The Benedictus and Isaac

Many of you, regardless of your musical training or faith will recognize the word “Benedictus” as being a part of the Catholic Mass. I was raised Catholic, and recognize many of the Latin titles of the pieces from Neusidler’s books. Despite my Catholic upbringing, I had to dig in and research the “Benedictus” and what it really is. 

According to Richard Sherr the Benedictus is actually part of the Sanctus. So you don’t know what the Sanctus is? That’s ok! The Roman Catholic Mass Ordinary has five core immovable parts, the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei (you don’t know how many times I re-read this sentence to make sure I didn’t spell “angus dei.”) The Benedictus is sometimes on the end of the Sanctus. When the Benedictus is included in a mass it occurs around the time of consecration. 

The Benedictus section dates back to the 7thcentury (Sherr). In Renaissance settings, the Benedictus was usually composed for fewer voices. This is in line with the Benedictus I arranged, which has only three voices. The fewer number of voices lends itself to being arranged for instruments AND secular music?! 

Emma Kempson and Richard Strohm write, “Isaac’s masses, to a significantly greater extent than those of Josquin or Obrecht, were used as quarries for secular music-making. Three voice sections in particular circulated widely, sometimes appearing with their original titles (e.g. the ‘Benedictus’ from Missa‘Quant j’ay au cueur’ “ WHAT?! Kempson and Strohm’s example is the EXACT piece I recorded. There are some other recordings available if you are interested.

Going along with this secular/sacred music blurred line, could that mean lutes were used to perform this music? I say this because we know that lutes were the most composed for instrument of the Renaissance, but evidence of lutes used in sacred music is hard to find. It is obvious that lutes were used widely in secular music though. So, if these lines were actually blurred, wouldn’t it make sense that lutes would be used in sacred music during this time?

Maybe using lutes in mass was more common than we thought? Maybe they were used in masses, but it wasn’t very common? Here is one last quote from Kempson and Strohm, “Isaac is the earliest composer by whom we have ascertained musical autographs. His success in setting a dervish song in four-part polyphony does not necessarily mean that he had intercultural interests, but suggests that he had a perceptive ear for unusual performances and rituals.”

Isaac is a forward thinking composer with a “perceptive ear for unsual performance sand rituals” and his masses “were used as a quarries for secular music-making.” I am drawing some connections here, if lutes = secular, and now secular and sacred music are blurred and composers like Isaac are trying out usual performances, and Isaac used alternatim performance (breathe) doesn’t it make sense that lutes were used in mass?

I will have to elaborate more on this later, but we know in sacred and secular processionals that lutes were used. In the famous 1516 wood cut, “The Triumph of Emperor Maximillian” by Hans Burgkmair, and many other artists, depicts lutes in a processional in many of the 138 wood cuts. One woodcut contains what is assumed to be a portrait of an older Heinrich Isaac (Strohm, Kempson).

Whether or not Isaac wanted his music to be played on a lute, or even a guitar 500 years later, it happened. And that is fact. 


Sherr, Richard. 2001 “Benedictus (i).” Grove Music Online. 3 Mar. 2019.

Strohm, Reinhard, and Emma Kempson. 2009 “Isaac [Ysaak, Ysac, Yzac], Henricus.” Grove Music 

Online. 3 Mar. 2019.