Thursday, January 12, 2012

Singing Sacred Music: Reflections from One Beyond the Pale


I am not a religious person, yet I generally prefer singing sacred music to secular music. Why? Because, it seems to me, many composers write their best music when they set sacred texts, and in so doing, create beautiful music to uplift words that hold great meaning, either for them personally, or for their ethnic or faith communities, or for the people for whom I am singing.

This is reason enough for me. Good choral music includes good settings of good texts. Some of those texts are sacred.

But there are other reasons ― mostly musical, equally compelling ― to include sacred music in our performances.


I love singing music from the 14th-16th centuries ― the “early music” before the Baroque period. Much of the best music from this period is sacred; indeed, some composers wrote only sacred works. And even among composers who wrote both sacred and secular music, their work in the sacred forms (Mass, motet, etc.) are substantially different in style than their madrigals and lighter secular works. These works are worth our interest, worth our time, worth listening to, regardless of their texts and genesis.

Within the later classical music canon, many sacred texts (particularly the “major work” Christian texts such as the Mass, the Requiem Mass, and the Magnificat) are regarded as important frameworks for composition, and are included in the list of “standard” genres, along with the standard forms of symphony, string quartet, sonata, etc. (Many shorter texts ― the best-known Psalms, well-known prayers such as the Ave Maria and the Lord’s Prayer, and important passages from the Book of Common Prayer ― are also “standard” in the choral repertoire.) Because of the relative importance of these sacred texts across (Western) music history, we must regard sacred compositions as essential to the classical canon, regardless of our personal beliefs.

Consider, for example, Johann Sebastian Bach's astonishing, astounding Mass in B Minor. I had the pleasure of researching and writing an extensive program note [7200 words!] for a 2007 presentation by Gaudeamus of this work, a performance in which I was also privileged to sing. The entire process – research, listening, writing, rehearsing, and performing – became an intensive, weeks-long course in Baroque music form and style. If I had eschewed the Mass simply because it is a sacred work, I would have missed this in-depth study and performance, from the inside out, of the music that Bach considered to be among his best creations, and a significant expression of his beliefs and his life’s dedication to God. If I want to know and understand Bach, I must know and understand the Mass in B Minor.

On the other side of the coin, we find composers known to be agnostics or even atheists, composing sacred music, as I wrote here, about major sacred works by Verdi, Rachmaninoff, and Vaughan Williams:
http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/2008/04/singing-sacred-music-confronting.html

Many of my friends are amazed that I have been employed as a professional section leader/soloist in a church choir [and continue to sing there in a volunteer capacity]. I did so because I knew it would be a very satisfying musical experience, and because the choir director whom I most respect invited me to join the choir in that capacity. I valued the opportunity to perform excellent choral repertoire with a smart, responsive choir under the direction of a skilled, visionary director. I hesitated to take the job, wondering if it is possible for an atheist to serve a church community, but I discovered that it is possible to serve a church and its members in a respectful and professional way even if I do not subscribe to their beliefs. It’s possible to find satisfaction in knowing that listeners are moved by beautiful choral music, even if I don't share their religious or spiritual response. Good concert performances are satisfying for the same reason: It’s rewarding to know that one’s music-making can create an uplifting and enriching experience for one’s listeners.

“…some to church repair
Not for the doctrine, but for the music there.”
Alexander Pope (1688-1744), from his Essay on Criticism.

Important note: The church that employed me is a very progressive, liberal, Open and Affirming, congregation with a mission to serve the community without evangelizing or requiring any participation in the church. I would not have served otherwise. I do not receive communion, and I do not participate in prayers; to do so would be hypocritical of course, but also deeply disrespectful.


More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here: http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/search/label/Chorister


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