Let’s Talk

Living Theology in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod

Worship and Culture

Issue 10.2

Winter 2006

Some Ruminations on Art, Church Music, and the Present Cantata

Paul Nicholson, composer, singer, conductor, organist, and Music Director of First St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Chicago, was commissioned by Andrew Lewis, Cantor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston, to compose a cantata for Reformation 2004. This cantata and first performance at Immanuel were made possible through a Worship Renewal Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, Michigan, with funds provided by Lilly Endowment Inc.

Whether it was in high school or college I no longer recall, but at some point I began to keep a list of books that would serve as necessary companions if stranded on some desert island. Over the years the list has changed very little except that in 1999 I read a collection of lectures given by Arthur Danto called After the End of Art — Contemporary Art and the Pale of History and was so profoundly affected that it immediately went on the list. The ideas put forward by Danto primarily relate to the narrative of painting in Western society (and to a lesser extent sculpture). What the author makes abundantly clear is that the concept of Art and the Artist has been commonly understood and recognized since about 1400 A.D., and served our aesthetics well until roughly the last quarter of the 19th century. This period he calls the ‘era of Art.’ Further, the images created prior to the era of Art bear an important distinction. He writes:

It was not that those images were not art in some large sense, but their being art did not figure in their production, since the concept of art had not as yet really emerged in general consciousness, and such images — icons, really — played quite a different role in the lives of people than works of art came to play when the concept at last emerged and something like aesthetic considerations began to govern our relationships to them. They were not even thought of as art in the elementary sense of having been produced by artists — human beings putting marks on surfaces — but were regarded as having a miraculous provenance, like the imprinting of Jesus’ image on Veronica’s veil. There would then have been a profound discontinuity between artistic practices before and after the era of art had begun, since the concept of the artist did not enter into the explanation of devotional images, but of course the concept of the artist became central in the Renaissance, to the point that Giorgio Vasari was to write a great book on the lives of the artists. Before then there would at best have been the lives of the dabbling saints.

From this point Danto moves forward following the development of Western art, the idea of the artist, and the pervasive Vasarian narrative that framed the visual arts in a paradigm of mimesis during which “painters set about representing the world the way it presented itself, painting people and landscapes and historical events just as they would present themselves to the eye.”

Clearly, today this narrative is no longer functioning, and Danto is not the only one to notice. Hans Belting, a German art historian, has also observed the change in this narrative, writing, “Contemporary art manifests an awareness of a history of art but no longer carries it forward.” Belting also observes “the relatively recent loss of faith in a great and compelling narrative, in the way things must be seen.” Danto continues, “It is in part the sense of no longer belonging to a great narrative, registering itself on our consciousness somewhere between uneasiness and exhilaration, that marks the historical sensibility of the present… It is part of what defines contemporary art that the art of the past is available for such use as artists care to give it. What is not available to them is the spirit in which the art was made.”

I believe Danto’s assessment has useful application to the history and understanding of Western music, especially contemporary music. It may be that the steps along the way are varied and that the time periods do not precisely coincide; yet the end result is, in my opinion, the same. As a composer I am no longer constrained by a master narrative: all things are possible. Therefore when commissioned to compose a cantata, I am like a kid in a candy shop: the Baroque ideal, the Second Viennese School, the atonality of Schoenberg, K.D. Lang, minimalism, electronic, the Electric Light Orchestra, experimental, Barber’s neo-Romanticism, Gavin DeGraw’s rock-ballads, Richard Robbin’s movie music, House music, it is all available.


Within the area of church music a strange circumstance prevails. There is a strong conservatism surrounding music explicitly non-contemporary, while at the same time an urgent appeal is made for growth, expansion, and renewal, not only in music, but in all the arts. This tension comes to the fore when a composer begins the task of creating music for the church. Though the present era will allow for all possibilities, not everything is permissible. Here I am referring to stylistic choices and materials to be used, which does not begin to address equally important questions regarding the forces necessary to perform the work, the occasion planned, the orthodoxy of textual choices, etc.

Beginning then at the crossroads of possibility and permissibility we come to this new cantata for Reformation, Aus tiefer Not. The parameters given by the commission specified a cantata structure, four-part mixed choir, children’s choir, joined by an orchestra and vocal soloists no more than 14 in number. The work was to start from or be based on a hymn tune and/or text of Martin Luther and be no more than 20 minutes in length. Given these constraints, what choices did I make?

The Luther text and tune Aus tiefer Not was an easy choice, because it fulfilled two criteria and I very much enjoy its modal flavor. Structurally the cantata reflects those of J.S. Bach, in particular, cantata 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen which I was teaching to my church choir at about the same time as working on the new composition. As for style and harmonic language I felt I had a little more room to maneuver and so my admiration of and influence by Britten, Stravinsky, and Rorem is evident. The writing also reflects the importance of text over texture — there is not a great deal of dense polyphonic writing, as this tends to obscure the message. Though I am not opposed to writing polyphony it seemed best to let the Word out on a day like Reformation.

Though this cantata has never been heard before I do not think of it as a completely new work and I encourage you to listen to it and make comparisons with works of the past. I am not suggesting that Aus tiefer Not is somehow equivalent to a Bach cantata or to Igor Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress or to an art song of Ned Rorem. However there is ‘relatedness’ between them. It is in this process of contextualization that I find my place as a composer, and I think it will help the listener to find enjoyment in the music as well.

T.S. Eliot made a valuable insight into ‘relatedness’ in his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent.” It is with this that I conclude. He writes:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation, is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives, so for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered, and the relations, proportions, and values of each work toward the whole must be readjusted.