Handel’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day”: “From Harmony, from Heavenly Harmony”

Sunday marks Saint Cecilia’s Feast Day on the Roman Catholic calendar. Saint Cecilia, one of the most famous martyrs of the early church, is the patron of music and musicians. Her spirit is celebrated in George Frederich Handel’s cantata, Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, which was first performed on November 22, 1739 at London’s Theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The cantata’s text is a setting of a 1687 poem by John Dryden based on the …

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Palestrina’s Magnificat primi toni, Voces8

Before the rich counterpoint of J.S. Bach, there was the seamless, contrapuntal polyphony of the Italian Renaissance composer, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594). The sacred music of Palestrina greatly influenced Bach and the composers who followed. Bach studied and hand-copied Palestrina’s first book of Masses and adapted parts of the Missa sine nomine. Felix Mendelssohn noted Palestrina’s influence when he wrote, “I always get upset when some praise only Beethoven, others only Palestrina and still others …

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Schicksalslied (“Song of Destiny”): Brahms’ “Little Requiem”

In the summer of 1868, while visiting his friend Albert Dietrich in the North German coastal town of Wilhelmshaven, Johannes Brahms was drawn to the poem, Hyperions Schicksalslied by Friedrich Hölderlin. Buried in the middle of a 1797 novel depicting the Greek mythical titan Hyperion, the poem’s two verses contrast the lives of eternally blissful Immortals enjoying “luminous, heavenly breezes” with the restless existence of human beings, who are subject to the cruel whims …

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“If Ye Love Me”: Thomas Tallis’ Timeless Motet

Politics and dogma leave their temporary mark on the shifting sands of history, while music remains eternal. The life of the great English composer Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) is a testament to this idea. While Tallis remained an “unreformed Roman Catholic” throughout his life, he adapted professionally to serve the monarch of the time. He wrote for the Latin Catholic Mass until Henry VIII’s break with Rome. After writing Anglican music, he …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Serenade to Music”: “Such Harmony is in Immortal Souls”

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music was conceived in 1938 as a tribute to the conductor, Sir Henry Wood. The piece endures as a shimmering and sensuous celebration of music itself, set to the majestic words of Shakespeare. The work’s Royal Albert Hall premiere, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Woods’ first concert, was a uniquely collective musical celebration. The ensemble included members from three major London orchestras (the LSO, LPO, and BBC Symphony), …

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Arvo Pärt’s “The Beatitudes”: Meditative Minimalism

“Time has a deep meaning, but it is temporary, like our lives. Only eternity is timeless.” -Arvo Pärt Sound, silence, and time are mystical properties in the music of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt (b. 1935). Pärt’s early music inhabited the complex, twelve-tone world of twentieth century modernism. Then, in the late 1960s, he entered eight years of compositional silence, creating little more than musical fragments jotted in a notebook. When Pärt began …

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Bach’s St John Passion: A Divine Drama

J.S. Bach’s St John Passion is a haunting and dramatic musical depiction of the Passion of Christ, as told in the Gospel of John. The story of Jesus’ capture, judgment, and crucifixion, as outlined in biblical passages from John 18 and 19, are presented by the solo tenor (the Evangelist). A cast of other singers perform the roles of Jesus, Pilate, and the disciples, while the four-part choir represents the people at large. …

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