The Great Works of Sacred Music

Course No. 7316
Professor of Musicology Charles Edward McGuire , Ph.D.
Oberlin College
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3.9 out of 5
38 Reviews
73% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 7316
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  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. The audio can be enjoyable and comprehensible as the professor cites works he is singing and is detailed in the discussion of the works. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, diagrams, illustrations, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version features approximately 170 illustrations and images, such as graphics, texts of foreign terms, and photos of churches and cathedrals, as well as on-screen text to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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What Will You Learn?

  • Trace the roots of sacred music, beginning with the history of chant and how it evolved into polyphony.
  • Delve into the religious reformations of the 16th century, and see how the underlying theology shaped sacred music.
  • Study how composers mixed sacred styles with secular genres like opera to create music that was reverent and modern.
  • Look the profound influence of sacred music on Bach, Handel, Mozart, and more.
  • 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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  • 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 3.9 out of 5 by 38.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from ok but not great I found the course fairly weak. It flew over topics before Handel. And focused on classical composers we all know anyway. There is a lot more to say about Gregorian Chant and its role in the monastery and churches. And polyphony. And how the protestant reformation changed all the later. What was Luther and the other reformers up to? Where did they get the music we now know? How did all that evolve. The council of Trent did a lot more to music then discussed. More on Tallas and Palestrini and their work. The rest is well covered in other courses.
Date published: 2018-04-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This is truly a college level course in sacred music. I will go back and take notes. So far I have not seen references to commercial music sources for music played.
Date published: 2017-10-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Unable to Watch Instructor reads his material very well. The camera direction and the instructor's following of the camera is very distracting. I had to do other things while "listening" to the lectures. And did he really have to sing?? These are the things I think of first before thinking of the information presented. But then, I've been spoiled by Professor Greenberg's lectures.
Date published: 2017-08-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very Interesting & Informative Despite my tin ear I enjoyed this course tremendously. The historical background and commentary on the composers was quite interesting. Somebody more into actual music would certainly get more out of the professor’s remarks about the various styles of the music. My reluctance to give five stars is because of the poor closed captioning.
Date published: 2017-08-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful overview of the history of Sacred Music This course is presented by Professor Charles Edward McGuire of Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. In it he traces the history of sacred music from the monastery to the church to the concert hall, showing how the styles of music have both evolved over time, but at the same time they have reached back into the past, using the styles and techniques of the past, to present a fresh musical performance in the present. He brings out the very interesting point that, until the Reformation, singing in church was by the monks, not by the people, and one of the great innovations that Luther and the reformers brought in was to bring the singing to the people as participation, rather than simply reception. He focuses primarily on "Great Music" (Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, etc.) and also points out that, over time, these men did not write their music for church worship, but for public presentation (and income!). And yet, even though performed in the concert hall, the religiously edifying benefit of the music was expected – even demanded, and if it wasn't received, it was protested against. This is a very interesting course, very informative (and at the end I picked O come, O come Emanuel as being in the form of a chant), although it would have been good if he had also gone into the history of hymnody, but maybe that would have made it too long. Perhaps they will do another one.
Date published: 2017-07-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Course for the Faithful and Skeptical Professor McGuire presents a fine course on Sacred Music that any lover of choral music should take, regardless of her religious bent. After an almost obligatory introductory lecture with a predictable focus on Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus and an unexpected inclusion of Elgar he shifts to an historical approach toward sacred music, beginning with chants and ending with sacred music of the 19th century. The last lecture shifts from the historical narrative to an overview of Christmas music. The lectures include excerpts of the music that he discusses and he sometimes sings an excerpt, usually with the score included as a subtitle. A welcome aid (at least for me) was that he often played an excerpt several times, emphasizing the portions that illustrated his teaching points. This really helped me to hear specific things that I missed the first time through. So what is not to like? For starters, it is hard to not compare Professor McGuire to Dr. Robert Greenberg (at least if you have listened to as many of Greenberg’s course as have I). To be sure Greenberg’s presentation style is controversial, but Professor McGuire, though knowledgeable and through, lacks humor and passion. Clearly he does love his subject, but that love does not come through to the viewer and I’d love at least one or two bits of humor to lighten the mood. Professor McGuire acknowledges that copyright restrictions keep him from exploring contemporary music, but I’d spend a few more dollars so he could expand the course to the 20th and 21st centuries. While I did not expect anything other than Christian music, “sacred” music consists of much more than this one area. Overall, the lecture format and aids are quite helpful and sufficient to overcome the few drawbacks. I was especially pleased with the lecture centering on Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”, a work with which I was unfamiliar. The only bad news is that I now have another piece to purchase. The historical flow, usually setting the music in its historical and cultural context was quite effective. A must course for choral music fans. Others might be bored, but I expect that this course is self-selecting.
Date published: 2017-03-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from One mis-pronunciation colors my opinion of course This is not really a review but a comment. Handel has an umlaut above the H and is pronounced Handel to rhyme with HAND not Hahndel to rhyme with JOHN. Every time I hear the professor do this - and it seems Handel's name is brought up in every lesson - I cringe. Otherwise, the course is fairly dry and a lot less interesting than the subject warrants.
Date published: 2017-01-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Theory and History This course is highly suitable to listen to and learn from when the mind needs something because the hands are engaged in the routine. The professor presents the information in a stylistically dense manner, but successfully keeps it from being overwhelming by cleverly blending music theory with anecdotal history, speech with song with instrumentation, and reverent enthusiasm for the subject with amusement at its foibles. Chiefly, this course concerned itself with the history of sacred music in Christianity, as developed from the Middle Ages to the late 1800s. (If anyone was looking to this course for information on a world scale, it might prove a disappointment not to hear devotional music from, say, India, where there was also something of a patronage system, but the professor's biography makes very clear what his specialties are so disappointment is avoidable.) The professor went to a lot of effort to make the course accessible to someone who has not studied music, by relying on concepts applicable across many subjects, diligently defining all musical terms, and freely singing demonstrations of his points where possible and supplying high quality sound clips where necessary. He has a lovely voice. Within the last fifteen minutes of every lecture, he makes certain to stretch the listener a little, by discussing a work uncommonly known or by introducing an unfamiliar anecdote or contemporaneous composer. Over the set of lectures, he builds a cohesive picture of how sacred music moved out of the monasteries, developed institutional and personal patronage, became beloved entertainment, and survived the diminish mentioned of the patronage system. Most of the lectures follow certain composers through time, showing the influences upon and development of their work. The whole treatment puts a wonderfully personal face on music history. Surprisingly, I learned more music theory from this course than I did from an entire year's class I spent on the subject. The professor of these lectures, while focusing on history, deftly wove the basics of melody, polyphony, intervals, time signature, key, and symmetry into the very first three lectures. It took me a while to realize I was learning about it. Bravo! After that, he freely (and slyly) mentioned what characteristics defined the sounds of different musical styles, showing how they built from and referenced each other. It made perfect sense. This set of courses is one that I would recommend for any library, and hope will end up in most high schools and undergraduate colleges.
Date published: 2016-11-20
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