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The Great Works of Sacred Music

Discover the greatest masterworks of the sacred music tradition, from early church music to the modern era, in this engrossing course taught by a professor of musicology.
The Great Works of Sacred Music is rated 3.9 out of 5 by 55.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good overview of the development of sacred music This course is an important addition to the Great Courses series on musical subjects, and of particular interest to music students. The lecturer is clear and well-paced, interspersing descriptions and history with musical samples, so you can see the increasing development and diversity of the form. The course covers the history of sacred music until the beginning of the twentieth century; while, as the lecturer points out, copyright reasons prevent the story continuing beyond that time. That said, it isn't clear to me whether this is simply because illustrative examples of sacred music could not be included, in which case it seems that the penultimate lecture might have covered the story through the twentieth century as a descriptive overview without samples, which I would still have liked. He also acknowledged, rightly, the other sacred music of the world could not be covered, so I look forward to another Great Course on these!
Date published: 2024-04-22
Rated 1 out of 5 by from This course is designed to promote ignorance and re-write again history within-truth wrapped up on a thin even no so beautiful blanket to be seen true! Well-done!?
Date published: 2022-06-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Would like more of this I like this professor's serious, calm lecture style. Wonderful combination of biography, history and analysis of the music. I would like another course like this because this is just the tip of the iceberg of sacred music
Date published: 2022-03-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good, but not entirely what I expected I found this enjoyable and informative. I bought the audio version; I don't know if I lost anything by not going for video -- my experience with TGC is that the video often doesn't add much, so I suspect not. And, after all, music is an audio thing. It would have suited me -- if nobody else -- if the presentation had assumed more prior knowledge of music: I would have liked to see (hear) more analysis. Still, I'm aware that these courses have to suit a general audience. I have a slight quibble about the instructor's choice of music to focus on. I'm aware, of course, that there's a vast amount of what could be called "sacred music", and the choice of what is "great" is a matter of opinion. Still, I would have preferred there to be more coverage of early music. I'm biased, of course, because I sing this kind of music myself. Still, how a course on great sacred music could have so little coverage of Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis, Lassus, Gesualdo, etc., I don't know. Still, I'm aware that everybody will have his or her own preferences here. All in all, I will listen to this again, probably many times, and I would recommend it.
Date published: 2022-02-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from sacred music Have bought various Great Courses over the years & content & quality of presentation never disappoints. I'll be back for more......
Date published: 2021-09-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative and Interesting This was a very enjoyable course. The lecturer presented his material very well. He spoke very clearly and his pace of speaking was perfect to ascertain the content of this material. I liked how he brought in a lot of historical information of the time of the composers and details of the compositions covered.
Date published: 2021-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Comprehensive History of Sacred Choral Music This is an outstanding course surveying sacred choral music from early forms until the late 19th century. The lecturer is first rate. He has a pleasant style of delivery and a pleasant (tenor) singing voice. I have been singing choral music for more than fifty years, and the information contained in these lectures will heighten my enjoyment of my choral experiences. Choral singers (and there are many of us) will find Dr. McGuire's lectures enlightening. His German is also quite good.
Date published: 2021-07-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from All This and Christmas Carols Too If you are tempted to think that this topic is too thin for a full course, don’t be. The source material is rich, and Professor McGuire has chosen astutely. I confess I don’t have sympathy with the “too much lecture, play more music” sentiment of some reviewers. It’s a course, not a concert. Prof. McGuire provides very generous samplings of the music he is discussing. I for one would be irritated if there were more music at the expense of subject matter. McGuire walks us through the history of Christian sacred music — and only Christian music is discussed — from early medieval through the 19th century. Wisely, he leaves the sea changes of the 20th century for another day. The inescapable fact is that most people who are interested in learning about Gregorian chants and the oratorios and requiems of Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn and the like are going to be either lost or turned off by a deep dive into Durufle, Messiaen, Gorecki and Ligeti. I was pleased that Professor McGuire included a nod to Beethoven’s undervalued “Christ on the Mount of Olives.” His analysis convinced me that my otherwise favorite Great Courses music professor, Robert Greenberg, simply doesn’t get this oratorio. There is much more there than Greenberg acknowledges. Kudos to McGuire for bringing that out. And it was a good call to devote an entire lecture to that familiar but fascinating branch of sacred music, Christmas carols. The course is not without its distractions. For one, the Handel oratorio recordings that Prof. McGuire uses come from that odious school of thought that Wagner knew Handel better than Handel. They are ponderous and painfully slow. Granted, well into the 1970s such plodding interpretations were all you could hear, and many music consumers prefer them even today. But if you’re like me and prefer your Handel light and agile the way he meant it, you may find yourself fast-forwarding. I can’t agree with criticism of Prof. McGuire’s singing voice. It’s strong, sonorous, well-trained, and always on pitch. It’s an outstanding choral voice. But it’s not a solo voice, and I do agree that there were a few places where a professional recording would have been the better choice. More problematic are some persistent nails-on-chalkbord mispronunciations. A man who throws up an Italian accent on “Monteverdi” and “Giovanni Gabrieli” must surely know that basso continuo is not pronounced “bah-zo” in any language. And how do you get through advanced degrees in musicology at Harvard and land a job at the Oberlin Conservatory, and still think that Handel rhymes with “rondel”? In modern-day English Handel sounds exactly like “handle.” If you’re trying for a German pronunciation (or 18th-century English), it’s “Hendel,” which - as Prof. McGuire must have noticed when reviewing historical documents - is the spelling the London press preferred during Handel’s lifetime. Since Prof. McGuire comes back to Handel in pretty much every lecture, prepare to get “Hondled” to death. The good news is that the content is worth the annoyances. From Monteverdi to Elgar and many points in between, if you are interested in Christian music from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical or Romantic era, you will want this course.
Date published: 2020-10-09
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Discover the greatest masterworks of the sacred music tradition, from the glories of early church music to the monumental works of the modern era, in this insightful journey into Western sacred musical expression. Experience the majesty and beauty of transcendent chorales, cantatas, masses, and oratorios by composers like Bach, Handel, Brahms, and others, and learn how they shaped the current Western canon of music.


Charles Edward McGuire

Sacred music is an immense topic. Nearly every culture across the globe includes music for their religious rituals.


Oberlin College

Charles Edward McGuire is Professor of Musicology at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, where he has taught since 2001. He earned a B.Mus. in musicology from the Oberlin Conservatory and a B.A. from Oberlin College with high honors in history, and received his A.M. and Ph.D. in music from Harvard University. At Oberlin, Professor McGuire teaches music history, including courses on 19th-century music, Ludwig van Beethoven, Mozart's operas, the symphony in the 19th century, music and narrative, film music history, music in London, and romanticism and medievalism in 19th-century London. Professor McGuire has published extensively on British music, including studies of compositions by Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, as well as works on musical festivals. He is the author of the monographs Music and Victorian Philanthropy: The Tonic Sol-fa Movement; Elgar's Oratorios: The Creation of an Epic Narrative; and The Historical Dictionary of English Music, which he co-authored with Oberlin colleague Professor Steven Plank. He has presented papers at numerous international musicological conferences, and is a frequent invited speaker for panel discussions and pre-concert talks. Professor McGuire has received a Teaching Excellence Award at Oberlin, as well as being a three-time winner of a Certificate of Distinction in Teaching from Harvard University.

By This Professor

The Great Works of Sacred Music
The Great Works of Sacred Music


Hallelujah, Amen: The World of Sacred Music

01: Hallelujah, Amen: The World of Sacred Music

Begin by exploring the contexts in which Western sacred music developed, from its use in religious ritual to its emergence in the concert hall as edifying entertainment. Then encounter three distinct eras in sacred music, hearing excerpts from medieval chant, Handel's iconic Hallelujah chorus, and Edward Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius....

43 min
From Chant to Early Sacred Polyphony

02: From Chant to Early Sacred Polyphony

Trace the roots and origins of sacred music in the Christian West, beginning with the history of chant, a way of singing prayer unaccompanied by instruments. Using diverse musical examples, learn about the structure and styles of chant, and how it evolved into polyphony (music with more than one melody sounding simultaneously)....

41 min
The Golden Age of Polyphony

03: The Golden Age of Polyphony

Follow the rise to prominence of both the composer and their patron, observing how sacred music adapted to musical fashions. Explore polyphonic innovations in masses by Guillaume de Machaut and Guillaume Dufay, and in Josquin des Prez's superlative motet, Ave Maria, gratia plena, one of the first great works of sacred music....

42 min
The Age of Reformation: Who Will Sing?

04: The Age of Reformation: Who Will Sing?

Delve into the religious reformations of the 16th century, and learn how the underlying theological debates shaped sacred music. In particular, grasp how changes in Christian ritual impelled William Byrd, Martin Luther, and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina to pioneer new musical genres and ways to make sung texts more intelligible and communicative....

41 min
Sacred Music in a Secular World

05: Sacred Music in a Secular World

By the 17th century, fashionable music began to be equated with secular music. Through studying Claudio Monteverdi's masterpiece, the Vespro della Beata Virgini, and Heinrich Schütz's extraordinary Musikalische Exequien, learn how both composers mixed sacred styles with elements from secular genres like opera to create music that was both reverent and modern....

46 min
Man and Meaning: Bach's Cantatas

06: Man and Meaning: Bach's Cantatas

Bach's sacred works are perhaps the most celebrated in Western music. Learn about the chorale and cantata, musical forms famously used by Bach. Study his great Cantata No. 80, a beautiful example of Bach's ingenious blending of the traditional (a chorale by Martin Luther) with the new (elements of recitative and aria)....

45 min
Art for Art's Sake: Bach's Mass in B Minor

07: Art for Art's Sake: Bach's Mass in B Minor

Trace the convoluted compositional history of the magnificent Mass in b minor, and explore Bach's motives for composing a work with no real practical function. Study how Bach blends older and newer musical styles and recasts musical material from his earlier works in creating a stunning compendium of his own style as a composer....

44 min
Handel's Great Oratorio: Messiah

08: Handel's Great Oratorio: Messiah

In the first of two lectures on Handel's Messiah, study the genre of oratorio, and see how Handel adapted it for his own purposes. Investigate the lives and partnership of Handel and Charles Jennens (the Messiah's librettist), and discover some of the glorious music from this most beloved of oratorios....

45 min
Messiah: From Entertainment to Ritual

09: Messiah: From Entertainment to Ritual

Learn about the sources and meanings of the Messiah's text, and witness the remarkable realization of the text in Handel's music. Explore Handel's brilliant compositional ingenuity in the oratorio, and follow the story of how the Messiah rose to become one of the centerpieces of the Western canon of classical music....

44 min
Mozart's Requiem: Praise and Memory

10: Mozart's Requiem: Praise and Memory

Learn the mysterious and romantic story behind this extraordinary masterwork. Study the musical traits of the Classical Era and the genre of the requiem mass, as ingeniously embodied in Mozart's music. Then investigate Mozart's musical "rhetoric," the technical means through which he portrays the drama of life, grief, and the hope for consolation....

44 min
Haydn's The Creation

11: Haydn's The Creation

Take account of the influence of Handel in this beloved oratorio, and discover the integral role played in its creation by a noble patron and two Viennese institutions. Explore the range of Haydn's powerful musical language, evoking the Chaos before the Creation, the rising sun, and the triumphant annunciation of the Fourth Day....

45 min
God, Man, Music, and Beethoven

12: God, Man, Music, and Beethoven

In the first of two sublime sacred works by Beethoven, his oratorio Christus am Ölberge, grasp how he uses dramatic expressive means to emphasize the suffering of Christ-suffering with which he personally identified. In the great Missa Solemnis, follow how Beethoven mines the musical past in creating a monumental spiritual vision....

47 min
Mendelssohn's Elijah

13: Mendelssohn's Elijah

In Elijah, Mendelssohn created a compendium of what the oratorio had been, balanced against what it could be. Through listening to compelling excerpts, observe how he includes evocations of Handel, Bach, and Haydn, framed within his own unique musical rhetoric, aiming to compose a work that would outlive him within the canon of sacred music....

44 min
Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius

14: Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius

Learn about the creation of Elgar's exquisite and very Catholic oratorio, against the musical and religious backdrop of 19th-century Britain. Study how Elgar infused The Dream of Gerontius with Wagnerian operatic elements such as continuous musical narrative, leitmotif, and lavish orchestration, transforming the genre of oratorio into something new....

45 min
Sacred Music in the Late 19th Century

15: Sacred Music in the Late 19th Century

Beginning in the late 19th century, composers of sacred music began to question institutional conceptions of faith. Here, study one monumental yet very personal work, Brahms's Ein Deutsches Requiem; one very anti-monumental expression, Faure's Requiem; and one that seems monumental, yet ends in a deliberately equivocal manner, Verdi's Quattro Pezzi Sacri....

47 min
Come, All Ye Faithful: Music of Christmas

16: Come, All Ye Faithful: Music of Christmas

Conclude with a look at the rich tradition of Christmas music. Explore music designed for yuletide religious services, as well as musical works that became associated with Christmas. Learn how 19th-century composers created a beloved legacy of Christmas carols by resurrecting older ones, writing new ones, and making hybrids of old texts and new music....

46 min