What does it mean to compose for God?

You must read this wonderful speech by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev at the Catholic University of America, February 9, 2011.

Here is a small excerpt on Bach:

Bach is a universal Christian phenomenon. His music transcends confessional boundaries; it is ecumenical in the original sense of the word, for it belongs to the world as a whole and to each citizen separately. We may call Bach an ‘orthodox’ composer in the original, literal sense of the Greek word ortho-doxos for throughout his life he learnt how to glorify God rightly. Invariably he adorned his musical manuscripts with the words Soli Deo Gloria (‘Glory to the One God’) or Jesu, juva (‘Help, O Jesus’). These expressions were for him not merely verbal formulae but a confession of faith that ran through all of his compositions. For Bach, music was worship of God. He was truly ‘catholic,’ again in the original understanding of the Greek word katholikos, meaning ‘universal,’ or ‘all-embracing,’ for he perceived the Church as a universal organism, as a common doxology directed towards God. Furthermore, he believed his music to be but a single voice in the cosmic choir that praises God’s glory. And of course, throughout his life Bach remained a true son of his native Lutheran Church. Albeit, as Albert Schweitzer noted, Bach’s true religion was not even orthodox Lutheranism but mysticism. His music is deeply mystical because it is based on an experience of prayer and ministry to God which transcends confessional boundaries and is the heritage of all humanity.

Bach’s personal religious experience was embodied in all of his works which, like holy icons, reflect the reality of human life but reveal it in an illumined and transfigured form.

Bach may have lived during the Baroque era, but his music did not succumb to the stylistic peculiarities of the time. As a composer, moreover, Bach developed in an antithetical direction to that taken by art in his day. His was an epoch characterized by culture’s headlong progression towards worldliness and humanism. Center stage became ever more occupied by the human person with his passions and vices, while less artistic space was reserved for God. Bach’s art was not ‘art’ in the conventional meaning of the word; it was not art for art’s sake. The cardinal difference between the art of antiquity and the Middle Ages on the one hand and modern art on the other is in the direction it takes: pre-Renaissance art was directed towards God, while modern art is orientated towards the human person. Bach stood at the frontier of these two inclinations, two world-views, two opposing concepts of art. And, of course, he remained a part of that culture which was rooted in tradition, in cult, in worship, in religion.

8 Replies to “What does it mean to compose for God?”

  1. This is quite a compliment to Bach, especially considering that for The Metropolitan any artificial musical instruments are not even allowed to participate in the Orthodox liturgy. This is quite a contrast to what we increasingly hear today, that Bach's "non-religious" compositions are his much better ones because these allowed him to avoid the straightjacket imposed upon him by religion.
    I have often found that Bach did take certain elements of chant and developed them within the context of his more conservative baroque forms, particularly in the sacred vocal.
    I wonder how many Catholic parishes have competent organists with suitable organs for this. Moreover, how often is Bach heard in the typical North American Catholic parish? I could ask that same question of chant, but I suspect that there are monunmental changes in the horizon about to take place.
    Metropolitan Hilarion also has an interesting stat concerning those Gregorian chant CDs. It it seems there is a demand for them, and I wonder how much of that demand comes from practising Christians.

  2. A Great article. He seems to reflect a lot of my own views on the line of composers and the various periods as they wander away from the sacred as time passes. I see the romantic era as more a reflection on the carnal aspect of life. Of course I am a big Bach afficianado, and I play his music just about every week. It is interesting to see how he also feels that the avant garde was move toward chaos and nothingness.

    As a composer of sacred music, I just hid in a cave for 45 years composing music for God. It has only been the last five years that I have been able to emerge and begin to utilize all the music that I composed during that time. I truly did not think I was going to be able to do even that and I was resigned to compose sacred music in a vaccuum and maybe leave it to a future generation, but the internet is giving me a great opportunity to distribute music in a way no one ever thought possible. Now I just have to pour all the music I composed in the last forty years (in handwritten notation) into the computer so I can publish it.

    With the "great divide" that still exist among styles of music in the Catholic Church, I still find a lot of animosity toward sacred music, however. A couple of weeks ago I was at the Southwest Liturgical Conference and approached one of the big three publishers to discuss getting some of my music in the catalogue. The representative of one of the companies (who was very high up) was very antagonistic toward even looking at my website (I guess since the word 'Roman' is part of the URL) and pretty much blew me off without ever taking interest to see what kind of music I compose. Very sad. If this kind of mindset is still prevalent in the publishers of (so called) sacred music, we still may have a while to go before the streets are clean.

  3. Oh Lord. Can we please stop smacking the 20th century composers en masse, save for a few darling exceptions? The Metropolitan, who seems to be an intelligent man, lumps a lot of music together that simply doesn't belong together. No religious music in the 20th century until mystical minimalists? This sounds like the White List revisited. What about Britten's Missa Brevis in D? The works of Langlais? Poulenc? Does it have to sound like ear candy to be sacred? This kind of nostaligia is a misunderstanding of tradition which encompasses both traditio and tradere. The blanket condemnation of 20th century music is a historical anomaly which not even Cardinal Borromeo could match.

  4. Michael

    I wouldn't think Britten, Langlais or Poulenc (and a few other 20th Cen. composers) are at all considered avant garde and am sure most if not all all consider them to be composers of sacred music.

  5. Francis,

    Unfortunately this is not what the archbishop said. To wit:

    "It is my personal view that, in the history of twentieth-century music, there is only one composer who, in terms of talent and depth of inspired searching, comes close to Bach, and that is Shostakovich."


    "Many modern Western composers have written music to religious texts. It suffices to recall Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and the church music of Honneger, Hindemith and Messiaen.

    The real return of composers to the sphere of faith, however, came only at the end of the twentieth century when, in place of discord, formless noise, aleatoric music and content-free silence, there appeared a newly devised harmony for the absolute spiritual silence of musical minimalism."

    These are terribly irresponsible glosses that go along with several awful mistatements of fact, such as the notion that Shostakovich stood up to the Soviet Union, or that John Cage intended to say nothing with 4'33". Obviously the method that you and I use to determine what makes good music is more nuanced than His Grace's, who seems to be plagued by a kind of reverse Whig Theory of History, unless the music in question conforms to some kind of standard of ear candy. I wonder what people said about Leonin and Perotin back in the day…

  6. At last, another soul who doesn't think Arvo's just the "BEES KNEES" and genuflects toward Finland!
    Shostakovich made the glory train, but Khatchaturian didn't? Hmmm.
    And could somebody, PUH LEEZE, tell film and tele-advert directors that Phillip Glass is so outre!
    Now if Brian Eno ever has a "Samuel" moment in the middle of the night, great rejoicing will ensue from my little hut in the hinterlands.

  7. Michael:

    I was taking what he said more in generalties, but I can see your point that he is making sweeping statements with brush strokes that are quite broad.

    I think the minimilism of Part, Gorecki and others, was a return to basics or to something spiritual, but it stagnated and never really developed from there. Minimilism is still experimental music that is reaching for a maturity it never attains.

    Love Poulenc. Barber says it with a romantic flair, but still falls in the category of modern. The Tavener I have heard is more modal, but I haven't heard a ton of his work either, so I can't really give you a good take on him. I really don't care for Lauridsen… It starts the same and ends the same. I don't get a sense of departing and arriving. It's just a kind of a wash. Britten certainly arrived, and what about Bruckner? He has some wonderful sonorities.

    Good to hear from you… it's been a while.

Comments are closed.