“Heaven and earth are full of your glory”

Last week at my church, Burlington Baptist Church, in Ipswich, I led opening worship with our small worship band, using the 19th century hymn “Holy, holy, holy” by Reginald Heber, leading straight into Nathan Fellingham’s setting of the same words, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty…Lift up his name with the sound of singing. We have done this often and it works really well. I talked about the worship of heaven, using words from Revelation 4 (how else was anyone supposed to understand all that stuff about the ‘glassy sea’!?).  I also talked about the communion of saints, something we sing about in the Hillsong song This I believe (“I believe in the saints communion”) although I can’t help imagining the saints sitting in pews with halos,  while St Peter and rest of heavenly deacons bring the tray of individual communion glasses around with little bits of bread on silver trays sat on top.

Yes, I do often talk too much in opening worship.

This week someone mentioned on twitter the wonderful recording by Paul McCreesh of Michael Praetorius’ Mass for Christmas Morning 1620, which I discovered last year – and so I listened to it again.  I know it’s too early, but it’s almost Advent and I can get away with it at home as long as the tunes are not too obviously Christmassy.

Of course to the worshippers in 1620 they were very obviously Christmassy, and McCreesh has assembled a congregation to sing the Lutheran Christmas hymns (Vom Himmel Hoch and the like) with gusto and enthusiasm. Wonderful congregational worship – you have to admire Luther’s ability to get his congregation singing with marvellous words grounded in scripture aimed at catechising his congregation, set to really singable tunes.  Contemporary song writers could learn a thing or two here!

Trying to find out more, I discovered a set of slides explaining more about the CD [3]  In my listening I had got to the Sanctus motet in the Christmas morning mass setting, setting words of Martin Luther, Jesaja, dem Propheten das geschah, the German Sanctus, and as I read the words, and listened to the music I was overwhelmed.

First some history and context.

This paraphrase of Isaiah 6:1-4, in rhymed couplets for ease of congregational singing, was first published in Luther’s Deutsche Messe of 1526 entitled “The German Sanctus.” [1].  In Luther’s German Mass, it was set of a modified version of a Sanctus plainchant, and although intended for congregational singing, it seems that choral performance even of the German version was still favoured by many churches [2].

Here is the full text with a translation/poetic rendering by George MacDonald

Jessia, dem Propheten, das geschah,
Unto the seer, Isaiah, it was given
Daß er im Geist den Herren sitzen sah
That, in the spirit, he saw the Lord of heaven
Auf einem hohen Thron in hellem Glanz,
Up on a lofty throne, in radiance bright;
Seines Kleides Saum den Chor füllet’ ganz.
The skirt of his garment filled the temple quite;
Es stunden zween Seraph bei ihm daran,
Two seraphs at his side were standing there;
Sechs Flügel sah er einen jeden han:
Six wings, he saw, each one of them did wear:
Mit zween verbargen sie ihr Antlitz klar,
Two over their bright visages did meet,
Mit zween bedeckten sie die Füße gar,
With two of them they covered up their feet,
Und mit den andern zween sie flogen frei.
And with the other twain abroad did fly.
Genander riefen sie mit großem G’schrei:
Each to the other called with a great cry,
Heilig ist Gott, der Herre Zebaoth! 
Holy is God, the Lord of Zebaoth!
Heilig ist Gott, der Herre Zebaoth! 
Heilig ist Gott, der Herre Zebaoth!
Sein’ Ehr’ die ganze Welt erfüllet hat.
His glory great the whole world filled hath.
Von dem G’schrei zittert’ Schwell’ und Balken gar,
At the loud cry the beams and threshold shook,
Das Haus auch ganz voll Rauchs und Nebel war.
And the whole house was full of cloud and smoke

Praetorius’ version is based on Luther’s plainsong adaptation and starts simply enough. But soon rises to some magnificent word painting, as Dave Kriewall explains in his excellent presentation on the whole Christmas Mass [3]:

“hohen Thron” (lofty throne) – high note
“sie flogen frei” (they flew freely; aloft they soared) – soaring high notes
“gegenander ruften sie” (one to the other called) – echo effects
“mit großem Geschrei” (with a great cry)
“Heilig ist Gott der Herre Zebaoth” (Holy is God, the Lord of Hosts) – starts simply, increasing complexity of the angels’ song as more and more join; can be in 3/4 (indicating Trinity)
“Sein Ehr die ganze Welt erfüllet hat.” (His Glory has filled the whole world.) – always in 4/4 (indicating the earth); massive sound to fill the space.
“Von dem Geschrei zittert Schwell und Balken gar” (Threshold and rafters shake with the cry) – massive sound to fill and seemingly shake the church. Similar to treatment of “mit großem Geschrei”
The tongue-twister:
“Das Haus auch ganz voll Rauchs und Nebels war.” (The house also was full of smoke and fog [haze].)
First, a rapid-fire overlapping repetition of the phrase; effect: musical smoke and fog!
Then, an awesome picture of the grandeur of the vision and the glory of God in his temple

One is truly left with a sense of joining with the worship of heaven in the most immediate way.

We rarely talk about heaven and earth joining together in worship, or the communion of saints, or indeed of the music of heaven, and yet this seems to me to be a wonderful truth, worthy of greater exploration. I wondered if Lutheran theologians of Praetorius’ time had a view on this. Praetorius was known as a deeply religious man who regretted not taking holy orders. The introduction to part III of his Syntagma Musicum II: De Organographia begins as follows:

There are those who believe it proper and right that, next to theology, the highest place should be accorded to music, since it is a beautiful and splendid gift of God, and provides an image of music in heaven, where God’s holy angels together with the entire heavenly host praise their creator without ceasing in gentle harmony, and sing “Holy, holy, holy is God, the Lord of Hosts.” [4]

Having started with the music of heaven, he goes on to talk about the music of the Old Testament, especially the music of David and Solomon, and concludes:

Thus church music, as a service to God, ought properly to be held in great esteem today as well, and to be celebrated with all due reverence.  [4]

Praetorius then, in writing his music, was conscious of both the music of heaven, and following in the traditions of the great Biblical musicians, especially King David himself.

Almost a century later, the debate continued, with a famous conflict between Mattheson and Buttstett over heavenly harmony which started in 1713 [5].

But, as Ruth Tatlow says:

The conflict over Harmony went far deeper…At stake was whether the earthly efforts of the Christian composer…would survive eternally, and how they might do so. [6]

While there was debate as to what music might be played in heaven, some at least believed that there would be music in heaven, possibly even the very music being written by the composers of the day.  That being the case, Ruth Tatlow is surely right:

That perfectly constructed and harmonically proportioned vocal and instrumental compositions would survive the Rapture and be played in the new heaven and new earth would have been a powerful motivating belief for the Lutheran composer [6]

Believing this, there would be a strong motivation to write music fit for heaven, using all the musical language of the day to embody as fully as possible, and perhaps even participate in, the heavenly worship.  The music would need to reflect and magnify as perfectly as the composer was able the Word Incarnate, i.e. both Jesus Himself, and his Word in the language of the people, in this case German.  For the composer to truly write Soli Deo Gloria with integrity at the end of his work, every note would need to intentionally celebrate the Glory of God, and not simply the glory of music. [7]

Where a composer aspires to this, as I believe Praetorius is doing here in this motet, using all the skill at his disposal, creating something for eternity itself, it is little wonder we feel something of the worship of heaven?

I wonder if our modern songwriters feel that they are creating music with eternal significance?


[1] Leaver, R. A. (2017). The whole church sings: congregational singing in Luther’s Wittenberg. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p.158-9

[2] Herl, J. (2008). Worship wars in early Lutheranism: choir, congregation, and three centuries of conflicts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.61

[3] Kriewall, D (2011).  Lecture/demonstration on Michael Praetorius’ “Mass for Christmas Morning” https://prezi.com/klhj29w7dzom/praetorius-mass-for-christmas-morning-1620/ Retrieved 26 Nov 2017

[4] Praetorius, Michael and Faulkner, Quentin trans. & ed. (2014). Syntagma Musicum II: De Organographia, Parts III – V with Index. Zea E-Books. Book 24, p.82. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/zeabook/24

[5] Tatlow, R. (2016). Bach’s Numbers: Compositional Proportion and Significance. Cambridge University Press. p.78

[6] Ibid. p. 82-83

[7] See for example Bokemeyer in Johann Matheson, Critica Music, ‘Canonischen Anatomie’ (Hamburg: Matheson, 1722), cited in Tatlow, R. (2016). Bach’s Numbers: Compositional Proportion and Significance. Cambridge University Press. p.380, 1723-III

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