Performing Beauty: Liturgy, Theology, and Aesthetics

Greg Miller
3 min readApr 26, 2021

Unit 7: A Liturgical Theology of Attuning

Listen to two of the Masses that are available on Spotify. Based on listening, analyze these Masses according to what we learned in Begbie. How does the Mass enable you to “sanctify” time through music? How is the mass beautiful?

I chose to analyze Missa Wellensis: III. Sanctus and Benedictus performed by John Tavener for my first selection. I found Tavener’s interpretation of this mass very interesting, but not quite as enjoyable as the same version by MacMillan. The mass begins with an almost dizzying mix of voices moving throughout many ranges of key and melody. The opening transitions to a very beautiful coming together of voices rising until they fall into silence, perhaps 40 seconds into the mass. Very slowly, and patiently the voices beautifully come together in harmony in the next transition. This ends with a long moment of silence before very slowly beginning again and in a very hushed tone. The pacing here creates a strong desire as we anticipate what will come next. I enjoyed this very much. As they begin again the voices are all female. This gave me a sense of the sound that I might imagine angels would sound like. The sound is absolutely beautiful. About halfway through this section the male voices appear with a droning sound, which I have learned from Begbie is typical of Tavener’s work. The droning surely gives a sense of connection that Begbie states provides an “umbilical cord to the sacred (page 136).”

Finally the mass ends with voices of all types rising and falling, creating a sense of majesty and awe. I imagine myself viewing this as a congregant and I think I would be quite taken by this. I especially believe music of this type would help keep me engaged and present during the benediction. I find that my distentio is real in everyday life and admittedly at church. This beautiful music would help God “recollect and distracted/distended person (page 83).”

For my second selection I chose Missa Orientalis Lamb of God performed by the Dominican Liturgical Center. I recognize that there is much less going on here than in my previous analysis. I believe this should be categorized as plainchant. As Swain writes (page 102); plainchant points to the deeper mysteries causing human reactions. I find the liturgical moment when the singing of the lamb is begun to be perhaps the most peaceful portion of the liturgy. The mass performed here is breathtaking. While I understand the plainchant has no rhythm, I find it the most appealing of the musical forms presented in this section of class. The harmony and simplicity offered here by the Dominican Liturgical Center arouses strong emotion, reminds me of the sacrifice Christ made for each of us, and brings me a sense that peace may be within reach for all of us.

I find the male voice(s) in this arrangement especially interesting. I continue to hear the male voice as almost singular while the female voices are more harmonized. I assume that the point is to create more of chanting or droning feeling, which adds to the weight of the performance.