • Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Virgini, whose vocal pyrotechnics evoke the immensity of heaven;
  • Mozart’s Requiem, the final composition of the Classical master, and a work of astonishing dramatic power;
  • Mendelssohn’s Elijah, a remarkable distillation of the history of the oratorio, and a grand vision of what the oratorio might become; and
  • Faure’s Requiem, a deliberately anti-monumental work, written as a quiet expression of individual wonder.

In The Great Works of Sacred Music, you’ll study these extraordinary creations and many more, taking in a rich panorama of Western sacred music and its most magnificent artistic landmarks. Studying the milestone works in this tradition not only introduces you to a repertoire and a legacy of extraordinary musical greatness, but also provides a vivid and essential view of how Western music came to be. As you’ll discover, many of the forms and structures that underlie all of Western music, as well as many of the compositional techniques through which music conveys meaning, were pioneered by composers of sacred music.

Studying the great sacred works also shows you how the musical components of Christian ritual developed, illustrates the interplay between music and Christian worship, and reveals how music’s unique capacities have been used to amplify the meaning and significance of religious texts.

Finally, the lineage of sacred music includes major masterworks of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Elgar, and many others. Exploring these works within the context of their creation shows how sacred musical expression fits together as a tradition, and forms a beloved and hugely meaningful current within Western art.

Speaking to all of these matters and more in The Great Works of Sacred Music, Professor Charles McGuire of the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music takes you on a deep dive into the history and evolution of sacred music in the West. Professor McGuire, a celebrated musicologist with a richly detailed knowledge of this tradition, fills these 16 engrossing lectures with essential insights and stunning musical excerpts, covering over 1,200 years of music, from medieval chant to the massive sacred works of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An accomplished musician himself, Professor McGuire sings excerpts and examples for you throughout the course. This is music for the religious and the non-religious person alike—a tradition of compelling universality, beauty, and humanity in art.

Witness the Remarkable Evolution of Sacred Musical Expression

In the course’s opening, you’ll learn the origins of Western sacred music in Catholic prayer services, where it served a specific liturgical function. Here, you’ll study the beauties of medieval chant—a way of singing prayer—and how the single musical line of chant evolved into polyphony (music with multiple simultaneous melodies), which you’ll hear gloriously exemplified in masses by composers such as Guillaume de Machaut and Guillaume Dufay.

Through superlative sacred works by William Byrd and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, you’ll discover how the religious reformations of the 16th century compelled composers to create new musical genres and to make religious text settings more communicative. And you’ll observe how 17th-century sacred music composers such as Monteverdi and Heinrich Schütz competed with the increasing popularity of secular music by blending sacred styles with secular genres such as opera, producing music of dramatic and unforgettable beauty.

As a fascinating counterpoint to the music itself, you’ll explore the sociological background of its writing and performance. You’ll learn how sacred musical works were often commissioned by important clerical and aristocratic patrons, and how sacred music composers were challenged to write works that were not only religiously edifying, but also entertaining and publically successful. And you’ll observe how, through time, sacred music moved beyond the church walls to become appreciated in secular venues as autonomous works of art.

Experience the Greatest Masterworks of the Sacred Tradition

At the heart of this course, you’ll look deeply into the keystone works in this lineage, including:

  • Bach’s Mass in b minor: Discover, through key musical excerpts, how Bach blended ancient and modern musical styles, and recast material from his earlier compositions, in creating a work of grandeur and universality that is one of the high points of all music.
  • Handel’s Messiah: Grasp Handel’s genius in musically realizing the oratorio’s remarkable text, explore a range of its most exceptional musical passages, and learn how his Messiah became one of the most celebrated works in the Western musical canon.
  • Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: Explore Beethoven’s motives for writing this complex masterpiece, and study how he infused the score with historical styles reaching back to the Renaissance and earlier, portraying the mystical and the human in a highly personal expression of spirituality.
  • Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius: In this remarkable British masterwork, learn how Elgar transformed the genre of oratorio by imbuing it with modern compositional elements such as Wagnerian orchestration and narrative continuity.
  • Verdi’s Quattro Pezzi Sacri: In an era when institutionalized faith was increasingly questioned, witness how Verdi conjured a majestic spiritual vision, but one which culminates in a distinctly ambiguous ending.

Gain Deep Insights into Musical Creation

As a highly memorable benefit of Professor McGuire’s teaching, you’ll learn not only about the development and the repertoire of sacred music, but about the extraordinary compositional ingenuity and brilliance that give these works their penetrating expressive power.

In Haydn’s Creation, you’ll grasp how the composer portrays the majesty of the rising sun through simultaneous ascending and descending instrumental lines in different registers of the orchestra. In Mozart’s Requiem, you’ll observe how Mozart uses specific vocal scoring and compositional tropes to evoke the emotions of grief and despair. And in Faure’s Requiem, you’ll study the musical means by which the French master creates an otherworldly atmosphere of comfort, stillness, and light.

Professor McGuire’s illumination of these magnificent works rests on his lifelong experience of the sacred music tradition as a dedicated performer, conductor, scholar, and award-winning teacher. Throughout the lectures, he performs key musical excerpts in the studio, with on-screen scrolling sheet music so you can follow along. His expressive singing of important passages and clarifying examples adds another dimension to your learning experience, helping you understand and connect with the music on a deeper level.

In The Great Works of Sacred Music, you’ll encounter many of the supreme achievements of the Western classical tradition, compositions that demonstrate the roots of our musical heritage in passionate spiritual expression. Join a brilliant musicologist in discovering these unique masterpieces—works, as Professor McGuire says, “that elevate music to the sphere of prayer, as an elegant and transcendent devotional gift.”

Visit The Great Works of Sacred Music (The Great Courses) to read more...

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