Alex Woolf


Sacred Music

This week I was at a Q&A with the Danish composer Bent Sørensen; nestled amongst various nuggets of wisdom, one comment really stood out. My sieve-like brain means I'm paraphrasing slightly, but it went something like this:

Art, religion and love are all part of the same dream [...] to reach for something bigger than yourself.

For some reason, this really struck a chord with me. I think that the phrases/quips/comments which speak to us the most are those that grapple with something huge, but do so with a wonderful sense of clarity; in this case, the scope couldn't be larger, but the meaning couldn't be simpler. The remark doesn't presuppose or depend upon religious conviction one way or the other, nor does it mystify art or love. These are, simply, three ways in which we all, to varying extents, aspire towards something beyond our day-to-day experience. Far from placing art on its usual mysterious pedestal, Sørensen articulates a very human truth. 

I've been immersed in sacred music a fair amount recently, so I suppose I’ve been viewing his statement through something of a stained-glass prism. Some of my favourite musical experiences of the last few years have involved singing at or writing for choral evensong services; Sørensen's words perhaps help to explain why this mixture of musical and Christian traditions means so much to such a range of people, regardless of their prior experience of (or attitude towards) either. 

Music within a religious service exists in quite an intangible space: it seems to resemble a performance, and yet that word doesn’t quite fit. There’s no applause, singers and ‘audience’ are united as members of a congregation, and any music must take account of both the liturgical calendar and the suitability of text. Music is thereby liberated from any inflated sense of its own importance – in a service, it primarily exists to, well, serve.

This has been an unexpected joy of my first few forays into writing sacred music: the music, like the act of worship it’s part of, must reach beyond itself and aspire upwards in some way. This may or may not be devised in an explicitly religious way – some of my very favourite religious music is written by composers with complicated or nonexistent relationships with God. Rather, the very attempt to reach beyond oneself has meaningful consequences – the extent to which those are perceived as artistic, religious or both is up to each individual. 

Perhaps this should be the goal when composing anything, but it’s certainly been on my mind when writing sacred music. My St John’s Service is a setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, texts which are sung at every evensong service. Dipping my toe into such a colossal, centuries-old tradition was intimidating to say the least, and I suppose partly to combat that, I tried to find my own small ways in which the music might attempt to serve something bigger than just itself. Here’s one:

There’s a compelling difference between the Mag and Nunc texts: in the Mag, God is referred to in the 3rd-person (‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’), whereas the Nunc addresses God directly (‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’). It made sense, therefore, that ‘God’ should seem closer, more present somehow in the Nunc. So I looked for the most emphatic reference to God in the Mag, which surely comes at the beginning of the gloria – ‘Glory be to the Father’. Here’s how that line looks in my setting:

In the Nunc, the setting of the word 'Father' becomes the main accompanimental figure (see below) – it never appears in the choir (apart from at the equivalent moment in the gloria), but it’s nonetheless present throughout on the organ. It's even heard first on precisely the same pitches, though tonally recontextualised from B-flat to F. The imagery I hoped to aim at here is that God, so eagerly praised throughout the Mag, is now close-by, listening to the prayer offered in the Nunc. In the biblical account, Simeon utters these words with the baby Jesus literally in his arms, so it seemed an appropriate idea to try and represent.

Now, music is so wonderfully abstract that this won’t (or can’t?) be immediately obvious when listening – but maybe that’s the point. Music, like faith, allows us to engage with the intangible, the indistinct, the stuff that doesn’t immediately swim to the surface. And this is surely a big part of what makes music and religion such a winning combination. Sørensen’s idea that art, religion and love are all 'part of the same dream' is afforded special potency in an arena that celebrates all three. It helps to explain why this environment has so quickly become meaningful for me as a composer, and why I’m so keen to keep exploring its seemingly inexhaustible riches.