The Great Works of Sacred Music

Course No. 7316
Professor of Musicology Charles Edward McGuire , Ph.D.
Oberlin College
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Course No. 7316
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Trace the roots of sacred music, beginning with the history of chant and how it evolved into polyphony.
  • numbers Delve into the religious reformations of the 16th century, and see how the underlying theology shaped sacred music.
  • numbers Study how composers mixed sacred styles with secular genres like opera to create music that was reverent and modern.
  • numbers Look the profound influence of sacred music on Bach, Handel, Mozart, and more.
  • numbers Explore music designed for yuletide religious services, as well as musical works that became associated with Christmas.

Course Overview

Western classical music is one of humanity’s most sublime artistic traditions. Significantly, this great musical language—encompassing genres from symphonic and instrumental music to choral works and opera—was created through the meeting of art and faith.

The first music schools in Europe were associated with the Catholic Church. Originally, the Church commissioned music, as composers and the clergy used the power of music to exalt God. The lineage of sacred works not only forms a glorious tradition within Western music, but also ultimately produced some of the greatest masterpieces in Western art, and created the foundation of the Western musical canon as we now know it. This phenomenal tradition includes works of genius such as:

  • Josquin des Prez’s Ave Maria, gratia plena, an exquisite polyphonic motet, and one of the first masterworks of sacred music;
  • Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Virgini, whose vocal pyrotechnics evoke the immensity of heaven;
  • Mozart’s Requiem, the final composition of the Classical master, and a work of astonishing dramatic power;
  • Mendelssohn’s Elijah, a remarkable distillation of the history of the oratorio, and a grand vision of what the oratorio might become; and
  • Faure’s Requiem, a deliberately anti-monumental work, written as a quiet expression of individual wonder.

In The Great Works of Sacred Music, you’ll study these extraordinary creations and many more, taking in a rich panorama of Western sacred music and its most magnificent artistic landmarks. Studying the milestone works in this tradition not only introduces you to a repertoire and a legacy of extraordinary musical greatness, but also provides a vivid and essential view of how Western music came to be. As you’ll discover, many of the forms and structures that underlie all of Western music, as well as many of the compositional techniques through which music conveys meaning, were pioneered by composers of sacred music.

Studying the great sacred works also shows you how the musical components of Christian ritual developed, illustrates the interplay between music and Christian worship, and reveals how music’s unique capacities have been used to amplify the meaning and significance of religious texts.

Finally, the lineage of sacred music includes major masterworks of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Elgar, and many others. Exploring these works within the context of their creation shows how sacred musical expression fits together as a tradition, and forms a beloved and hugely meaningful current within Western art.

Speaking to all of these matters and more in The Great Works of Sacred Music, Professor Charles McGuire of the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music takes you on a deep dive into the history and evolution of sacred music in the West. Professor McGuire, a celebrated musicologist with a richly detailed knowledge of this tradition, fills these 16 engrossing lectures with essential insights and stunning musical excerpts, covering over 1,200 years of music, from medieval chant to the massive sacred works of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An accomplished musician himself, Professor McGuire sings excerpts and examples for you throughout the course. This is music for the religious and the non-religious person alike—a tradition of compelling universality, beauty, and humanity in art.

Witness the Remarkable Evolution of Sacred Musical Expression

In the course’s opening, you’ll learn the origins of Western sacred music in Catholic prayer services, where it served a specific liturgical function. Here, you’ll study the beauties of medieval chant—a way of singing prayer—and how the single musical line of chant evolved into polyphony (music with multiple simultaneous melodies), which you’ll hear gloriously exemplified in masses by composers such as Guillaume de Machaut and Guillaume Dufay.

Through superlative sacred works by William Byrd and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, you’ll discover how the religious reformations of the 16th century compelled composers to create new musical genres and to make religious text settings more communicative. And you’ll observe how 17th-century sacred music composers such as Monteverdi and Heinrich Schütz competed with the increasing popularity of secular music by blending sacred styles with secular genres such as opera, producing music of dramatic and unforgettable beauty.

As a fascinating counterpoint to the music itself, you’ll explore the sociological background of its writing and performance. You’ll learn how sacred musical works were often commissioned by important clerical and aristocratic patrons, and how sacred music composers were challenged to write works that were not only religiously edifying, but also entertaining and publically successful. And you’ll observe how, through time, sacred music moved beyond the church walls to become appreciated in secular venues as autonomous works of art.

Experience the Greatest Masterworks of the Sacred Tradition

At the heart of this course, you’ll look deeply into the keystone works in this lineage, including:

  • Bach’s Mass in b minor: Discover, through key musical excerpts, how Bach blended ancient and modern musical styles, and recast material from his earlier compositions, in creating a work of grandeur and universality that is one of the high points of all music.
  • Handel’s Messiah: Grasp Handel’s genius in musically realizing the oratorio’s remarkable text, explore a range of its most exceptional musical passages, and learn how his Messiah became one of the most celebrated works in the Western musical canon.
  • Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: Explore Beethoven’s motives for writing this complex masterpiece, and study how he infused the score with historical styles reaching back to the Renaissance and earlier, portraying the mystical and the human in a highly personal expression of spirituality.
  • Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius: In this remarkable British masterwork, learn how Elgar transformed the genre of oratorio by imbuing it with modern compositional elements such as Wagnerian orchestration and narrative continuity.
  • Verdi’s Quattro Pezzi Sacri: In an era when institutionalized faith was increasingly questioned, witness how Verdi conjured a majestic spiritual vision, but one which culminates in a distinctly ambiguous ending.

Gain Deep Insights into Musical Creation

As a highly memorable benefit of Professor McGuire’s teaching, you’ll learn not only about the development and the repertoire of sacred music, but about the extraordinary compositional ingenuity and brilliance that give these works their penetrating expressive power.

In Haydn’s Creation, you’ll grasp how the composer portrays the majesty of the rising sun through simultaneous ascending and descending instrumental lines in different registers of the orchestra. In Mozart’s Requiem, you’ll observe how Mozart uses specific vocal scoring and compositional tropes to evoke the emotions of grief and despair. And in Faure’s Requiem, you’ll study the musical means by which the French master creates an otherworldly atmosphere of comfort, stillness, and light.

Professor McGuire’s illumination of these magnificent works rests on his lifelong experience of the sacred music tradition as a dedicated performer, conductor, scholar, and award-winning teacher. Throughout the lectures, he performs key musical excerpts in the studio, with on-screen scrolling sheet music so you can follow along. His expressive singing of important passages and clarifying examples adds another dimension to your learning experience, helping you understand and connect with the music on a deeper level.

In The Great Works of Sacred Music, you’ll encounter many of the supreme achievements of the Western classical tradition, compositions that demonstrate the roots of our musical heritage in passionate spiritual expression. Join a brilliant musicologist in discovering these unique masterpieces—works, as Professor McGuire says, “that elevate music to the sphere of prayer, as an elegant and transcendent devotional gift.”

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16 lectures
 |  Average 44 minutes each
  • 1
    Hallelujah, Amen: The World of Sacred Music
    Begin by exploring the contexts in which Western sacred music developed, from its use in religious ritual to its emergence in the concert hall as edifying entertainment. Then encounter three distinct eras in sacred music, hearing excerpts from medieval chant, Handel's iconic Hallelujah chorus, and Edward Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius. x
  • 2
    From Chant to Early Sacred Polyphony
    Trace the roots and origins of sacred music in the Christian West, beginning with the history of chant, a way of singing prayer unaccompanied by instruments. Using diverse musical examples, learn about the structure and styles of chant, and how it evolved into polyphony (music with more than one melody sounding simultaneously). x
  • 3
    The Golden Age of Polyphony
    Follow the rise to prominence of both the composer and their patron, observing how sacred music adapted to musical fashions. Explore polyphonic innovations in masses by Guillaume de Machaut and Guillaume Dufay, and in Josquin des Prez's superlative motet, Ave Maria, gratia plena, one of the first great works of sacred music. x
  • 4
    The Age of Reformation: Who Will Sing?
    Delve into the religious reformations of the 16th century, and learn how the underlying theological debates shaped sacred music. In particular, grasp how changes in Christian ritual impelled William Byrd, Martin Luther, and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina to pioneer new musical genres and ways to make sung texts more intelligible and communicative. x
  • 5
    Sacred Music in a Secular World
    By the 17th century, fashionable music began to be equated with secular music. Through studying Claudio Monteverdi's masterpiece, the Vespro della Beata Virgini, and Heinrich Schutz's extraordinary Musikalische Exequien, learn how both composers mixed sacred styles with elements from secular genres like opera to create music that was both reverent and modern. x
  • 6
    Man and Meaning: Bach's Cantatas
    Bach's sacred works are perhaps the most celebrated in Western music. Learn about the chorale and cantata, musical forms famously used by Bach. Study his great Cantata No. 80, a beautiful example of Bach's ingenious blending of the traditional (a chorale by Martin Luther) with the new (elements of recitative and aria). x
  • 7
    Art for Art's Sake: Bach's Mass in B Minor
    Trace the convoluted compositional history of the magnificent Mass in b minor, and explore Bach's motives for composing a work with no real practical function. Study how Bach blends older and newer musical styles and recasts musical material from his earlier works in creating a stunning compendium of his own style as a composer. x
  • 8
    Handel's Great Oratorio: Messiah
    In the first of two lectures on Handel's Messiah, study the genre of oratorio, and see how Handel adapted it for his own purposes. Investigate the lives and partnership of Handel and Charles Jennens (the Messiah's librettist), and discover some of the glorious music from this most beloved of oratorios. x
  • 9
    Messiah: From Entertainment to Ritual
    Learn about the sources and meanings of the Messiah's text, and witness the remarkable realization of the text in Handel's music. Explore Handel's brilliant compositional ingenuity in the oratorio, and follow the story of how the Messiah rose to become one of the centerpieces of the Western canon of classical music. x
  • 10
    Mozart's Requiem: Praise and Memory
    Learn the mysterious and romantic story behind this extraordinary masterwork. Study the musical traits of the Classical Era and the genre of the requiem mass, as ingeniously embodied in Mozart's music. Then investigate Mozart's musical rhetoric," the technical means through which he portrays the drama of life, grief, and the hope for consolation." x
  • 11
    Haydn's The Creation
    Take account of the influence of Handel in this beloved oratorio, and discover the integral role played in its creation by a noble patron and two Viennese institutions. Explore the range of Haydn's powerful musical language, evoking the Chaos before the Creation, the rising sun, and the triumphant annunciation of the Fourth Day. x
  • 12
    God, Man, Music, and Beethoven
    In the first of two sublime sacred works by Beethoven, his oratorio Christus am Olberge, grasp how he uses dramatic expressive means to emphasize the suffering of Christ - suffering with which he personally identified. In the great Missa Solemnis, follow how Beethoven mines the musical past in creating a monumental spiritual vision. x
  • 13
    Mendelssohn's Elijah
    In Elijah, Mendelssohn created a compendium of what the oratorio had been, balanced against what it could be. Through listening to compelling excerpts, observe how he includes evocations of Handel, Bach, and Haydn, framed within his own unique musical rhetoric, aiming to compose a work that would outlive him within the canon of sacred music. x
  • 14
    Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius
    Learn about the creation of Elgar's exquisite and very Catholic oratorio, against the musical and religious backdrop of 19th-century Britain. Study how Elgar infused The Dream of Gerontius with Wagnerian operatic elements such as continuous musical narrative, leitmotif, and lavish orchestration, transforming the genre of oratorio into something new. x
  • 15
    Sacred Music in the Late 19th Century
    Beginning in the late 19th century, composers of sacred music began to question institutional conceptions of faith. Here, study one monumental yet very personal work, Brahms's Ein Deutsches Requiem; one very anti-monumental expression, Faure's Requiem; and one that seems monumental, yet ends in a deliberately equivocal manner, Verdi's Quattro Pezzi Sacri. x
  • 16
    Come, All Ye Faithful: Music of Christmas
    Conclude with a look at the rich tradition of Christmas music. Explore music designed for yuletide religious services, as well as musical works that became associated with Christmas. Learn how 19th-century composers created a beloved legacy of Christmas carols by resurrecting older ones, writing new ones, and making hybrids of old texts and new music. x

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  • 16 lectures on 4 DVDS
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  • 152-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

Charles Edward McGuire

About Your Professor

Charles Edward McGuire , Ph.D.
Oberlin College
Charles Edward McGuire is Professor of Musicology at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, where he has taught since 2001. He earned a B.Mus. in musicology from the Oberlin Conservatory and a B.A. from Oberlin College with high honors in history, and received his A.M. and Ph.D. in music from Harvard University. At Oberlin, Professor McGuire teaches music history, including courses on 19th-century music, Ludwig van...
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The Great Works of Sacred Music is rated 3.8 out of 5 by 47.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from All This and Christmas Carols Too If you are tempted to think that this topic is too thin for a full course, don’t be. The source material is rich, and Professor McGuire has chosen astutely. I confess I don’t have sympathy with the “too much lecture, play more music” sentiment of some reviewers. It’s a course, not a concert. Prof. McGuire provides very generous samplings of the music he is discussing. I for one would be irritated if there were more music at the expense of subject matter. McGuire walks us through the history of Christian sacred music — and only Christian music is discussed — from early medieval through the 19th century. Wisely, he leaves the sea changes of the 20th century for another day. The inescapable fact is that most people who are interested in learning about Gregorian chants and the oratorios and requiems of Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn and the like are going to be either lost or turned off by a deep dive into Durufle, Messiaen, Gorecki and Ligeti. I was pleased that Professor McGuire included a nod to Beethoven’s undervalued “Christ on the Mount of Olives.” His analysis convinced me that my otherwise favorite Great Courses music professor, Robert Greenberg, simply doesn’t get this oratorio. There is much more there than Greenberg acknowledges. Kudos to McGuire for bringing that out. And it was a good call to devote an entire lecture to that familiar but fascinating branch of sacred music, Christmas carols. The course is not without its distractions. For one, the Handel oratorio recordings that Prof. McGuire uses come from that odious school of thought that Wagner knew Handel better than Handel. They are ponderous and painfully slow. Granted, well into the 1970s such plodding interpretations were all you could hear, and many music consumers prefer them even today. But if you’re like me and prefer your Handel light and agile the way he meant it, you may find yourself fast-forwarding. I can’t agree with criticism of Prof. McGuire’s singing voice. It’s strong, sonorous, well-trained, and always on pitch. It’s an outstanding choral voice. But it’s not a solo voice, and I do agree that there were a few places where a professional recording would have been the better choice. More problematic are some persistent nails-on-chalkbord mispronunciations. A man who throws up an Italian accent on “Monteverdi” and “Giovanni Gabrieli” must surely know that basso continuo is not pronounced “bah-zo” in any language. And how do you get through advanced degrees in musicology at Harvard and land a job at the Oberlin Conservatory, and still think that Handel rhymes with “rondel”? In modern-day English Handel sounds exactly like “handle.” If you’re trying for a German pronunciation (or 18th-century English), it’s “Hendel,” which - as Prof. McGuire must have noticed when reviewing historical documents - is the spelling the London press preferred during Handel’s lifetime. Since Prof. McGuire comes back to Handel in pretty much every lecture, prepare to get “Hondled” to death. The good news is that the content is worth the annoyances. From Monteverdi to Elgar and many points in between, if you are interested in Christian music from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical or Romantic era, you will want this course.
Date published: 2020-10-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Deep understanding Amazing knowledge about music structure and history of development
Date published: 2020-08-09
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Lacked music The course was disappointing in that often the music that was being talked about was not played. To be fully enjoyed you need to have access to another source to hear the pieces in their entirety.
Date published: 2019-06-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Heavenly Music From childhood sacred music has been part of the texture of my life. After 35 years in ministry it is more important than ever. From the first lecture examining the importance of the word Alleluia and its setting through more than 1000 years from chant to 20th century choral settings, the lecturer not only explained the musicality, but the importance of the word and its expression and how the composers focused the listener's attention and magnified the meaning of the text through the score. You will be delighted as you explore or are exposed to great works, great ideas and great music in this course.
Date published: 2019-04-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from REALLY??? Did he just say Haaaaahndel instead of Haendel? Really? And not just once. L You've lost all credibility with me, when the instructor can't even pronounce the composer's name. And not an obscure composer, either. Sorry, GreatCourses. You blew it with this one.
Date published: 2019-03-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Good Introduction to Sacred Music To be fair, I have to say that this topic is difficult to do justice to, even in 16 lectures. I thought the instructor was knowledgeable and his background in musicology and liturgy enabled him to have great insights. The best lectures were on Bach and Handel. The other lectures were informative, but he did not have time to do the same kind of analysis. I think because I am familiar with sacred music, I expected more than the course was designed to do. I think it is a good introduction and exposes the listener to the historical and musical development over the centuries.
Date published: 2019-02-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from More than one I have purchased several courses recently and am enjoying all the lectures
Date published: 2019-01-16
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing Too much talk and not enough music. Also , irritating mispronunciation of Handel. Too much reference to presenter’s personal experiences.
Date published: 2018-12-29
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