Sacred Music Two Ways, Both Wonderful!

The Catholic Church’s vast heritage of sacred music, which has been kept alive for years by university music faculties and commercial publications rather than being a living presence in our Catholic churches, received two quite different expositions in Washington, DC this weekend.

On Saturday evening in the Basilica of the National Shrine, the Shrine’s resident professional choir joined with the vocal ensemble Seraphic Fire to sing Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, an extensive piece which Seraphic Fire has recorded previously. The music was in every way stunningly beautiful, filling the vast space with unbelievable harmonies and overtones. The great choruses were beautiful, but perhaps even more of an aural treat was provided by small groups, duets and trios. The physical space was used to great effect, most notably on the charming call-response hymn Audi coelom. It was a start-to-finish celebration of the human voice, in praise of God and the Blessed Virgin, and hopefully the prolonged standing ovation will be some small encouragement for this sort of enormous effort to be repeated in the future in our outstanding Catholic music programs.


On a much smaller scale, and in a liturgical context, the choral ensemble Musikanten sang a polyphonic Solemn High Mass at Old St. Mary’s Church in Chinatown, DC. The resident men’s schola sang the proper chants from the Graduale, and the Ordinary and motets were sung by Musikanten.

Mass – Missa “O Quam Gloriosum” (T. L. de Victoria) 
Prelude’ — Ingrediente Dominum (Russell Woollen)
Offertory motet — O quam gloriosum (Victoria)
Communion motets — Ave Maria (Russell Woollen)
                                     Dona nobis pacem (Christopher Hoh)
 ‘Postlude’ — 4 Marian Antiphons (Robert Evett)


Weekends like this feel to me something like the Antiques Road Show, where someone’s forgotten old belongings turn out to be worth millions. I think it’s just marvelous that these nearly-forgotten treasures of ours have been brought out from the boxes and cupboards where they’ve lain for centuries, scarcely noticed, and fill the air with excellence, beauty, and praise.

5 Replies to “Sacred Music Two Ways, Both Wonderful!”

  1. I wish I could have been there. I haven't heard the Monteverdi Vespers since I sang it, twice, with Zephyrus some 15 or so years ago in Charlottesville and Blacksburg, Virginia. You are exactly right, Kathy, that the smaller solos, duets, trios, etc. make the work sparkle as they contrast with the tutti choral sections.

  2. Sounds beautiful. But … I was taught never, never, never to use a Blessed Virgin or saint's hymn at Communion time … perhaps afterwards as a meditation. Please clarify the rubrics on this matter for me.

  3. My 19-year-old is a sophomore @ The Catholic University. I told him under pain of excommunication he was to attend the Vespers. He did, and he is still thanking the old man in New Jersey – chalk one up for dear old dad… 🙂

  4. There is no rule or rubric that Marian songs or songs about a saint cannot be sung at communion.

    In fact, sometimes the proper communion chant refers to Mary or the saint of the day, so it would be odd if a song or hymn to Mary or the saints would be forbidden.

    That being said, I think there is an argument to be made for singing such songs elsewhere at the mass, but it is not a matter of a hard and fast rule.

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