21 Biblical Music Without Words

In this chapter you will:

  • hear from contemporary composers (one of whose famous “Piano Puzzlers” you may have heard on the radio)
  • reflect on whether and how music can explore biblical texts without actually incorporating human voices singing the words of those texts

Contemporary composer Bruce Adolphe shared the following thoughts on music and spirituality, which are relevant to this topic:

What does it mean to say that a piece of music is spiritual? If the work is a setting of a Biblical text, does that make the music automatically “spiritual”? I don’t think so. The setting of sacred words to music may serve a religious purpose or supply music for a ritual, but the question here is whether the music itself sounds and feels “spiritual” without the words. Can wordless music be spiritual? If by spiritual, we mean that the music profoundly affects us and moves us to contemplate our place in the world, our humanity, our frailty, life and death, if we mean that it takes us to the still point where our selves disappear and where we may experience grief and wonder, then yes music can most certainly do that. Music that disturbs the surface of our daily routine, that disrupts our ordinary experience of time may have spiritual resonance. Music so honest, so personal that it feels universal is likely to impart a spiritual aspect. If there is something in the music that is not immediately comprehensible, we may perceive it as mysterious. The mysterious message is encoded in the resonance, register, timbre, rhythm, melodic arc, and dynamics — in all the parameters of musical utterance. If you put ordinary, simple words to this music, they would seem trivial and wrong, they would remind you that words and music abide in different regions of the brain. Music can never be as specific as a particular theology and because of that, it can sound infinitely more spiritual than any religious text, which by the nature of its specificity permanently resides on the surface of the deeper ocean of feeling that is music.

— Bruce Adolphe[1]

 

Sometimes a work will have program notes or other added text that is not part of the music, and yet exists alongside it. Those explanatory words prompt listeners who read them to interpret what they hear in certain ways. Joseph Haydn composed a work for string quartet that explores the “Seven Last Words of Christ.” The composer had this to say in a letter he wrote to his publisher about the piece: “Each Sonata, or rather each setting of the text, is expressed only by instrumental music, but in such a way that it creates the most profound impression even on the most inexperienced listener.”[2]

There can be connections not only through title or appended explanatory comments, but also through allusions to or use of one or more melodies from earlier works. An example that includes several of these framing and interpretive devices is Arthur Bliss’ “Meditation on a Theme by John Blow.” Andrew Clements writes of that work, “Bliss bases the piece on Blow’s setting of Psalm 23, not so much as a set of variations but as a series of commentaries, some untroubled and pastoral, others dark and threatening. It’s touchingly effective.” Guy Rickards opines:

If Sir Arthur Bliss wrote a finer work than the Meditations on a Theme of John Blow (1955), I would like to hear it. A beautifully balanced set of expanded variations on a theme from the Sinfonia to Blow’s setting of Psalm 23, Bliss’s score is a glowing exhibition of his compositional prowess. Its sequence of Introduction, five Meditations, Interlude and Finale bear superscriptions from the psalm – excepting the scherzando third meditation, “Lambs” – which colour the characters of each section.

If you have never heard the piece before, listen to the piece once without reading Bliss’ notes, and then listen again while or after reading Bliss’ program notes for the piece.[3]

 

Ernst Toch explored the story of Jephthah and his daughter in a rhapsodic poem after reading a novel that explored their story beyond the small amount said about them in the Book of Judges.[4] He had planned to compose a work with words but the librettist took too long, in his opinion. In addition to illustrating how music may engage with challenging biblical material (Jephthah kills his own daughter as a human sacrifice), this case also illustrates that composers of music, like authors who write words and others engaged in creative activity, do not completely control their own creative activity. Ideas emerge from the subconscious, at times unbidden, and one either makes a record of them and does something with them, or risks losing them to forgetfulness. You can listen to Toch’s work, also categorized as his Symphony No.5, performed here by the Louisville Orchestra.[5]

 

Some music without words has other things that combine with it to convey meaning. A major example of this is in music for ballet. American composer William Schuman wrote ballet music based on the Book of Judith (one of the apocryphal or deuterocanonical books).[6]

 

Composer James Lee III drew inspiration from many texts for his work Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula, including Leviticus 23 (where the festival of Sukkot, sometimes called the “Feast of Tabernacles” in English, is mentioned), Revelation, and Job.[7]

 

Lee has this to say about the Bible in relation to his own musical creations and compositional process:

There is so much material in the world that a composer may contemplate as a possible source of inspiration for new musical works. When I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan and in the initial stages of my career, I decided that part of my creative output would take direct inspiration from the Word of God, the Bible. Two of my orchestral works that are influenced by the biblical texts include Beyond Rivers of Vision and Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula. Four chamber works that are directly influenced from the Bible include Night Visions of Kippur, The Appointed Time, Piano Trio No. 2 “Temple Visions”, and Scenes Upon Eternity’s Edge. As a Christian who spends much time both studying the Bible, and teaching the biblical scriptures to others, I have found the imagery and biblical stories to be a rich source of inspiration for several of my compositions. In particular, the books of Daniel and Revelation have been writings to which I have been drawn as I work to create new music. There are so many vivid images described in the prophecies of those books. After I decide on a text, I start to plan the structure of the new piece. My process as a composer always begins with prayer to Him who created music – Elohim (God). I have strived to combine my musical gift from God and let the Holy Spirit guide me in the journey to create music, which I hope is ultimately to His honor and glory. As much as possible I have wanted my music to reach to the inner soul of the listener. I try to employ harmonies, melodies, rhythms and instrumental colors in such a way that they stimulate the mind to imagine the scene that is being portrayed in the holy scriptures. At times, I have applied polychords in my harmonic language and utilized a type of layering and textural counterpoint in such a way as to allude to the supernatural, heavenly, and divine. In other instances, the music is written in such a way as to suggest the urgency of the message to the world for preparation to receive the coming Messiah from heaven in all His glory as is depicted in Revelation Chapters 14 and 19. In order to be true the texts, I have tried to provide a musical environment that incapsulates the written words of prophecy.

​​​​​​​​​​– James Lee III[8]

We have already mentioned Sungji Hong’s “Nunc Dimittis.” That is one work that is part of a larger project focused on “The Life of Christ.” Many of the works that are part of that project are instrumental explorations of the subject. Here we will provide a couple of examples, but there are many more on the composer’s website.

Hong studied and lived in Greece for several years, and thus a number of the pieces have Greek titles, typically using words that are found in the Greek text (i.e. the original language) of the Gospels. Hong mentions having a preference for verbs as titles and as the starting point for her exploration of the New Testament narratives. She has gravitated towards works for one or only a few instruments, exploring the wide range of possibilities of expression each instrument is capable of. Her work for solo flute, “Vidimus Stellam,” means “We Have Seen His Star” and explores the infancy story in chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew. Here it is performed by flautist Jennie Oh Brown.[9]

 

Hong’s work for solo bass clarinet “Exevalen” is inspired by a work of art depicting the story found in all four New Testament Gospels in which Jesus drives moneychangers and sellers of animals out of the precincts of the Jerusalem temple. Hong explains, “The inspiration for this piece is based on the painting La expulsión de los mercaderes del templo (The National Gallery in London, UK) by El Greco. EXEVALEN is a Greek word meaning ‘he drove out’ which I thought of as a word that describes the painting. The title suggests impetuous and dashing gestures that underline the direction of the music.”[10]

 

Many of the works in Hong’s ongoing project “The Life of Christ” were inspired by paintings of biblical scenes, illustrating how text, visual arts, and music can intersect and inspire. Hong has not been composing these works in the order of the biblical narrative but they will ultimately be arranged in chronological sequence when the series is completed. Not all of Hong’s works that are part of the project are instrumental, as is already clear from her “Nunc Dimittis.” Listen as well to her “Postea Sciens Jesus” with its title derived from the first three words of John 19:28 (“After this, Jesus knowing…”) in Latin.  You can explore more music from this project on Hong’s website. Nor do the parts of her “The Life of Christ” project exhaust her engagement with the Bible. Listen for example to her Proba Me Deus (Psalm 139) and her setting of Psalm 57, “Awake Up, My Glory.”

The present era provides more opportunities than ever before for those who listen to music to hear the perspective of composers and performers on these works. That is especially useful in the case of instrumental works, the title and sound of which might not be enough on their own to convey to listeners the meaning they had for those who created them. Without that, we might miss so much. We would still enjoy the music and find it engaging, to be sure, but at least some of the biblical connections, and other connections such as with painting or experiences in the life of the composer, would remain unknown to us without the composers’ commentary on their own work.


  1. Personal correspondence with the author, who is very grateful for this contribution to his book.
  2. Quoted by Shawn T. Eaton, "How the Composer’s Worldview Shapes Musical Meaning: Haydn’s Creation and the Enlightenment," Artistic Theologian 5 (2017) pp.17-57 (here pp.23-24). The letter to his publisher, William Forster, is dated April 8th, 1787. You may also wish to listen to the introductory comments provided by Michael Parloff prior to a performance of this work.
  3. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hugo Rignold. Licensed to YouTube by Naxos.
  4. See also the chapter on musical, oratorio, and opera for other explorations of the story of Jephthah.
  5. Jephta by Ernst Toch is here performed by the Louisville Orchestra conducted by Robert Whitney. Provided to YouTube by The Orchard Enterprises.
  6. Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Provided to YouTube by Naxos of America and shared on the Seattle Symphony's own YouTube channel.
  7. Recording by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra shared by the orchestra on their SoundCloud channel.
  8. Provided in personal correspondence with the author, who is extremely grateful to Lee for providing this information for incorporation into the book.
  9. Recorded at Wentz Hall (North Central College). Shared on YouTube by the performer in her own YouTube channel.
  10. Information generously provided by the composer, to whom the author is extremely grateful. The recording featuring Sarah K Watts on bass clarinet is shared by the composer on her YouTube channel.

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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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