Friday, March 1, 2013

We Need Not Believe

Last week, in response to an inquiry from a friend and colleague, I posted a list of atheist and agnostic composers of sacred music:

This morning I came across a little essay I had posted to ChoralNet a few years ago; it seems worth resurrecting [!] here, edited and expanded, as a complement to that list.

Many of our core sacred choral works were composed by people who were atheists or agnostics.

Of course at one end of that continuum we have J.S. Bach, whose sincere faith, and its centrality to his life, is well known. For Bach, composition itself was an act of worship. At the other end of the continuum we have the many known atheists/agnostics who have composed compelling sacred music, including Vaughan Williams, Schubert, Verdi, Rachmaninoff, Brahms, to some degree Beethoven, and perhaps even Mozart. John Rutter, too, and many others...

Perhaps for these composers, composition in sacred genres such as “mass” and “requiem” and “passion” may be more an act of musical expression than an expression of personal faith. I wouldn't be surprised if some composers (especially those of the 16th through 19th centuries) had composed masses or other sacred works simply because they were among the major genres available for composition, and these works were expected by the public. Many sacred works were (and are) composed on commission, of course.

How do we approach preparation and performance of sacred works by non-believing composers? The same as we do for sacred works of composers of faith: with sincerity and respect, and with the same commitment to the text that we would employ for any vocal work. Those who perform sacred works in concert are actors, interpreters, and presenters. We need not believe in the words in order to present a sympathetic and sincere performance. However, we must also have sincere respect for the words, and for the beliefs they represent, and for the people who believe in them.

As American composer Ned Rorem, a self-proclaimed atheist, said about his sacred choral music: “Half my entire musical output is for chorus, about a hundred pieces, and half of those in turn are based on so-called sacred texts. Yet if I do not believe in God, I believe in Belief, and in the great works which the notion of God has inspired.”

I understand that entirely. I am not religious, either, but I respond to sacred music because I respond to the belief of the believers. I sing not for myself; rather I sing with, and for, those who composed the texts and the music, and for those who listen and are inspired. Well, it makes sense to me.

When I’ve sung in concerts of sacred music (such as the annual all-Bach performance by CONCORA), it is clear to me that many members of the audience experience the music and words in a deeply profound and moving way. I do believe that for people of faith, attendance at a concert of sacred music can be an act of worship. That is important, and it makes a difference to my performance.

One expreience in particular is worth describing, a stunning performance in 2008 by CONCORA of Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil (the "Vespers"). During the entire 90-minute work, one man in the audience stood silently, head bowed. Clearly, he was at worship, in the same way that Russian congregants would stand during the recitation of those chants in traditional Russian Orthodox liturgy. It was quite moving. More here:

Related posts:

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:

and here:

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

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