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!

 

 

 

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

  1. “ …musical genius evident in the sacred music of the Christian tradition. Perhaps you know of other examples of musical onomatopoeia … ??”

    (on-o-mat-o-poe-ia). I Vaguely REMEMBER that sound! But unlike past genius- evidence(s) of sacred SOUNDING ‘musical notes’ played with yesterdays fingers; today, those sounds can be PLAYED on machines, with no ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’!

    My POINT: “SACRED” cannot be ripped out of a machine, to SOUND ever so GENIUS … No MORE than “hip-hop” notes cannot be considered Charismatic!
    African musical BEATS are not of Christian genius! They are CULTURAL collection of events SHARED to benefit THEIR communities! And like Catholic sacred songs, you and MY CHURCH, still insist that “ONOMATOPEIA MUSIC” has no roots!

    Contemporary musicians/composers have no place at the church’s table! It’s SAD … because there are so many Catholic “MUSICANS” who’s GIFTS crumble at the feet of those who WANT TO WORSHIP in “catholic” Houses-of-G_D!

    martine estrada

  2. “ …musical genius evident in the sacred music of the Christian tradition. Perhaps you know of other examples of musical onomatopoeia … ??”

    (on-o-mat-o-poe-ia). I Vaguely REMEMBER that sound! But unlike past genius- evidence(s) of sacred SOUNDING ‘musical notes’ played with yesterdays fingers; today, those sounds can be PLAYED on machines, with no ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’!

    My POINT: “SACRED” cannot be ripped out of a machine, to SOUND ever so GENIUS … No MORE than “hip-hop” notes cannot be considered Charismatic!
    African musical BEATS are not of Christian genius! They are CULTURAL collection of events SHARED to benefit THEIR communities! And like Catholic sacred songs, you and MY CHURCH, still insist that “ONOMATOPEIA MUSIC” has no roots!

    Contemporary musicians/composers have no place at the church’s table! It’s SAD … because there are so many Catholic “MUSICANS” who’s GIFTS crumble at the feet of those who WANT TO WORSHIP in “catholic” Houses-of-G_D!

    martine estrada (619) 400-3486

  3. Thank you for this!

    Last week, at schola practice, as we prepared to celebrate the consecration of the local cathedral, the distinct knocking of “pulsanti” in the Communio (St. Matthew 7:8) drew our attention. It is striking how often such onomatopoeia and ‘word painting’ happens in Gregorian Propers, sometimes more boldly, sometimes more subtly – for instance, the circling of “in circuitu” in the Offertorium (Psalm 33:8) on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost/Hebdomada XX. It is a joy to watch for such things and allow time to discuss them together, in the hope of letting all hear them in the Mass.

  4. God bless Msgr for this most edifying break from bad news and anxiety. this is refreshing. May our Lord reward you.

  5. Thank you so much!!! This is my kind of music. I was trained in classical music but since I have been bed-ridden I have been unable to play my cello in any way. But I still love sacred music best of all. It lifts my soul to heaven. God bless you for your priesthood, your ministry, your columns, your musical ability, and for sharing these classics. Keep on sharing!

  6. Another example can be found in Francisco Feo’s setting of the Passion according to St. John. In fact, there are two I can recall. In the opening verses speaking of the entrance of the disciples to the Kedron Valley, the music is written to sound like a bubbling brook (“torrentem Cedron”). Later, at the denial of St. Peter there is a distinct cock crow. This is such a fun characteristic of music from this time period, thank you for this article.

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