As we progressive Christians refine and reconsider both the substance and documents of our inherited faith, I would argue that we should take special care not to jettison major cultural elements of that heritage. I am thinking specifically of great “religious” music which I believe can still ring true to our spirits, in spite of our changing spiritual needs. Music is, to my mind, the purest form of artistic expression, even when, as in most of these religious works I am examing, it is wedded to Biblical texts and thus tied implicitly to the doctrinal expressions of faith they proclaim.
A work like Handel’s Messiah has become so much a part of our sacred holiday life that, moved by the music and the recurring concert ritual, we may well skim over its theological meanings–texts whose substance we may have long since dismissed. Like Bach’s B Minor Mass, Handel’s oratorio appeals on a delightful sensual level—lilting rhythms, seductive and melting melodies, intriguing orchestration. They activate as much a physiological as a theological side of us; they excite our aesthetic emotions and even bodily sensations. A piece like the “Hallelujah Chorus” is irresistible enough to draw in Christian, Jew and Muslim alike, whatever theological hairs its text may split.
So let me suggest a capsule packet of works that, for me anyway, still seduce my heart if not my mind. I will omit the obvious glories like Messiah or Bach’s Mass and his various cantatas and Passions, particularly the Saint Matthew. But we shouldn’t leave that Baroque era without mentioning a pair of masterful semi-religious works. They both celebrate (feminist listeners will applaud) a lesser-known Christian saint named Cecelia. The late 17th century master Henry Purcell seconded by Handel, half a century later, composed brilliant “Odes” to her, the patron saint of music. Both men thus bring their remarkable musical talents to celebrate “Bright Cecilia, Hail to thee! / Great Patroness of Us and Harmony!” The works are splendid, employing secular talents to on behalf of a legitimate religious figure. For a brief first acquaintance, take some quick jaunts to YouTube for highlights. For the Purcell, dial up a duet called “In vain, th’amorous flute.” For the Handel, try “The Trumpet’s loud clangor.”
Another, often over-looked masterpiece by Handel is his celebration of the Exodus, Israel in Egypt. Particularly powerful are his brilliantly imaginative efforts to capture the various plagues sent by God on the Egyptians. “Their land brought forth frogs,” “He sent a thick darkness o’er all the land,” and, the most stunning of the bunch, “He sent them hailstones for rain.” (We need not accept the historical accuracy of these Biblical events to appreciate Handel’s remarkable evocations. Art transcends and re-visions purported fact. Haydn was so impressed by the oratorio when he heard it in London in 1784 that he later imitated Handel’s pictorial brilliance in his The Creation, another sacred work worth exploring
One should not leave the 18th century, an era when Enlightenment confidence was beginning to ease religious piety aside, without mentioning Mozart’s masses and his splendid ”Requiem” (which quotes Messiah directly). Also worth considering, indeed reveling in, is his enchanting opera The Magic Flute, which pictures a personal quest for love and purity guided by Enlightenment and Masonic ideals of self-discipline and reason.
Recognizing this infusion of the more personal and worldly into traditional liturgies should help us appreciate two further works, one from the 19th century and one from 20th, both of them Requiems. Johannes Brahms composed A German Requiem to honor his mother. Benjamin Britten also made use of the traditional Catholic “mass for the dead” in his incomparable War Requiem, even more deeply secular in fact overtly political in purpose. It takes the form of the traditional Latin mass, but uses a-series of anti-war poems by Wilfred Owen to complement the required texts. The result is not only gorgeous and moving, musically, but projects some deeply-held Christian ethical beliefs—the evils of war, the value of peace.
I think all of these works constitute a wonderful starter set of either deeply or marginally religious choral works. They are masterpieces around which all men and women of faith, whether hide-bound or progressive, can rally.