January 2018 Print

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus: Making Artistic Sense of the Angels

by Dr. Andrew Childs

Angels have long held a pride of place in art. They intoxicate the artistic imagination, adorning countless churches in painted, mosaic, sculpted, and carved depictions ranging from the sublime—in gloriously idealized human form—to the fanciful, and on occasion, the hideous. We know that they sing—continuously, in the case of the Seraphim surrounding the throne of God—and composers, as we will consider below, have made frequent and wondrous attempts to depict their musical utterance. Of all the created order, few things fascinate artist and observer as angels do; from earliest childhood, we know of their existence, and try somehow to make sense of them. They inspire awe, reverence, fear, consolation, even nagging guilt—anyone possessing even the slightest sensus Catholicus knows deep down that he remains under constant angelic surveillance. If we speak to them, they answer in our own voice; when they appear, they reveal themselves in human form. A bridge between creation and the Creator, they have been at work throughout recorded time, charged to insert themselves at some of the most spectacular moments in human history: tempting Eve and Adam; staying the hand of Abraham; guiding Moses and the Israelites in the Exodus; announcing the Incarnation to the Blessed Virgin; leading the Holy Family to safety; appearing to the seers at Fatima; providing aid and comfort to God Himself after His temptation in the desert, and most poignantly, in His agony in the Garden.

The Place of Angels in Creation

God created angels in grace, not glory. He created them in sanctifying grace, but not confirming grace; hence, some could fall. (St. Thomas Aquinas considers the angels in detail in the Summa Theologica, Qq. Ia: 50-64, 106-114.) Angels either chose God and gained the Beatific Vision, or refused God through pride and envy—the only sins possible to the non-sensible intelligence—losing the possibility of the Beatific Vision forever: Angels are still bright, though the brightest fell. (Hamlet, in Act 4, scene 3, speaks truth: Lucifer, perhaps the brightest of the angelic intelligences, is thought to be a Princely Seraph, of the highest order of the ranks of angels.) What has followed since that moment constitutes the high drama of creation: the fight between God and the devil for the human soul destined to spend eternity either in heaven or in hell. “What is man,” sings the Psalmist, “that Thou art mindful of him? Or the son of man that Thou visit him? Thou hast made him a little less than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honor.”

Angels, though more perfectly able to deduce the likelihood of future events, do not know the future—they can convince us of what may happen, but do not know that it will. Fallen angels, willfully separated from divine wisdom, can err in knowledge of the supernatural. The angelic intellect possesses imparted knowledge, and as such, does not reason, though it understands human reasoning. Though demons can use this knowledge against us, they cannot, however penetrate directly into minds and wills: we remain free. Lucifer’s non serviam was a rejection of God through pride, not a fore-knowledge of the inheritance of human beings—at the moment of Lucifer’s rebellion, not-yet created rational, flesh-bound animals. Lucifer could not deceive himself: he knew he could not be God, but wanted to be as God. Soon enough, he saw God’s plan for mankind—the offer of the Beatific Vision he had rejected—and he has focused his hatred of God on us ever since. This promise of salvation for man represents an inconceivable usurpation of an angelic inheritance: beatitude bestowed upon matter.

The Devil and the demons will challenge God for our souls, and the battleground, as we have considered before, is the human heart. Angels have intellectual knowledge imparted by God, but not sense knowledge; they have no senses—though they understand and can influence our emotions, they have none of their own. Of all created things, we alone feel emotion illuminated by intellect. In one of the most beautiful manifestations of God’s mercy and love for us, He shares this capacity with us: the Sacred Heart, fully human and fully Divine, rejoices and breaks with ours. Through particularly human, emotional means, music seeks to order the human condition—a fantastic confluence of intellect, will, emotion, passions, appetite, and animal instinct—as God would have it by elevating our lower nature, through our heart and ultimately our intellect, toward Him. The Devil seeks to invert and reverse this process, using our hearts to dull our intellect, drawing us in a passionate descent to hell.

Let us listen to the angels from Isaias 6:13:

“I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and elevated: and His train filled the temple. Upon it stood the Seraphim: the one had six wings, and the other had six wings: with two they covered His face, and with two they covered His feet, and with two they flew. And they cried one to another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of Hosts, all the earth is full of His glory.”

What follows will consider briefly—either by introduction or reminder—six musical interpretations of the seraphic utterance: motet settings of “Duo seraphim” by Guerrero, Victoria, and Monteverdi; and polyphonic Mass settings of the “Sanctus” by Palestrina, Byrd, and finally Bach. The first five of these quintessentially Catholic works come not surprisingly from the Counter-Reformation period, unmatched in its outpouring of apologetic musical perfection. The last, from the B-minor Mass—perhaps the definitive musical masterwork, written by the Lutheran Bach—stands in majestic opposition to Protestant heresy: God’s “deference” to Bach’s genius in providing the ultimate pure musical exegesis of the unaltered Catholic Mass confirms His unchangeable dominion, and Luther’s ultimate shame.

Francisco Guerreo (1528-1599), “Duo Seraphim”

Guerreo, Cristobal de Morales, and Victoria were the three great priest-composers of the Spanish Counter-Reformation period. Though certainly lesser known than Victoria, Guerrero may well have lived a more eventful life: returning from the Holy Land, his ship was attacked by pirates; he was imprisoned, and had to be ransomed by the Cathedral of Seville.

Though hardly derivative, his “Duo Seraphim” displays an amazing breadth of Renaissance styles, especially in the use of texture and harmonic shifts. He treats the opening phrases, “Duo seraphim clamabant alter ad alterum/Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Domine Deus Sabaoth,” with a poignant clarity reminiscent of Byrd’s Mass settings. At “Plena est omnis terra Gloria ejus,” he dramatically enhances the choral texture rivalling the opulent grandeur of Gabrieli. He then grafts text from the first Epistle of John (as do Victoria and Monteverdi) which references the Trinity: “Tres sunt, qui testimonium dant in caelo; Pater, Verbum, et Spiritus Sanctus.” Here, the dramatic harmonic shifts resemble Gesualdo, though with superior elegance. His repeated text, “Sanctus Dominus/Plena est terra” resumes the broader texture; the final “Amen,” avoids all elaboration, a proper liturgical punctuation.

Tomás Luis de Vittoria (1548-1611), “Duo Seraphim”

Historians frequently refer to Victoria as the “Spanish Palestrina,” hardly an offense, but unwittingly trite given Victoria’s talent and musical service to the Church. Sent by Phillip II to study in Rome, he established himself as one of the most respected figures in the Church. He returned to Spain in 1587, and, apart from various travels, including several return trips to Rome, remained there in the service of the Dowager Empress Maria in the Discalced Monastery of Santa Clara in Madrid as her chaplain and Maestro. After her death in 1603, he demoted himself to the position of organist, a post he retained until he died.

We hear in Victoria’s setting the otherworldly seamlessness that defined Palestrina, but expressed through lither texture, which allows for a sublime clarity of text expression, enhanced by tasteful, overlapping repetitions of specific words creating a wonderful echoing effect, particularly at the initial utterance of “Sanctus.” His subtle shift to triple meter on the text “Et in tres unum sunt,” both delights, and underscores Doctrinal truth.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1653), “Duo Seraphim,” Vespro della Beata Virgine (1610)

Written most likely as an audition piece for the job of Maestro di Capella of St. Mark’s in Venice (a job he secured in 1613), Monteverdi creates a grand and highly virtuosic conception of the Vespers service. At 90 minutes, it is a full-length music drama in which Monteverdi made no attempt to obscure his theatrical style. The piece alternates between Gregorian antiphons coupled with Psalms in madrigal style, and free-standing motets, such as “Duo Seraphim,” ending with a multi-movement Magnificat setting, and a sonata.

At the beginning of the “Duo Seraphim,” ostensibly a duet for two tenors (it becomes a trio), Monteverdi intertwines the two tenor voices in a series of rising and falling suspensions on the text “Duo Seraphim clamabant alter ad alterum” in what may be the most glorious 45 seconds of vocal duet ever composed. The vocal gymnastics displayed in the “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” are formidable, a nod to the prevailing style, but also an indication of the celestial capacities in question. In the latter half of the piece, the two seraphic tenors are joined by a third of equal facility: admittedly theatrical, but stunningly effective. On the text, “Et in tres,” the three individual voices begin on separate notes, yet join to sing in unison on the words “unum sunt,” an example of Monteverdi’s sensitivity to word-painting, the “literal” depiction of specific text.

This setting displays as well as any of his works Monteverdi’s ability to transcend the period to which he clearly belongs, confirming his closing of the Renaissance.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), “Sanctus,” Missa Papae Marcelli

We know Palestrina simply as “The Prince of Music.” He expressed in music, with an unmistakable elegance unknown before and unmatched since, the majestic renunciation of Protestant error by the Council of Trent. Charged to “save polyphony from banishment” at the Council due to excesses that had overtaken liturgical composition—and admittedly these existed—he created a definitive “champion” in the Missa Papae Marcelli, composed in honor of Pope Marcellus II, in 1562.

Rather than overwhelm heaven with majesty, Palestrina’s angels seem to whisper with total sublimity, “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.” Though at “Pleni sunt coeli et terra Gloria tua” he changes mood and contrapuntal pace (the rate at which the individual voices enter), any effect here, through either increased tempo or volume, sufficiently dramatic to upset the overall mood represents interpretive excess: the supreme challenge in reading Palestrina lies in the discipline required to maintain ethereal calm. The music defies theatrical effect. Palestrina supplies the needed increase in intensity at “Hosanna in excelsis,” by again increasing the contrapuntal pacing. Few moments typify the “Palestrina style” as poignantly as the “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini,” a return to the hushed tones of the opening. The “Hosanna” returns to close the movement with restrained joy.

William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623), “Sanctus,” Mass for Five Voices

After his retirement from the Protestant English court in the 1490’s, Recusant Catholic William Byrd devoted himself to the composition of music for the persecuted English Catholic Church. At a time of martyrs for the Faith, he “sacrificed...everything for faith—his position, the court, and all those aspirations common to men who seek preferment in royal circles as a means of improving their fortunes.” If the Spanish Renaissance masters deserve to be better-known, Byrd must be. He composed music of unmatched poignancy and clarity, possessing a uniquely pliant and delicate harmonic palette and exceptionally sensitive contrapuntal tendencies. His three Catholic Masses—for Three, Four, and Five voices—represent a continuously rewarding and humbling revelation for the Catholic listener.

If Palestrina’s seraphs sing in tones of hushed yet joyful majesty, Byrd’s seem to weep, expressing perfect sympathy with those suffering gruesome torture and death for love of their God and His Church. The opening “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,” a full minute of heart-breaking beauty, seems more a plea than an ejaculation of praise. Anguish and urgency are notable in “Dominus Deus Saboath,” setting up a textural and dynamic contrast at “pleni sunt coeli et terra,” a remarkably humble admission rather than an overt statement of praise. At the first “Hosanna,” we hear majesty for the first time, though only briefly: the return to the hushed dynamics and reduced texture of “pleni” at the “Benedictus” stand out in touching relief. Though we hear genuine joy in the final “Hosanna,” it is clearly an expression of one who suffers greatly for love.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), “Sanctus,” Mass in B-minor (1749)

Observe not only the fact that the Lutheran J.S. Bach composed the ultimate musical expression of the Mass, but also the irony and necessity. Bach neither adds nor subtracts from the Mass text, but in his organization, and in the elaborate care he takes setting specific texts—providing dramatic as well as musical contrasts—he exceeds all reasonable liturgical boundaries: it’s too big. A Catholic composer could not have conceived of a Mass of this scale, yet Bach, free from liturgical parameters, provides a supreme musical meditation on the Mass that would be impossible in the actual time of a celebrated Mass. In short, the Mass in B-minor is the Catholic statement only a Protestant could make.

The opening of the “Sanctus” explodes in grandeur. The basses proclaim, reinforced by brass and tympani, “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,” in a way which more resembles these instruments than the other five voices, which, in contrast spin unbroken lines of dense but not obscure counterpoint. The soprano hovers in pulsating triplets throughout the “Domine Deus Sabaoth,” while the basses punctuate with relentless octaves, moving up and down throughout the scale: the effect is pure majesty. They defer momentarily to join the upper voices in a sequence of ascending utterance of the word “Sabaoth” that gives a glimpse of the divine. These few moments are not so much a superlative execution of compositional techniques as the momentary organic absorption of the exceptional artist into Divine inspiration: though we will never know on earth the sounds of heaven, Bach seems to part the veil. In the fugue that follows on “Pleni sunt coeli et terra Gloria Tua,” Bach unleashes on his voices a contrapuntal fury he usually reserved for himself—and future organists—yet this yields pure exhilaration.

Angels are real; they are numberless; they exist to help us attain the Beatific Vision they already possess. There exists in all these masterworks—and many others that treat of the same subject—a sense of the heavenly host, created by God for His good pleasure and our aid. They angels remind us of the supernatural end of creation, providing a living link between earth and heaven, motivated by God’s love for us. The artist, in daring to represent the angelic hymn in sound, attempts in our name to return the favor.