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Secular/Atheist Choral Music - Comments

Jay G's Avatar Comment 1 by Jay G

I don't think your idea is a sign of madness. Why not create something that reflects your values?

Thu, 11 Nov 2010 13:30:57 UTC | #545758

Cestriana's Avatar Comment 2 by Cestriana

I'm a singer-musician myself and am acutely aware that so much choral stuff is dedicated to religious themes (can't help but utterly adore Handel's 'Dixit Dominus' and Bach's B minor mass, though.)

Maybe that person of so many talents, Cartomancer, would be willing to write an original text for you to set to music? He sure is a dab-hand at poetry.

Thu, 11 Nov 2010 14:46:42 UTC | #545794

Alan4discussion's Avatar Comment 3 by Alan4discussion

The religious claim:- "the devil has the best tunes", so they often steal them and write new words.

Others can do the same:-

If anyone has not seen this one on an earlier thread - it is worth a look and a listen.

If you have not seen this video it could be inspirational - visually speaking!

Thu, 11 Nov 2010 15:11:40 UTC | #545809

Cestriana's Avatar Comment 4 by Cestriana

Alan: both videos - really fantastic.

Thu, 11 Nov 2010 15:52:20 UTC | #545833

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 5 by AtheistEgbert

Great idea. I rather like the idea of a secular/naturalist artistic revival. Anyone else interested?

Thu, 11 Nov 2010 17:25:16 UTC | #545881

ap96's Avatar Comment 6 by ap96

I feel similarly frustrated that more non-religious choral music isn't being sung.

I did a fair bit of singing in the chapel choir at University. Now that I'm a self-identified atheist, though, I draw the line at performing as part of an actual act of worship: I would never want to sing with a church choir and I don't want to lend the Church any kind of tacit support by doing so.

I'm fine with singing religious music as part of an ordinary concert, though. I see it a bit like the difference between religious education and religious indoctrination. There's no need to discard excellent music just because it has some fictional words in it! The main thing is that no-one's telling you you must believe it, plus the concert's open to anyone who wants to pay for a ticket, regardless of belief.

A couple of things still bug me though:

(1) I think I would have to make an exception if one of my good friends asked me to sing at a church wedding / funeral: I think my sense of duty towards them would trump my overall resistance to religion;

(2) I wonder if some people aren't prevented from walking away from Christianity by the experience of listening to really good religious choral music. I did have a weird experience while singing The Dream Of Gerontius once: I realised that I agreed with a lot of what the demons sing ("the mind bold and independent, the purpose free, so we are told must not think to have the ascendant") yet other people can be - and have been - incredibly impressed by the overtly Christian and Catholic bits ("O happy, suffering soul!" etc.). But you can't really perform the Demon's chorus without the rest of the work without destroying the overall structure.

So yes, go ahead and compose some new music without religious influence, it'll be great, I hope I get to perform it sometime!

Also, Walt Whitman is a good source of non-religious yet inspiring texts, which often stand on their own and don't refer to religion at all. We had some Walt Whitman sung at our wedding: "Song Of The Open Road".

Anyway, I'm just off to go and sing Cherubini's Requiem in C Minor...

Thu, 11 Nov 2010 18:17:29 UTC | #545902

hades pussercats's Avatar Comment 7 by hades pussercats

Wouldn't it be cool to set Carl Sagan to music?

I don't know how important rhyme or meter are to the effects you're trying to create, but I've heard some pop songs with snippets from "Cosmos", and they were very exciting.

There are definitely passages in his work that hearken to the grandeur of the universe, and his use of language was beautiful.

As a life-long chorister, I wouldn't mind singing something like that. Especially if you put in a good part for the altos.

Thu, 11 Nov 2010 20:09:51 UTC | #545960

Tord M's Avatar Comment 8 by Tord M

I have been spending a lot of time reading this forum, and occasionally I have tried to make some (mostly unimpressive) contributions to the discussions myself.

What strikes me is that there's a lot of clever, intelligent, highly literate, knowledgeable and eloquent people here.

I'm sure if people here made a collective effort, it would just be a matter of weeks before Bernard Hurley could be provided with the appropriate text to set music to. What if we got together to write it?

Just like Wikipedia or open source software; Why couldn't we make a collective effort at an open source piece of secular poetry?

Bernard Hurley could then try to compose the music, and we could all suggest improvements or alterations. Why wouldn't it work?

Thu, 11 Nov 2010 20:15:43 UTC | #545963

Sir Galahad the not-so-pure's Avatar Comment 9 by Sir Galahad the not-so-pure

I suscribe to the school of thought which considers the words which often accompany music to be almost totally superfluous, and merely serving to provide a counter melody, provide a cadence of beauty otherwise impossible, and above all to introduce a human element which grounds the music, bringing it closer to us. The music of Wagner is the central example here - the librettos he laboured over are generally ignored and remain incidental.

To my mind, the purpose of music is the effect it creates, and it should thus appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect; the nature of the truth is such that it should have no accompanying emotional impact, but should be recognised on its merits alone. The subject matter of music is immaterial, will not affect the emotions conveyed.

Furthermore, I think that the reason why the concept of the divine has inspired so much art cannot be wholly attibuted to the power of the church and its patronage. We all delight in references to immortality and the sublime, a good example being the image of a love lasting forever, even when we are fully aware that such a thing is impossible. The ideas of the immortal and the unattainable are central concepts to humanity, and the divine gives them both excellent embodyment. It is as delightful to sing about an all-loving god as a neverending love.

Such concepts are so embedded in Western culture, and appeal so centrally to common human longings, that I for one thing it would be 'courageous', as Sir Humphrey would say, to try to move away from that.

Thu, 11 Nov 2010 21:33:05 UTC | #545996

Cestriana's Avatar Comment 10 by Cestriana

Slightly off topic, but there are some great contemporary composers whose music is, by and large, mostly secular. The British saxophonist, John Harle, is one of them. If interested you can listen to a sample of his work here:

Flying

He has written choral (non-religious) works as well.

Thu, 11 Nov 2010 21:43:55 UTC | #545999

perkyjay's Avatar Comment 11 by perkyjay

Bernard Hurley:I think your idea is amazingly good. I sing in a couple of choirs - always have in the many places in which I have lived - I don't sing in church choirs - never have, not since I saw the light of atheism at the age of 15 or 16 - I am now 82. I make no distinction whether I am called upon to sing sacred or secular - after all, the fact that sacred music exists in no way proves the existence of gods. I have several pieces which I prefer; they are all from the great classical oratorios such as Bach's St.Mathew Passion, Handel's Messiah and Haydn's Creation, although I gave up my solo performances when I turned 70 and could no longer trust my voice to do what it was told. I prefer to "hide" in a chorus than make an ass of myself as a soloist.

I wish you every success Mr.Hurley

Thu, 11 Nov 2010 21:54:52 UTC | #546007

Alan4discussion's Avatar Comment 12 by Alan4discussion

There is also a huge selection of folk music which is definitely NOT religious!

Thu, 11 Nov 2010 22:03:14 UTC | #546013

Tord M's Avatar Comment 13 by Tord M

Comment 9 by Sir Galahad the not-so-pure :

The music of Wagner is the central example here - the librettos he laboured over are generally ignored and remain incidental.

Who wouldn't fale to find inspiration in the librettos of Wagner? Just listen to some of his poetry:

"He, he! Ihr Nicke", "Wehe! Ach Wehe!", "Ohe! Hahaha! Ohe! Hahaha!", "Auf! Erwache, Arindal!", "Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle!", "Wallala, Lalaleia, Schame dich, Albe!", "Weiche, Wotan".

Impressed? Not?

Only Wagner himself could write things like that! Surely! How could anyone fail to remain unamazed?

I've resistantly failed to be impressed by Wagner's poetry for a long time. But I absolutely love his music...!

Thu, 11 Nov 2010 23:06:15 UTC | #546052

ScottB's Avatar Comment 14 by ScottB

I used to sing in a cathedral choir and- this is a guess, based on anecdotal evidence and does not really say anything about any other church choirs- approx 50% were not religious, but loved singing and music. There is a wealth of choral music that is amazingly beautiful, in spite of it's theistic message, and I don't remember anybody complaining that we didn't have anything secular to sing.

Having said that, it now strikes me as such a waste that there is no real body of non-christian choral works.

I think this is a great idea and more power to you, Mr Hurley; rather than having gone mad I think you've hit on a fantastic idea!

Fri, 12 Nov 2010 01:50:36 UTC | #546133

Barty77's Avatar Comment 15 by Barty77

There are loads of 'science' songs i have seen on youtube such as the PCR 'YMCA' song and the Periodic Table song. So, no i do not think you have lost it. I quite like the humour of science songs, though if you can come up with a serious secular one, all the better. Send us a link to it on youtube if you manage it.

Fri, 12 Nov 2010 11:36:51 UTC | #546231

KRKBAB's Avatar Comment 16 by KRKBAB

Comment 14 by ScottB- Your avatar is horrifically cool- watizzit?

Fri, 12 Nov 2010 16:04:14 UTC | #546362

JS1685's Avatar Comment 17 by JS1685

@Gallahad:

Indeed. Often, composers write music so that the text is realized somehow in the shape the music takes. This is called tone-painting. But at a deeper level, the music must work on its own. That text is often superfluous is supported by the fact that many masters, like J. S. Bach, used the same music to set many different texts.

I cannot agree, however, that music shouldn't appeal to the intellect. Of course it should. What is music but an aural representation of logic?

Religious texts can still be beautiful. Nothing wrong w beautiful music set to a beautiful text, that happens to be about imaginary subject matter.

As an aside, Brahms was an atheist.

Fri, 12 Nov 2010 16:45:43 UTC | #546382

Matrix7's Avatar Comment 18 by Matrix7

My favourite in this category is Haydn's Heiligmesse. Have a listen and see if it inspires you.

Another favourite (no surprise really) is Handel's Messiah.

I suppose if you're an atheist then all music is secular.

Fri, 12 Nov 2010 18:10:45 UTC | #546428

Sir Galahad the not-so-pure's Avatar Comment 19 by Sir Galahad the not-so-pure

JS1685-

I cannot agree, however, that music shouldn't appeal to the intellect. Of course it should. What is music but an aural representation of logic?

I think that our postions can be readily adjoined! I agree with your last sentence here; absolutely, music is mathematics. However, we do not (read: should not) have to think about a piece of music; it is not the correct forum for ideas to be introduced, discussed and for a conclusion about said points to be put forward. Art should be about presenting a pefectly ordinary emotion (ordinary in the sense that it is common to all of us) in extraordinary ways. We should not be persuaded about the glory of god or the validity of the big bang theory through art, but we should strive to let the beauty of art wash over us.

It is very probable that we find beautiful music to be beautiful precisely because it obeys particular laws of logic which we, as humans, find appealing (hence our feeling that the a Beethoven sonata, for example, is perfect, and exactly as it should be, and could not survive the transplant of a single note), and as such, it is our logical faculties being tickled. However, we are not conciously engaging with the music as we do with arithmetic, but rather we let it gather us up.

I should like to illustrate with a pet hate of mine - the "literature" of George Orwell, a man who has somehow garnered respect as an author of fiction. You cannot deliver a political tract in the guise of literature, because art has emotional content, and the complicated reasons behind the rejection of a political system and the subsequent adoption of another is a matter of reason and debate, and the invocation of emotion leads to unwarranted associations of ideas. To paraphrase Dryden or some such bloke, to convey a matter of emotion with logic is impossible, and to load a question of reason with emotion is to, well, load the question.

It is a clumsy dichotomy, to be sure, between intellect and emotion, but I think that evoking the division will suffice, for what I am trying to say, and be satisfactory to all but the pedant.

Fri, 12 Nov 2010 19:24:53 UTC | #546467

ccolumbus1975's Avatar Comment 20 by ccolumbus1975

Throughout my music history courses during my music degree, the development of music was centered around the church. This is mainly because of the preservation of documents and music that was essential within the church. Of course, no one can deny that music occurred outside of the church, but what we have as evidence of early music is from the church and especially its use within the liturgy. For the use of church music within today's choir and music education is a direct reflection of the tradition of the church. Just like many University English programs have select literature held in high regard because of tradition, so music is the same. In the music world some pieces are held as better than others simply because they fit this mold of tradition. My input to you in your task to compose new works for choirs would be to wholeheartedly pursue your goal. However, I think the end result you are hoping for will fall short. Although your song will present the teachings of Darwin and the big bang, ultimately the resulting work of art will only display the gift that God has given you a gift to create musically and reflect His image through your work. So please, I implore you to create a great masterpiece.

Mon, 22 Nov 2010 03:22:41 UTC | #551285

humanistmark's Avatar Comment 21 by humanistmark

Just found this thread and want to chime in. What do you folks think of J.S. Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze? I think it's a lovely piece and has no connection to God. Any thoughts? J.S. Bach composed a number of quirky tunes that were secular and even though the majority of his work is tied to a deity the one I just mentioned is pretty much secular, right?

Mon, 22 Nov 2010 05:51:06 UTC | #551301

Bernard Hurley's Avatar Comment 22 by Bernard Hurley

Thanks to everyone who has contributed!

I'll try to do do justice to your contributions.

Comment 1 by Jay G

I don't think your idea is a sign of madness. Why not create something that reflects your values?

Thanks. I don't think I am actually insane, but I do spend a lot of time writing pieces that only get performed once - one has to be a bit crazy to do that.

Tue, 30 Nov 2010 17:15:16 UTC | #556056

Bernard Hurley's Avatar Comment 23 by Bernard Hurley

Comment 2 by Cestriana

... can't help but utterly adore Handel's 'Dixit Dominus' and Bach's B minor mass, though.

I have to agree with you there! Bach seems to have been a devout Lutheran. Handel was brought up a Lutheran and for this reason seems to have been somewhat suspect to the Anglican Hierarchy. He appears not to have been particularly religious and may have been a non-believer. When confronted on the subject he is alleged to have said "I have read my Bible very well and will choose for myself."

Tue, 30 Nov 2010 17:59:56 UTC | #556086

Bernard Hurley's Avatar Comment 24 by Bernard Hurley

Comment 3 by Alan4discussion

The religious claim:- "the devil has the best tunes", so they often steal them and write new words.

This is an interesting subject in itself. Guillaume de Machault's "Messe de Nostre Dame" (written about 1360) is replete with secular melodies. But at this point in history I think it was more a matter of there not being a perceived divide between the sacred and the secular. It became fashionable for masses to be written with all the movements based on a singular secular melody. The most well-known such melody being "L'homme armé".

The Catholic Church was not altogether happy with this and the practice was severely criticised, but not actually banned, by the Council of Trent. But composers got the hint and stopped doing it. The problem was that congregations, who did not understand the Latin, would sing along using the secular words. In the case of Taverner's "Westron Wynde" mass these words start:

Westron Wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again!

So I can see their point.

It is really only after the Enlightenment, when the secular and religious can be thought of as distinct that one can really think of the religious as stealing tunes. This was self-consciously done by William Booth (who said "the devil has all the best tunes") and other Victorians, so I have no compunction about returning the complement. I am thinking of stealing a phrase from Allegri's Misereri - the part where the soprano descends from a top C.

Tue, 30 Nov 2010 18:41:28 UTC | #556110

Bernard Hurley's Avatar Comment 25 by Bernard Hurley

Comment 6 by ap96

I'm fine with singing religious music as part of an ordinary concert,..

Historically some religious people have had the opposite view; John Newton, composer of the hymn "Amazing Grace," would preach against "secular" performances of works such as the Messiah. My attitude is that no one would think that you have to believe in Orpheus, Eurydice and the river Styx in order to sing in Monteverdi’s Orfeo so why should you have to believe in God in order to sing in the St. John Passion?

Also, Walt Whitman is a good source of non-religious yet inspiring texts,

Thanks for the suggestion.

Anyway, I'm just off to go and sing Cherubini's Requiem in C Minor...

Yes the counterpoint man! - I hope it went well!

Wed, 01 Dec 2010 11:19:41 UTC | #556529

Bernard Hurley's Avatar Comment 26 by Bernard Hurley

Comment 7 by hades pussercats

Wouldn't it be cool to set Carl Sagan to music?

Agreed

As a life-long chorister, I wouldn't mind singing something like that. Especially if you put in a good part for the altos.

John Jordan wrote a satirical piece called "Pity the poor alto" in which the altos sing on only one note throughout the piece. Not much of an exaggeration on what often happens. OTOH Bizet, whose mistress was an alto, wrote some gorgeous alto parts.

Wed, 01 Dec 2010 12:14:46 UTC | #556551

Bernard Hurley's Avatar Comment 27 by Bernard Hurley

Comment 8 by Tord MJust

like Wikipedia or open source software; Why couldn't we make a collective effort at an open source piece of secular poetry?

Bernard Hurley could then try to compose the music, and we could all suggest improvements or alterations. Why wouldn't it work?

Mozart's first four piano concertos, are re-mixes of keyboard sonatas by his former teacher Johann Christian Bach. This was a standard thing for composers to do, especially when they were starting out. We marvel at Mozart writing down Allegri's Misereri from memory, but if he did something like that today he would probably end up in jail. There was a tradition in Germany of wind bands known as "die Harmony" that played outside or in taverns. It was routine for these bands to write down parts of operas etc from memory and then arrange them for the band.

Wed, 01 Dec 2010 12:32:56 UTC | #556558

Bernard Hurley's Avatar Comment 28 by Bernard Hurley

Comment 9 by Sir Galahad the not-so-pure

I suscribe to the school of thought which considers the words which often accompany music to be almost totally superfluous, ... The music of Wagner is the central example here - the librettos he laboured over are generally ignored and remain incidental.

Wagner would be very disappointed - he went to a great deal of trouble to make sure his words could actually be heard and frequently criticised other composers for not so doing.

Wed, 01 Dec 2010 12:37:31 UTC | #556561

Bernard Hurley's Avatar Comment 29 by Bernard Hurley

Comment 11 by perkyjay

I gave up my solo performances when I turned 70 and could no longer trust my voice to do what it was told.

I hope I can keep up solo performances as long as that!

I wish you every success Mr.Hurley

Thank you!

Wed, 01 Dec 2010 12:40:44 UTC | #556563

Tuck's Avatar Comment 30 by Tuck

I feel that singing a performance is rather like acting in a play. One suspends personal belief for the sake of the drama. If asked, for example, to play a Nazi prison guard with lines like, "All Jews are vermin and must be exterminated," one could, while not remotely believing such trash, say the lines with conviction for the sake of the performance.

I am an atheist choral singer of over 50 years experience, and some of my best choral experiences have been with religious music, such as the time I sang with the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 in York Minster Cathedral. What a night! But of course I didn't believe a word of the text, and was able to hide nicely behind the Latin while wallowing in the gorgeous music which echoed and rebounded almost like another choir singing to us.

But some say there is so little secular choral music. Rubbish! There is plenty. To name just two composers, Schubert and Brahms wrote a goodly number of various love songs and other secular works (Leibesleider Waltzes, for example). There are quasi-religious works, like Beethoven's 9th, there are settings of great poetry like Vaughn William's Sea Symphony, and then there are hundreds of wonderful opera choruses, few of which are religious. And there are even anti-religious works like Carmina Burana, and, for a real poke in the eye of the church, Catulli Carmina.

The reason, I believe, there are so many religious choral works is that hardly anyone but the church paid for choirs to sing. And the reason, again my belief, that so many choirs sing a huge preponderance of religious works is that choral conductors seem so often to be religious themselves, partly because the church is a great source of jobs. But if a director were atheist, or Buddhist, say, one wonders what they might choose. It would certainly be refreshing.

Tuck

Tue, 25 Oct 2011 12:39:10 UTC | #883939