Search
  • Graham Abbott

The Mass: Sanctus and Benedictus

Let's start right away with music designed to put you into another realm entirely. [listen]


The music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, composed in 1922 for the choir of Westminster Cathedral in London. What sensuous lines and yet what “elevated” music. This music was designed to touch the listener and at the same time direct the listener’s focus elsewhere.

That music was a setting of the Sanctus, the fourth section of the Ordinary of the Mass. We’re going to look at different composers’ settings of these same words in this post, and try to fathom some of the most sublime music ever written. But like all parts of the Mass, the Sanctus exists in several Gregorian chant settings. [listen]


The text of the Sanctus is drawn from the both the old and new testaments. The word “sanctus” means “holy” and the opening section describes the holiness of God: "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, Heaven and earth are full of your glory". The origin of the text is the sixth chapter of Isaiah. The prophet records a vision of six-winged angels surrounding the throne of God, crying out these words in praise.



In the Mass service itself, the Sanctus comes in the very important section of the rite leading up to the consecration of the bread and wine, and because the bread and wine are believed to become the very presence of Christ himself, the importance of this moment cannot be overstated.

Composers, whether Catholics or not, usually acknowledge this meaning to the faithful, and write music which appropriately reflects the notion of God reaching into human affairs and making himself present among his people. It’s a powerful concept, regardless of whether you’re a believer or not. Vaughan Williams, an agnostic for most of his life himself, said, "There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good Mass".

In the liturgy, the Sanctus is marked by the sounding of a bell and sometimes by the swinging of a censer with burning incense. Composers have often taken these features up in their settings of the text, and the Vaughan Williams setting we heard at the start of this article has been thought to contain both a suggestion of bells and the swinging of the censer in its swinging pairs of notes at the start.


After an expression of praise - “Hosanna in excelsis” - the text goes on: “Benedictius qui venit in nomine Domine”. Drawn from the cries of the crowd as Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (recorded in the new testament Gospels), this means "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord". The Hosanna is then repeated. It’s not a long text, but by the late 18th century the second section, starting at the Benedictus, was often separated and set as a different movement. This became the norm in the Viennese Classical tradition, and the Benedictus settings of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner - among others - are often quite extensive.

The earliest Mass settings, though, usually followed the lead of Gregorian chant and set the whole text as a single musical entity, albeit sometimes in smaller subsections. This is the Sanctus from Guillaume de Machaut's Mass of Notre Dame, possibly the earliest surviving Mass setting by a single composer. It was written around 1340. [listen]


In Rome in the late Renaissance, the great Mass settings of Victoria, Palestrina and their contemporaries also set the whole text as a single movement, albeit with a clear break after the first Hosanna before the Benedictus began. This is the Sanctus (with Benedictus) from Palestrina’s famous Missa Papae Marcelli, written in 1556 and dedicated to the memory of Pope Marcellus II, who had died the previous year after only reigning for three weeks. [listen]


In past instalments on the Mass I’ve made a point of contrasting what was being written in Rome in the late 16th century with what was being written in Venice at around the same time. This post is no exception. The musicians working at the great basilica of St Mark’s in Venice had some of the greatest acoustics to work with, split choir lofts, multiple organs, and a rebellious spirit that made the most of Venice’s political independence. The Palestrina Sanctus you just heard dates from date 1556. This setting of the same words, written by Andrea Gabrieli for St Mark’s in Venice, was published in 1587. The two sound worlds are clearly poles apart but there is in Gabrieli’s music a certain quality of splendour - not empty pomp - which is electrifying. [listen]


One of my favourite Mass settings is one composed by Monteverdi and published in 1610 alongside the famous Vespers. It's called Missa In illo tempore because it's based on fragments of a motet setting of the text In illo tempore by Nicolas Gombert. Monteverdi's Mass was designed to show his critics (and his potential employers) that while he had a reputation for taking radical new directions in his music, he was still capable of writing in the reserved and more traditional church style of Palestrina, albeit with a modern inflection. The Sanctus from the Missa In illo tempore is breathtakingly beautiful. [listen]


Despite that fact that he was a Lutheran and wrote for the Lutheran liturgy, JS Bach wrote several settings of the Sanctus. In German Lutheran liturgy in the early 18th century, the Sanctus - in Latin - was a regular part of services of Christmas Day, as well as on other important feast days. The Sanctus Bach included in his Mass in B minor started life many years before as one of these Sanctus settings for Christmas. This is one of Bach's other Sanctus settings, a setting in C major dating from 1723, his first year in Leipzig. It was written for performance not at Christmas but earlier in the year, on St John's Day, 24 June. [listen]



Composers seem to fall into one of two camps when it comes to setting the Sanctus. Some see it as an outburst of joy at the presence of God, as Bach clearly did. Others focus more on the mystery of God’s presence and write music that is quiet, hushed and restrained. It’s fascinating to see such different approaches to the same words. In the next two examples, the composers concerned have tried to incorporate both approaches - with very different results.

Mozart’s biggest and most ambitious setting of the Mass was left unfinished. Unlike the Requiem, which was left unfinished because of the intervention of death, Mozart’s "Great" Mass in C minor was left unfinished eight years before his death for reasons that are unknown to us. He just abandoned it and it was never completed. He reused the music in a Latin oratorio but the Mass itself wasn’t revisited. Interestingly also, is the fact that the C minor Mass was not in the Viennese classical tradition, of five large movements, but in the Baroque “cantata” Mass style, like Bach’s B minor Mass, with the text broken up into a number of smaller sections which were set as completely discrete musical movements.

The Sanctus from this Mass was finished in substance but much detail is missing from Mozart’s score. Various completions of it exist, following the clues from what Mozart did manage to complete, and thankfully there is enough for us to get a good idea of what the composer intended. Note how Mozart sets the word “sanctus” loudly at the start, then the next words “Domine Deus Sabaoth” (Lord God of hosts) start softly and build into a tremendous climax. The words “pleni sunt caeli…” (heaven and earth are full of your glory) are set to music of enormous power and grandeur. The hosanna is a fugue which culminates in music of great dynamism and joy. [listen]



Nearly a century later, in the latter months of 1866, Anton Bruckner composed the second of his three mature Masses, a Mass in E minor for eight-part choir, and an ensemble of wind and brass instruments. This Mass is rarefied and austere. The choir frequently sings unaccompanied, and the use of wind and brass instruments seems to remind us of the organ (Bruckner's own instrument). The Sanctus of the E minor Mass is, to my way of thinking, reflective of the real Bruckner. A man devoted to God and faithful to the Catholic church for his whole life would know what this text was all about. God is coming to be with me… [listen]


One of the most important French composers of the 20th century was Francis Poulenc and for some reason he seems to have been left with a reputation for being somewhat frivolous or silly. To be sure, many of his works are light-hearted and graceful, and contain traces of humour, but Poulenc also wrote many works which reflect his Catholic heritage, and these are not only settings of sacred texts. His opera Dialogues of the Carmelites deals with confronting and spine-tingling issues relating to faith, religious commitment, love and - ultimately - martyrdom. Poulenc also set sacred texts to music on both large and small scale. The Gloria for soprano, choir and orchestra is one of his most famous works, and there are numerous works for unaccompanied choir, among them a delightful setting of the Mass for unaccompanied choir.

Poulenc’s Mass is short and crystal clear. The Sanctus setting is one of the most beautiful - unmistakably coloured with a French sensuality that at once touches us and makes us look upwards. The latter was clearly Poulenc’s intention as the Mass was written in 1937, a year after he re-embraced the Catholic faith after not practising it for more than a decade, and it’s dedicated to the memory of his father. I get the impression that the opening of this is another of those Sanctus settings inspired by bells. See what you think. [listen]


Words from the Mass appear on many of the columns of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

In his Mass, Poulenc breaks up the Sanctus and Benedictus into completely separate movements. However, in Stravinsky’s Mass written a bit over a decade later, the Sanctus and Benedictus are set as a single movement, as it was traditionally conceived. The three cries of "sanctus" are given to two tenor soloists whose vocal oscillations are clearly inspired more by eastern music than western, and the majority of the Sanctus section is carried by a quartet of soloists. The Benedictus follows immediately, with the choir singing long notes over a rather jerky accompaniment in the bassoons. The final hosanna, while not an exact repeat of the first one, is reminiscent of it, and as we've seen in earlier movements, Stravinsky’s setting of the Mass text is compact, to the point, and very direct. [listen]


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in June, 2010. This was a revised version of a program first broadcast in April, 2003.

317 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All