Keys to the Kingdom is an (almost) weekly blog about the music and liturgy of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, St. Louis, Missouri.

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The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost: mystery at the gate

There's a real mysteriousness to the choral music that we are singing on Sunday.

The first type of mystery might be described as the "mystery of the mountains" to borrow a phrase from a particularly beautiful prayer by Jeremy Davies.  It's this mystery that proved the inspiration to American composer Jake Runestad in his beautiful choral work "I will lift mine eyes". The composer writes:

I came across Psalm 121 from the Bible and found great beauty in the admiration for natural creation linked with a promise of guidance and support from a higher power. I find such peace in the splendor of the natural world and I wanted to capture that serenity with this work. I carefully shaped the melodic lines to mimic that of a mountainous landscape and the tone colors to the bold hues of where the hills meet the sky. 

By the way, since we're talking music, mountains, and mystery, another piece comes to mind: Symphony No. 2, Op. 132 "Mysterious Mountain" by Alan Hovhaness. Not exactly a piece you'll hear in church any time soon, but it is one of my favorites, so I wanted to mention it here.

But a piece that absolutely stopped me in my tracks when I heard it for the first time is the six-voice "O salutaris hostia" by William Byrd. It doesn't exactly sound like your typical music from the Tudor period. It is full of these mysterious dissonances.

What's at play here, musically speaking, is the cross-relation. This was an accepted temporary dissonance caused by the way different voices moved. In Tudor polyphonic music, there was slightly more importance placed on each individual voice rather than the harmonies as a whole. And though Tudor music is full of glorious harmonies, there are these moments of harmonic "crunch" caused by the clash of two voices going their own merry way.

In Byrd's "O salutaris," however, Byrd seems to relish in this compositional principle, almost going out of his way to find these perplexing piquancies. Furthermore, because the piece involves the principle of canon, each cross-relation finds an echo in the voices that follow after. 

There's really nothing else like it, and it's been a challenge learning this piece. I asked the choir this Thursday if the piece was growing on them and one choir member responded, "yeah, like a fungus."

So what does all this have to do with mountains and mystery? Well, just as I wrote two weeks ago about "the gate of heaven" we find the essentially same language in the words of "O salutaris" that Byrd is setting in this very particular way.

O salutaris hostia,
Quae caeli pandis ostium:
Bella premunt hostilia,
Da robur, fer auxilium.
Amen.

O saving victim, opening wide
The gate of heaven to us below;
Our foes press hard on every side;
Thine aid supply; thy strength bestow.
Amen.

This Eucharistic motet asks that we take another step in considering the gate of heaven in our worship. Not only do the doors of the church provide a kind of "gate of heaven," but Jesus Christ himself is the saving victim who opens to us the gate of heaven by his dying and rising, and by the giving of himself with his own hand in Eucharist. Pretty mysterious stuff!

And it would need someone a bit cleverer than me to tie mountains into this Eucharistic mystery, but I bet you could make a case for it. This same God is the one who intervened on Mount Moriah when Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his only son. This same Jesus is the one who went up a mountain to give his longest speech (the Sermon on the Mount).

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121)

O saving victim, opening wide
The gate of heaven to us below;
Our foes press hard on every side;
Thine aid supply; thy strength bestow. ("O salutaris hostia")


Keys to the Kingdom is an (almost) weekly blog about the music and liturgy of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, St. Louis, Missouri. It is written by the David Sinden, Organist & Director of Music. You can learn more about the church's music ministry at stpetersepiscopal.org/worship/music or email David at

Posted by David Sinden with
Tags: byrd, runestad