Where theology and musical modernity meet, by Sir James MacMillan

James MacMillanFri 2nd March 2018

The composer introduces a project exploring the search for the sacred in contemporary composition

One of the big surprises in my creative life has been the wider recognition that the spiritual inspirations behind the great composers, past and present, springing from Judeo-Christian civilisation, should be seriously reassessed. By this, I don't mean in some reductive, anthropological detachment from the sources which amounts to a de facto denial of the theological and cultural claims of that tradition, or an implied, haughty downgrading of its authenticity. Rather the reassessment is a recognition of the potency of a culture with Christ very much at its origin and centre, and a joyous sense of wonder at everything that has flowed from it in centuries of music making.

What brings this recognition and reassessment some urgency is the wider, sometimes reluctant concession that religion has played a huge part in musical modernity from Wagner to the present day. Some of the world's most important composers were profoundly religious men and women. Not all were necessarily conventional believers and many were not even Christian, but the search for the sacred has been constant and widespread in musical modernity from Stravinsky and Schoenberg through to Pärt and Finnissy and loads in between (Messaien, Poulenc, Britten, Schnittke, Gorecki and even Cage and Stockhausen).

Throughout western universities the study of this phenomenon has burgeoned. Since its foundation in 2000, the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) in St Andrews has led the way in bringing theology and the arts back together. There are a growing number of such fora in UK universities, and it is big also in the US.

One of ITIA's founders, the Scottish musician and theologian Jeremy Begbie engaged with me during the time I wrote my St Luke Passion. This involved intense, exploratory discussions which were mutually beneficial. Not every composer would welcome this, but those with a thirst for learning and expanding the imaginative context would. I did. 

When I joined ITIA, we began planning how this strategy might work for the next generation of composers and theologians, pioneering what has been described as ‘theologically informed programming and performance’. We paired six of the best upcoming composers from around the UK and Ireland with doctoral theologians from the university.

The theologians were tasked with researching passages from scripture that could be set to music by the composers. Participants didn’t need any faith, and were encouraged to engage with the Christian tradition however they wanted. I mentored the six composers and watched them engage with their theological counterparts in ongoing, fruitful discussion. The experiment is part of the University’s TheoArtistry project, and has led to six wonderful new works of sacred music, which are available on the CD 'Annunciations: Sacred Music for the 21st Century'.

The project culminates in a little three-day festival at the University on March 4–6. It will explore the challenges and opportunities for sacred music in the 21st century. The festival will include sessions on sacred music in and outside the church, as well as reflection by leading scholars on new directions in theology and music. The festival will launch the CD recording of the new compositions ‘Annunciations’, and the music will be performed at a special concert by the Choir of St Salvator’s Chapel. Also presented will be the documentary on the scheme by Austrian filmmaker David Boos, and a new book by ITIA scholars David Brown and Gavin Hopps.

I hope that this project could galvanise others to pursue their own investigations into the interface between musical modernity and theological research. Music lovers might be curious to hear what young composers bring to this late flowering of sacred music in our times. The search for the sacred is clearly very much a current concern in contemporary composition. It never went away, and probably never will.

'Annunciations: Sacred Music for the 21st Century' is released on March 9 on the Sanctiandree label. You can learn more about TheoArtistry and the composition project in the video below:

 

James MacMillan

Sir James MacMillan, the acclaimed Scottish composer, is a visiting professor at the University of St Andrews Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts.

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