Credo: A New (Old) Model for Church Music

by Nathan Cornelius

In my last post, I challenged Christian artists and composers not to be content with merely following popular styles in their work, but to be open to creating countercultural forms to embody an often countercultural message.  Amid the conflicting pulls of being relevant and being countercultural, how can writers create church music that has the potential to both reach the hearts of inquirers and to challenge them? In this post, I want to explore some ideas for what this could look like, inspired by a centuries-old structure for church music.

In my attempts to write vocal music, I’ve found the most success in letting the words of the text inspire the style of the music, rather than just adding words into a style I had already chosen. I believe a similar approach could inspire composers of church music as well, letting the meaning of the text shape many aspects of the music. This is not to say the words of a sacred piece are all that matters, with the musical setting relatively unimportant. Rather, the music becomes what it wants to be through the very process of striving to express the spirit of the words. This both frees the composer’s creativity from predetermined ideals of style and genre also channels it and gives it a definite goal to pursue.

One of the experiences which most deeply  (and unexpectedly) shaped me as a composer was, in my senior year of college, attending a high Mass with a full choir and orchestra performing Beethoven’s Mass in C, Op. 86. Beethoven, as composers traditionally have done, set the five liturgical texts, known as the Mass Ordinary, which are spoken or sung every week in the Roman Catholic church and do not rotate throughout the church year. This collection of early Christian texts, assembled sometime in the Middle Ages, inspired some of the earliest multi-movement works in Western music. With some texts from the Bible, some not, one in Greek, the rest in Latin, the collection always seemed a bit arbitrary and idiosyncratic to me. But, as I listened to Beethoven’s interpretation of it, I realized that he was engaging in exactly the sort of expression I was seeking as a composer of sacred music: finding the underlying spirit in each movement and letting the music grow towards that idea, creating a coherent theological progression through the various stages of the service.

The five texts of the Mass Ordinary suggest several theological functions church music can perform in the scope of a worship gathering, each of which can afford a distinct inspiration to composers seeking to write a piece in that spirit. The text of such a song need not necessarily be liturgical or biblical; any well-written, theologically sound  text can fulfill one of these purposes as well.

I. Kyrie

The first Ordinary movement is a simple prayer of confession: “Lord, have mercy” (in Greek, Kyrie eleison). Thus, one possible function of sacred music can be to help the congregation acknowledge their sinfulness and need for God’s mercy. Musically speaking, this can afford the composer a natural opportunity to explore dark or even ugly sounds. And in an age where Christians are often perceived (sometimes with good reason) as being hypocritical and self-righteous, would not both believers and unbelievers benefit from a service beginning with a confession of the church’s own unworthiness before God?

II. Gloria

The Gloria is a longer hymn of praise, beginning with the famous refrain Gloria in excelsis Deo (“Glory to God in the highest”). In particular, the text focuses on God’s eternal nature as creator and ruler of the universe. Clearly, praising (or “blessing, magnifying, and thanking,” to borrow the Gloria’s own verbs) God just for who he is belongs as an important part of the church’s worship service, though certainly not the only one. Composers can also take advantage of the opportunity for dramatic contrasts of mood between these two types of pieces.

III. Credo

This movement of the liturgy is simply a recitation of the Nicene Creed, an early Christian doctrinal statement beginning “I believe [in Latin, Credo] in God.” In reciting it, worshipers declare their faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, along with theological teachings such as the resurrection and the return of Jesus. The words “I believe” or “we believe,” used in a certain way, have the power to transform such theologically-oriented texts from abstract affirmation to committed confession. It is a powerful statement for the entire gathering of believers to proclaim corporately what their faith stands for, and music can admirably support this proclamation.

IV. Sanctus

This movement consists of two Biblical texts, known as the Sanctus and Benedictus, which some composers set as separate musical movements. The Sanctus (Latin for “holy”) comes from the prophet Isaiah’s vision in which he is overcome by God’s holiness, power, and glory, later famously exclaiming, “Woe is me!” The Benedictus (Latin for “blessed”) comes from the account of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem to crowds cheering, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” and “Hosanna!” (a Hebrew exclamation meaning “Save me!”). While the Sanctus is often considered an exclamation of praise, it could also be read as a recognition of one’s need for a savior in the face of God’s holiness and an introduction of Jesus as that savior. Conveying this spiritual anagnorisis in music could be a satisfying challenge for a composer.

V. Agnus Dei

The theological progression stemming from the worshiper’s recognition of God’s glory and his or her own sin, and the disturbing intersection of these two truths, culminates in the final movement of the Ordinary, the Agnus Dei. This prayer states simply, “Lamb of God [in Latin, Agnus Dei] who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us [and] give us peace.” Thus, believers recognize Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb, as the only way for them to experience God’s mercy. They also follow up on the affirmations of the Credo by not only assenting to certain statements about Jesus but actively throwing themselves upon his mercy. Thus, one final category of church music can be songs that point attention to Jesus as the solution and fulfillment to everything portrayed earlier in the service.

I want to clarify that I am by no means suggesting a set of restrictions which all “Christian artists” must follow. There is an important distinction between art made by Christians (whether obviously “sacred” or not) and art made for the specific context of the church’s worship gatherings (whether by Christians or not). The former, I believe, is much broader in scope than the latter. Scripture itself provides some support for this distinction. If the entire world is God’s creation, which he endorsed as “very good,” surely that is license enough for human creators to explore any aspect of its manifold diversity in their work.  Some might even go so far as to say that if God, in his mysterious providence, allowed evil into the world, knowing that greater glory would somehow result from it, artists may explore even the broken, twisted, and oppressive side of our world, “in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21)

While, for the Christian creating music or art in the world, “all things are yours” (1 Corinthians 3:21), pieces for use in public worship ought to fulfill the specific purpose of those gatherings. Later in the same letter, the Apostle Paul explains one of these purposes, pertinent to the idea of “relevance” towards outsiders. Rather than letting the service run wild, allowing any and all possible expressions of worship at once, he says, Christians ought to exercise their spiritual gifts in an orderly fashion so that outsiders entering the meeting would not only be able to follow what is going on but also be convicted in their own hearts by what they hear (1 Corinthians 14:23-33).

I am not suggesting that composers of sacred music should restrict their writing to themes found in the Ordinary text . Rather, I think this sequence of texts, compiled over a long period of church history, can be a helpful structure or metaphor to inspire creative and artistic ways of expressing these spiritual subjects. Just as a piece of music needs a coherent harmonic, rhythmic, or timbral progression to give it structure, the Ordinary can also provide composers with a model for creating a coherent theological progression in a piece or an entire service. I hope these ideas can inspire composers of sacred music to explore new and innovative ways of structuring their art. But ultimately, as Paul reminded the church millennia ago, “all of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:26)

Cantate Domino…?


by Nathan Cornelius

“Sing to the LORD,” declares the opening line of Psalm 96 (and 98 and 149)—much to the relief of frustrated composers searching for a suitable text for a sacred piece. (I personally suspect this is why the choral repertoire contains such an abundance of pieces entitled Cantate Domino, Singet dem Herrn, and so on.) Having asserted that the faithful ought to worship God with singing, the text continues: Cantate Domino canticum novum (or, for Bach, …ein neues Lied). The line is generally rendered in English as “Sing to the LORD a new song” and then subsequently brandished by advocates of church music styles involving guitars, drums, synthesizers, and other shockingly new instruments. “See?” they say. “The Bible says we ought to sing new kinds of music in church, not keep using organs and hymnals just because they’ve been around for generations.”

At this, the devotees of traditional sacred music dust off their concordances and Hebrew lexicons and mumble something about the word for “new” really being an adjective, not an adverb, in the original language. According to this grammatical nuance, the verse really ought to be translated something like “Sing to the LORD a song newly.” “Of course,” they continue, “if we sing the same song we’ve sung hundreds of times before, to exactly the same music, but with new perspective and fresh passion in our heart, that counts as new to God.”

Amid the continuing debate and discussion between these two positions, how can composers interested in church music find a path that satisfies both their artistic desires and the needs of the church? Is it necessary to align with either the “traditional” or “contemporary camp”? I’m inclined to think both groups are partly right in their arguments. But they are both wrong, I think, in assuming that so-called “contemporary Christian music” is a “new song” in the sense of the psalm quoted above.  Recognizing these misconceptions may open the way to a new vision of the church’s role in the arts.

A couple years ago, I was working out in the gym when I realized I recognized the song playing on the radio. (This was notable because I am remarkably ignorant of popular music and therefore rarely recognize the ‘80s, ‘90s, or even 2000s hits which usually air on this station.) It was by a popular Christian band, and I remembered singing it in a worship service once: “For you I sing, I dance/ I rejoice in this divine romance,/ Lift my heart and my hands/ To show my love.”

As I wondered how this song made it onto a mainstream radio station, the next song began, and again it took me a minute to realize I knew this one from church too: “My soul will rest in your embrace/ For I am yours, and you are mine.” I began to wonder if the radio DJ had erroneously thought they were programming secular love songs for their morning playlist. If you didn’t catch the beginning of the lyrics, you’d have no way to know these were “Christian songs.” But such a misunderstanding was only conceivable because, in its purely musical elements, this “contemporary Christian music” was virtually indistinguishable from that of any other acoustic pop song which might be on the radio.

I recently read a thought-provoking article in which a professor who taught at the college I attended said he believes the church needs to modify its thinking “given the changes happening in the broader society. Too often,” he said, “the church is behind.” I think this statement speaks to an assumption many Christians hold: In order to be relevant, the church ought to reflect current trends in the larger culture. Applying this principle to the realm of music, they recognize that the traditional hymn is not a genre which exists in popular (or even classical) music today, and therefore may not make much sense to people uninitiated in the idiosyncrasies of church subculture. While they acknowledge the rich theology in the words of hymns, they are skeptical that this message can reach the hearts of listeners if the artistic medium which carries the words is unfamiliar. Thus, they believe churches should present their music in a popular style familiar, and therefore emotionally relatable, to someone coming from a background in purely secular culture.

It is certainly encouraging to see churches thinking about how to create an experience that engages and draws in people from the outside. But in practice, this often turns into simply copying trends in secular popular music and creating a sort of derivative style for the church (with the potential for humorous confusion between genres along the way). This does not really fulfill the spirit of the Psalmist’s injunction to sing “a new song.” It also fundamentally mistakes the church’s role vis-á-vis the secular culture. The church is not called to engage culture by mirroring its trends and adopting its styles or even its values while trying to win it over to a radically different worldview. Instead, the church must engage culture prophetically, by presenting it with something noticeably different, challenging its assumptions in light of the teachings of Scripture. As my friend Joel Clarkson writes in an insightful essay on this topic, “traditional liturgy is also radically countercultural” in this way.

What if writers of church music today took “Sing to the LORD a new song” as an invitation to create something new in an artistic sense? What if, instead of just adopting the culture’s artistic forms and trying to fill them with “Christian” content, they created new forms that express aspects of Christian belief that are distinct from the secular culture? What if, instead of merely trying to catch up to the changing culture, they aimed to lead the change in a new direction?  Just as respect for the old does not mean merely adhering to a traditional musical style, the pursuit of newness in song should run deeper than just following the most up-to-date creations of others.

Artists throughout history, whether people of faith or not, have always called out injustices in the culture and inconsistencies in its worldview. According to the philosopher John Dewey, they do so “through imaginative vision… of possibilities that contrast with actual conditions.”[1] When accepted morality supports patterns of thought and action that confine people in a life that is less than full, art can imagine a world of better possibilities. Through art and music, the church has the opportunity to identify weaknesses in the culture on the basis of Scripture, create musical forms drawing attention to them, and speak prophetically and powerfully through an artistic medium to project a vision of how the culture could be renewed under the reign of Him who said, “I am making all things new.”

[1] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Minton, Balch, and Company, 1934), 346.

Sofia Gubaidulina, Repentance

by Nathan Cornelius

Born in 1931, Sofia Gubaidulina is one of the leading Russian composers of the late 20th century. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, where she had spent most of her career, she moved to Germany, and her music became increasingly known in the West. Her music synthesizes Eastern and Western traditions and often has mystical or religious connotations, as in this piece, Repentance for cello, three guitars, and double bass.

Repentance struck me with its simplicity of materials above all else. Gubaidulina eschews sophisticated structures requiring deep analysis in favor of distinct, transparent musical objects which speak directly to listeners. Most of the melodies in the piece are simply chromatic scales or elaborations of them, with a strong ascending or descending trajectory. The only prominent harmonies which appear are major and minor triads, along with the quartal chord formed by the open strings of the guitar and the bass. The effect is like that of a drawing made up solely of points and lines, without subtlety and artifice of shading. Perhaps this music’s intentional simplicity symbolizes the spirit of humility and contrition necessary for repentance in Christian theology.

The piece begins with a prolonged and increasingly intense high B in all five instruments, ornamented with its neighbor notes A# and C, creating a strong sense of a pitch center. At 2:30, the cello causes the pitch center to shift to a low C, but its nervous, almost obsessive music is strikingly interrupted by a gentle, slowly sinking series of major chords played pizzicato by the guitars and the bass. This alternation between agitated, ascending chromatic lines and calm, descending major chords continues throughout the piece, with the chromatic music becoming more and more dissonant and chaotic. At 16:05, Gubaidulina creates a spectacularly jarring effect with all three guitars playing indeterminate chords with glass slides. In the end, the cello’s wildly soaring line glissandos down to come to rest with the low pizzicato object in the guitars and bass.