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Saintly: A Musical Exploration Of The Saints

Saints alive! We’re exploring the music of canonized saints this week.

Before the month of November is in the rear view mirror, the Ether Game Brain Trust is going to have a belated All Saints Day celebration (…it was on November 1st)! It’s a look at works from the canon all about canonized saints. Here’s your musical hagiography:


  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), St. Matthew Passion – Before Matthew spent his time being an apostle of Jesus and writing a Gospel, he was a tax collector in the city of Capernum. This is probably why he’s also known as the patron saint of bankers and accountants. Bach based this passion setting on the writings of the evangelist St. Matthew, but he also had some additional help. Many of his arias are drawn from texts written by Christian Friedrich Henrici, who went by the pseudonym Christian Picander. Picander studied, practiced, and taught law, but he also wrote poetry on the side. Bach seems to have been a fan of his writing. He used librettos by Picander for at least nine of his cantatas, as well as for his St. Matthew Passion.

 

  • Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”):Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (“St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish”) – Gustav Mahler wrote a great deal of art songs, and many of his lieder are based on poetry from an anonymous German collection called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (or “The Boy’s Magic Horn”). The piece you’ve just heard from that collection tells the tale of St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things, preaching to the fish in the river after finding his own church empty. The fish appear to be moved by St. Anthony’s sermon, but to Anthony’s dismay, they go on swimming as they had before they heard the sermon. Mahler borrowed heavily from his Wünderhorn songs for use in other works. Quotes and exact replicas of these songs can be found in abundance in his first four symphonies. For instance, Mahler used the tune from St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fish as the basis for the third movement of his Symphony No. 2, known as the “Resurrection” Symphony.

 

  • Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom – In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is the most celebrated liturgical text used during their holy service. As its name implies, the text is credited to St. John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople in the 5th century AD. His liturgy helped to provide the foundation of the Eastern Orthodox church and became a staple in Constantinople’s main cathedral, the Hagia Sophia. It was Tchaikovsky who first set the St. John Chrysostom liturgy to music in the modern age, and his setting opened the floodgate for other Russian composers to put their creative stamp on this centuries-old text. Rachmaninoff was by all accounts not a very religious man, so it’s unclear whether or not he even intended this work to be performed during an actual church service. But Rachmaninoff did capture the beauty of St. John Chrysostom’s words through expressive melodies and harmonies.

 

  • Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), Hymn To St. Cecilia – This past Thursday was not only Thanksgiving, but also the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. Cecilia lived in Italy in the late 2nd century AD, and was a famous martyr, beheaded for her Christian beliefs. She also apparently sang to God during her wedding ceremony, making her the patron saint of musicians. There is a long tradition of musical odes written for this patron saint, but it was especially important to Benjamin Britten. That’s because this past Thursday was also Britten’s birthday! He wrote his Hymn To St. Cecilia in 1942. The text was written specifically for Britten by poet W. H. Auden. Auden and Britten were close friends, and the older poet acted as an artistic mentor to the composer. Several early works by Britten, including the opera Paul Bunyan and the work Our Hunting Fathers were settings of texts by Auden.

 

  • Claude Debussy (1862–1918), The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian – The excerpt we just heard was taken from a work written late in Debussy’s life, The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian. He composed this work originally as incidental music for a mystery play on the life and martyrdom of St. Sebastian, an early Christian who was tied to a tree and shot with arrows during Roman emperor Diocletian’s persecution of  Christians in the 3rd century. Though Debussy’s music with staging and text by Gabriele D’Annunzio survives, the work is rarely performed as a play. Rather, Debussy’s music is reorganized into a multi-movement work subtitled “Symphonic Fragments.” We just listened to the conclusion of the play, in which Sebastian ascends to heaven. Sebastian is one of the most famous and courageous Christian martyrs. He became the patron saint of archers, athletes and holy death, and during the medieval era, his image was thought to provide protection against the bubonic plague.

 

  • Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179), To Saint Ursula: O Ecclesia – Hildegard of Bingen is one of history’s earliest-known female composers and a celebrated mystic in her own time. She became a nun and worked her way up the hierarchy, becoming an abbess and founding several abbeys in medieval Germany. In addition to her multifaceted life as an abbess, herbalist, poet, visionary, and linguist, Hildegard is well-known for her large body of surviving liturgical music. She dedicated these antiphons to Saint Ursula, a legendary leader and holy woman who was martyred in the 4th century during a massacre by the Huns in Cologne. As a leader and holy woman herself, Hildegard probably felt a strong sense of kinship with Ursula. She went on to compose a complete set of Office Antiphons to her, more than any other holy personage. Hildegard would eventually be canonized as a Saint as well, and was one of the first people to receive the official Roman canonization process.

 

  • Paul Hindemith (1895–1963), Symphony: “Mathis der Maler”: III. The Temptation of St. Anthony – When the Nazis came to power in 1933, composer Paul Hindemith found that half of his works were now banned because they manifested “cultural Bolshevism.” Dealing with issues of politics, power, and art, Hindemith began work on his opera Mathis der Maler. The subject of the opera was the painter Matthias Grünewald, famous for his Isenheim Altarpiece. During the Peasants’ War of 1524–25, Grünewald abandoned painting to fight for the revolutionaries, only to learn that by neglecting his greatest talent he had also ignored his social responsibility. In one of the scenes, Grünewald faces his own moral struggles in a dream. He sees himself as St. Anthony, a character from the Isenheim Altarpiece. As St. Anthony, he is tempted by various figures from his past, as well as a chorus of demons.

 

  • Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625), This Is The Record Of John – Orlando Gibbons was one of the most remarkable and prolific composers of the early Jacobean period. He was born in 1583 in Oxford, England. As a child, he was a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge, where his brother Edward served as master of the choristers. In 1603, at the age of twenty, Gibbons was appointed to the Chapel Royal, where he would remain, eventually advancing to the post of senior organist, until his death in 1625. Although he was initially thought to have died of the plague, a post mortem examination revealed that he had in fact succumbed to a massive brain hemorrhage. His verse anthem “This is the record of John,” is taken from an excerpt of the gospel of John. The “John” who is referenced in the title of the piece however is John the Baptist, who is honored as a saint in most Christian traditions.

 

  • St. Vincent, “Digital Witness” – The indie rock darling Annie Clark has used the stage name “St. Vincent” for over a decade, and she came upon that name in a very roundabout way. For one, “St. Vincent” was the middle name of her great-grandmother. But it’s also mentioned in a line from a Nick Cave song, which references the New York hospital “St. Vincent” where poet Dylan Thomas died drunk. For what it’s worth, the real St. Vincent—St. Vincent de Paul—was a 17th-century French priest who served the poor, and today is the patron saint of charities and hospitals. The modern St. Vincent, Annie Clark, has been a critical favorite since her debut in 2007. Her experimental, artistic brand of rock music is inspired by the Talking Heads, David Bowie and Kate Bush, and often skewers aspects of modern society, like social media, consumerism, and obsession with beauty.

Music Heard On This Episode

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