female chorus
An Atheist Composer on Choral Music

An Atheist Composer on Choral Music

female chorus

Musicians of all stripes are just coming off of a month of “winter” concerts, services, masses, caroling, and other traditional religious productions. It is no mystery that Christmas and Easter are among the best times to get a decent paying gig. As a singer, I am among these musicians.

Ever since high school, I have adored choral music. Like many young musicians, I idolized the composers and decided I wanted to compose choral music, too. Indeed, new choral music has a big market!

But, as an atheist in a field often inextricably connected to a religious community, there is an element of cognitive dissonance that’s a running theme in my career. When I tell someone that I sing in professional choirs and compose “mostly” choral music, it is uncomfortable, even alienating, when they make the assumption that I do so for spiritual reasons, that I am a “believer,” that the music that I compose is for worship, and that it has been sung by choirs, in the strictest sense, not choruses.

Why do so many people assume “sacred choral” music when I say just “choral” music? Religion, like music and especially choral music, at its best brings people together for a common good. That is the reason I sing in choirs.

Still, I was raised in Texas, surrounded by religiously conservative messages that discouraged me from ever exploring questions of faith. Because of my queer identity, I understood early on that there was not really a place for me in the church. It turned out, I was okay with it.

Sacred vs. Secular

One of the most unnerving moments of my career, young as it may be, came with my first publication. I was truly overjoyed to put forth my work as part of the Anton Armstrong Choral Series, but it was initially misclassified as “sacred” not “secular,” presumably because the word “Heaven” was in the title.

Why do publishers make the distinction in the first place? We do not market band or orchestral music as “sacred” or “secular.”

The one time I met Eric Whitacre, he said something to the effect of, “Isn’t all music sacred?” These words come from a composer whose music was described as “religious music for the commitment-phobe” two years later by The Telegraph after a performance in London. It is quite clear that the writer Ivan Hewett is not a fan, but I would argue that the premise of the discussion is a bit contrived.

The composer identifies as “not an atheist, but not a Christian either.” So, why does Hewett insist on contextualizing Whitacre’s music as “spiritual” at the Proms? Are their audiences really “craving” religious music? Are we not permitted to perform “sacred” music at a concert hall? Or “secular” music in a church?

We are living in the era of Whitacre’s Alleluia, which is a choral setting based on a—presumably secular—instrumental work of his called October. His music sells well, and his Alleluia is deemed appropriate in a religious context because of its title and single-word content. After all, is there a non-religious way to sing “Praise the Lord”?

In any case, I could not condemn a composer for expressing his “spiritual” agnostic truth.

Blurry church interior

Why the Distinction?

Still, since we are in the business of distinction, or perhaps discrimination, I think we should call “sacred” choral music what it actually is: Christian choral music. Surely, this repertory is distinct from music inspired by Judaism and Islam, e.g. Steve Reich’s Tehillim or Abbie Betinis’s Bar Xizam.

Additionally, why does the term “sacred” in a publisher’s catalog tend to exclude music from non-Abrahamic religious traditions? What about Native American-, Canadian First Nation-, or Aboriginal-inspired texts? Why should we put such a limit on what qualifies as “sacred” music? What does it suggest about “secular” music?

Perhaps the prevalence of specifically Christian choral music is what is limiting. In prioritizing the “sacred” above the “secular,” we emphasize certain lessons and ignore others.

At the very least, we have abandoned the questions of human sexuality and gender diversity. When discussing a commission with Sandi Hammond, the director of one of the United States’ first all-transgender choruses, she insisted that a new work not include anything about Jesus or the Bible. She said her singers felt “suppressed” by religion. As a trans woman myself, I understand their frustration too well. To us, there is something missing or erased in a program that excludes music that is not part of a Christian tradition.

Facing Forward

Now that I have it off my chest, I would like to ask for a response from composers. Has choral music been relevant to you in a way that Christianity has not? Have you wanted to compose choral music but have not—or have you ignored the contemporary choral scene altogether—because of its religious association?

Needless to say, I am reluctant to set “sacred” texts. I will only set them if they truly move me, as in the case of the Prayer of St. Francis. I am more than eager to expand the repertory of “secular” choral music, and I would encourage other composers to contribute the same.

Those of you who are choral directors, especially in a high school or university environment, could we focus on humanism, rather than religion? What makes the “sacred” choral literature you program or compose relatable to the singers, some of whom may not be Christians?

As an atheist singing, teaching, or composing music associated with religion, I strive to appreciate how the “deeper” meaning is universally applicable. Whether or not we accept a particular faith as a spiritual direction, it is, perhaps, of utmost importance that we connect with the humanist content of these musical settings.


Mari Valverde

Mari Valverde

Mari Esabel Valverde is a composer, singer, teacher, and translator. Her music has been featured at conventions, festivals, and tours across the States and abroad in England, France, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Oman. A native of Texas, she holds degrees from St. Olaf College and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as a protégée of David Conte. She has appeared with the St. Olaf Choir, International Orange Chorale of San Francisco, Dallas Symphony Chorus, Dallas Chamber Choir, and Vox Humana.

7 thoughts on “An Atheist Composer on Choral Music

  1. Joab

    It was interesting to hear your experience. I’m a choral composer and conductor to you (and I’ll be stealing… I mean, looking at some of your music now! May ask to use some if I need to).

    But unlike you I’m god-mad catholic praise the Lord!

    I completely see how people can enjoy music without channelling Jesus all the time. There are also many atheists, homosexuals, jewish people employed by the Catholic Church in music ministry, I get to know them through work. One requirement is to keep a low profile, I don’t see how that’s too much to ask, the more you get to know a person the more you find out about their personal expressions… And church is the womb of catholic personal expression, so people have respect for it but as soon as you leave church, even though you take God with you if you are catholic, you now respect other people and their spaces (in the hope they’ll respect one’s catholocism, which doesn’t always happen in the UK!)

    I do wish the church could reclaim its music from the concert hall… But that is NOT me taking it away from the public stage, rather, urging people to see the beauty of, say, Guerrero and say to themselves ‘hey, this introit for Advent 2 is really nice for 4 part choir, why don’t we just go ahead and sing it in church?’. Personally I’m not against getting choirs/guest choirs to come and help lead this. One of the parishes I conduct at, which is by no means a Cathedral, I get guest choirs and musicians to help. I’m going to push for ‘secular’ choirs (who do religious music) next year.

    Long live God’s music!

  2. Bobbie

    You might want to look for Unitarian Universalist choirs who are interested in new music, and UU composers’ work. Check out the UU Musicians’ Network, http://www.uumn.org/, which has an annual conference that includes read-throughs of new music, along with other activities and fellowship. If you’re not familiar with Unitarian Universalism, you can find out more at http://www.uua.org/beliefs. Not all churches are Christian!

  3. David MacDonald

    Mari, thanks so much for writing this. I too am an atheist composer who has struggled with finding a place for secular choral music. I have passed up opportunities for perfomances and commissions because they were looking exclusively for settings of liturgical (or otherwise religous) texts that I was uncomfortable engaging. Related to this, even nominally secular groups seem often to have close ties to a church, either because they perform there or draw from the congregation for members. This can make it difficult to work with texts that deal with issues or use language that isn’t appropriate to be performed in a church sanctuary.

    A previous commenter mentioned that not all churches are Christian churches, and some are more open to other ideas about spirituality. This is certainly true, and it can be a way for religions to welcome music from other religious traditions, but I don’t think that really solves the problem for atheist musicians and composers. I would be interested to hear others’ thoughts on secular choral music. I think this is a serious issue that I can’t recall being discussed much in the past.

  4. Mark Winges

    Hi Mari:

    Thanks for your thoughtful article. The question of sacred texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition is one we in Volti (www.voltisf.org) discuss frequently. Conductor Bob Geary has commented “such texts are already well-served by the historical literature”. So in the interest of being a new music ensemble that really looks for “new” things (including “new” texts), we generally avoid them. It’s not absolute: we’ve recently performed Aaron J. Kernis’ “Ecstatic Meditations” and Huck Hodge’s “In Lumine”. But in looking back on our repertoire in general and especially our commissions, text sources generally come from elsewhere.

    I couldn’t say whether this attracts or repels composers. Or our audiences. Asking composers to avoid sacred texts has not been a problem with anyone we’ve worked with so far.

    Your comment about the “appropriate-ness” of where concert takes place is another area we grapple with. There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance for us as a group when we perform in churches. We have had comments from a few audience members that they find the religious iconography distracting, for instance. On the other hand, churches often have good acoustics for choral sound, but more important, churches are frequently the most affordable spaces to rent for concerts.

    A related issue to your article might be raised: is the *sole* raison d’être of choral music the text on which it’s based? Should we, as choral composers, place more emphasis on the same aspects of our art-music tradition (form, texture, sound, melody, harmony, patterning) as we would consider in our music for *any* ensemble, instrumental or vocal?

    1. Mari Valverde

      Hi Mark! It’s Mari. I really appreciate your comment and Volti’s efforts to expand the choral experience by emphasizing a diversity of texts. Your ensemble does some admirable work.

      To address your final question, which may have been rhetorical, I would like to share my opinion. I feel, for myself, it is disingenuous to set a text with which I have no connection. If I am composing a choral work for music’s sake, not the sake of the text, I feel I am betraying the purpose of the text. I mention “Alleluia” as a common template for a composer’s uninspired abuse. There is something prostitutional about setting a text of such significance in the spirit of, “I want to compose a choral work!”

      If we want to create atmospheric choral music, melody-driven vocalises, or other forms of music for music’s sake, we must not require the loaded body of prose or poetry. All a composer requires is articulations, which could consist of gibberish, scat, humming, or single words. Some examples that come to mind are Runestad’s “Nyon Nyon,” Mäntyjärvi’s “El Hambo,” and Whitacre’s “hope, faith, life, love.”

      We are accustomed to receiving and delivering choral music as something programmatic. When, perhaps, it’s more honest for certain composers to offer their work as music for music’s sake.

      1. Mark Winges

        Hi Mari:

        Enjoyed reading your additional thoughts (my final paragraph was only semi-rhetorical). I completely agree with you: not only is it “disingenuous to set a text with which I have no connection”, it’s downright hard to do so. I’ve once had a commission where the commissioner specified the text. Fortunately it wasn’t completely outside my sympathies, but it still wasn’t something I’d necessarily pick. I guess it turned out ok, but there were some un-fun aspects to the composing of it. I might even refuse such a project in the future.

        I think it’s a question of *how* or *in what way* the text informs the music (devil in the details and all that). It may only be an initial point of departure. Or the text may be in the driver’s seat. Wherever it falls on the spectrum for any of us (or for any project), if text rules the work exclusively, I think the piece misses some musical opportunities. I’m aware that opinion may say more about my own sensibilities / listening than anything else. I also appreciate your point about non-texted pieces, which I think can be wonderful.

        Thanks again for your thoughts.

  5. Abbie Betinis

    This is such a necessary conversation. Thank you Mari for writing this article.

    I wonder if much of the difficulty in our audiences appreciating choral music for its own sake could be solved by exploring new venues for choral music concerts. I have so often giggled to myself (privately, while sinking down into the pew) when a particularly secular message I’ve composed is being sung in front of a bleeding Jesus Christ. If I were a random audience member, walking into a concert ready for all my senses to be taken up in this experience, I would be confused by the cognitive dissonance, or — worse — not wonder about it at all and watch the whole secular concert through a religious lens.

    Could part of the solution be finding alternate (yet appropriately resonant) venues for choruses, sans religious iconography?


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