Sacred Music on the BBC, II

June 23, 2010

About six months ago I wrote words of praise for a BBC television programme called Sacred Music, which was exploring, with the capable assistance of Harry Christophers and his crack choir The Sixteen, the history of Christian sacred music.  Those first four shows began with Gregorian chant and ended with the music of J.S. Bach.  I remarked at the time that there was plenty of later sacred music worthy of consideration, and I wished for another set of episodes.  My wish has come true.  Four new episodes have been produced, and over the past few weeks I have watched them all.  With a few reservations, I enjoyed them.

The first episode examines the music of Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms; in the latter case the focus rests on his Ein Deutsches Requiem, which is not really sacred music in the strict sense — not liturgical music — and which seems to have been written from doubt as much as from belief, but which exists within that penumbra of sacred music where the personal and eccentric rub up against the firm and enduring voices of Scripture and traditional Christian faith.

A similar comment could be made about Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, which, together with Poulenc’s sacred works, are the subjects of the second episode.  The third takes us behind the late twentieth-century’s Iron Curtain to hear the courageous sacred music of Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki.  I have admired Pärt, in particular, for a long time, and the brief interview segments in this episode have caused my admiration to wax greater still.

The fourth and final episode returns to the United Kingdom, and brings us up to the present day.  Three composers — James MacMillan, John Rutter, and John Tavener — are interviewed.  I haven’t got much use for the latter two, but MacMillan is terrific, and I found the interviews with him fascinating.  I learned, what I did not know, that he regularly writes new music for the choir at his parish church in Glasgow, whereupon I kicked myself in an uncomfortable spot for not attending that parish when I was in Glasgow a few years ago.  Bad tourist, bad.

Here is a clip from the final episode.  The segment on James MacMillan begins at about 2:45.

Given that this batch of episodes brings the music to the present, I doubt there will be any more seasons.  Too bad.  It has been an excellent series, all things considered.

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2 Responses to “Sacred Music on the BBC, II”


  1. Many thanks for this. I rarely watch television and don’t have cable, so always end up missing out on interesting series like this. I was impressed by the production values, and by the natural and non-technical way they managed to explain the structure of MacMillan’s music. And it was wonderful to see shots of Evensong at St Paul’s, a wonderful institution that warms my Anglican heart. (The less said about Rutter the better, though – I stopped watching midway through part IV).

    Did you by any chance see MacMillan conduct his A Scotch Bestiary with the TSO a couple years back? It was in spring ’07, if memory serves. Back then I hadn’t heard much of his music, and was bowled over – a spectacular work, and performance.

  2. cburrell Says:

    We don’t have cable either — nor a television — so I can only watch these programs online. It works, so I’ve no reason to complain.

    I rarely get out to hear the TSO, and in any case I was living in Ottawa in ’07. I also missed the lecture he delivered at the University of Toronto — probably at about the same time — and I have often had occasion to lament that fact. I’ve heard A Scotch Breviary on a recording, though, and it’s hot stuff.


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