Music and Religion:
Agnus Dei: Grant us Peace

170px-Stained_glass_Agnus_DeiIn the late 7th century, a chant associated with the breaking of the community bread was added to the Ordinary of the Roman Mass. The name of this new chant “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God) originates in the Gospel of John, where John the Baptist upon seeing Jesus exclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The full text consists of three acclamations, each beginning with the words “Agnus Dei,” with the final statement concluding with the words “dona nobis pacem” (grant us peace.) This official text was frequently subjected to elaborations and additions, and numerous melodies emerged during the Middle Ages.

Gregorian Chant: Mass for Easter Day, “Agnus Dei”

The words of the “Agnus Dei” sound the themes of sacrifice and of adoration. John Calvin wrote that “in his trial before Pilate and while at Herod’s Court Jesus could have argued for his innocence, but instead remained mostly quiet and submitted to Crucifixion in obedience to the Father, for he knew his role as the Lamb of God.” In Christian iconography, an “Agnus Dei” is a visual representation of Jesus as a lamb. A banner displaying a cross rests on the lamb’s shoulder, and is held by its right foreleg. Occasionally, the lamb is bleeding from the area of the heart, symbolizing that Jesus shed his blood to take away the sins of the world.

Josquin des Prez: Missa Hercules dux Ferrariae, “Agnus Dei”

Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez

The Catholic tradition in England is represented by William Byrd, who served as a musician through the turbulent religious changes of the sixteenth century. Byrd’s compositions for the Catholic liturgy were severely restricted, as Catholics were actively hunted, persecuted and executed. In 1605 he was forced to withdraw his Gradualia, a collection of motets based on the Roman Catholic liturgy, from publication. He was prosecuted on several occasions for absenting from Anglican services. Since Queen Elizabeth actively protected Byrd, however, none of these cases ever made it to trial. Only three of his mass settings have survived, all published under royal license in 1590.

William Byrd: Mass a 4, “Agnus Dei”

William Byrd

William Byrd

For 10 years, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1765-1790) implemented a number of drastic political reforms throughout the Habsburg Monarchy. Although Joseph loved music — for one he commissioned Mozart to compose the Abduction from the Seraglio — he dissolved over 500 monasteries and forbade the use of the orchestra in church music. As such, Mozart and Haydn had to wait until his death in 1790 to once again compose settings of the liturgy with full orchestral accompaniment. In 1798, Haydn completed once of his most dramatic and emotional sacred compositions, the so-called “Nelson Mass.” The connection with the English admiral is derived from the fact that it was first performed after news of Nelson’s victory over Napoleon’s fleet.

Franz Joseph Haydn: Mass No. 11 in D minor, “Nelson Mass” – Agnus Dei: Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi
Agnus Dei: Dona nobis pacem

Beginning in the New Year, we will explore musical settings celebrating Mary, mother of Christ. Happy 2014!!!

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