MUSIC: How do You Sing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus? by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

How do You Sing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus? by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

How do you sing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy)?  How do you approach in music the one whose glory fills Heaven and Earth?  Do you sing it the way Bach does in his Mass in B Minor with the choir nearly shouting the word to the accompaniment of tympani and trumpets?  I was moved to ask this question when I preached in a service of worship that featured the Requiem of Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998).  I had grown up listening to Bach’s Mass on recordings, and although since then I have heard and preached on many other settings of the Sanctus, it is Bach’s monumental treatment that rings most stubbornly in memory’s ear.  So when I first listened to Schnittke’s setting, it took my breath away since the big, muscular sound of many of the Requiem’s earlier movements let me to expect a late twentieth-century version of Bach’s grandeur.  Instead, Schnittke’s Sanctus begins with a solo tenor who softly sings a tender, flowing melody.  Next, tenor and sopranos sing the same melody in canon, and then the word Sanctus (Holy) is repeated again and again to a weeping motif, a little three-note pattern, a soft-repeated sob.  The sob accompanies the tenors as they sing “Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.”

The symbolic visions in the Biblical book of Revelation attest that the song, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” is more than a song of Earth.  It is also the song of Heaven.  According to the eucharistic prayer of many traditions, angels and archangels and the whole company of Heaven sing the Sanctus.  Therefore, whenever a composer sets the Sanctus, the music suggests something about the ultimate nature of reality, telling us what it sounds like at the deep dear core of things.

Whether or not Schnittke intended it, singing the word holy as a sob suggests that part of God’s holiness is God’s identification with human sorrow.  Such an empathic understanding of holiness is in deep harmony with the Christian affirmation that the glory of God is revealed through the Word made flesh, a human being named Jesus, who fully identifies with our brokenness and sorrow.  In its original Biblical meaning, the holiness of God indicates that God is separate and radically different from us.  While God is holy, humanity is unholy, broken, and fragmented – or, to use the word that has fallen to the wayside of common usage, sinful.  In the presence of the Holy One, what else can human creatures do but sing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus to tympani and drums, to music grand and monumental.  We need Bach’s setting to remind us of the infinite qualitative difference that separates us and God.

But I am also profoundly grateful to Schnittke, whose Sanctus reveals to me an entirely different mode of praying, of being, of approaching the mystery that lies at the heart of all things.  His setting suggests another equally important dimension of the divine: God is not only utterly and completely different from us, but God also identifies with our brokenness and sorrow.  God weeps with us who weep and mourn, and those tears are part of holiness just as much as God’s separateness is part of holiness.  This is the theological reason that communities of faith need a broad-based repertoire: to keep us in touch with the fullness of God.

If you are not theologically inclined, you can still draw on these insights to consider how your music will engage the fullness of the human spirit.  Whatever your creed or non-creed, let the tympani and drums, as well as the weeping motifs, sound through a rich and varied repertoire that can nurture the fullness of the human soul, from celebratory wonder to grief.

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