Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

The Sanctus, and Her Sister the Benedictus

September 28th, 2010, Promulgated by Gen

I have always been a lover of sacred music. I’m sure many of you have been, as well. However, my love for it has, over the course of several years, evolved into something more. The music at Mass should reflect the theological truths of the Eucharist, not only through faithful translation and articulation, but through the notes themselves. You should say the prayer and feel what it means at the same time. This is an idea which seems fairly abstract, but Jeffrey Tucker gives us a really great example at the Chant Cafe.

Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept, as we remembered you, O Zion. The chant is incredibly evocative of the text. One has the sense that one is precisely where the chant describes, by waters, weeping, remembering. See the way the chant itself looks like what it describes. The singing of such phrases requires voices of practice fluidity and expression. The word accents play a special role here, intertwining with the musical phrase with dazzling complexity.

But what exactly does he mean? Why does he say that “the chant itself looks like what it describes? Look at the portion below:

When I look at the way the “na” of “flumina” trembles there at the end. It looks a little bit like someone weeping, the neumes (notes) falling from imaginary eyes. And then there on the “Babyl” of “Babylonis,” it looks as if someone is wailing. Don’t pay attention to the notes – just look at the shape of that. It’s like a long, depressing, sorrowful sigh.

So now we go to the focus of this post, the uniqueness of the Sanctus and Benedictus. The same notions of the music making you feel the Truths of the Holy Mass are present there. The worst thing imaginable is to have a Mass, the re-enacted, unbloody sacrifice of Calvary, marred by a lack of beauty. No matter what the priests are wearing, how the servers are vested, or what the music is, the Mass can and should be offered in a beautiful way.  Ordinary Form, Extraordinary Form – it doesn’t matter. When the music is sung, not as art, but as prayer, as it is intended to be sung, that’s when the Mass is elevated to appear as it really is: the descent of God to our humble altars of stone and wood.

The Sanctus is one of the most ancient portions of the Mass, being referenced in the First Century AD by St. Clement. He wrote, “for the Scripture says . . . Holy, holy, holy Lord of hosts; full is every creature of his glory. And we, led by conscience, gathered together in one place in concord, cry to him continuously as from one mouth, that we may become sharers in his great and glorious promises.” The Sanctus is sung directly after the Preface, which begins by asking the faithful to “lift up” their hearts. That denotes joy, praise, glory, and in so doing, sets the tone for the Sanctus. In almost every single setting of the Sanctus, the first portion (up to “Benedictus qui venit”/”Blessed is He who comes . . .”) is more majestic, more dazzling than the second portion. The practice of composing settings of the Mass which reflect this change in demeanor comes from several different sources of influence, but primarily in the fact that the Mass, as cemented at Trent in the 16th Century, often separated the Sanctus and the Benedictus into two separate prayers. This was actually nullified by the Second Vatican Council, which stated that there is no real justification for splitting one prayer into two pieces.

This being said, the moods are very definitive, whether or not they’re separate by silence. The Benedictus, which was often sung directly after the consecration of the wine upon the priest’s rising from the final genuflection, conveys a tone of solemnity which overshadows the joy and exuberance of the Sanctus. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” What could be more poetic than singing the Benedictus, these words, when The Lord Himself has come down to our altars! But alas, the practice should be that the Sanctus and Benedictus are not split.

Here are a few examples of the differences between the Sanctus and Benedictus from various Masses from different composers:

I. Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices – The Sanctus is much more complex, with more notes per syllable. The overall volume is a bit louder than the more gentle Benedictus.


Benedictus – Notice that this is more simple than the Sanctus, and has the feeling of restraint, of some form of musical humility, aware that this is being sung for the God now present among us.

II. Mozart’s Missa Brevis in C – In the Sanctus, notice that there is a sense of Mozart toying with you. There’s a great deal of overt emotion, of joy, unbridled and unrestricted excitement. It’s almost like we’re showing off for God. “Look what we can do for Your Name!”


Benedictus – Notice primarily that the Benedictus is sung by less people. It is also slower, resulting in it being doubly as long as the Sanctus which precedes it. The use of brass is significantly reduced, with the warmth and tenderness of the stirnged instruments coming out on top. However, when we get to the second “Hosanna in excelsis, the drums, the brass, and the full choir come in, all together, and with spectacular effect. Mozart is saying something here – We go from unrestricted musical pomp for “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of hosts (power and might)” to a sublime, tender, caressing “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.” And then, in each, the “Hosanna” is absolutely breath-taking. It’s the most overtly-praising section in this text, and Mozart conveys that feeling through his music.

III. Schubert’s Mass in G Major – The Sanctus will blow you away. It’s quick, intense, and ravaging. (Unlike 90% of our lay preachers’ homilies.) While this recording is a bit fast, they still capture the difference in theological “feeling” of Truth in the music. The Sanctus sounds like something that would herald a returning warrior, a hero of great renown. It’s a fanfare in some ways, with such pomp as would merit its performance for a king, indeed, for the King.


Benedictus – Like Mozart’s Benedictus, Schubert’s is slower, less complex sounding, and even more mystical. This is especially so for the lone soprano accompanied at first by strings. It’s like the angels in the nativity story, first one, then another, then an entire heavenly choir singing to God’s great glory. Also like Mozart, notice how Schubert’s Benedictus is twice as long as his Sanctus. The Hosanna portion here is also greatly accentuated, following Mozart’s lead in making it an acclamation of absolute joy. It also returns to the original, quick, impressive tempo.

For a lot more information on the Sanctus and Benedictus, just click here. New Advent has a very interesting article on the history of the Sanctus.

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