Advent: True God

December 3, 2014

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 1 John 5:20 (ESV)

When setting to music the Nicene Creed, a standard component in the Latin Mass, Renaissance composers often emphasized three words in sustained homophony: et incarnatus est, “and he became flesh.” We might suppose that in doing so composers like Palestrina in his Pope Marcellus Mass (linked here, start at 1:53) simply desired to express the weighty mystery that is the center of Christian faith: God became human. But, actually, this musical custom is based in tradition. The practice of many Christians has been to bow when the incarnation is mentioned in the Creed, and slowing the music provides an appropriate amount of time for the expected action.

Mozart’s setting of these words (et incarnatus est) in his incomplete Great Mass in C minor, K.427 (linked here) was not intended to accompany a liturgical action. Rather, Mozart dedicated over eight minutes to express, through soprano soloist and orchestra (and, one must add, with exquisite delicacy) the warmth, beauty, and comfort of this statement. There is no cold, abstract doctrine here; God draws close to us, lovingly, by becoming what we are.

More recently, in his concert setting of the Creed, Scottish composer James MacMillan structured the text describing the incarnation as a musical unit (linked here, start at 11:10). Brass bursts and flute flashes signal that something has broken through to us. Someone has pierced the divide of visible and invisible, heaven and earth and descended “for us humans and for our salvation.” In MacMillan’s composition, the great span of this descent is pictured musically by the descending of voices and accompanying strings, who all grow quiet before a slow, homophonic statement of “et incarnatus est”—recalling the older practice of Renaissance composers.

Obviously, the incarnation is a topic ripe for musical art, as observed in these few examples, selected from countless others. It’s all there: timing, drama, movement. But, we should note, the mystery, warmth, and power of the incarnation are tied to the reality of just who it was that showed up: God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God—God with us. What sweeter subject for the wisdom and art of musicians?

About the Author
  • John MacInnis teaches a variety of music courses at Dordt University, including Music History and Literature, Music Theory, and World Music. His research interests include music studied as a liberal art in Antiquity through the Middle Ages, the intersections of music and philosophy, and church music. As a keyboardist, he plays both piano and organ and holds certification as a Colleague of the American Guild of Organists (CAGO).

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