The Genius of Sacred Music as Heard in Seven Musical “Onomatopoeias”

Do you remember the meaning of the literary term onomatopoeia? In case you’ve forgotten, it’s a word that sounds like the object it describes. Words like oink, meow, wham, sizzle, and my personal favorite: yackety-yak are examples of onomatopoeia.

There are times when music, including sacred music, has an onomatopoetic quality; they sound like what their words are describing. For example, there are songs that describe the crucifixion featuring hammer blows in the background, and songs about the resurrection and ascension that feature notes soaring up the scale.

The best way to understand musical onomatopoeia is to listen to examples of it. So, consider the eight examples of sacred music I present below, which powerfully take up the very sound of what the words are describing.

N.B. The clips below are meant to be played by an embedded player. If your browser does not support such a player, clicking directly on the source hyperlinks to link directly to the MP3 files.

This first clip is from the vespers of Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville, a French composer who lived in the 1700s. In his treatment of the text of Psalm 126 Nisi Dominus (unless the Lord build the house) comes the line sicut sagittae in manu potentiae ita filii (like arrows in the hand of the mighty, thus are his children). This is a psalm that praises the gift of children and goes on to declare, “Blessed is the man who has filled his quiver with them!” In this short clip, the text sicut sagittae (like arrows) thrillingly depicts the sound of arrows flying forth. The sound is created both by the strings and the voices. As you listen, marvel at the vocal discipline required of the choir to create this musical onomatopoeia.

Source: Mondonville Grands Motets, Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra

Could you hear the arrows flying forth?

The second clip continues in a kind of battle-like mode. It is from the oratorio “Jepthe” by Giacomo Carissimi, who lived in the 1600s. It recalls the Old Testament story of Jepthe, one the Judges who ruled Israel prior to the monarchy. Jepthe is summoned to battle against the Ammonites and wins a great victory, only to fall into the grave sin of keeping an evil vow that leads to the death of his only daughter. The clip we will hear is from the battle scene in the oratorio. The Latin text is Fugite, fugite, cedite, cedite impii, corruite, et in furore galdii, dissipamini! (Flee, flee, yield, yield, impious ones, be scattered, in the furor of swords we strike you down!) You’ll hear pulsing sounds from the choir and strings, reminiscent of the sound of clashing swords and spears. The rushing sounds of the strings also paint a picture of a fleeing army. The sudden softening of the volume of the choir creates the image of an army that has fled and is now off in the distance.

Source: Carissimi, Oratorios. Chamber Choir And Orchestra Of The Gulbenkian Foundation Of Lisbon/Michel Corboz Dir.

Our third musical onomatopoeia is probably the best known of all the clips presented here. It is from Handel’s Messiah. The text says, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Sure enough, the music sounds just like what the words describe as the choir creates a meandering sound. One can almost hear and see the sheep going astray.

Source Messiah: London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra & Walter Süsskind

And while we are considering animals, our fourth clip is a musical onomatopoeia that imitates the sound of a cock crowing. It is from the motet “Vigilate” by William Byrd. The text of the Motet is from Mark’s Gospel (13:35-37), in which the Lord Jesus, Vigilate, nescitis enim quando dominus domus veniat, sero, an media nocte, an gallicantu, an mane (Watch! For you know not when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, at the cock crow or morning). The excerpt is of the choir singing the words an gallicantu (at cock crow). Just see if the music sung doesn’t imitate the very sound of a cock crowing (cock-a-doodle-doo)! It begins in the men’s voices but becomes clearest in the treble voices at the end.

Source: The Tallis Scholars Sing William Byrd, Peter Phillips Dir.

The fifth clip depicts a common technique in Orchestral Masses. At the words crucifixus etiam pro nobis (and He was also crucified for us), the orchestra takes up the sound of hammer blows. The clip is from the Beethoven Mass in C. Listen especially to the deep bass and cello sounds and the hammer blows they bring to mind.

Source Beethoven Mass in C Robert Shaw; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus

Our sixth clip moves us from war and suffering to love. It is Palestrina’s treatment of a text from the Song of Songs. The Latin text is Surge amica mea (Arise my beloved). As the word surge (arise) is sung by the various voices, the notes soar high through the scale. (The sopranos reach the highest notes, of course.)

Source: Palestrina: Missa Aeterna Christi Munera, James O’Donnell & Westminster Cathedral Choir.

The seventh clip is from a well-known motet by Thomas Luis Victoria, a Spanish priest, mystic, and composer of the 16th century. The Latin text is O Magnum Mysterium (O Great Mystery). The overall text develops the idea of the paradoxical mystery that animals would witness the birth of Christ and see him rest in their feed box (manger). In the opening bars, hollow fifths evoke the very mystery of which the text speaks. Victoria’s mystical prayer resonates through this wonderful piece.

Source: Missa O Magnum Mysterium. The Choir of Westminster.

Our eighth and final clip bring us to Jericho and another battle scene, this one thrillingly set forth in the arrangement of the African-American spiritual “The Battle Jericho” by Moses Hogan. We hear the percussive intensity of a battle during the siege of the walls and the likely use of arrows and swords. A soprano soloist takes up the sound of the trumpet that the Lord directed to be sounded. And then the choir imitates the sound of falling with their final word, “Down!”

Source: The Spirituals, Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

So, then, here is a brief tour of musical genius evident in the sacred music of the Christian tradition. Perhaps you know of other examples of musical onomatopoeia!




7 Replies to “The Genius of Sacred Music as Heard in Seven Musical “Onomatopoeias””

  1. Thanks for another great post, Monsignor. Another example of this in the Credo of settings by Haydn. The phrase “et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam” (And I believe in one holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church” is always sung in unison.

  2. Mgr Charles – another rousing post!
    Writing as a professional musician, for most of my musical life playing violin in orchestras and my own string quartet, I can confirm that, for a Christian in music performance, there is nothing more stirring than not only just listening to, but actually being ‘within’ the sound and being a part of it, especially in the great Sacred choral pieces that people like myself have been blessed to perform many times over in their lives.
    Handel’s very worthy ‘Messiah’ is, of course, probably one of the greatest. I can remember playing my very first professional ‘Messiah’, (that is, I received a fee for it!) at the great old age of 14 in Romsey Abbey in the south of England, not very far from where I live. I recall only too well the surge upwards in my soul as I was part of the performance of ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’, with it’s piercing obligato played by that very same instrument!
    Also the total certainty of the musical representation of utter faith in the aria, ‘I Know That My Redeemer Liveth’, where the ‘I know’ is presented by the clear and confident violin and voice playing and singing a perfect fourth from ‘B’ to ‘E’ in the key of E major. And who could fail to be thrilled by the shimmering semi-quavers of the strings at the coming of the Heavenly Host to the shepherds in ‘And Suddenly There Was With The Angel’!
    But – whilst there are myriad onomatopoeic moments scattered throughout sacred music, what really does it for me is, in Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’, almost at the end, (or should I say ‘beginning!) after his judgement, the wonderfully evocative orchestral writing as the soul of Gerontius is singing, ‘Take me away, so that sooner I may rise and go above, and see Him in the truth of everlasting day’.
    Whenever I perform it – and I’m still doing so, at 71! – I am totally reassured of my eventual resting place with The Lord. As Elgar lovers will already know, this deeply spiritual work ends with the wonderful and eternal song –
    “Praise To The Holiest In The Height!!” Amen!
    God bless all.

  3. Handel’s Alleluia – The soaring of Angels and their flapping wings, with the believers holding the Angels’ hands toward the great heights, depths and breadth of The INFINITE. Profundissimus. Profundesten. Le plus Profund.
    Thanks Monsignor, this article opens the mind and heart to the good, the beautiful and the truth.

  4. This is a very though filled post. Heinichen who was a baroque composer in Dresden in his Lamentations has music that sounds like Christ being scourged. The bass voice is that of Christ singing of his sorrow. Truely moving. That is why I find modern music like goats bleating. Just packaged guff that is aped with no real reason except fashion.

  5. Excellent! One of my favorites: “Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen” from Bach’s St John Passion, imitating the rolling of the dice for Christ’s robe.

  6. I loved this post and the music. I used to be a cellist before I became disabled and was so moved by this music which would lift my spirits to the heavens. thanks for making me aware of these texts. We use to sing this kind of music in college but that was 40 years ago. This was so inspirational and the kind of music we need in churches to lift up our hearts to God. Thanks as always for your fatherly wisdom. I thank God for you!

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