This hour, we’re exploring expressions of thankfulness through music, from sources both sacred and secular. And in a featured recording by the Choir of New College, Oxford, we’ll hear music in thanks and praise for St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musician.
We start with “Nun danket alle Gott” (“Now thank we all our God”) from J.S. Bach’s Leipzig Chorales, performed by Fenner Douglass on the Flentrop organ of Duke University Chapel. The instrument, built in 1976, was designed to look and sound like an 18th-century organ.
What does it mean to give thanks?
Over the centuries, countless composers have turned to music as a way of showing thankfulness. They have written songs giving thanks to God, to country, even to the Pope. This hour on Harmonia, we’re feeling thankful, and we’ll hear a variety of music that expresses this sentiment.
One famous piece of “thanksgiving” music is Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata 29, “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir.” We’ll hear the opening sinfonia, which is actually an arrangement, based on the Praeludio from the Violin Partita No. 3.
Bach was by no means the first composer to give thanks to God in song. Hundreds of years earlier, probably in the early 1360’s, Guillaume de Machaut became the first composer to compose a complete setting of the ordinary texts of the Roman Catholic mass.
Let’s hear the final words of the Mass of Our Lady, “Ite, missa est. Deo gratias” (“Go, the mass has ended. Thanks be to God”), set by Machaut, followed by three anonymous interpretations of the same text.
Giving thanks to God at the end of the mass: we heard two different interpretations of the same setting from the anonymous Messe de Tournai, performed by the Clemencic Consort, followed by Quintus Quodlibet and the girls’ choir of Washington National Cathedral. Before that, we heard Anonymous 4, from their recording An English Ladymass, and we started off with part of Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, performed by the ensemble Obsidienne.
It wasn’t just in church that people sang songs of praise. “Deo gratias Anglia” is a medieval English song of the type known as a “political carol.” It tells the story of the 1415 Battle of Agincourt, where the English army, led by Henry V, routed the French army in a major victory for England.
Like a lot of music from medieval times, the manuscript of the Agincourt Carol leaves us with more questions than answers, especially about performance. How many singers? Should there be instruments? Even tempo is unclear. So, here’s another interpretation of the same carol.
Occasionally, a song of thanksgiving bridges the gap between sacred and secular. 18th-century English composer William Boyce’s verse anthem “The Lord is King, be the people never so impatient,” while undoubtedly intended for performance in church, was written in thanksgiving for the Peace of Paris.
Two hundred years prior to William Boyce, Orlande de Lassus was one of the most popular European composers of the 16th century. His 1573 motet “Agimus tibi gratias”—“We give Thee thanks”—was published in the collection Patrocinium musices, a five-volume collection of sacred works.
Featured recording: In thanks and praise of Saint Cecilia
On our featured recording, we’ll hear from Edward Higginbottom and the young musicians of New College, Oxford. The recording Exultent superi features motets of the 18th-century French composer François Couperin, including the reconstructed “Resonent organa,” a motet honoring St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians.
Among composers, there is a long tradition of music written in thanks and praise of St. Cecilia. Her feast day is celebrated on November 22.
Toccata in D Minor and Other Favorites
Gothic Records 2002 B003YNY1B4 / B000068FVZ
Track 13: "Nun danket alle Gott," BWV 657 (4'40")
Track 2: Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring (arr for organ) (excerpt of 3:28)
Program Topic A:
Cantatas 52 - Leipzig 1730s-40s (I)
Bach Collegium Japan, dir. Masaaki Suzuki
BIS Records 2012 B00AGMT96S (cd)
Track 13: BWV 29, I. Sinfonia (3'41")
Track 14: BWV 29, II. Chorus: "Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir" (3'12")
Guillaume de Machaut: Messe Nostre Dame / Motets et Estampies
Obsidienne, dir. Emmanuel Bonnardot
Calliope 2011 B005CLU8SQ mp3 only
Track 18: Messe de Nostre Dame: Ite missa est (1'41")
An English Ladymass: Medieval Chant and Polyphony
harmonia mundi 1992 B00B4B9T92 / B0000007DL
Track 20: Chant setting: Ite missa est (1'18")
La Messe de Tournai / Codex Musical de Las Huelgas
Oehms Classics 2013 B0007OP4YQ (cd)
Track 16: La Messe de Tournai: Ite missa est (1'49")
Sound from Heaven: A Liturgy for Pentecost
Washington National Cathedral 2010 B003YOU66C / B0035QMKEK
Track 27: La Messe de Tournai: Ite missa est (2'10")
:29 Floating Break Music Bed: Nota sebissa, Marcabru, Millenarium
Deo Gratias Anglia: polyfonies sacrées, chansons anglaises de la guerre de cent ans
Ensemble Céladon, dir. Paulin Bundgen
Aeon 2013 B00BV12BB8 / B0072A4HN2
Track 1: Agincourt Carol (4'58")
Deo gracias Anglia!
Alamire, dir. David Skinner
Obsidian 2012 B008YQQ5LK / B008L1GZUO
Track 7: Agincourt Carol (4'31")
Theme Music Bed: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal
:59 Midpoint Break Music Bed: Morley, La Volta, New London Consort
Boyce: Select Anthems
Choir of New College Oxford, dir. Edward Higginbottom
CRD Records 1991 B0013UXLPW / B000027Q2O
Track 10: The Lord is King (7'01")
Orlando di Lasso: Patrocinium Musices, 1573-1574
Currende Vocal Ensemble
Accent 2001 / 1999 B002B2EJQG / B000025SKR (1999)
Track 19: Agimus tibi gratias (1'25")
:29 Floating Break Music Bed: La Gamba, Ortiz, Unda Maris
Exultent superi: Motets Choisis
Soloists of the Choir of New College, Oxford, Collegium Novum, dir. Edward Higginbottom
Novum 2012 B006OJKFDI / B005MJDW18
Track 1: Resonent organa à 3 et symphonies. Pro Sancta Cecilia (12'30")
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal
The writer for this edition of Harmonia is Elizabeth Clark.
Curious about what’s new in recordings of early music? We review recordings new and old each week on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.
This episode originally aired November 17, 2013.