TheoArtistry Festival: Sacred Music for the 21st Century

On the 5th and 6th of March 2018, scholars, composers and poets descended upon the medieval town of St Andrews in order to explore the interface between theology and the arts. The TheoArtistry Festival represented the culmination of a year and a half of collaborations between theologians in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) with composers from the UK, Ireland and Canada, as well as being the setting for the new poet’s scheme. A full program of sessions offered the unique opportunity for theologians and artists to engage productively with one another and to explore the fruitful intersection between theology, music and poetry, both at the theoretical and practical levels.

The director of TheoArtistry, Dr. George Corbett, opened the festival by posing the question that was to permeate each session, ‘What does the future hold for sacred music in the twenty-first century?’ Yet, the collaboration and interaction that took place during the festival was not to remain within the festival itself. Rather, Corbett expressed his desire that ‘the conversations here today will resonate and will continue to resonate nationally and internationally.’ Indeed, the international assembly of scholars and practitioners may ensure that these collaborations will resound further throughout the academic and ecclesial communities.

Monday 5 March

The initial session introduced the collaborative efforts between the six ITIA theologians and the six composers selected to participate in the TheoArtistry scheme. Over a period of 18 months, the theologians and composers worked together on a particular biblical passage around the theme of Annunciations to produce an original composition of music. These collaborations sought to express musically the unique theological aspects of Genesis 3, Genesis 32, Exodus 3, 1 Samuel 3, 1 Kings 19 and Song of Songs 3. Each theologian and composer shared his or her thoughts concerning the particular aspect that they brought to the process before playing the original composition for those in attendance from the new CD by St Salvator’s Chapel Choir, Annunciations. A common theme expressed amongst both theologians and composers was the unique opportunity afforded by this experience to work alongside someone from another discipline. As Sir James MacMillan observed, ‘Composers are used to collaboration, but they usually do so with other artists.’ However, this interdisciplinary collaboration brought out aspects theologically and musically that enhanced the understanding of each individual involved and brought a further richness to the scores of original music.

During the second session, Matthew Owens of Wells Cathedral and Michael Ferguson of St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral (RC) Edinburgh reflected on the state of sacred music inside the church. Owens argued that while the church does not sponsor as much music today as in a period like the Renaissance, contemporary music does need to be an important part of the ‘living expression of worship’ in the church. For Owens, new music can help worshipers think in unique ways about Scriptural texts, and the commissioning scheme at Wells Cathedral strives to bring that possibility to concrete realisation with its support of new works that can find a place in the worshiping life of the cathedral. Furthermore, the program at Wells works to create personal relationships between that new music and the individuals who sponsor it so that they as sponsors can feel an involvement in the process. In an ongoing project, the cathedral is currently commissioning settings of all ninety-two of Thomas Cranmer’s collects from the Book of Common Prayer.

In his contribution, Michael Ferguson discussed the state of Catholic sacred music, specifically in Scotland. He surveyed the recent history of the Catholic Church’s relationship with music since the Second Vatican Council and noted a possible tension in fulfilling the council’s two mandates to both increase the involvement of the laity and also to preserve the historical repertoire of the Church’s sacred music. Building off extensive survey data from many of Scotland’s Catholic dioceses, Ferguson argued that the Scottish Catholic Church has often struggled to fulfill both of those mandates, with the result that its actual musical practice has suffered.

The first afternoon session shifted the focus to the issue of sacred music outside the church. Jonathan Arnold, Dean of Divinity at Magdalen College, Oxford began by noting that while overall church attendance has fallen in Great Britain over the past several decades, attendance at traditional choral services has actually risen over the past two decades. This trend can serve as evidence that music’s beauty, including that of sacred music, appeals to different types of people in different ways. The music that some listeners will hear through Christian ears can still be beautiful to those who listen with secular ears. As an example, Arnold contrasted the initial listeners of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion with those of Handel’s Messiah: whereas Bach’s piece initially played to a ‘captive’ ecclesiastical audience that might have appreciated the music along with the text’s theology, Handel’s oratorio engaged a paying audience who might have appreciated the libretto’s theology along with its music. After ranging over the thoughts of a number of thinkers, Arnold argued that music can indeed create a separate space, whether a private or a social one. Even listening to a piece privately, he argued, brings a ‘chain of connections’ that can lead from the secular back to the sacred, though that connection is not guaranteed and can be lost.

In the session’s second presentation, Michael Downes, Director of Music at the University of St Andrews, offered interesting reflections on the work and faith of two specific composers—Edward Elgar and Francis Poulenc—who engaged their Catholic faith in different ways in their lives and music. Downes observed several similarities in the upbringings of each man: both composers grew up in families that witnessed religious tension between the parents, both later struggled with their Catholicism, and both suffered depression. However, whereas Elgar eventually suffered a loss of faith, Poulenc was able to find a renewed faith. Downes focused on one specific work of each composer that dealt with a religious theme but was written for the concert hall rather than the church: Elgar’s The Apostles and Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. Downes offered a compelling reading of Poulenc’s opera as a bold critique of the secular inheritance of Enlightenment France.

The first day concluded with an open conversation between composers Sir James MacMillan and Paul Mealor to discuss music and its relationship with theology and human experience. The composers began by discussing the creative process of composing music and the variables needed for each of them to be able to work properly. Moreover, each composer shared autobiographical accounts of their journey to music and faith.

MacMillan and Mealor both agreed that composing sacred music is an important theological work that acts as a form of prayer, both on the individual and communal levels.

Moreover, they discussed the human experience of music and the ways that it can lead both believers and non-believers toward moments of divine disclosures. While MacMillan observed that music is a numinous force that can open the door to the celestial and the divine, Mealor pointed to the fact that these experiences are not confined only to religious adherents. For him, people who do not have faith can have epiphanic and spiritual moments through their experience of hearing music. The session ended with MacMillan and Mealor providing a wonderful conclusion to the first day by reflecting on the future of sacred music both inside and outside the church.

Tuesday 6 March

The festival’s second day broadened the artistic perspective to consider the interaction of theology with both poetry and sacred music. The day began with poet Michael Symmons Roberts offering his reflections on how poets can explore religious questions in a post-secular age. Citing the comments of David Jones and Seamus Heaney, Roberts admitted that for many modern readers religious language will have been emptied of much of its significance and its imaginative associations, thus making the poet’s task of communication quite difficult. For him, this tension between the religious and non-religious provides valuable opportunities for new poetic expression. The realm of ‘concrete shared experience’, such as ecological concerns and the disciplines within science, provides opportunities for poets to communicate religious truth to their audience, while avoiding the pitfalls of a weakened moral relativism that seems to be waning in contemporary societies. Finally, following Rowan Williams’s suggestions for how poets can engage with religion, Roberts concluded by arguing that poets can speak around the ‘gaps’ of religion and try to speak to ‘what is not said.’

The second session featured the first showing of the TheoArtistry documentary, produced by David Boos from Austria. Set within the panoramic backdrop of St Andrews, the excellent documentary featured interviews with those individuals involved in the Composer’s Scheme and a behind-the-scenes look at the creative process between composers and theologians.



Following the documentary, the six poets involved in the new TheoArtistry Poet’s Scheme discussed their initial experiences working alongside the ITIA theologians. As they shared about the dynamic experience that this collaboration brought to their poetry, the discussion led to broader and more personal aspects that each poet employs in their creative processes. During the afternoon, the poets and theologians participated in a collaborative workshop with Michael Symmons Roberts in order to refine and enhance the poetic reflections on the same Bible verses undertaken by the composers. The poems were recited publically at StAnza 2018, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival held in St Andrews between 7-11 March.

The penultimate session was also the festival’s most practical discussion, as Tom Wilkinson, Jonathan Arnold, Matthew Owens, Sarah Moerman, and Sir James MacMillan discussed the challenges and possibilities in establishing and running a contemporary cathedral or collegiate chapel choir. Wilkinson, the director of St Salvator’s Chapel Choir in St Andrews, shared some of the rich history of collegiate and cathedral choirs in the United Kingdom, and he also articulated some of the educational, musical, and social benefits of singing in such a choir.

Given that many of Britain’s choral foundations have historically been limited to using male voices, one of the panel’s salient points of discussion revolved around options for introducing girls into the rhythms and practices of a chapel choir, whether that might happen through integration into existing choirs or through the foundation of new girls’ choirs.

Jonathan Arnold, one of the founders of the Frideswide Voices, a girls’ choir in Oxford, was able to share details of his very practical experience in that venture over the last several years. Interestingly for residents of St Andrews, Moerman and Wilkinson discussed the specific challenges and potential models for setting up a liturgical choir in St Andrews, and it will be exciting to see if these discussions from the TheoArtistry Festival will impact children’s singing in the town.

The final session of the festival featured the launch of the latest book by ITIA scholars Gavin Hopps and David Brown, The Extravagance of Music: New Directions in Theology and Music. The session began with responses to the book by June Boyce-Tillman, Professor of Applied Music at the University of Winchester, and Kimberley Jane Anderson, a PhD candidate in ITIA. Boyce-Tillman examined the various forms of music that are employed in cross-cultural settings and the ways that these musical expressions provide an encounter with the divine, while Anderson looked at the religious and sacred value of contemporary rock music, with a focus on groups such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. In contrast to Jeremy Begbie, whose framework of gospel-centeredness determines a piece of music’s theological value, Hopps believes that this approach pre-determines the music’s value before it is listened to by any individual or collective audience. With Brown focusing on classical music and Hopps looking at popular music, these two scholars offered an alternative methodology that removes the idea that there are only certain types of music and experiences that can be classified as religious and/or sacred. Instead, a stronger emphasis needs to be placed on the listening experience itself, which accounts better for the diversity of listeners. As a result, Hopps wants to leave space for religious value in sentimental, kitschy and transgressive art.

TheoArtistry CD Launch: Annunciations

The TheoArtistry Festival concluded with the CD launch concert of Annunciations, sacred music by Sir James MacMillan, his contemporaries and influences and the six ‘next generation’ composers mentored by him on the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme. St Salvator’s Chapel Choir, directed by Tom Wilkinson, provided a sublime performance of these musical compositions to a capacity audience within the majestic confines of St Salvator’s Chapel. The choir performed three of the six original compositions from the TheoArtistry Composer’s Scheme, along with pieces by Sir James MacMillan, Benjamin Britten, Sir John Tavener and the first concert performance of, ‘We Beseech Thee, Almighty God’ by Paul Mealor. Interspersed throughout this presentation of choral music, Tom Wilkinson and Sean Heath, Keyboardist in Residence, performed organ solos by Sir James MacMillan and Judith Bingham. It was an appropriate closure to the festival and a magnificent tribute for all the hard work undertaken by everyone involved in the TheoArtistry Scheme.

As the festival drew to a close, George Corbett’s initial question on the future of sacred music seemed to be answered. Whether through classical and choral performances, or more contemporary expressions through popular music, the future of sacred music seems secure in its continued tradition with the past, while looking forward to the ways that it can continue to inspire future audiences in its endeavour to draw individuals toward the divine.


For more information on the TheoArtistry Scheme, please visit their site.

You may purchase a copy of the CD, Annunciations, or listen to samples of the compositions by visiting the website for St Salvator’s Chapel Choir.

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