Sacred Music

Why should religious music be of interest to our largely secular society? BBC 4’s Sacred Music, presented by Simon Russel Beale, visited Notre Dame de Paris to show how two innovations of the 12th Century Notre Dame School underpin what has since come to be known as western classical music.

Members of early music specialist choir, The Sixteen and their director Harry Christophers, demonstrated music’s journey from homophonic (Int 2 concept) plainchant (H Music concept) to polyphony (Int 2 concept). Their lively, committed performances, which maximised the acoustics of Notre Dame’s Gothic architecture made it possible to believe that contemporary listeners would have experienced something of the vitality of the Punk revolution in the 1970s. This fresh approach was pioneered by Léonin and developed by his successor Pérotin.

Aside from the obvious connectivity between music and architecture, the links between music and science (notably physics) were explored. Composers, deciding which notes would best fit those already present in the setting of the plainchant would choose intervals (an Int 2 concept), in order, from the harmonic series i.e. 8ve, 5th & 4th. Although the triad had not yet become the building block of Western harmony, the foundations of the genre had been laid.

Musicologist, Helen Deeming, enthusiastically outlined the possibilities afforded by the second innovation of the time, the development of musical notation. Although the words of the liturgy were written, the associated music was taught by rote and memorised. This meant that, were a new setting to be sent to another cathedral city, a singer, familiar with the music, would have to tag along to coach the choir. Now, the music could be sent and realised from afar.

There remain three more episodes of this promising series. Here are links to details of all episodes, an overview of the series and a reflection on the place of sacred music in a secular world.

Overview of the series

The four episodes: The Gothic Revolution; Palestrina And The Popes; Tallis, Byrd and The Tudors; Bach And The Lutheran Legacy

Richard Langham Smith, Head of Music at the Open University, writes eloquently on Sacred Music in a Secular World.