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8.556705 - BENEDICTUS - Classical Music for Reflection and Meditation


The Benedictus of the Latin Mass forms part of the Sanctus. The latter marks the start of the Canon of the Mass, while the Benedictus itself may be separated from the preceding sentences, to follow the Consecration. The text itself is short and simple:

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.

Hosanna in excelsis.

Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest.

It is taken from St Matthew’s account of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, celebrated on Palm Sunday, when the people welcomed him with words taken from the Psalms. Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest.

The English composer Thomas Tallis enjoyed a long career that began under Henry VIII and continued through the changes of monarchy and religion of the sixteenth century, ending in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, who granted him, with the composer William Byrd, an exclusive licence to publish music. For much of his life Tallis was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, but he had earlier, before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, served as organist at Dover Priory and then at Waltham Abbey. His Mass for Four Voices is thought to date from the later years of Henry VIII, in view of the attention paid to the clarity of words, a preoccupation of the period.

Guillaume Dufay belongs to an earlier generation. Trained at first in Cambrai, he enjoyed a career of distinction in Italy, serving the leading princely families and, for a time, the papal musical establishment, before returning to Cambrai, where he remained for the last part of his life, much honoured for his achievements. His Mass L’homme armé (The Armed Man) takes its title from the popular French song on which it relies for a cantus firmus, a melody which, in one way or another, forms the basis of its intricate counterpoint.

An instrumental Ballet by the German composer Michael Praetorius, scored for four viole da garuba and published in 1612 as part of a set of dance-pieces of French inspiration, is followed by Gregorio Allegri’s famous setting of the Miserere, a work that remained the exclusive property of the papal choir and was, reputedly, copied out from memory by Mozart at the age of fourteen, after one hearing. The work dates from the early seventeenth century and is for double choir.

The French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier belongs to the later years of the same century. While never officially employed in the Chapel Royal, he nevertheless was favoured by Louis XIV, providing music for the Dauphin and then for other members of the royal family. The Agnus Dei from one of his settings of the Mass provides a fine example of his style of writing in a form that involves instrumental accompaniment.

The following slow movement from a Concerto grosso, a concerto for a small concertino group, contrasted with the main body of the string orchestra, by Francesco Manfredini, was published in Bologna in 1718 as part of a set of a dozen such works. Manfredini served as a musician at the great Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, famous for its musical establishment, before returning to his native Pistoia as director of music at the Cathedral there.

After church and court appointments, in 1723 Johann Sebastian Bach moved, after some hesitation on his own part and on that of the appointing authorities, to Leipzig to take up the position of Thomascantor, training choristers and providing music for the principal city churches. He remained in this position for the rest of his life. One of his first tasks in Leipzig was to provide series of cantatas, music for each Sunday and major feast-day in the church year. Jesu bleibet meine

Freude is taken from Cantata No.147, written for the Feast of the Visitation in 1723. It is better known in English as Jesu, joy of man’s desiring. The Latin Mass remained in at least occasional use in the earlier years of Lutheranism. Bach’s great Mass in B minor, however, is rather a monument to his own faith than a work for practical, liturgical use. The movements of the Mass were assembled from a number of compositions, recent or written much earlier, during the last years of his life and provide a work that, through familiarity, has seemed to have a unity of its own. The setting of the Benedictus was written between 1747 and 1749. Bach’s settings of the Gospel narratives of the Passion were designed for performance in Holy Week. While Telemann, who held a similar position to Bach in Hamburg, wrote 46 Passion settings, one for each of his years in Hamburg, Bach wrote four, of which two survive. O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (O sacred head sore wounded) is taken from the St Matthew Passion. The excerpts here included from the music of Bach end with a slow movement from a lost oboe concerto, reconstructed from a surviving version for harpsichord and, in the case of the present movement, taken from the instrumental introduction to a cantata.

For much of his life Mozart was, like his father, in the service of the Archbishops of Salzburg. In his search for a position that might give him greater opportunities, he resigned in 1777 from his post as concertmaster and set out on a journey that took him to Augsburg, Munich, Mannheim and finally Paris. Whatever effect the music he heard and the musicians he met may have had on his own writing, he found nothing to his advantage and his father was obliged to pacify the Archbishop and arrange for his son’s return, now as court organist. His so-called Coronation Mass, from which the Benedictus is here included, was written in March 1779 and intended, it seems, to mark the commemoration of the crowning of a statue of the Blessed Virgin near Salzburg. By 1781 Mozart had won his freedom, endangering his father and sister by quarrelling with the Archbishop during the course of a visit to Vienna and taking lodgings thereafter with friends from Mannheim, the Webers, whose penniless second daughter he was soon to marry Vienna brought challenges and opportunities. Mozart wrote some of his greatest music, but could never earn enough to satisfy his needs and those of his family. By 1791 matters seemed likely to change for the better, but he took ill in November that year and died in early December, leaving the Requiem that he had been comissioned to write to be finished by his pupil Süssmayr. The setting of the Benedictus was provided by the latter, working, presumably, on sketches or ideas provided by Mozart.

Handel’s great English oratorio Messiah was first performed in Dublin in 1742 and after its later performance in London took its place at the heart of English choral tradition. In its three parts it provides an ambitious conspectus of Christianity. The instrumental Pila, indicating the shepherd pipe, is a pastoral movement, suggesting the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Christ.

While there may have been elements of Italianate opera in Handel’s oratorios, it was left to Verdi to provide the most operatic and dramatic of all liturgical settings in his Requiem. The work had its origin in Verdi’s unsuccessful attempt to arrange a composite tribute, with music from leading Italian composers, to mark the death of Rossini in 1868. He was able to make use of his own work for this when, in 1874, he was persuaded by his publishers to set the whole Requiem himself, to mark the death of the writer Alessandro Manzoni. Verdi rose to the histrionic challenge of the Sequence, the Dies irae, with the terror of its depiction of the end of the world, but of more tender feeling in the verse Recordare, Jesu pie (Remember, merciful Jesus).

Brahms, a native of Hamburg but recently settled in Vienna, completed his own idiosyncratic A German Requiem in 1868. For this work he assembled a number of Lutheran texts. The fourth of the seven movements offers a setting of words taken from Psalm LXXIV, How lovely are thy dwellings, in a mood of meditative consolation, a world away from the terrors of Hell.

Keith Anderson

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