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George Corbett

© 2019 George Corbett, CC BY 4.0

In Sacred Music in Secular Society, Jonathan Arnold highlights a strange phenomenon: ‘the seeming paradox that, in today’s so-called secular society, sacred choral music is as powerful, compelling and popular as it has ever been’.1 The explosion of new media through the internet and digital technology has created a new, broader audience for ‘the creative art of Renaissance polyphony and its successors to the present day’, a genre of sacred music that seems to have ‘an enduring appeal for today’s culture’.2 Arnold suggests, moreover, that sacred choral music is thriving in Anglican worship: although attendance continues to decline in general, he cites the rise at religious services sung by professional choirs in British cathedrals over the last two decades.3 In 2015, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, while acknowledging the tension in Catholic music-making following the Second Vatican Council, reaffirmed his conviction that ‘great sacred music is a reality of theological stature and of permanent significance for the faith of the whole of Christianity, even if it is by no means necessary that it be performed always and everywhere’.4 Whether in churches or in secular spaces, then, sacred music continues to be a significant part of many people’s experience of, and theoretical reflection on, Christian faith and music today.

A foremost contemporary composer of sacred choral music for both secular performances and for Christian worship is James MacMillan.5 In 2015, he was appointed as a part-time professor at the University of St Andrews, in the School of Divinity’s Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA). MacMillan sees music — with its special relationship to spirituality — as a medium which may lead the reintegration of theology and the other arts: ‘The discussion, the dialogue, between theology and the arts’, he comments, ‘is not some peripheral thing that some have claimed it has been, but it actually might have been a very central thing in the development of the way that we think of our culture’.6 Collaborating with MacMillan provided me with the stimulus for a new research project — ‘Annunciations: Sacred Music for the Twenty-First Century’ — that sought to contribute to the fostering of sacred choral music in the future, as well as to interrogate, more broadly, the relationship between theology and music.7

The project, undertaken between 2016–2018, aimed to re-engage composers with the creative inspiration that can come from an encounter with scripture, theology and Christian culture. While composers are typically educated in the techne of their craft at conservatoire or university, there has been a tendency in these contexts — as MacMillan highlights — to treat music as simply ‘abstract’, and to downplay the interrelation between music and the extra-musical. Commenting on the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme, MacMillan wrote:

It will be interesting to see if the next generation of composers will engage with theology, Christianity or the general search for the sacred. There has been a significant development in this kind of intellectual, academic and creative activity in the last twenty years or so. In the world of theology there is an understanding that the arts open a unique window on the divine.8

For the TheoArtistry scheme, six composers were selected (from almost one hundred applicants) to collaborate with theologians in ITIA. This led to six new choral settings of ‘annunciations’ in the Hebrew Bible; six episodes in which God — in different ways — seems to communicate directly to humankind: God speaking to Adam and Eve (Genesis [Gen] 3); Jacob wrestling with God (Gen 32); Moses and the Burning Bush (Exodus 3); the threefold calling of Samuel (1 Samuel 3); Elijah and the ‘sound of sheer silence’ (1 Kings 19); and the Song of Songs 3.6-11.9 In choosing the theme of ‘annunciations’, we were conscious that the ‘word of the Lord’ is arguably ‘rare’ once more in our contemporary culture; there seems to be, as in the time of the prophet Samuel, ‘no frequent vision’. Nevertheless, people seem to be wrestling again with God (or something like God), whether rejecting or seeking, in organized religion or in a return to silence. We hoped, therefore, that our thematic focus on how, when, why, through whom, to whom, in what ways God communicates in the Old and New Testaments — and not on what God says (the content of God’s revelation) — would be interesting and relevant to people today in reflecting on their experience, or lack of experience, of divine encounter.

For the project, we also sought to challenge what we perceived as an excessive formalism in musical performance. Historically Informed Performance (HIP), arguably the most influential development in classical music performance in the twentieth century, has privileged musical style over its content, with a claim to ‘authenticity’ based on the adoption of period instruments, pitch and performance practices. In the same period, developments in the recording industry have placed ever-greater emphasis on musicians’ technical prowess, and on perfectionism in sound quality. These formal tendencies affect how we listen to, and appreciate, music. Prioritizing technically flawless and stylistically ‘authentic’ performances of well-worn, well-known pieces, risks turning music into just another cultural commodity, and the church or concert hall, into a museum. In advocating Theologically Informed Programming and Performance (TIPP), we sought to privilege, instead, the spiritual content of music: to show how an appreciation of the theological engagement or profound spirituality of composers can influence their music’s performance and reception.10 We developed and researched a programme (and new CD recording) that takes listeners on a musical journey through salvation history, exploring moments in the Old and New Testaments when God communicates to humankind.11 The composers’ six new settings of ‘annunciations’ in the Hebrew Bible are framed by moments of divine communication in the New Testament — including the songs of Mary, Zechariah, the Angels, and Simeon — as well as settings of the Annunciation: the Angel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah.12

Most significantly, perhaps, the TheoArtistry project sought to experiment with collaborations between theologians and composers. MacMillan and his librettist, the poet Michael Symmons Roberts, highlight that the myth of the solitary, free-spirited, uncommitted artist is still with us.13 The project sought to champion, by contrast, the immense power of collaboration for both theologians and composers. In doing so (as I discuss further in Chapter 3), we were particularly inspired by Jeremy Begbie’s pioneering initiative, Theology Through the Arts (TTA). Foundational for creative collaboration between theologians and artists, Begbie’s initiative also validates the process of collaboration itself as theologically significant, and worthy of critical reflection. Thus, in Sounding the Depths: Theology Through the Arts, Begbie collates the reflections of theologians and artists who worked together on four artworks: Parthenogenesis (a chamber opera); Till Kingdom Come (a play); The Way of Life (a cathedral sculpture); and Easter Oratorio.14 These scholarly and artistic reflections demonstrate just how theologically and creatively productive such a process of collaboration can be. Part II of this volume similarly brings together the reflections of the six theologians and six composers involved in the project.

Finally, the project aimed to address the state of sacred music today, and to consider its future. The reflections of the six theologians and six composers are framed, therefore, by chapters setting out the compositional perspectives and theological framework underpinning the project (Part I), and by perspectives on the programming, performance and reception of sacred music in the twenty-first century (Part III).

In Part I, MacMillan provides the first of two compositional perspectives. MacMillan argues that the ‘search for the sacred’ has characterized modernism in music, and that a rootedness in tradition and religion leads to true creativity: ‘the binding’, in the poet David Jones’s words, ‘makes possible the freedom’. Paul Mealor then reflects with Margaret McKerron on his vocation as a composer, giving a fascinating insight into his own creative process. Both MacMillan and Mealor (in Chapters 1 and 2) discuss how they envisage the relationship between faith and music personally and, also, in terms of the recent, turbulent history of classical music. In Chapter 3, I analyse MacMillan’s theology of music in relation to the project’s theme of ‘annunciations’, and set out the flexible model for creative partnership between theologians and composers that we adopted for the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme. In British choral music, musical settings of the New Testament proliferate but, with the exception of the psalms, there are relatively few settings of Old Testament passages. In Chapter 4, biblical scholar Madhavi Nevader reflects on ‘annunciations’, or moments of divine encounter, in the Ancient Near East, providing a context for the six passages of the Hebrew Bible explored by the theologians and composers. In Chapter 5, Church historian William P. Hyland explores the rich typological interpretations of Old Testament ‘annunciations’ through the Christian liturgy. The six composers were commissioned to write choral pieces approximately three minutes in length that would be performable by a good amateur choir, and Tom Wilkinson discussed with them how to balance technical demands in different areas of vocal writing. In Chapter 6, he presents these compositional guidelines, using musical examples from works by Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Kenneth Leighton, and MacMillan, as well as from the new choral pieces themselves.

Part II presents the six theologians’ expositions of the scriptural episodes, (including visualizations and illustrations), alongside the six composers’ reflections and musical scores. In preparing an Old Testament ‘annunciation’ for their composer-partner, the theologians may be seen to have taken three different approaches. The first was to reappraise a familiar scriptural passage through the lens of the artistic imagination, bringing out a new or hidden aspect that counters dominant interpretative paradigms. The second was to approach the passage with a particular question or personal interest. The third was to explore the semantic difficulties of representing God’s presence. Whether challenging conventional readings of the Fall (Chapter 7) or the calling of Samuel (Chapter 10), addressing contemporary questions about gender (Chapter 12) or faith in secular environments (Chapter 8) in dialogue with the Christian tradition, or meditating on divine communication through the word, senses, and silence (Chapters 9 and 11), the theologians’ chapters open up new perspectives on these famous biblical episodes. The side-by-side reflections of the six composers reveal just how important they found this ‘extra-musical’ stimulus to be for their compositional process. The scores of the six new choral settings are also reprinted in full, with links to the audio recordings.

In Part III, Michael Ferguson and Matthew Owens consider the role and future of sacred music in Catholic and Anglican worship respectively. In Chapter 13, Ferguson emphasizes that, following the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), sacred music in the Catholic Church in Scotland has been dominated by a liturgist and functional approach, with pastoral and practical considerations (such as congregational participation, and the lack of technical proficiency of musicians) leaving little room for the ‘treasure’ of sacred art music. He also cites, however, Joseph Ratzinger’s critique of obscurantism in contemporary art music as a reason for its more generalized rejection. In the Anglican Church, the situation has been very different, with the cathedral foundations and college chapels still providing institutional support for extremely high levels of musicianship. The Church does not, however, typically fund new compositions. In Chapter 14, Owens reflects on his own commissioning projects at Wells Cathedral, which have led to many new choral works for the repertoire. In Chapter 15, Michael Downes interrogates the historical relationship between faith and music through the work of three composers — George Frideric Handel, Edward Elgar, and Francis Poulenc —, and the conflicted tension in their oratorios between the sacred and the secular. Jonathan Arnold, in Chapter 16, then analyses the appetite for sacred music in the ostensibly secular world of the twenty-first century. In Chapter 17, Gavin Hopps considers the ‘listener’s share’, privileging, thereby, the audience as co-constitutors of music’s meaning. Hopps argues that, if we take listeners’ experiences seriously, sacred art music clearly is, for some, a mediator of the divine and the transcendent; on the other hand, again insisting on the effects of music on listeners, it is equally apparent that many other kinds of music are potential vehicles of transcendence. While contributing to the treasure of sacred choral music is a key endeavour of this volume, it seems salutary to conclude, nevertheless, with Hopps’ openness to a variety of musical forms and idioms as potential mediators of profound religious experience.15

1 Jonathan Arnold, Sacred Music in Secular Society (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), p. xiv. I would like to thank Edward Foley for inviting me to reflect on the TheoArtistry project in a special issue of Religions, and the journal’s general editors for permission to reprint material here and in Chapter 3. For the original article, see George Corbett, ‘TheoArtistry, and a Contemporary Perspective on Composing Sacred Choral Music’, Religions, 9.1 (2018), 7, 1–18 (Special Issue: Music: Its Theologies and Spiritualities — A Global Perspective),

2 Arnold, pp. xiv–xv. In the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, there has been a remarkable flowering of different kinds of Christian music both inside and outside denominational churches. Genres of contemporary music as diverse as Christian Pop, Christian Hip Hop, and Praise and Worship arguably have an equal right to be referred to as ‘sacred music’. In this volume, nonetheless, the terms ‘sacred music’, ‘sacred choral music’, and ‘sacred art music’ are typically used to refer to the predominantly Western Christian tradition of classical choral music from Gregorian chant, through Renaissance polyphony, to the present.

3 See Arnold, p. xv. See also Alan Kreider, ‘Introduction’, in Composing Music for Worship, ed. by Stephen Darlington and Alan Kreider (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2003), pp. 1–14; and Andrew Gant, O Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music (London: Profile Books, 2015): ‘Tallis is not dead, because people are still using his music and doing what he did, in the places where he did it, and for the same reasons.’ (p. 377). See also Jonathan Arnold’s chapter in this volume.

4 For an English translation of Benedict XVI’s speech, see Joseph Ratzinger, ‘That Music, for Me, Is a Demonstration of the Truth of Christianity’, trans. by Matthew Sherry (, 2015), See, also, Michael Ferguson’s chapter in this volume.

5 MacMillan has also been a vocal public advocate for sacred choral music in Roman Catholic Liturgy, especially during the period leading up to and following Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain in 2010. For an account of MacMillan’s approach to sacred music in relation to this context, see Michael Ferguson, ‘Understanding the Tensions in Liturgical Music-Making in the Roman Catholic Church in Contemporary Scotland’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2015), and, also, Ferguson’s chapter in this volume.

6 See James MacMillan, ‘The Power of the Arts to Communicate the Divine: TheoArtistry at St Andrews’,

7 I founded TheoArtistry in 2016 as a new dimension of the work of ITIA. TheoArtistry explores how ITIA’s research at the interface between theology and the arts might inform directly the making, practice, performance, curatorship and reception of Christian art, and transform the role of the arts in theology, Church practice, and society at large.

8 James MacMillan, ‘A New Generation of Christian Artists’, Catholic Herald (24 February 2017), p. 21.

9 For a video documentary of the scheme, see ‘TheoArtistry: Theologians and Composers in Creative Collaboration’, dir. by David Boos, YouTube, 26 January 2018, The soundtrack consists of extracts from the six new choral works composed through the scheme. See also the short introduction to the project: ‘TheoArtistry: The Power of the Arts to Communicate the Divine’, dir. by David Boos, YouTube, 21 February 2017,

10 Admittedly, there is a noticeable trend in recordings of sacred choral music to pay attention to a liturgical season, gospel episode, or Christian theme; nonetheless, as with classical music as a whole, recordings of sacred music still tend to privilege a particular stylistic period, composer, performer or performance group often at the expense of attention to the spiritual or thematic content of the music. Jonathan Arnold explores this issue of performance context at some length in his Sacred Music, pp. 41–83. John Tavener recognizes the space for a kind of recording of his music that foregrounds its theological inspiration. See John Tavener and Mother Thelka, Ikons: Meditations in Words and Music (London: HarperCollins, 1994), which includes ‘Meditations by Mother Thelka’ and recorded music by John Tavener. Tavener writes, ‘The purpose of this book and CD is to try to give a hint of how it might be possible to reinstate the Sacred into the world of the imagination. Without this happening, I believe that art will continue to slither into a world of abstraction, into being purely self-referential, a sterile and meaningless activity of interest only to the artist and possibly “Brother Criticus”. All great civilizations, except the present one, have understood this as a matter of course. We live in abnormal times; as André Malraux has said: “Either the twenty-first century will not exist at all, or it will be a holy century.” It is up to each one of us to determine what will happen’ (Tavener, ‘Introduction’, p. xi).

11 Annunciations: Sacred Music for the 21st Century, St Salvator’s Chapel Choir and Sean Heath, cond. by Tom Wilkinson (Sanctiandree, SAND0006, 2018), The programme order is as follows: 1. James MacMillan, ‘Ave Maria’ (2010); 2. James MacMillan, ‘Canticle of Zachariah’ (2007); 3. John Tavener, ‘Annunciation’ (1992); 4. Kenneth Leighton, ‘Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from the 2nd Service’ (1971); 5. James MacMillan, ‘A New Song’ (1997); 6. Anselm McDonnell, ‘Hinneni’ (2017); 7. Dominic de Grande, ‘Whilst falling asleep, Savta told me of Jacob’ (2017); 8. Kerensa Briggs, ‘Exodus III’ (2017); 9. Seán Doherty, ‘God Calls Samuel’ (2017); 10. Lisa Robertson, ‘The Silent Word Sounds’ (2017); 11. Stuart Beatch, ‘The Annunciation of Solomon’ (2017); 12. James MacMillan, ‘And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them’ (2009); 13. Benjamin Britten, ‘Hymn to the Virgin’ (1930); 14. Judith Bingham, ‘The Annunciation’ (2000); 15. James MacMillan, ‘O Radiant Dawn’ (2007).

12 In addition to this theological theme or journey, the recording also explores MacMillan’s ongoing contributions to sacred music, particularly in the British choral tradition. Alongside five of MacMillan’s own pieces, the recording includes works by two decisive influences on MacMillan (Benjamin Britten and Kenneth Leighton), by two significant contemporaries (John Tavener and Judith Bingham), and by the six ‘next generation’ composers mentored by MacMillan. Although this volume is self-standing, the recording ideally accompanies it.

13 Michael Symmons Roberts, ‘Contemporary Poetry and Belief’, in The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, ed. by Peter Robinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 694–706 (p. 699). See also MacMillan, Chapter 1, in this volume, pp. 916.

14 See Sounding the Depths: Theology Through the Arts, ed. by Jeremy Begbie (London: SCM Press, 2002).

15 See also Gavin Hopps, ‘Introduction’, in The Extravagance of Music, ed. by David Brown and Gavin Hopps (New York: Springer, 2018), pp. 1–29.