Music and the Catholic Liturgy: Are the Sanctus and Benedictus Supposed to be One Section?

Throughout history, people with various talents and careers have found ways to glorify God with their work. Many well-known composers of the eighteenth centuries, such as Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, wrote mass settings and other forms of sacred music, such as hymns. Even today, there are many Catholic composers who have written mass settings and songs to be sung during the liturgy. However, there are many differences between sacred music today and the sacred music that was used two hundred years ago. The Second Vatican Council encouraged active lay participation during mass, and because of this, liturgical music has changed greatly.

In many mass settings from the eighteenth century, the liturgical section called the Sanctus was often divided into the Sanctus and Benedictus. In the mass, the Sanctus is translated as: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” Centuries ago, this was not the case. The Sanctus ended with the first “Osanna in excelsis” (Hosanna in the highest), and the Benedictus ended with the second “Osanna,” usually either a reprise of the first, or a shortened version of the first. However, most modern settings of the mass, especially those in the vernacular, set the entire Sanctus and Benedictus as a single section.

In the eighteenth century, composers began to write long and embellished settings of the Sanctus and Benedictus. The music would often go on so long that a break after the first “Osanna” was necessary, since the Consecration is considered the most important part of the mass. The Benedictus would be sung afterwards. This practice was forbidden for a time in the twentieth century, but in his 1958 document, Pope Pius XII declared that the Sanctus and Benedictus should be sung without a break if Gregorian chant is used. For longer settings, the Benedictus is to be sung after the Consecration of the Eucharist.

To divide the Sanctus and Benedictus would have been necessary because, as Pope Pius X says: “It is not lawful to keep the priest at the altar waiting on account of the chant or the music for a length of time not allowed by the liturgy…it must be considered a very grave abuse when the liturgy in ecclesiastical functions is made to appear secondary to and in a manner at the service of the music, for the music is merely a part of the liturgy and its humble handmaid.”

Music is a great way to worship God in the liturgy, but composers must be aware of their limitations. If the music is too long and embellished, it will distract from the liturgy, and instead bring too much attention to the musicians. Many composers, however, have written mass settings not intended for liturgical use. Why, one might ask, would someone write liturgical music that could not be used for its intended function? Music is, after all, a form of prayer, and throughout the centuries the Church has continued to support sacred art as a form of worship of God.

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