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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  • Download 16 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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  • Download 16 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
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DVD Includes:
  • 16 lectures on 4 DVDS
  • 152-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 152-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Suggested listening

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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 4 out of 5 by from Missing some music! The idea behind this course is excellent and the presentation thorough and scholarly. It fills a major gap in the range of Great Courses on music. I am learning a lot from it and enjoying it. There is just one drawback: the general absence of written music to illustrate the points the Professor highlights with regard to the recordings he plays. I am a quarter of the way through the course and have already encountered a number of places where an image of the score for the music would perfectly explain the point the Professor is trying to illustrate. But instead one simply sees a screen with the title of the piece and no more, while music is being played which the Professor himself occasionally says is difficult to understand merely by listening to without the score in front of you! There seems to be a tendency with the later Great Courses musical offerings to avoid presenting scores, although in his very effective early courses Professor Greenberg always had plenty of music to read while listening to the recordings. (His "WordScores" were a brilliant combination of verbal explanations and musical notation!) It is difficult to understand what the point of excluding musical scores in a music course is: those who can read music would benefit enormously from them, and those who cannot read music would be no worse off, since they would simply do what they would be doing anyway and just listen. Excluding written music is particularly inexplicable these days when computerised music notation programs allow active presentation of the music, with cursors moving over the notes while the music is played, and with the possibilty of highlighting different parts and sections in different colors. Not exploiting that possibility is a weakness in some of the Great Courses' most recent musical offerings and it unnecssarily diminishes their value to serious students of music.
Date published: 2016-01-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Boring One must try real hard to kill such a fascinating subject, yet professor manages to pull it off without a hitch. The right facts are presented, in the right sequence, proper pieces of music are played or sung, yet the narration is as plain and boring as it gets. The course is more of anatomical dissection in chronological order.. It is neither exciting nor inspirational. It's not all that bad, but it doesn't hold a candle to any of Prof.Greenberg's courses. So there you have it.
Date published: 2016-01-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Worthy Course This is the fifth music appreciation course I have taken from the Great Courses. I had no experience with music appreciation before beginning my education through these series of lectures. If you are like me and have little or no musical background, then I do not recommend starting with this particular course because the professor assumes some basic knowledge of terminology and music history. I strongly recommend beginning with Professor Greenberg's How to Listen to and Understand Great Music course before moving on to this one. If I have a complaint about this particular course, it would be that it is too short. The main topic omitted, which the professor openly admits, is music designed for congregational singing. In other words, this course focuses on music designed to be sung to the audience rather than music to be sung by the audience. So, this course omits most familiar religious songs commonly heard in church services. I wish the course was expanded to include enough lectures to incorporate this topic. That being said, this is still a wonderful course, and I learned a great deal such as the history of Handel's Messiah and Haydn's Creation. I purposely timed when I listened to this course so I could listen to the last lecture close to Christmas. The last lecture is by far the best and is dedicated to the history of Christmas music. The professor does a great job explaining the development of the Christmas music tradition.
Date published: 2015-12-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Smart Course Offering. Highly Recommended. Review: Audio Download format of 'Sacred Music' course. Reviewer: Satisfied student of multiple Great Courses #Greeks, Philosophy, Intellectual History, Literature and Music#. Semi-religious devotion to the music of Bach & Mozart with decent knowledge of that oeuvre. Lover of sacred music but with big gaps and lots of questions in that genre. Big fan of Prof Greenberg, who changed my life for the better by introducing me to the Teaching Company. Having often pondered what a Great Course in the Music field would be like without Prof Greenberg, I was somewhat hesitant to purchase this course. Prof Greenberg is the voice of musically orientated great courses, right! However, I REALLY wanted to know more about the Sacred Music tradition and so made the investment. I have not been disappointed. The course is not a survey or overview; it's a textured offering with lots to 'chew on' and will reward repeat listening. The course takes a new direction #and is all the better for it# in that professor McGuire is an accomplished vocalist and thus weaves sung text examples seamlessly into the lectures. I know Prof Greenberg occasionally played the piano but this is different. It's akin to Jonathan Biss' #Beethoven 32# Master class #Coursera# or Andras Schiff's Beethoven lecture series #Guardian Newspaper website#. Smaller scope than those performances but Prof McGuire has a fine performance-level voice. I now have a much better grasp of the sensitivities surrounding the clarity of sacred text presentation and the role of the choir versus congregation. The Papal-Lutheran bifurcation re; composition and performance was wonderfully clarified. I could go on but don't have the time. In summary, if the topic interests you and you have some semblance of awareness of the canonical cantatas, oratorios, masses & requiems, the course will be worthwhile. The course answered lots of questions I had and presented things I didn't know I didn't know - even with a #old# Grove Dictionary in my home library. The world of Great Courses Music with Prof Greenberg has been wonderful. It seems we're in good hands going forward as well. Thank you to Prof McGuire and the Great Course team and, more please!
Date published: 2015-11-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Not for light entertainment I have been an enthusiastic listener of classical music for decades, though I have only a limited formal education in music. My comfort zone, however, has always been instrumental music. More particularly chamber music from the classical period and onwards (plus Bach of course). I thought this course would be quite mind broadening since it is significantly out of this comfort zone. The music covered in this course is in many ways “orthogonal” to what I usually hear: first of all (obviously), its motivation is religious rather than secular, it is at least primarily (if not solely) vocal rather than instrumental, and most of the pieces discussed were on a monumental scale – hardly chamber music. The course basically follows the chronological evolution of Christian religious music from the middle ages to the beginning of the 20th century, following the changes in style and the changes in the role of religious music in relation to secular music. This course is not for easy listening. Professor McGuire provided quite in depth technical explanations to illustrate the music’s evolution. I found many of the discussions demanded quite a lot of effort to follow, not because of any fault of Professor McGuire’s – the material is quite challenging. Of course this is not something negative in and of itself, just something to be aware of. Hearing the course in the context of the evolution of Christianity across the eras was fascinating – particularly the impact that the reformation had on music. This was totally new to me… Another interesting aspect that is analyzed is the sociological evolution of the composers as time evolved – how they made a living and who were their patrons. I found the music itself to be absolutely wonderful, though this I guess is totally a matter of taste. I did not particularly enjoy the Professor’s teaching style. On the one hand the lectures were methodical and clear, and the content was interesting and well presented. On the other hand, there was no hint of humor and the lectures seemed heavy and simply not very entertaining. Surely even such a serious topic can taught with a bit of a lighter touch... Still, I learned quite a lot on a topic I knew almost nothing about, so the course was worth the effort.
Date published: 2015-10-31
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