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.
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?
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.
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.
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)