A reader writes:
Choral music is a rich source of deeply expressed faith, as Giles Fraser notes, and music based on Lent offers particularly striking examples. The most famous such piece may be the Allegri Miserere [seen above]. Backstory here. The score of the piece was a closely guarded Vatican secret for more than a century, until the church made the mistake of inviting a 12-year-old boy named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to hear it. He listened twice and transcribed it from memory, and the score was published shortly thereafter.
Update from a reader:
“Choral music is a rich source of deeply expressed faith” – while this is undoubtedly true, I’m convinced there is another aspect that is being missed in this discussion.
I am from a Scottish Presbyterian background and started singing in my secondary school choir. At a Scottish university I auditioned with two choirs in freshers week and much to my surprise was invited to join one of them. I was exposed to the English choral (Anglican) tradition: with one of many highlights being learning psalm singing reading pointing at choral evensong services. Now based in Silicon Valley, I’m again a long-term member of a choir singing broadly sacred music, this time specializing in late mediaeval and renaissance times. Our repertoire spans 400 years: the diversity of styles is immense. Rehearsing, learning and performing roughly 10 news pieces for each concert is a great diversion from everyday life in high-tech.
Now to my point: I don’t believe in God, despite regularly singing some of the most exquisite sacred music you could ever hear. Which prompts me to think about how many of the composers of the music were believers? The bulk of surviving manuscripts of music from renaissance times are sacred – not a huge surprise as the church in those times was the seat of learning. If you were a talented singer or composer in those times, what were your options if your talents (like mine) are consonant with sacred music? Which gets me thinking, how many of the giants of the sacred music were atheists: Byrd, Tallis, Palestrina, Victoria, Josquin, Dufay?