From the annals of joy: I awoke this morning to the radiant sound of the Osanna from Bach’s Mass in B minor — on my Mac’s Music: English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, and the Monteverdi Choir (Archiv, released 2006). Osanna in excelcis ‘Hosanna in the highest’ — a most auspicious beginning to the day, a hopeful sign of a turn-around (in progress) from several dire weeks on the medical front, just barely getting through the days. But now I’m writing you about joy. (Oh, yes, Bach’s Osanna has all the glorious trumpets and tympani I require in orchestral music of joy.)

(#1) The cover of the Gardiner CD; the cover art is from a van Eyck masterwork to accompany Bach’s masterwork — some details of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb below

The word. From NOAD:

excl. hosanna (also hosannah): (especially in biblical, Judaic, and Christian use) used to express adoration, praise, or joy: “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord“noun an expression of adoration, praise, or joy: the soundtrack evoked passionate hosannas from some critics.

Compare this more focused exclamation:

excl. hallelujah (also alleluia): God be praised (uttered in worship or as an expression of rejoicing): He is risen! Alleluia! noun [a] an utterance of the word hallelujah as an expression of worship or rejoicing. [b] (usually Alleluia) a piece of music or church liturgy containing an utterance or utterances of the word hallelujahthe Gospel comes after the Alleluia verse.

The Osanna chorus. It comes in the concluding section of the mass: Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Donna Nobis Pacem:

— 23. Chorus: Osanna in excelcis ‘Hosanna in the highest’
— 24. Aria (Tenor): Benedictus, qui venit in nomine Domini ‘Blessed be he that comes in the name of the Lord’
— 25. Chorus [reprise]: Osanna in excelsis
— 26. Aria (Alto): Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of tbe world, have mercy on us’
— 27. Chorus: Dona nobis pacem ‘Give us peace’

You can watch #23 (only 2:40 long, out of a roughly 2-hour mass; it’s a tiny investment in time) in a video, here, of a wonderful performance (one of a number of fabulous recorded performances). The CD recording of that performance: Bach in Notre-Dame de Paris: Mass in B Minor: Ruth Ziesak, Joyce DiDonato, Daniel Taylor, Paul Agnew, and Dietrich Henschel with John Nelson conducting La Maîtrise Notre-Dame de Paris and Ensemble Orchestral de Paris at Notre-Dame (Erato, released 2007); filmed in 2006 by Olivier Simmonet for EuroArts (the DVD seems, scandalously, to have gone out of print, but good used copies can be found). Watch the DVD if you can; Simmonet takes full advantage of the space within Notre-Dame and is a keen observer of Nelson, the singers, and the orchestra.

(#2) Cover of the CD, all about Notre-Dame

(#3) Cover of the DVD, all about the performers

The mass. From Wikipedia:

The Mass in B minor BWV 232, is an extended setting of the Mass ordinary by Johann Sebastian Bach. The composition was completed in 1749, the year before the composer’s death, and was to a large extent based on earlier work …

As usual for its time, the composition is formatted as a Neapolitan mass, consisting of a succession of choral movements with a broad orchestral accompaniment, and sections in which a more limited group of instrumentalists accompanies one or more vocal soloists. Among the more unusual characteristics of the composition is its scale: a total performance time of around two hours, and a scoring consisting of two groups of SATB singers and an orchestra featuring an extended winds section, strings and continuo. …

Even more exceptional, for a Lutheran composer such as Bach, is that the composition is a Missa tota [a full mass in Latin]. In Bach’s day, Masses composed for Lutheran services usually consisted only of a Kyrie and Gloria. Bach had composed five such Kyrie–Gloria Masses before he completed his Mass in B minor

… [and on its significance:] The Mass in B minor is widely regarded as one of the supreme achievements of classical music.

van Eyck. Well, what would match that in the world of art? Try this, from Wikipedia:

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also called the Ghent Altarpiece (Dutch: De aanbidding van het Lam Gods [AZ: I don’t know how ‘Lamb of God’ became ‘Mystic Lamb’]), is a large and complex 15th-century polyptych altarpiece [AZ: with 12 interior panels and dozens of outer ones] in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium. It was begun around the mid-1420s and completed by 1432, and it is attributed to the Early Netherlandish painters and brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The altarpiece is considered a masterpiece of European art and one of the world’s treasures, it was “the first major oil painting,” and it marked the transition from Middle Age to Renaissance art.

(#4) [Wikipedia caption:] The central Adoration of the Mystic Lamb panel. The groupings of figures are, from top left anti-clockwise: the male martyrs, the pagan writers and Jewish prophets, the male saints, and the female martyrs.

Repeat: just one of the 12 interior panels. You could easily spend hours finding details in the work, which serves a kind of visual catalog of the significant beings of the world (plus some musical instruments), from Adam and Eve (in two of the other interior panels) on.

Note: I don’t think I’d ever encountered the term polyptych before, though since I knew the art-historical terms diptych and triptych, I understood it immediately: a diptych (Greek-morphologically di- ‘two’ + ptych ‘fold’) is a painting consisting of two leaves or panels joined by hinges or folds; a triptych (tri– ‘three’) is one of those with three panels; so a polyptych (with poly– ‘many’) is one with more than three (and the word is even in NOAD). No polyps are involved in the painting, though goodness knows the van Eycks and their collaborators could probably have worked some jellyfish or sea anemones into the complex and gigantic work without anyone noticing (but not, I think, any tissue growths on mucous membranes; that would be a polyp too far).

3 Responses to “Osanna!”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    It now occurs to me to offer some personal advice: if you’re feeling down and need a break, take 3 minutes out to listen to — or, better, watch — Bach’s Osanna (you can click on my link above and that, it turns out, will get you a Warsaw performance as well as the Notre-Dame one, should you want to go for the 6-minute treatment). It’s a tonic.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Two notes:

    1. Osanna, from the exclamation, has been picked up as a woman’s name — certainly, an auspicious one.

    2. Since Osanna has a medial /z/ in it, and the name Susanna does too, I contemplated inserting an “Oh, Osanna! (… don’t you cry for me)” joke somewhere in my posting. Or maybe a Susanna in excelsis ‘Susanna in the highest’ joke.

    • Robert Coren Says:

      In Act IV of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, in the recitative preceding his aria “Aprite un po’ quell’occhi”, Figaro sings the words “Oh Susanna” on the exact pitches (although a slightly different rhythm) to invite that continuation.

      In my many years as a choral singer, I got to perform the B Minor Mass three or four times. It is indeed a wonderful piece.

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