If you are a hard-core classical music nerd, you may have recognized that quote right away. It is the postscript Bach signed at the end of each of his scores, and translates to "To God be the Glory". With this week marking the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, thereby ushering in the Protestant Reformation, Bach and his music has been in my thoughts quite a bit for the past several months. Bach was perhaps the first great Reformed composer, writing sacred music for the non-Catholic church. He was staunch in his assertion that every note he wrote was for the glory of God. And he sure wrote some of the best notes in Western music.
But what does this all have to do with a 21-year-old composer finishing his undergraduate degree in 2017? Well, with everything going on in the US and around the world, composers everywhere are reevaluating the purpose of their music. Many are using it as a vehicle for protest. Some are using it as a means to express the hopelessness and tension of our society. Some are using it to relentlessly seek new sounds, new vocabularies, to further distance themselves from the chaos that is associated with "traditional" music. And perhaps all of these have their place. But what each composer realizes is this: their musical output directly correlates to their beliefs. Their worldview, their convictions, shape the notes they write every bit as much as Bach's convictions shaped his music 400 years ago.
So I have begun to grapple with this paramount question myself. Why do I write music? It's not because I seek riches. (Because, I mean, classical music really doesn't make you rich. Common knowledge.) It's not because I want to make a name for myself. Honestly, sure I want to be famous, but there are far easier ways to achieve that result. Like, apparently, mouthing off on a talk show... Anyway, I have come up with a compositional philosophy, and some ways that this philosophy translates directly into my music, and I want to share it with you.
I compose music to reflect God's character. First and foremost, my music will reflect my belief in God, as I see Him portrayed in Scripture. I aspire to something higher than simply representing the human plane of existence, though there is definitely a place for this in music. I aspire to represent the spiritual, the divine, in my music, as I have experienced it. I am aware of the enormity of this aspiration, but I think it will ensure that I am never content as a creative artist. There is always room to improve, to develop, when the subject matter, the themes of music are so high. And this, I think, is a voice that is lacking in classical concert music today.
I compose music to point to the world to come. When I look at the world around me, I find myself reminded over and over that this is not reality in the truest sense of the word. The world that is now, with all of its tension, catastrophe, corruption and decay will end, and I will someday die, but in the world to come I will live on, free from all that makes our world so unbearable. This longing for the life to come is what I want to drive my musical output. I want my music to remind audiences of the existence of something more, something higher than this life. I want to reawaken in some the desire to commune with God. My music, like everything else in my life, should point to eternity, not temporality.
I compose music to remind listeners of beauty and hope. Many aspects of our culture thrive on a degree of hopelessness pervasive in postmodern society. A desire for transcendent beauty has been replaced by a desire for functionality, temporary satisfaction, or novelty. This mindset is something I want to actively fight with my music. I seek to reawaken audiences' sense of beauty, with music that is both crafted and natural. I seek to remind audiences of the possibility of hope, with music that acknowledges the darkness that exists, but is not lost in it. I believe that music, perhaps more than any other art form, or indeed any other human means of expression, can convey beauty, and foster hope, comfort, love, and passion. And I think settling for anything less than this in my music would be wasting the gifts God has given me.
So how does this play out in my music? Well, first of all, my music will have to be ordered. Clear form, structure, and development. Clarity of texture. Balance. All of this represents a God of order, in a world that is increasingly chaotic. Rather than imitating the chaos I see around me, I need to imitate the order I see in God's character. My music will have to be creative. If I hope to express themes of eternity, perfection, and resolution in my music, I will have to push the boundaries of my vocabulary to adequately communicate these concepts without being cliché. It is not enough to bring the spiritual down to the level of the physical. The physical must strive to raise itself toward the level of the spiritual. Clearly, this cannot be perfectly done, but assuredly settling for the normal or the common cannot aspire to represent eh extraordinary. My music cannot completely depart from convention, however. If I am trying to represent beauty, comfort, and hope through my music, it will have to be music that can connect with audiences. Connecting does not mean pandering, but it must be music that can begin to be understood. It must meet listeners where they are in order to propel them forward.
Yeah, so clearly I have a lot of work to do. I am in the middle of writing the music for my senior recital, and have some other commissions on the horizon as well, so I will definitely be talking about how this philosophy ends up playing out in my compositional process. But for now, I think it is a good place to start. As a creative artist, it is incredibly bolstering to have a purpose for your art, and I feel that in the past months I have reaffirmed my purpose, and in doing so, found new drive to compose. So, in the words of one of music's greatest geniuses, Soli Deo Gloria!