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Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem. 

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.

Now that I am retired, I watch more television. Well, let’s put it this way – I use TV as background noise. I love my British mysteries, thrillers, cop shows, reality emergency stuff, and documentaries. Some of them I have watched so often I can practically recite their dialogue from memory. I am usually doing something else while I watch, like washing dishes, knitting, reading a cozy mystery (usually British in origin), or whatever housework I can’t avoid any longer. 

Last night I felt the need to take a break, and lo, I found the Last Night of the Proms for 2021 from Royal Albert Hall on one of my British subscriptions. The place was packed! Everybody seemed glad and more than ready to celebrate the end of the isolation and return to a more normal life.  I was knitting during the first couple of selections when suddenly the announcer gave a familiar title. So I listened a bit more carefully while continuing to move my needles. That didn’t last long, though.

The BBC Orchestra and Choir began playing “Agnus Dei,” written and arranged by composer Samuel Barber. He had written the original theme as a movement in a string quartet in 1936 but added the vocal score in 1967. It quickly became one of the most identifiable and loved scores. Usually performed as a very somber piece in movies, TV programs, concerts, occasions of mourning like memorials for 9/11, funerals of famous people, and as a change of pace in concerts, it is an intensely contemplative piece, as it was at the Proms. 

The words Barber chose for the vocal parts were an ancient part of the Latin mass.  The Agnus Dei is a supplication that has used through many centuries since being added to the Latin mass by Pope Sergius (687-701). He imported it from Orthodox Christianity. In the Eucharist service, it is placed between the Lord’s Prayer and the Eucharistic prayer that precedes the consecration of the Eucharistic Elements. It can also be used as a prayer of meditation, much like the repetition of the Hail, Mary when saying a rosary. 

I think I knitted through the first few bars of the presentation as it was played and sung so softly it was almost like an extended silence. Then it became a little louder, and my needles stopped. The music drew me into itself, leaving no room for stray thoughts or distraction. The whole piece took about eight minutes but was so intense that for perhaps 30 seconds after the music died quietly away, the audience was silent before erupting into thunderous applause. 

Perhaps many were praying the supplication along with the music. I saw several mouths moving as the camera scanned the large audience, possibly fellow singers familiar with the piece itself and its power of drawing people in. Perhaps some there had never heard it before or didn’t know what the lyrics meant since it was sung in Latin. I think the silence in the seconds after the piece concluded was a respect and a willingness to let go of the emotion that the music brought forth. I know I sat there as mesmerized as the audience. I know it has been a part of the Last Night at the Proms for some years, and I have a feeling it will continue to cast its web of beauty, reflection, and grace over many audiences to come.

The piece never fails to move me, though I have never had the privilege of being part of a choir that sang it. Still, it is as familiar to me as any music I have rehearsed and performed multiple times. I sometimes hear it in my head when I’m sad or needing some comfort. I often play it on my portable music device. It provides soothing and calming when I am stuck in traffic, late for an appointment, or frustrated over something. It’s one of my go-to pieces. I am grateful that Barber wrote it and arranged it to maintain its integrity as a concert piece and as a prayerful one.

What music has that type of effect on you? Do you ever find hymns or other pieces popping up in your head? I know many like more contemporary and livelier, often more dissonant things. If you are one of them, do these pieces connect you to God in any way? What is your favorite work? Do you hum or sing it as you work or walk? Do you find peace in it?

Think about the role of music in your life, both ordinarily and spiritually. Is there room for music in your prayer life or meditations? Would you share it with others, hoping that it might bring them the same emotions you find in it? 

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.

Image: Agnus Dei, Agnus Dei mit Kreuzfahne und Buch mit sieben Siegeln, Painting on cobweb, ca. 1790 by Johann Burgmann. Source: (http://sammellust.tiroler-landesmuseum.at/objekte/1840b.html).    Found at Wikimedia Commons. 

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She lives with her three cats near Phoenix, Arizona.

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