To the choral geeks among you: Do you ever stop to think about the religious beliefs – or lack thereof – of your favorite choral composers? Do you assume that composers of sacred or liturgical music believe the words they have set? Can an atheist or agnostic person compose effective, persuasive sacred music?
A few days ago, a friend asked me if I could supply a list of atheist or agnostic composers of sacred choral music. Though I can name several off the top of my head, I thought it would be interesting to do a little methodical research. The results of a just few hours’ exploration are shown below. I limited the list to the Western tradition (my only area of expertise). I included agnostics (e.g., RVW) and some others such as pantheists, who in their times, would have been considered outside the pale (e.g., Beethoven). I further limited the list to composers for whom I could identify sacred choral music.
Without a doubt, the list is incomplete. I expect that we will never know about non-religoius composers from earlier times, when being an "out" atheist was grounds for shunning, loss of employment, or even execution. If you know of other nonreligious composers of sacred music, please leave a comment with pertinent information and at least one example of a sacred work (citations and links too, please). After I verify the facts, I’ll add it to the list.
All the works cited below were verified in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (online version). In some cases, such as Rorem, there were just too many sacred choral works to list them individually.
I think that many music lovers, even choral geeks, might be surprised at some of the names on this list. I’m not. I’ve written before about atheist and agnostic composers:
Though I’m an atheist, I enjoy singing sacred music, and I even prefer it, in general, to secular music, as I’ve written here:
Well, here’s the list. Thanks, David, for asking. This was an interesting exercise.
Atheist and Agnostic Composers of Sacred Choral Music
Ludwig van Beethoven (German, 1770-1827), probable pantheist.
Sacred choral music: Missa Solemnis, Mass in C, Christus am Oelberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), other cantatas, etc.
Read my essay on understanding and performing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, particularly the sacred/religious aspects:
Read my essays on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony here:Hector Berlioz (French, 1803–1869), self-described atheist.
Sacred choral music: Messe solennelle; Chant sacré; Quartetto e coro dei magi; Méditation religieuse; Grande messe des morts (Requiem); Te Deum; L’enfance du Christ, trilogie sacrée; Hymne pour la consécration du nouveau tabernacle; Le temple universel; Veni creator; Tantum ergo
Georges Bizet (French, 1838-1875), self-described atheist.
Sacred choral music: Several cantatas; Te Deum
Johannes Brahms (German, 1833-1897), self-described atheist.
Sacred choral music: Many sacred choral works and motets; Ein Deutsches Requiem; some sacred songs.
Read my essays on Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem here:Aaron Copland (American, 1900-1990), self-descibed atheist.
Sacred choral music: Four Motets (Biblical texts); In the Beginning (text from Genesis)
Claude Debussy (French, 1862-1818), self-described “neo-pagan.”
Sacred choral music: David; L’enfant prodigue; incidental music for Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien
Edward Elgar (English, 1857-1934), religious early in life; rejected it in the end.
Sacred choral music: Many sacred works, including motets, anthems, sacred part-songs, cantatas and oratorios, such as Te Deum and Dream of Gerontius
Gerald Finzi (English, 1901-1956), described as “agnostic bordering on atheist."
Sacred choral music: Requiem da camera; Lo, the full, final sacrifice; Three Anthems; Magnificat; other sacred pieces
Gustav Holst (English, 1874-1934), known agnostic, perhaps atheist.
Sacred choral music: Motets, anthems, and some liturgical settings.
Herbert Howells (English, 1892-1983), described by his daughter as an agnostic.
Sacred choral music: Many superb sacred choral works. One of the best composers of sacred choral music of the past century, in my opinion. [ooh, did this surprise you?]
Leoš Janáček (Czech, 1854-1928), self-described atheist.
Sacred choral music: Motets, cantatas, part-songs.
Peter Maxwell Davies (English, 1934–), self-described atheist.
Sacred choral music: Mass, motets, part-songs.
Francis Poulenc (French, 1899-1963), known as an atheist.
Sacred choral music: Litanies à la vierge noire; Mass in G; Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence (Vinea mea electa; Tenebrae factae sunt; Tristis est anima mea; Timor et tremor); Exultate Deo; Salve regina; Quatre petites prières de Saint François d'Assise; Stabat mater; Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (O magnum mysterium; Quem vidistis pastores; Videntes stellam; Hodie Christus natus est); Ave verum corpus; Laudes de Saint Antoine de Padoue (O Jésu perpetua lux; O proles hispaniae; Laus regi plena gaudio; Si quaeris) Gloria; Sept répons des ténèbres.
Sergi Rachmaninoff (Russian, 1873-1943), known as nonreligious.
Sacred choral music: Deus meus; V molitvakh neusïpayushchuyu bogoroditsu [In our Prayers, Ever-vigilant Mother of God; Liturgiya svyatovo Ioanna Zlatousta [Liturgy of St John Chrysostom]; Vsenoshchnoye bdeniye [All-night Vigil].
Read my essays on Rachnaninoff's All-Night Vigil here:Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Russian, 1844–1908)
Sacred choral music: Many sacred and liturgical choral works.
Ned Rorem (American, b. 1923), self-described atheist
Sacred choral music: Many sacred choral works.
Read about my enjoyment of Rorem’s sacred music here:Gioacchino Rossini (Italian, 1792-1868), known as an agnostic or atheist.
And all my essays about Ned Rorem here:
Sacred choral music: Many sacred and liturgical works, including the Petit Messe solonnelle
John Rutter (English, b.1945), self-described agnostic.
Sacred choral music: Many sacred choral works, from motets and anthems to a Requiem, a Gloria, and a Magnificat.
Camille Saint-Saëns (French, 1835-1921). Known as an atheist.
Sacred choral music: Many sacred works, including motets, cantatas, oratorio, etc.
Franz Schubert (German, 1797-1828), a known atheist (“Not a word of it is true.”)
Sacred choral music: Masses and other sacred choral music, including some on Jewish themes. Grove: “His sacred output falls only slightly short of Mozart and greatly exceeds that of Beethoven.”
Richard Strauss (German, 1864-1949), known as an atheist.
Sacred choral music: A few sacred choral settings.
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (Russian, 1840-1893), probable atheist.
Sacred choral music: Many sacred and liturgical choral settings.
Michael Tippett (English, 1905-1998)
Sacred choral music: Psalm in C; Plebs angelica (motet); Magnificat and Nunc dimittis; The Vision of St Augustine; several settings of African-American spirituals.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (English, 1872–1958), known as an agnostic or atheist.
Sacred choral music: Mass in G Minor, Benedicite; Dona Nobis Pacem; many others. Composed many hymn tunes; helped compile The English Hymnal, etc.
Read my essays on Vaughn Williams' Hodie, including religious aspects, here:Giuseppe Verdi (Italian, 1813–1901), known as an atheist.
Sacred choral music: Messa di Gloria; Libera me; Messa da Requiem; Pater noster; Quattro pezzi sacri (Ave Maria, Laudi alla Vergine Maria, Te Deum, Stabat mater)
Richard Wagner (German, 1813-1883), known as an atheist.
(Parsifal and Tannhauser have strong religious themes)