Holy, holy, holy

Katrina DowlingMusic1 Comment

When we sing in the liturgy, the tradition is that we are joining in a heavenly song that is usually inaudible to our mortal ears but that is sung perpetually. In the choir book illumination below, the cross-beam of the initial A separates the earthly singing of monks from that of their heavenly counterparts, the angels shown as small figures on either side of God (incidentally, notice how the top of the letter A has broken open and heaven is spilling out around the sides of the initial as if to enfold the whole illumination!).

Initial A with Singing Monks and Saints - Bologna, ca 1320, Augustinian antiphonary

Initial A with Singing Monks and Saints – Bologna, ca 1320, Augustinian antiphonary

Isaiah’s vision of God enthroned imagines heavenly creatures calling to one another:

Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’[1]

This vision is the source of the opening words of the “Sanctus” which is sung at every Eucharist:

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.
Osanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Osanna in excelsis.
Holy, holy, holy
Lord God of Sabaoth.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Let’s listen to the Sanctus of of Josquin Desprez’ Missa l’homme armé sexti toni, and hear how the high degree of imitation between voices – a feature both of the period style and of his personal musical style – plays into the evocation of seraphs calling to one another.

I’ve linked to a recording below. First, to help you hear the imitation when you play the recording, here is a step-through of the Sanctus. I’ve broken down the sung text into sections, given a short comment on the musical texture at that point, and made a musical illustration showing the start of each portion. You can scroll back and view these while you listen to the recording:

“Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth” (Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth)
in four voices, with a canon at the unison (at two bars’ distance) in Altus and Tenor

Josquin Sanctus

“Pleni sunt caeli et terra…” (Heaven and earth are full…)
only the two highest voices sing

Josquin Sanctus-pleni sunt

“… gloria tua.” (…of your glory.)
only the two lowest voices sing (musically, it’s a repeat of “Pleni sunt” at a fifth lower)

Josquin Sanctus-gloria tua

“Osanna in excelsis.” (Hosanna in the highest.)
in four voices; canon at one bar’s distance at the lower fifth in Tenor and Bassus

Josquin Sanctus-osanna

“Benedictus…” (Blessed…)
in two voices, Superius and Tenor, in canon at three bars’ distance at the lower fifth

Josquin Sanctus-benedictus

“… qui venit…” (…is he who comes…) in two voices, Altus and Bassus

Josquin Sanctus-qui venit

“… in nomine Domini.” (…in the name of the Lord.)
musically, a repeat of “Benedictus,” Superius and Tenor in canon

Josquin Sanctus-in nomine

“Osanna in excelsis.” (Hosanna in the highest.)
a literal repeat of the “Osanna” above

Now enjoy the recording by Laudantes Consort. They give a short pause between each of the sections I’ve picked out above. Can you hear the imitation throughout? (It’s harder in the opening section, with the canon between the middle voices!)

Do you think Josquin’s setting allows the singers to join in with the song of angels when they sing “holy, holy, holy”? When you sing, do you think of earthly and heavenly song touching at this point in the liturgy?

[1] Isaiah 6:2-3, New Revised Standard Version.

One Comment on “Holy, holy, holy”

  1. You open up another dimension of worship. My singing “the Gloria” at church will now be seen in a new light, an awesome light of heaven and earth joining together. Thank you.

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