All Saints Day hasn't sounded this good since the Middle Ages.
Today, All Saints Day, is the solemn occasion when Catholics celebrate and honor the lives of the saints, whether they are known or unknown. The faithful around the world will pray for the Communion of Saints in a tradition that reaches back to the 4th century.
We thought we’d take a look back at some of the most moving and beautiful hymns that have been written for the saints. In order to match the ancient feast day to just the right vintage of music, we’ve focused on motets.
Composers of the medieval era understood that a hymn is just a musical form of prayer. As such, motets were generally written for a cappella voices, as the voice is the instrument of prayer. Although they were most popularly composed in the medieval era, composers continued to use it as a prime style of sacred music, even through the 20th century.
1. O Quam Gloriosum est Regnum
O how glorious is the kingdom
in which all the saints rejoice with Christ!
Clad in robes of white,
they follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
Written by Tomás Luis de Victoria, a 16th-century Catholic priest, this hymn honors the saints. The piece is marked by an unrelenting energy that generally moves upwards in tone. This is an allusion to the heavenly heights that the saints have reached.
Victoria has hundreds of musical compositions to his name, including no fewer than 20 Masses and dozens of individual hymns for four to eight voices. “O Quam Gloriosum est Regnum” is one of his many motets and it is most appropriate as an offertory hymn.
2. Beati Quorum Via
Happy are they that are upright in the way,
who walk in the law of the LORD
“Beati Quorum Via” is a 19th-century motet from the pen of Charles Villiers Stanford and is still in use in the liturgy. The lyrics were drawn from the first verse of Psalm 119, which refers to the saints as those who “walk in the law of the Lord.” The song is considered a “pastoral prayer,” for which its meditative qualities are perfectly suited.
3. Justorum animae
The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and the torment of death shall not touch them.
In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die;
but they are in peace.
Another fantastic motet hymn comes from the mind of Charles Villiers Stanford. Published in 1905, “Justorum animae” has been used in the All Saints Day liturgy ever since. This text was drawn from the Book of Wisdom, and illuminates the prize of heaven attained through a faithful life on Earth.
4. Gaudent in caelis
The souls of the saints rejoice in heaven,
they who have followed in the footsteps of Christ;
and because they shed their blood for love of Him,
They rejoice with Christ without end.
Here we have another 16th-century hymn from Tomás Luis de Victoria. This hymn combines plainsong (a melody we might identify today as a hymn) with the droning tones of chant. Just as with “O Quam Gloriosum est Regnum” this is another allusion, or perhaps a more adequate description would be a musical metaphor.
In this instance, the plainsong represents the saints and the chant becomes the link connecting them to the law of God. The chant is also reflective of the martyrs honored by the celebration. In fact the piece would sometimes have more voices added to the chant, depending on the number of martyrs being remembered at a given service. In this instance, each voice was representative of an individual martyr.