We are doing a series of articles on “God Sightings:” Where we see God at work. This article is about sacred choral music.
Cheri and I discovered sacred choral music soon after we moved to Montrose. It has been our habit, whenever we arrive at a new location, to explore the programs on public radio.
In Vermont (1979) we found “The Thistle and Shamrock” and fell in love with Celtic music. In Spokane, Washington (1980s) it was “Inland Folk,” hosted by Dan Maher, an old high school friend of ours.
So when we arrived in Montrose (1996) we turned on the radio one Sunday morning.
What a lovely surprise! Choirs singing some of the most beautiful music we have ever heard.
They called the program “Sacred Classics” and it played every Sunday morning from 6 – 10 (now it is called “Sing,” not quite as “sacred,” and runs from 6 — 8 a.m., repeating from 8-10).
Some of their selections were standard choral masterpieces I sang in my high school choir and Cheri heard as the child of a music teacher. It was the more recent compositions, however, that caught our attention.
One of the first was Lux Aeterna, composed by Morten Lauridsen in 1997, the year his mother died. The movements of Lux Aeterna draw from classic Latin church texts which bring us to see God as the source of light in times of death.
The San Francisco Choral Society writes, “in expressing a human journey to reclaim intimacy with the inner life, Lauridsen seamlessly integrates the musical essence of ancient modes, Renaissance polyphony, Romanticism, and modern dissonance.
This timelessness can bring home to the listener the recognition of his or her own mortal journey. Perhaps this embracing effect is a reason that Lux Aeterna is widely known to bring listeners to tears.” I can personally attest to this effect.
But it did not stop with Lauridsen. There was Eric Whitacre. Our encounter with Whitacre’s 1999 arrangement of E. E. Cummings prayer “I thank you God for most this amazing day” was a delightful awakening.
There was John Rutter, writing classic Christmas carols today. Karl Jenkins’ “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace” has been performed over a thousand times since it’s premiére in 2000. More names: Daniel Elder, Paul Mealor, René Clausen, James MacMillan, John Taverner. And then we realized. We were witnessing a revival.
Cheri and I have been Christians since 1971 and have both written and performed Christian music from that time till now. We have followed the “Jesus music” of the 70s, and the spread of “worship music” through the 80s.
New forms of music have accompanied great works of God throughout Christian history: for example the great hymns of the Reformation, the music of Charles Wesley during the Great Awakening, and the Gospel songs of the 19th century revivals. “Sing a new song to the Lord,” the Bible urges (Psalm 96:1).
And now this. Listen to me. Cheri and I are convinced that this is some of the best choral music ever written. Period. We think God is doing something here.
One thing God is doing these days is helping us recover wisdom from our past in new ways. Christians are exploring fresh forms of Scripture meditation, rooted in the practice of ancient monasteries and Reformation theology.
Sisters and brothers are nurturing new expressions of an old form of relationship: spiritual friendship or spiritual direction. So also in our music. The 2014 album “In Praise of St. Columba” explores not only the texts of the early Celtic Church, but also the very instruments and forms of this music.
Eastern European composers like Arvo Pärt are reaching back into pre-Communist Orthodox liturgies to create profound meditations. God is also teaching us, in this difficult new millennium, to lament.
Some of this music richly communicates the lament our generation longs to express. On the evening of the one-year anniversary of 9/11, I invited people into our sanctuary and played Henryk Górecki’s 1976 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” written as a reflection on (and using texts from) the Holocaust.
I think there is something of the Spirit of God drawing us through this music into a new holy intimacy with Christ.
God is also drawing the composers to Christ through this music. Eric Whitacre, for example, tells his story of joining a church choir in 2010 as an agnostic. He was so moved by his experience of the Christian liturgy that “it just changed my life.”
He wrote his “Alleluia” in gratitude: a song I listen to every time I return from a trip.
Allyson Cotham, former director of the Montrose Valley Symphony Chorus, has introduced us to some of this music already. For you Spotify listeners, search for the playlist
“Sacred Choral Collection.” Take a listen and join the revival.
Evan B. Howard, Ph.D. is the founder/director of Spirituality Shoppe, an Evangelical Center for the Study of Christian Spirituality. He is an affiliate faculty with Fuller Seminary and is the author of many books and articles, including Praying the Scriptures. He leads workshops and seminars on Christian spirituality. Evan is a member of All Saints Anglican Church. He and his wife Cheri have two adult married daughters.