by Dave Belcher
Five years ago I was accepted into a doctoral program in theology and liturgy at a seminary in New York City. I was very excited about the opportunity and moved my whole family from North Carolina to live in a very different environment up in Manhattan. That process lasted a month before I had to withdraw from the program — that is a long and much involved story I won’t get into here. But the long and short of it is that the difficulty of that whole process led me back to the classical guitar after a pretty long break and ultimately planted the seeds for an idea of bringing these two worlds together in my own life: spirituality and music.
So for the past four years I have been reflecting on ways that I can connect these two important parts of my life and this has led me to explore what I have been calling “sacred music” for the guitar. Now, I should clarify immediately that I do not mean “sacred music” in the traditional sense. Music is as ancient as human culture. Some of the earliest human cultural artifacts are musical instruments and as long as culture has existed, at least so far as we know, so has music. Likewise, the earliest religious gatherings (another essential and ancient part of human culture) have been accompanied in some respects by music. And this is an important point to make because the history of music in the West — and so what we know today as “classical music” — has been inextricably linked with the history of the Western Christian church. “Sacred music” in the traditional sense is the typical way of referring to that relationship and specifically the kinds of music that have been composed and used for religious ceremony.
So when I speak below about “sacred music” for the guitar you might be excused for thinking that I’m referring to this more traditional definition of sacred music, that is, music written for (often Western Christian) worship to be performed in specific ritual or liturgical contexts (and usually for either voice or organ). Instead, what I would like to talk about in this article is something much looser and open. But even if we were talking about what is traditionally understood as sacred music, you could equally be excused for thinking that sacred music and “guitar” don’t really go together. Sacred music has traditionally been associated with the voice (and choirs more specifically) and the organ, whereas the guitar has been a much more marginal instrument in most of the history of Western Christian worship whose introduction into worship music in the mid-twentieth century is often associated with decline and watering down more traditional sacred music.
In contrast to this more traditional definition, sacred music for the guitar was something that I began to piece together from a much wider and unexpected set of sources: “prayers” by composers such as Mertz, Tarrega, Barrios, Ponce, Segovia, Hand, Bartlema (and more!); reimaginings of medieval plainchant as well as variations and modern takes on Eastern Orthodox Christian chants; Jewish songs; modern chamber works for unusual (or underutilized) instrumentation such as guitar and organ or guitar and choir; Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, modern, and contemporary sources; in short, I began to encounter a vast array of music that either worked with specific sacred source material (such as medieval Western or Eastern Orthodox or Jewish music) or had a spiritual theme of some sort in the title.
What I discovered as I began to piece together concert programs and even to perform some of this music was a fascinating convergence of worlds. On the one hand, it is quite interesting to see prayer and spirituality at work in music meant for the concert stage (and not for worship), that is, in the wider world outside of churches, monasteries, temples, synagogues, mosques, and prayer closets. On the other hand, a substantial venue for classical concerts today is churches, so there’s also an interesting interplay happening where a “sacred” space is being put to a more “secular” use, and so performing these “sacred” works in such spaces has some interesting connotations.
So let me walk you through a program I performed last year. First, here’s the program in full (and below that I’ll simply write out some of the talking points I use to introduce the pieces in concert):
⦁ Meyerbeer, Der Prophet, arr. Mertz
⦁ Castelnovo-Tedesco, No Hubo Remedio
⦁ Astor Piazzolla, La Muerte del Angel
⦁ Frank Wallace, Cunctipotens Genitor
⦁ Manuel Ponce, Variaciones sobre un tema de Cabezón
⦁ Steal Away, trad. spiritual, arr. Denis Mortagne
⦁ Simple Gifts, trad. American, arr. Fred Hand
⦁ Amazing Grace, trad. hymn, arr. Ben Verdery
Now you may be surprised to see some names here that you wouldn’t normally associate with “sacred” music (and especially Western Christian sacred music). For instance, Giacomo Meyerbeer was Jewish — a fact that was made very public in Richard Wagner’s terrible mocking of his former patron in print. Despite Wagner’s criticism, Meyerbeer’s Der Prophet, a sprawling Germanic opera, was one of the most important of his time. It featured a young Anabaptist reformer named Jan of Leiden and the tragedy that ensued among Catholic and Anabaptist conflict in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century. J.-B. Mertz’s arrangement for guitar pulls from some of the best musical moments of the opera.
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was of course also Jewish. However, he took a broad interest in Christian music and ecclesiastics. “No Hubo Remedio” comes from his Caprichos de Goya, which are musical accompaniments to Franceso de Goya’s famous Spanish nationalistic etchings, Los Caprichos. In this particular etching Goya depicts a woman who has been condemned to death. She is wearing a dunce cap and is being paraded by her accusers through an angry mob to her demise. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s musical accompaniment is in the form of a passacaglia with seven variations and takes as its theme the famous “Dies Irae” (the Day of Wrath), which is a thirteenth-century chant from the Requiem Mass in the Western Catholic church depicting a day in which the world will dissolve into ash.
Astor Piazzolla had no real religious background and has been described as agnostic. His tango “La Muerte del Angel,” however, borrows thematic material from the play for which the piece was originally written by Alberto Rodriguez Munoz called The Tango of the Angel. In the play an angel comes down to a barrio in Buenos Aires to bring healing to broken human spirits [spoiler alert] only to die breaking up a knife fight. Toward the end of the play, one of the characters described the angel as “an angel we created out of the fury of our impoverished dreams. A true angel, not an angel from God, who is in the heavens, so far from this squalor, but an angel that was ours, made by our desires, birthed by us.” Those who are familiar with Latin American liberation theology may see parallels in this description by Rodriguez Munoz.
Frank Wallace is a gifted guitarist, singer, and composer from New Hampshire. While he may not fit in the traditional category of “sacred music” composer, I feel much of his music belongs in that realm. “Cunctipotens Genitor” comes from a twelfth-century manuscript at the church of St. James at Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. It is an example of one of the earliest types of musical polyphony known as organum (and more specifically mellismatic organum). This particular chant is an elaborate, ornamented “Kyrie” chant. The Greek Kyrie eleison has been a central part of the Christian liturgy in both the east and the west from very early on and is a prayer for mercy in the face of sin. Frank Wallace’s composition is a modern fantasy on the chant and weaves in and out of various keys, deepening the polyphonic texture, before building to a rousing finale.
Manuel Maria Ponce was a devout Catholic and while “Variaciones y Fughetta sobre un Tema de Cabezón” does not bear a specific sacred title or theme, Miguel Alcazar, biographer and editor of Ponce’s Obras, has identified the theme of Ponce’s piece not as one of Cabezón but as the popular fifteenth-century Easter hymn O filii et filiae (“O Sons and Daughters Rejoice”). This hymn has been described as “The Joyful Canticle” and in Ponce’s hands proceeds to a set of variations typical of Ponce’s modern musical language before ending with a lively Fughetta.
The last three arrangements are all American hymns from different traditions. The first is an African-American spiritual called “Steal Away to Jesus.” It has obvious religious meaning, but it is also one of a handful of songs that bore secret instructions to slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. This arrangement was made by French guitarist and composer Denis Mortagne. “Simple Gifts” was a Shaker tune written by Joseph Brackett around 1848 and was popularized by Aaron Copland’s majestic arrangement in his orchestral suite Appalachian Spring (1944). Fred Hand’s arrangement for solo guitar bears the clear influence of Copland’s masterpiece. “Amazing Grace” almost needs no introduction, though some may be surprised to learn that the origins of the song are not as clear as the impact the song has had in American religious and cultural life. While the words were penned by a former-slaveholder-turned-priest — whose conversion to Christianity drove him to become an abolitionist — the music is of unknown provenance. Renowned soprano Jessye Norman theorized that it could have been written by a slave and I really like the idea of that convergence of a slaveholder-turned-abolitionist composing lyrics joined with the music of a slave in this music of freedom. This arrangement was made by Ben Verdery on the occasion of his father’s passing and then later he added a darker middle section in honor of victims of the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
Thus, while some of this music converges with traditional sacred music, some of it is also quite external to that tradition. Ultimately I have been really pleased with responses from both so-called “secular” and “sacred” audiences when I have performed this music and my goal of bringing these worlds together has been surprisingly welcomed by both kinds of listeners (and others in between).
So if you have an interest in intersecting disciplines and worlds and would like to connect the classical guitar with not only spirituality (of which there are many varied and vast examples!) but also with other elements of cultural life — perhaps film, poetry, or visual art — I encourage you to dig in to the deep, wide, and open world of the classical guitar repertoire . . . you may be surprised at what you find.