Music to Long By: A Brief Meditation on Palestrina’s”Sicut Cervus”

Last week I pondered the highly spiritual and almost charismatic quality of Gregorian Chant, which, in its fully developed elaborations and melismas captures a deep sighing and yearning for God. It is a kind of singing in tongues which draws the worshipper into deep worship of a contemplative kind. The “long”  elaborations express a “longing” of the soul for deep union with God. 

The great tradition of Renaissance Polyphony also shows forth a lot of this longing. Some have traced the origins of the polyphony to a kind of musical representation of an ancient philosophy known as the “music of the spheres.” The Ancient Greek Philosophy of Plato, Pythagoras  and many others had been “rediscovered” in the Middle Ages. Among the cosmological theories they advanced was that as the planets swept through the solar system they each made a perfect tone that together created a wonderful and perfect celestial harmony. In the 16th Century Kepler and others reintroduced this ancient cosmology. This may have been one of factors that influenced the sound of Renaissance Polyphony which captured the sounds of heaven and brought them to earth for the faithful to contemplate and pray with. Much of it is highly mystical and can assist deep prayer and express great longing for God.

One of the great musical masterpieces of the Church is Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus (Like the deer that yearns). The song beautifully depicts a musical “sigh” As the notes soar the longing builds and you can hear the choir giving an almost perfect expression of the human yearning for God . The song comes to a peaceful end on a note of hope that one day we shall see God. The text of this song is from Psalm 42:1. Here is the text and then the translation: 

Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.

As the deer longs for running water, so longs my soul for you, O God. 

 Enjoy this musical masterpiece that so beautifully captures our longing and sigh along with the choir which is The Cathedral Singers Directed by Richard Proulx (RIP).

12 Replies to “Music to Long By: A Brief Meditation on Palestrina’s”Sicut Cervus””

  1. Absolutely beautiful; almost painfully beautiful. The sense of longing is deep and nearly overwhelming. I am familiar with Palestrina and you have described the sound of his piece perfectly. Thank you for providing this clip – I’m going to go look for my old record album now…

  2. Yesterday evening, my 3rd-grader came with me to Adoration (the bribe: an opportunity to ride bicycles to church).

    As we came in, the deacon had Christian soft rock playing on the tape recorder.

    c: (glowering toward the tape recorder) Is that ROCK music?
    Me: I suppose so.
    c: Are you supposed to have that in CHURCH?
    Me: Well, it’s about Jesus.
    c: I don’t think there’s supposed to be that kind of music for this (Adoration).
    Me: Would you rather listen to the Spooky Monk Music (as she has dubbed Gregorian Chant)?
    c: Actually, yes.

    This from a child who always requests rock music when we’re in the car. She has definite ideas about what is Church Music, and what isn’t.

  3. Llegué a tu blog y descubrí bastantes cosas interesantes. Hace varios minutos que estoy viendo tus artículos. Tu dirección ya está en mi Google Reader. Si no estás haciendo nada interesante, comenta en mi sitio. Saludos!

  4. Lovely rendition, Great pictures! I Just had the experience of singing this today in the Chorale at St Patrick’s RC Church, Huntington NY under direction of the promising Matt Kourus. Very appropriate for today’s readings. Many thanks for posting this selction! Great coments. Truely, this is “Music of the Spheres” that can help bring people closer to God! God bless your work!

  5. My parish, St. Michael the Archangel in Scranton, PA has the most beautiful polyphonic choir. When they sing this piece, I cannot keep myself from crying from the sheer beauty of the music. If you are ever able to attend Good Friday in the Scranton, PA area, go to this church. The choir is magnificent.

    here’s a link…


  6. Dropped into your site by chance, to be treated to the choir’s lovely interpretation of this justifiably lauded piece. Pity it wasn’t followed up with the shorter ‘sitivit’ (text below) with which it was paired for the (now hugely truncated) liturgy for Holy Saturday. For me personally, the definitive version is a 1994 recording by Pro Cantione Antiqua under Mark Brown which I think is still available on CD (Allegro). It gives the full richness of each part, especially the bass, with a degree of balance which is truly extraordinary. The whole performance is a thing of penetrating beauty, and well worth searching out.
    – Sitivit anima mea ad deum vivum. Quando veniam et apparebo ante faciem dei? Fuerunt mihi lacrimae meae panes die ac nocte, dum dicitur mihi quotidie : “Ubi es deus tuus?”
    – My soul hath thirsted for the living God. When shall I come and appear before the face of God ? My tears have been my bread by day and night, while daily they say unto me : “Where is your God?”
    Hope this page remains available for a while yet!

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