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Database project

Deus Ex Musica is an ecumenical project that promotes the used of a scared music as a resource for learning, spiritual growth, and discipleship.

Database Project: Contemporary Sacred Concert Music

Deus Ex Musica is compiling a listing of contemporary (post-1970) sacred concert works in all non-choral genres (please see below for details). Eventually, the information will be organized into a searchable database for interested performers, conductors, scholars, and laypeople. The hope is for the database to someday be the world’s most comprehensive source for information about this repertoire.

We are counting on musicians and listeners from around the world to contribute information for the database. Anyone may fill out the form below, but please fill it out completely. If you are a composer, please list original works only, not arrangements. Thank you for contributing!

Additional information about the music we are looking to include in this project:

“Sacred” music: For our purposes, we are looking for pieces that engage with the Christian tradition in any of the following ways: a.) by setting to music Biblical or other spiritual texts from the Christian tradition (such as prayers), or by taking inspiration from those texts in significant ways; b.) by exploring characters or stories from the Bible or the Christian tradition (i.e., saints or other historical Christians); c.) by exploring theological or spiritual themes or ideas specifically from the Christian tradition. Pieces without text must be intended by the composer to function in one of these ways (for example, Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards”) Please note: the composers do not have to be practicing Christians. In fact, since much of this repertoire engages with the Hebrew Bible, music by Jewish composers will clearly make up a good portion of the music we list.

Concert music: Please list only music from the Western “classical” tradition (including contemporary classical music), as well as works involving jazz or pop musicians (but not principally jazz or pop compositions. (So, Jesus Christ Superstar is out.) For now, we are not interested in songs from various vernacular or popular traditions, or instrumental/devotional compositions that exist (only) in recorded form.

Originality: Please list only works that are original - that is, not arrangements (say, of hymns.) Pieces may use hymns or other traditional types of sacred or liturgical music, but that music should serve the larger purposes of the piece itself.

Instrumentation/Genre: Works for any combination of voices and/or instruments are accepted, with the notable exception of music for choir or choir/ensemble. Works for solo voice (or a small group of voices) and orchestra/ensemble will be accepted - just no anthems, oratorios, choral cantatas, etc. (Opera is ok.)

Why this repertoire?

Though it is a small repertoire, many important composers (especially in the 20th century) have created sacred vocal, chamber, or orchestral works that are both artistically impressive and spiritually meaningful for listeners. Yet these pieces are rarely heard. Why? Because in the minds of most listeners (and musicians), “sacred music” is synonymous with choral music. Most concert-goers routinely have the chance to hear great oratorios, masses, and requiems on the programs of local (secular) choirs and orchestras, and many church-goers have the chance to hear great choral anthems in worship services. But where can audiences hear a sacred song cycle or string quartet? Probably not at church, since music programs are dominated by choral music. And, since most composers may only have one or two pieces of sacred concert music in the catalogs, it is rare to hear them in the concert hall. Of course, new music is heard far less than music from earlier time-periods, so the chance of hearing a contemporary sacred work on a recital or chamber music concert. However, since most contemporary composers have more opportunities to write solo or chamber works, as opposed to large choral/orchestral pieces - and since church patronage of the arts has virtually disappeared - composers who write this kind of music need resources to support and promote their work.

Why are these kinds of works important? First, because this repertoire challenges our ideas about what sacred music “sounds like” and even what it “does”. Liturgical music - which is overwhelmingly choral - functions principally to create an environment for worshipers. Though it can be appreciated as music when performed in a secular concert setting (and, of course, does its job well when it is of the highest quality), its primary purpose is as a means toward an end. Sacred concert music, on the other hand, is not limited by the requirement of serving a particular worshiping community. Though it may do similar “work” - such as leading believers or non-believers toward a consideration of certain spiritually meaningful ideas - it is primary intended to be heard as music. This allows composers to explore their subjects and texts in ways that are often more subjective. Unconstrained by the need so speak a group of public worshipers participating in a historically-conditioned service, composers of sacred concert music may feel free to explore their subjects with a degree of freedom that is rare in liturgical music.

This is important because this repertoire serves one of the most important yet least-understood purposes of “religious” art: to interpret a received tradition in ways that resonate with contemporary society. Any artist working within a religious tradition must balance her understanding of her received tradition with her God-given abilities to create something that honors her own individuality and relationship to that tradition. If composers had never chosen to honor the latter, churches would still be worshipping exclusively with plainchant, and we would not hear the choral music of Bach or Mozart - let alone Stravinsky or Part - in the concert hall. But because of those great masterpieces - and, of course, church patronage - choral music dominates the sacred music tradition so thoroughly that it has come to signify reflexively certain ideas like “holiness” and “transcendence” - even in secular contexts (for example, film scores.) Thus, it is important for contemporary composers of sacred music to work in non-choral genres in order to challenge simplistic association of “holiness” with the sound of a choir. If that does not happen, the sacred music runs the risk of ossifying into a caricature of itself, based on an archaic 18th- or 19th-century musical language that lacks relevance with each passing year. But even if composers write sacred music in other genres, it still must be heard: and that is one reason for this repertoire project. We aim to collect information about these works and use it to promote performances of them in both concert and religious settings.


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