The Future of Contemporary Religious Music
Prof.Matthias Drude /Germany/ – composer, Hochschule für Kirchenmusik Dresden
Let me start by highlighting the present: In December 2014 presumably more than 5.000 visitors experienced J. S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio in several sold out performances in both Kreuzkirche and Frauenkirche, the two largest Lutheran churches in Dresden. On the other hand, a concert of contemporary organ music in Dresden attracts an audience of maybe 20 on average. Will contemporary religious music - as music in connection with the Christian God - or contemporary music in other spiritual orientation always be an exception, unnoticed by the vast majority of the general public? This question as well as the question of the stylistic development are both to be asked in the context and cannot be separated.
1. Regarding Style
We live in a time of stylistic pluralism. The reasons for that are the crisis of the avant-garde, an active dialog between cultures and religions, which adds to the still existing national traditions, and the still growing importance of the „crossover“ field, the music between contemporary classical and popular music. I do not expect that there will be a unified style of composing in the future. Neither do I see an end to the pluralism of style, their standards and the spiritual orientations. If some trends turn out to be more important than others, that certainly will have reasons outside the musical quality, more to do with social and economic interests. However, I do hope that the awareness of the spiritual dimension of any music will increase and leave stylistic tracks - not just regarding religious music.
2. Regarding Public Response
There are many factors on which the public response to contemporary religious music depends:
- Does religious music reach people even without religious or ecclesiastical links? There are two factors connected to this question: firstly the state of musical education in general, e. g. in schools, and secondly the spiritual needs. The awareness that our singleminded mentality - focussed on economic progress and power, which exploits the ever decreasing resources regardless of the climate, soil, air, water and fellow creatures - will only aggravate our problems in the future, is at least partially growing in the industrial nations. And with that there are more questions being asked regarding alternative life-styles and spirituality. Our culture and religion are both part of these “values“, which can open eyes and ears to the question of the meaning of our life and sustainable concepts for the future, which will serve a peaceful coexisting of all nations and the relation of humans and nature.
- Will the public funding of culture carry on, which offers public performances of works which wouldn't otherwise be heard in the free market? Regarding this there is the fear that due to the planned TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) between the EU and the USA the high standard of the public funding could be at risk and at least parts of culture will have to obey the laws of the market. Avant-garde music for professional musicians would then be nearly impossible, as orchestras and ensembles would be forced to play repertoire with high public appeal and in front of a full house for economic reasons. Composers then would have to decide whether to compose exclusively for amateurs (e. g. church choirs) or try and realise their more complex works on a computer. Contemporary music would then be more likely to be found on YouTube - probably without the adequate royalties - and not in churches or concert halls. The enjoyment of music would then be a very private affair, happening at home with headphones and not carried by public interest. A public discussion about contemporary composing would not exist except for some masterclasses or specific festivals. The pluralism - which by itself is not a bad thing - would increase even more, especially the dilettante aspect and aesthetic arbitrariness of it. Which also is due to the fact that the threshold of becoming a composer is ever decreasing thanks to cheap and professional software. And to make a living from composing isn't possible anymore in either case, whether one is an amateur or a professional.
A further problem of contemporary and future funding of culture are the europe-wide low interest rates on the capital market. Because of smaller incomes private foundations are not as able to be a supporter of the arts compared to the public funding, which also is ever decreasing.
All of those factors can be summarised as follows: Even though the number of members of the christian churches is declining there will still be a need for spirituality and correspondent music. The newly composed music with spiritual orientation, however, has to compete with the established repertoire of ages past, with the other modern music and of course popular music. The conditions for the public funding of culture is getting more and more difficult, at least in Germany.
So how can one reach at least a part of those who listen to Bach's Christmas Oratorio yearly, but would never go to an organ recital of just contemporary music?
One solution beyond the crossover projects is a conceptual meaningful encounter of traditional and contemporary music in church, supported by appropriate commentary. Both old and new music benefit from the confrontation: In referring to the tradition or even quoting a specific work of the past, the newly composed work will be easier for the listener to understand, and more so than in some of the usual premieres. On the other hand the old music seems much more direct in the encounter with the new music - not just as a historical document of ages past, but as living music, which concerns us.
I want to introduce you to one such project of mine. The poet Carola Moosbach has written and published a “poetic commentary“ to every church cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. I have agreed with her that the texts are open to be set to music. Other composers are also invited. Performances of these new works in service or concert should always incorporate the corresponding Bach cantata. To limit expenses with orchestra and soloists, the instrumentations of the commentaries should not exceed the original Bach instrumentations. The Bach cantatas are enriched with further theological and musical meaning by the poetic commentary. And also this precise references in text and music ease the access to Bach and the newly composed works. It is a win-win situation.
This project already showed a positive reaction with church musicians and choral conductors, as well as other composers. Five other composers beside myself from different parts of Germany have set one or more of these commentaries to music. I have written eleven of these compositions, including the six cantata movements with words by Carola Moosbach for the Christmas Oratorio by Bach. The future will tell whether conductors and organisers of concerts in the big concert churches of Germany are willing to combine Bach and contemporary music.
Let us listen to my six-minute-long cantata movement „Dream of Mary“ with words by Carola Moosbach for the third cantata of Bach's Christmas Oratorio. The musical material of the opening movement has left its tracks in my composition, as you will surely notice. We will hear a live recording of the premiere in Dresden on December 16th, 2014. The choir of the University of Church Music and the Sinfonietta Dresden are conducted by Stephan Lennig.