Remembering the beauty of Michelangelo’s sculpture at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, of Jesus lying dead in his mother’s lap, I was struck with the simplicity of the notion of the beauty of art and how easily it can evoke a very deep response.

Art and design are all around us—whether we notice it or not. Some of it is perfection. Some of it is mediocrity at its finest (yes, I’m being sarcastic). The old art and music has been “vetted,” so to speak, so that we only see or hear what remains. New music requires us, as listeners and consumers, to be part of the vetting process. Therefore we hear it all. It is the new that we must help along.

I think that most of us will agree that there are living composers who write music that fits the description of being beautiful, so why do we continue to program, rehearse, and hear so much mediocre sacred music? There are composers working today who write awe-inspiring works. Some of the pieces, granted, are more difficult to perform than what an average church choir can handle, but some of it is relatively easy to perform and yet it is not programmed. I’ve also seen choirs try a work a little beyond their abilities because they wanted so much to perform the piece. They liked it so much that they were willing to take the risk.

If a work such as the Pièta is rendered as a work of faith, and I use this example because most people are familiar with the sculpture and the depth of its emotion, why is it that we cannot seem to find enough new music to program that has that same depth?

I know part of it is due to the difficulty in finding new music. Many publishers tend to send out “models” of faith-based pieces, or models of the sound of certain composers or recording artists. Church musicians need to be able to find new music—good music—easily so that they can buy it and program it. I know, in some cases, that there are conservative musicians who would prefer never to program and perform anything but the same pieces, a sort of cycle of works, that are well-known to them but not necessarily very good. I guess that is a different bridge to cross.

But there are church musicians who are tearing their collective hair out trying to find new pieces that have some merit. A great deal of money goes into marketing a select few works, some of which aren’t worth the marketing dollars that back them. Are some of the sacred music publishers limiting their output by looking at only a few composers? If a composer chooses to self-publish to avoid these limitations, then their markets, instead, seem to be limited.

A piece from Requiem for Still Voices, titled, “Smile, Death,” text by Charlotte Mew, sung here by the Estonian Camerata. It is both secular and sacred, depending on your perspective.

How is it that so much mediocre music can still survive? I recall a remark by a music teacher once who once said that my music was too beautiful. I understood the remark, but I still take umbrage with it. Is it really possible that music can be too beautiful? And if so, are sacred programmers or publishers somehow afraid of it?

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3 thoughts on “Pièta

  1. post_beat

    Its so refreshing to read a piece about the role of “sacred” music in the realm of new music as it still fills a large niche today.

    I’d to add a couple of points to the idea. The first being the unfortunate notion that audiences/churchgoers often want the comfortable and known musics rather than anything new. I say this from my own experiences as I have been a choir member at a more progressive Catholic church where my mother has been the music director for a number of years. She tries to program a couple of new pieces each year, at least one for each portion of the church year, but she gets many comments from parishoners that they want the old favorites rather than anything new. Settings of Ave Maria and Gesu Bambino by familiar composers are fine and all but I would have to assume that this preference is due more to reminiscence rather than personal preference.

    The other thing I find interesting is how seemingly different attitudes are that truly new sacred music is not as widley accepted as it seems like it was hundreds of years ago. When did the demarcation happen from a need for sacred music in the teenth centuries to the present day where GIA and similar publishers flood the market with formulae sacred music?

  2. jbunch

    I think another reason why so many people love “the old stuff” is that it helps them feel as if they are a part of a very long, very special story. It helps them feel like they are, in a sense, “communing with the dead” as well as with god.

    Church music is gebrauchsmusik if anything is, so modernizing tendencies are seen as having little to no importance. What’s more, much church music has little more to offer, unfortunately, than proscribed emotional and theological responses. This is especially the case in Protestant churches I’ve been to in the US. So often the musical context of their use is, in a manner of speaking, propagandistic: it disguises corrective theological affirmations in emotionally wrought tunes. They are used as means of teaching the church’s stances about particular issues. I would guess that this combination of factors makes it less likely that really very skilled composers are going to take on the task of providing first-rate religious music today.

    Since you bring up the Pieta, let me offer for consideration Kathy Kollwitz’s “Mother with Her Dead Son” in the Neue Wache in Berlin. It’s a copy of the Pieta that is given a new meaning/context which makes it a perennial, or contemporary phenomenon. Perhaps the same thing happens with old music in churches today – it is given a new context, a new meaning. But it is, as you say, important to approach this from the other direction – but if churches want to benefit from contemporary composition, they also need to make themselves available to contemporary thought too.

  3. A.C. Douglas

    Anne Kilstofte wrote: I recall a remark by a music teacher who once said that my music was too beautiful.

    Your teacher was (is) an idiot. Music can never be too beautiful (which is not the same as “pretty”).

    I just listened to your “Smile, Death”, and it is indeed beautiful.



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