21st Century Sacred Music: Part 1
Not-So Sacred Music
"Sacred Music" in the modern world, but especially in the modern orchestral environment, generally means one of two things. Either it's music inspired by or based on a sacred text or melody, or it's music used in a religious environment for a religious purpose. In the case of orchestral sacred music, the western Christian church (and even more specifically the western Catholic church), has been the source of most of this music.
The distinction between sacred music inspired-by versus sacred music written-for a religious purpose was less stark over 100 years ago as European Christian churches had both the financial ability and the physical venues necessary for producing sacred orchestral music. Today, however, and especially as the U.S. Christian church has come to dominate the religious music environment, most music produced for the church remains securely within the church and only rarely finds its way onto the concert stage.
The Separation of Church and Stage
The dominance of the American Protestant church in the 20th century has meant that the structures and systems surrounding the creation of religious music have altered the kind of sacred music that is created. The importance of the existence of cathedrals in Europe can't be overstated when considering the creation of sacred music. Large spaces are required to produce large musical works and American churches, for the most part, have been relatively small venues when compared to European cathedrals, well-suited primarily to nothing larger than an amateur-level choral ensemble with keyboard accompaniment (whether organ or piano). This explains, to a large extent, why we don't see new works like Bach's St. Matthew Passion or Händel's Messiah anymore; which is to say, large-scale orchestral works created in the church which can easily move out to the concert stage. This is not to say that we don't see new music inspired-by sacred materials on the concert stage, only that new sacred works are usually written for the concert stage and rarely, if ever, begin life within a church.
However, in the past couple of decades, with the emergence of the "mega-church" movement primarily in America, a new ensemble has appeared with the ability to revive sacred orchestral music within the Christian church. It is known, generally, as the "Church Orchestra"; a variable-instrument ensemble based on a small, traditional orchestra instrumentation with concert band instruments (often derived from American marching bands) doubling or replacing any missing traditional orchestra instruments.
The physical size of these new mega-church venues makes it possible to present the kinds of music that used to be reserved nearly exclusively for European cathedrals or concert stages. And while older, sacred orchestral music is often being brought from the concert stage back into the church, the music being composed for the Church Orchestra is not moving the other direction. As such, although we now have an environment conducive to the creation of new larger-scale, sacred orchestral compositions within the church, we're not seeing new works created.
The doublings (or replacements) utilized by the Church Orchestra instrumentation structure are a clever solution to the challenge of funding sacred orchestral music within a church environment because orchestral music is, by its nature, expensive. And since most orchestral compositions simply won't work if instruments are missing, this concert band doubling technique allows the music to be performed even if the traditional orchestra instruments the compositions are based on are not present. Or to put it in the most practical terms, the doublings allow churches to manage the weekly ebb and flow of total musicians available on any given Sunday.
But while this doubling solution, however clever, solves the problem having a full-time, paid staff of musicians, it significantly limits the performability of these compositions because the instrumentation doesn't transfer easily, if at all, to any other orchestral ensemble, ultimately leaving the music locked inside the church walls. The compositional result of this limitation is that composers interested in writing for the church orchestra must commit their compositions to this and only this ensemble. The only way to bring this music to the concert stage, even if it were written on a scale that was relevant to a concert setting, would be to re-score and subsequently re-publish the scores for a more traditional orchestral instrumentation.
And Now For Something Not Completely Different
Developing a new approach to the traditional structure of the Church Orchestra (if you can say that any ensemble this new can even claim to have traditions) is something I've been thinking a great deal about for almost 10 years and have finally come up with a working solution for making this music more versatile. It's an instrumentation that can serve the three main venues for sacred orchestral music today; the small Community Orchestra, the large Symphony Orchestra, and the new Church Orchestra.
But before we get into the solution, let's look a little more closely at the problem of the Church Orchestra instrumentation as it currently stands and why music written for it translates so poorly to other orchestral ensembles.