I’ve been involved in ongoing, fruitful discussions with theologians over the years. These have led to specific works such as my music theatre piece Parthenogenesis and my St Luke Passion, both of which came about through organised interactions with religious thinkers, under the auspices of the theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie. His first project with me, Sounding the Depths in 2000, included a collaboration between the poet Michael Symmons Roberts, the future Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and myself around the topic of parthenogenesis (virgin birth). It was based on the story, or urban myth, of a young woman in Hanover in 1944 who, injured by an Allied bombing raid, gave birth nine months later to a child whose genetic profile was identical to hers. She insisted that she had not had intercourse before conceiving.
This model of theologian-composer collaboration has provided inspiration for a bigger partnership scheme at the University of St Andrews, where I am now an honorary professor in the School of Divinity. TheoArtistry, as the programme is known, is a new dimension of the work of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA). It explores how the interface between theology and the arts might directly inform the making, practice, performance, curatorship and reception of Christian art. It also considers how this might transform not only the scholarly but also the public perception of the role (and vital importance) of the arts today in theology, Church practice and society at large.
For the TheoArtistry composers’ scheme, we selected six doctoral theologians working in ITIA and the School of Divinity and, from almost 100 applicants, chose six exceptionally talented composers (from England, Scotland the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Canada) to form theologian-composer partnerships.
Over six months, beginning last September, their challenge was to collaborate on a new choral work for non-professional chapel choir (and organ, if desired) of approximately three minutes. Each partnership worked on an Old Testament “annunciation”: a moment in Scripture when God intervenes in human history to communicate with an individual or group of individuals.
It is a huge thing for a composer to hear their work come alive in the hands and voices of interpreters. Up until the first rehearsal the composition remains in the inner imagination of the composer. But it comes to life, incarnationally, when conductor and singers (in this case) start to transform it into live musical flesh.
The open rehearsal of these new works, which took place on Sunday, was the moment when composer and theologian began to realise where their joint discussions had led. Collaborations between musicians and others can be wonderful things and can push the composer beyond their comfort zone to see the impact of their music outside of purely abstract considerations.
It will be interesting to see if the next generation of composers will engage with theology, Christianity or the general search for the sacred. There has been a significant development in this kind of intellectual, academic and creative activity in the last 20 years or so. In the world of theology there is an understanding that the arts open a unique window on to the divine.
Many regard music as the most spiritual of the arts, and this claim can be made by music lovers who are not necessarily religious in any conventional sense. It is this wide, shared excitement in the numinous and mystical power of music which could draw the curious and fruitful attention of composer and theologian alike in the generations to come.
Before our first symposium last November we asked each of the six theologians selected to research the biblical background, artistic and theological reception of their Old Testament “annunciation”. We also asked them for some possible passages to set to music – and to draw on their own specific research interests and experience in the collaboration.
At the symposium, we presented the composers with this underlying research. We then encouraged them to engage deeply with their theologian collaborator, to be open to surprises, to what such collaboration might bring to the creative process.
This will lead to public performances and a CD recording. It will be the beginning of a rolling research and composition project at St Andrews in the years ahead.
Sir James MacMillan is a composer and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald
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