- explore connections between the depictions of God creating in Genesis 1–3 and human creative activity
- learn how translations and historical contextual background information are relevant to interpreting the Bible
- listen to musical examples that explore creation in Genesis in very different ways
The creation accounts in Genesis can provide a helpful jumping-off point for reflection on creativity and what it means to create. So too can the study of music. When the creation accounts are set to music and one examines the ways these texts have been explored in musical settings, the possibilities for thinking about creation and creativity are multiplied.
Multiple Creation Stories (within and before the Bible)
One thing that both music and accounts of creation each raise separately, but that are highlighted and become the focus differently when these are explored together, is the question of what it means to create. Those who have not studied the Bible in an academic context before may not be aware that there is more than one creation story in Genesis 1–3, and allusions are made to even older ideas about creation in other texts. As with the music in the Bible, it is useful to begin with the context and the broader world of ancient Near Eastern ideas about creation before narrowing our attention to the biblical materials and their musical settings.
One important text that provides crucial background and contextual information is the Mesopotamian epic known as the Enuma Elish. It is named the same way the books of the Bible are in the Jewish tradition, for the first words—in this case, “When on high.” The book we call Genesis is known in Hebrew as Bereshit, or “In the beginning.” You can read an English translation of the text of the Enuma Elish online, or if you prefer, you can listen to the Enuma Elish being read in English translation. Given our focus on music here, it is worth noting that composer Carl Vine has set this Babylonian text to music. You may enjoy giving that a listen as well, even though this is a setting of a text that is not in the Bible but something older than the Bible that provides relevant context for understanding it.
Translations and Interpreting Creation
Turning our attention to Genesis, an interpretive question comes up immediately in the very first word in Hebrew. If you compare English translations, you will find that some say something like this:
The updated edition of the New Revised Standard Version renders it like this:
Others say something along these lines:
The difference is subtle but significant. The first, which linguists consider the best rendering, conveys that this is the start of a creative activity that fashions something out of the already existing earth, which is in a state of chaos and disorder. The second, which is found in many older as well as some conservative modern translations, conveys the idea that creation is an absolute beginning, taking place “out of nothing” (sometimes discussed using the Latin phrase for this, creatio ex nihilo). The former understanding represents a point of commonality with the Enuma Elish: there is no discussion of where the raw materials come from, just what is made from them.
This is not only important for understanding the theological outlook of the creation account in Genesis 1:1–2:3. It also relates to musical creation. Those who create music use sounds and pitches that already exist. Those who create new musical instruments and sounds begin with things that existed already, even if they modify them in very substantial ways. Just as you do not need to invent a language or a new mode of writing when producing text, so too composing music almost always means using a musical language that already exists. One can speak without writing, as was true of most or all of the New Testament authors. Paul was the author of the letter to the church in Rome that we know as the “Epistle to the Romans.” He was not, however, the writer. That was someone named Tertius, who adds his greetings in Romans 16:22. In ancient times, many people made music, but even fewer wrote it down in some form of notation than do so today. This is important, because we sometimes feel inadequate if we cannot read and write, whether words or music. Creativity does not depend on the ability to transcribe what one creates. If you can make sounds—whether using your voice, an instrument, or an app—then you can create music, just as is true with creating meaningful communication in the form of words. Of course, training is important in both areas to develop and improve our skills. But these points are worth emphasizing, since many do not explore their potential as creators of music because they think that a high level of training is required. Speaking even a little of a second or third language is worthwhile. Making music at a basic level has value.
Beginning in the Beginning
How does one start a piece of music that is based in Genesis 1? Does it begin with chaos or silence? When the music begins, does it do so loudly or gently? Does the beginning of the music represent the first words in the text or the beginning of creation itself? Different composers do different things. The text (also called a libretto) of one famous work that may come to mind, Die Schöpfung (The Creation) by Joseph Haydn, is based on Genesis but also draws on other sources and includes words not in Genesis. As we saw in the last chapter, the boundary between translation and paraphrase is a blurry one, although most of the time we can genuinely place a rendition into one category or the other. In this case, it is clear that we are dealing with both words that are in Genesis and words that are not. Haydn’s setting features angels and elaborates more on the romance between Adam and Eve. It is nevertheless definitely worth listening to this piece if you can find the time, even though it will take you more than an hour and a half to do so!
Genesis can help us think about creativity and originality in many ways. Some theologians have suggested that the primary aspect of human beings bearing “the image and likeness of God” (as Genesis 1:26–27 puts it) is that we are ourselves creators, sometimes even envisaged as being “co-creators” along with God. One can see this idea in several places in Genesis 1–2: humans rule over the earth and subdue it much as God subdued the chaotic waters, and humans tend the garden that God got started. Musical creativity, as already noted, involves working with preexisting materials. Even in this regard, there are different levels and kinds of originality. One can write a song or perform a song someone else has written (a “cover version”). In between, one can do one’s own rendition of a song that develops it in new ways. A good biblical example of this is the song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” almost all of the words of which are from the book of Ecclesiastes. Pete Seeger wrote it, but the song was made famous by the Byrds, whose version is noticeably different in important ways, yet we still rightly consider it to be the same song. Different again, yet still the same song, is Nina Simone’s cover version.
It is important to give credit to one’s source material, however much one reworks it, so that one avoids plagiarism. Yet many lawsuits have wrestled with the problem that originality in music is a spectrum. The same chord progressions occur in a wide array of different songs. The Genesis 1 creation account is itself based on earlier creation stories, as we have already seen. Yet no one would deny that it is highly original in many respects. As one explores one’s own creativity, it is natural to begin by copying what one sees others doing and only later develop anything that might be considered a distinctive style. If you are being musically creative for the first time, expect this and do not set yourself unrealistic expectations regarding how “original” your early efforts are.
Two Examples from the Twentieth Century
His choice of where to end is interesting, since most scholars of the Bible view Genesis 2:3 or perhaps 2:4 as the end of the account of creation in a week, after which another story, which perhaps had its own separate compositional history, begins. Copland ends with 2:7, God breathing life into the human being that God has created so that (as the King James Version puts it, the translation Copland worked with) the human being “became a living soul.” If you are interested in reading more about this work, Honey Meconi provides additional information about the background of the piece as well as how Copland uses music to explore and reinforce the meaning of the text.
The collaborative work from the middle of the twentieth century known as the Genesis Suite may help us think about the long-puzzling “let us” in the account of God creating human beings. Is creation collaborative? Who was involved in the process depicted in Genesis and in what ways? How much do human creative products owe to others, both those explicitly mentioned and perhaps listed as co-authors and also far more influences and supporters than anyone is likely to consciously call to mind? In the Genesis Suite, seven composers (Arnold Schoenberg, Nathaniel Shilkret, Aleksander Tansman, Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ernst Toch, and Igor Stravinsky) created music to accompany the text of the early chapters of Genesis. Here is a performance of the work by the Janssen Symphony Orchestra of Los Angeles conducted by Werner Janssen, with chorus directed by Hugo Strelitzer. The recording is from December 1945 and was made less than a month after the work’s premiere.
You can read more about the Genesis Suite on the Milken Archive website. Other instrumental explorations of the creation story include Darius Milhaud’s “La Création du Monde” and Andrei Petrov’s ballet suite “The Creation of the World.” Duke Ellington’s “In the Beginning, God” (part of his Sacred Concerts) also deserves a mention for its rather free jazz exploration. However many examples you listen to, you will undoubtedly find that it leads to greater appreciation of both the texts and the music if you reflect on and compare the choices made by composers, the different moods of the pieces, how the meaning and structure of the text is or is not reflected in the musical setting, and other similarities and differences you notice.
Conclusion: Celebrating and Exploring Creation through Music
Hebrew Bible scholar Norman Habel has advocated for the addition of a celebration of creation to the church’s liturgical year. Other key moments in the biblical narrative are given attention in this way, while creation has been neglected. He thus founded the Season of Creation. And just as other holidays in the Christian calendar have music connected with the theme of that specific occasion, Habel has written a number of songs for use in church services during the four Sundays in September that he hopes increasing numbers of congregations and denominations will dedicate as the season of creation. As one of a very small number of biblical scholars who also writes songs, Habel’s lyrics (usually to be sung to familiar tunes) deserve close attention. You can find many of them on Habel’s website as well as the Season of Creation website.
Brown, A. Peter. “Haydn’s Chaos: Genesis and Genre.”73, no. 1 (1989): 18–59.
Fromm, Allison Wallis. “Aaron Copland’s: Context and Creative Process.” PhD diss., University of Illinois, 2015.
- Composer James MacMillan notes the connections between creation in the Bible and the compositional activity he himself engages in. See his essay James MacMillan, “God, Theology, and Music,” in Composing Music for Worship, ed. Stephen Darlington and Alan Kreider (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2003), 35–50 (here 44). ↵
- Those with even a little music theory will appreciate his use of unresolved chords to convey the primordial chaos. The example of Haydn’s Creation also provides an opportunity to explore subjects like the Enlightenment context of religion in that era and its impact on and expression in music. Also worth mentioning is that Haydn wove a phrase from Die Schöpfung into one of his masses, which became known as the Schöpfungsmesse for that reason. Since the musical phrase was a melody from the love duet between Adam and Eve in the earlier work, the Habsburg empress Marie Therese (Haydn’s patron) demanded that Haydn rework that part of the mass in her copy of it. On this, see further Daniel Heartz, Mozart, Haydn and Early Beethoven, 1781–1802 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), 652–53. ↵
- There is a live performance by Seeger together with Judy Collins in which he talks about a topic of creation that a musician could easily neglect—namely, who made the instrument they play. For another example of music with text from Ecclesiastes, see Jean Berger’s “Two Songs from Ecclesiastes.” ↵
- Shared by the performers, San Diego Pro Arte Voices, on their YouTube channel. ↵
- Copland’s only other setting of biblical texts is his student work Four Motets, which he only reluctantly agreed to have published decades after he composed them. ↵
- There is also a fascinating story that intersects with multiple subjects in this book. Apparently, when searching for music that could represent the character of God in Paradise Lost (John Milton’s famous retelling of the story in the early chapters of Genesis), composer Krzysztof Penderecki was influenced by the experience of hearing Samaritan music. On this, see further Avigdor Herzog, “Samaritan Music,” Grove Music Online https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic; and Cindy Bylander, Krzysztof Penderecki: A Bio-bibliography (Westport: Praeger, 2004), 243. Samaritans are the descendants of the Israelites who lived in the northern kingdom known as Israel, whereas Jews are mostly descended from those who lived in the southern kingdom known as Judah. For more on Samaritan music, see Reinhard Pummer, The Samaritans: A Profile (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 282–84. ↵