Mormon Arts Festival 1995 Archive
Music Composition in the Church or Handsprings before the Lord
It is a great honor to be with you today. It is an especially great honor because a couple of my former students said such nice things about me this morning.
My paper is entitled, "Music
Composition in the Church or Handsprings Before the Lord." About 27
years ago in the summer of 1968 Lowell Durham published an article in
Dialogue Magazine about music in the Church, and especially about the
composers in the Church. He polled some 50 people to arrive at a list
of composers. He asked them to name the most important composers in
the 138 years of the History of the Church to that time. He wanted to
name the top 10, but there was a tie for number ten so he actually
listed eleven. His listing also included nine additional composers
who were mentioned, but did not make the top 11. Let me list them for
you in the order he gave them.
1. LeRoy Robertson**^
2. Crawford Gates^
3. George Careless^
4. Arthur Shepherd^*
5 . Evan Stevens*
6. B. Cecil Gates*
7. Robert Cundick^
8. Alexander Schreiner^**
9. John Tullidge*
10. (tie) Leon Dallin**^ and Merrill Bradshaw^
(*deceased, **deceased since, ^doctorate)
The others that were mentioned were Ebenezer Beesley*, Joseph J. Daynes*, George H. Durham*, Alfred Durham*, Gaylen Hatton^, Leigh Harline*, Cyril Jenkins*, Rowan Taylor, and Jay Welch^. Of course, there have been additional dozens of hymn writers who have contributed to our tradition. He listed no composers of children's music (such as Moiselle Renstrom) or of popular sentimental favorites (such as Bobby Sauer of Springtime in the Rockies fame), although there were some composers from these genre who had lived and worked before the article was written. This is no doubt due to the nature of the people he chose to ask in his poll, as well as the milieu in which he worked himself.
Twenty composers in 138 years averages a new composer for about every seven years. Six of the first 11 were already deceased at the time of the survey. Since then two more have died leaving only Crawford Gates, Robert Cundick and Merrill Bradshaw alive at this date. Of the others listed, only Hatton, Taylor and Welch are still alive. Gates, Cundick and Bradshaw are still compositionally active. Seven of the first 11 had doctorates as did two of the other nine.
What has happened since 1968? I have passed out to you a list of the composers I have become acquainted with and I am going to shorten this little section of my piece for about the fourth time. This list has been accumulated in my work with the Barlow Endowment. About 13 years ago, Milton Barlow gave BYU over a million dollars to support excellence in music composition. And I have been involved since that time as Executive Director of the Barlow Endowment, and our business with that endowment has been three-fold. One was education grants for the students. The second was commissions to composers around the world to write new works. And the third was international competition. About a third of our commissioning money has been devoted to LDS composers or other composers who would write music with LDS references. Thirty two of the 97 projects which have been funded involve LDS composers. We have tried to use the funds to create a working relationship between composers and the performers who will premiere the works when they are completed. Not so much because we're concerned about the performers but because that association is good for the composers.
In any case, it has given me
the opportunity to get to know a lot of LDS composers and I have
listed about 52 on there, including some that are emerging. The list,
I apologize, is very incomplete. There are two or three of my former
students who are here in this audience whose names were left off, and
I apologize for that.
Crawford Gates* Beliot, Wisconsin (retired, but still composing)
Newell Kay Brown* Denton, Texas (retired)
David Sargent* Springville, BYU (still composing)
Laurence Lyon* Monmouth, Oregon (still composing)
Robert Manookin* Orem, Utah (retired)
Merrill Bradshaw* Provo, Utah (retired, but still composing)
Newell Dayley* Laie, Hawaii & Provo, Utah (still composing, although more active in administration)
Robert Cundick* Salt Lake City, Utah (retired, but still composing)
Gaylen Hatton* Fruitland, Utah (retired, but still composing)
Darwin Wolford* Rexburg, Idaho (still composing)
Michael Hicks* Provo, BYU (still composing, also interested in scholarly research--secures national reputation)
Michael Runyan* Indianapolis, Indiana (composer in-residence, librarian with Indianapolis Symphony)
Tom Durham* Sandy, Utah (still composing)
Lynn Shurtleff University of Santa Clara, California (still composing)
Dan Gawtrop* Washington, DC (actively composing, Composer-in residence with Arlington String Orchestra)
Steven Jones* Orem, Utah (very actively composing)
Linda Williams Arcadia, California (still composing)
David Zabriskie Chicago, Illinois (free lance composer, concert music & computer games)
Robert Lee Rowberry Orem, Utah (still composing)
Rowan Taylor Whittier, California (retired, but still composing, one of the most prolific composers)
Brent Pierce* Fullerton, California (still composing)
Murray Boren* Formerly NYC, NY, now in Provo at BYU (actively composing)
Deon Price* Culver City, California (actively composing)
Francisco Estevez Madrid, Spain (actively composing)
Kurt Bestor Orem, Utah (actively composing both media & concert music)
Sam Cardon Orem, Utah (actively composing, mostly media)
Merrill Jensen Provo, Utah (free lance film composer)
Marden Pond* Provo, UVSC (actively composing)
Hal Campbell* Cedar City, Utah
Joseph Downing* Syracuse, New York (Syracuse University, actively composing)
Kenneth Hicken* University of Lethbridge (actively composing, mostly humorous music)
Jeff Manookian Salt Lake City, Utah (actively composing)
Lloyd Miller Salt Lake City, Utah (actively composing, ethnic music)
Dennis Griffin* Logan, Utah (Utah State University)
LaMar Barrus Rexburg, Idaho (conducting, not active as a conductor)
Brady Allred* Duquesne University (choral conductor, still actively composing)
Will Salmon Los Angeles, California (free lance composer)
Robert Brunner Disney Studios (Emmy nominee)
Harriett Bushman England, Arabia (still composing)
Helge Skjeveland Orem, Utah (still composing)
Michale Kosorok Madison, Wisconsin (still composing)
Emerging young composers
Michael Babbit Washington, DC (actively composing -- media, ballet)
Keith Bradshaw Minneapolis, Minnesota (composer-in-residence with a consortium of Churches in MN)
Glenn Palmer* Kansas City, Kansas (actively composing)
Charis Bean Duke Illinois (pursuing degree)
Raphael Olviera Mexico City (actively composing, graduate study at University of Mexico)
Thomas Herlin Urbana, Illinois (degree)
Cameron Rose Minneapolis, Minnesota (degree)
Cheryl Christensen Austin, Texas (degree)
David Long Provo, Utah (degree)
James Worlton Provo, Utah (degree)
Todd Coleman Provo, Utah (degree)
In any case this list has fifty two composers on it. In the last 27 years that means an average of about one and a half new composers for every year. Twenty six of those fifty two have their doctor's degrees already and another eleven are working on them. It is very evident from the list that LDS composers are much more numerous now than they were at any time in the past and that they are geographically and stylistically more diverse. They are no longer centered in Salt Lake City and Provo, although, except for three who live abroad, most of them live in North America.
After 27 years it is clear that composition activity in the Church has been healthy and is alive and growing.
Now I'd like to move to another topic and talk about common elements that our composers use. First let me say a word about style. It used to be the fashion to try and come up with the parameters for the Mormon style. But I think that in fact, the idea of some kind of exclusive stylistic reference is a product of a time with a stronger need for alliances. We seem to worry less and less today about the schools of thinking that dominated and intimidated my generation for so many years. Perhaps we have discovered too many successful and inspiring works in too many different styles to be able to commit ourselves irrevocably to a single one. Moreover, I think it neither possible nor desirable to try to set up the parameters for such a style by some sort of manifesto. My best alternative is to make a few remarks about what I perceive to be important in the responses of both composers and audiences -- whatever styles they choose.
First let me mention that we share a common musical heritage in the Hymns of the Church, both those in the current hymnbook and those in previous hymnbooks. This heritage is the foundation of music in the Church. All the rest of the music we make necessarily and inevitably has important, if not obvious, relationships to our hymn tradition.
Another list of composers, at least as long as the one I gave earlier for art music, could be assembled from the index of the hymnbook, covering those members of the Church who have contributed to this tradition. It goes back to the earliest days of the Church, it was very vigorous in pioneer days, and is continuing today, although it seems to have become harder and harder to break into the tradition with a new hymn. Among the finest of the new hymns from our current hymnbook are "Our Savior's Love" by Crawford Gates and Ed Hart, "As Now We Take the Sacrament" by Dan Carter, and "I Believe in Christ" by John Longhurst, but there are many others.
I must point out that some take an extreme position that would limit the musical life of the Church to the foundation represented by our hymns. To me, this is much like the basement houses we used to see in some of our smaller towns. People built the foundation for a home, and ran out of money before they could build the ground floor of the house. So they built the roof right on top of the foundation with no walls, no main floor, no rooms to move around in.
But the 50 composers I mentioned above are part of a tradition that belongs to the walls, rooms, windows, and doors of the great house of the Kingdom. Even though some lodge at a considerable distance from their roots in the hymn tradition, they make valuable contributions to our culture and to the pride we feel in our society. To be able to say that we have a complete Kingdom, we need many kinds of music, and they need to flourish and be nourished by the Kingdom, even if the Church's programs themselves are primarily focused on the hymn tradition.
Second, there is an attitude that emerges from the verses in the Doctrine and Covenants where Emma Smith was directed to put together a hymnal for use in the Church. In that revelation she was informed that "the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing on their heads" (D & C 25:12-13). Working from that definition, I would suggest that for the Lord, artistic endeavors are spiritual in the same sense that prayers are spiritual. They are, after all, addressed to Him.
When I first went to Provo, we bought a home in the old Bonneville Ward. In the chapel of that meeting house there was a space that had been designed for the pipe organ, but the organ itself had not yet been acquired. Instead, behind the choir seats in the front of the hall there was a large alcove in the wall which had no visible ceiling. This space was located directly below the spire of the building. Sitting in the seats looking toward the front of the chapel, one could easily imagine the space continuing up an up through the spire directly into heaven. As Sunday School chorister, I often wondered if the Lord Himself might be sitting up there, just beyond our line of vision, making up our pages of The Book of Life based on what we sang.
Actually, real life is not too far from this fantasy. God is always watching, listening, not only to our formal "kneel down" or "arms folded" kind of prayers, but also to all of our other prayers, as well: our singing, our viewing, our listening, what we think, how we vote, when we swear, when we lie, when we have compassion--in short, observing and evaluating our whole life, both good and bad.
I think all LDS composers, in whatever medium and whatever genre, share an attitude of projection toward God as the ultimate audience for what we do. This is merely another way of saying what has been said before today that in such works there is a striving for a level of perfection that is not always easy for human audiences to grasp at first hearing.
Third, in all our artistic activities we have to strike a four-way balance between the technical demands of the work, what the artist personally knows and feels, what our audiences know and feel, and the sense in which our work relates to God. Each work represents a give and take between these four areas. Where individual composers differ a great deal is how they distribute the emphasis to each area. For some, especially at the student level, the primary concern has to be technical mastery. After student days, perhaps especially in the commercial field, the approval of the Lord is often shifted to a secondary role, and more attention is paid to the mortal audience in the hope of wider acceptance of the work. That comes with the territory, of course.
On the other hand, I know of some for whom the whole creative experience is so sacred and personal that only the yearning of the composer's heart toward God has any significance in the creation of the work. Many of these works are seldom performed even once, except in the imagination of the composer. I also know some who find their primary fulfillment in the challenge of the technical aspects of the work.
Whatever balance may have been chosen between the artist, the work, the mortal audience, and the divine audience, I must assert here that creating any work of art is an astoundingly fragile miracle. After many years of studying the creative process, I have come to the conclusion that no one can really explain the impulses that drive the process nor the source of the ideas. Somehow, they are a spiritual gift, given of God for the edification of his children. Even when we do not like a specific piece or style, it remains a precious artifact that we must all respect and learn to understand. To do less than this is to sin grievously against the composer, and since it is almost a prayer, against God.
In this connection, I must say that one of the most difficult problems facing the current LDS artist is dealing with those of us who buttress our own tastes with the scriptural stances that are hostile to an understanding of what other Saints are saying with their work. That is, we quote the scriptures to condemn someone else's artistic efforts. This is an arrogance that insists on our own tastes, and offers contempt for all others. The artists have figuratively sweat blood in the spirit to create something beautiful to express their deepest spiritual yearnings. Stylistic misunderstandings become the pretext for judgmental rejection and thus cause deep divisions, even within the artistic community and especially in the Church as a whole. Rather than interacting with each other about a work, we often get into shouting matches, or posturing in letters to the Editor in the papers or worse, in letters to the General Authorities. We ought to remember that the Apostle Peter condemns people who speak evil of things they do not understand by calling them "brute beasts." (2 Peter 2:13).
I believe the person who does this is guilty of a sin as serious as the one who cheats his neighbor in business, or who becomes a drunken sot, or who commits fornication. One of the things that Christ repeatedly warned us against is a certain hardness of heart which is manifest when we refuse to take the time to understand or appreciate a fellow human being. To prevent this kind of "hardness of heart one with another" the Lord has given the teacher in the priesthood a duty to oversee the membership of the Church (see D & C 20:54).
When King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem for a final resting place, he led the procession, dancing and leaping for joy before the Lord. He was wearing an "ephod" which was apparently a kind of skirt with suspenders used in priestly functions to hold the Urim and Thummim.
According to the scripture, afterwards, when he came home to bless his family, his wife, Michal, was jealous and chided him because she thought his dancing and leaping were lewd and immoral and that he was showing too much bare flesh to the young women who might have been watching. She thought her position as queen gave her the right to complain about the king.
But David was amazed and said of his dancing: "It was before the Lord!" He was expressing himself to the Lord, and it was improper even for a queen to find fault with it. The scriptures also indicate that "therefore Michal had no children to the day of her death." I can't help suggesting that her pharisaic harping on the possible offenses of David's dances of joy before the Lord may have been responsible for her barrenness. I have to suppose that this story was included in the scriptures to teach us this, precisely this, important lesson: do not find fault with people's artistic expressions to the Lord.
Fourth, there is a tendency for many of us to think that the great composers were great because they followed the rules. Certainly, technical skill can produce admirable results. But we often exalt it beyond its true function. Let me give you an example from my own experience. A woman came to me about four years ago wanting composition lessons. She had had music theory several years previously and had left school to raise her family. She told me she wanted me to "teach her all the rules she needed to know to be able to compose."
I told her that I only knew one important rule. That rule is: "every note you write has to be exactly what you want it to be. No more and no less." My teaching strategy was to help her find what it was she wanted to write. We explored this problem together weekly for about a year. At the end that time she gave a recital of her own new compositions, works she had written during that year. It included a rather spectacular full-length piano sonata, two different suites for various instruments, an elaborate set of variations, a choral piece, and several teaching pieces for children. It was a wonderful recital, one that amazed all of us who were there, and most of all, gave her confidence in what she, as a composer, believed. A week after the recital she moved to New Mexico. The last thing I heard from her, she had been accepted--on the strength of what she did for that recital--into the graduate composition program at University of New Mexico. I would like to point out that it was done, not by technically following the rules, but by being true to her own inner vision.
It is clear, of course, that the rules of music theory can be helpful to any musician in understanding how the notes are functioning in relation to each other and to the history that has led to the work. But new works of art are not merely good rule followers. It is often the case that they are rule makers. That is, they depart from the way other composers seem to have done things in the past. We must recognize that those departures comes from the composer's inner vision which, in turn, is dependent on his relationship with God. Incidentally, this is why Beethoven is reported to have said to a Bass player who was complaining about the difficulty of a particular, near- impossible passage, "Do you think that when I am storming the heavens I have time to worry about you and your lousy fiddle?"
Some who think restrictively about music theory think that good music is good merely because it follows the rules, but that is not the case. In the first place, music which merely follows the rules is unendurably boring because the composer's spirit is not allowed to show. In the second place, the rules give an infinite number of correct ways to do things. In the third place, the rules have been derived from the works of composers who were themselves the makers of new rules. The Composer must, therefore, be true to his own vision, first of all, and make use of whatever rules are helpful in making that vision clear.
If art is revelation, that is if it is inspired, we need to know (again and again and again, we need to know), that technique is merely a tool that enables us to express the spirit precisely. It can never be a substitute for our relationship with God, and with the ultimate value that all art implies. Of course, people who have absolutely no technique have difficulty expressing anything accurately to anyone. On the other hand, even those who have the most complete mastery of technique always find themselves needing greater skill when it comes time to express the most profound, significant things they have to say. I will mention here, as an example, that no matter how often or how hard I try, I find myself completely inadequate to express the depth of my love for my wife in any satisfying way, verbally or musically.
If there is anything that Mormon Artists are about, it is the application of all the technique they can command to the task of expressing precisely what is important in their relationship with God and the Universe. Nearly always, they feel inadequate.
I do not mean to say by this that a work must always be overtly pious or deal with religious subject matter to be artistic. Far from it. After all, compositions are not junior high seminary lessons. But I do mean to repeat that every work of art--whatever its subject, whatever its style--is spiritual in the same sense that prayer is spiritual.
The late Clinton Larson used to tell a story about the itinerant mute tumbler in Medieval Paris who came with his troupe to participate in the dedication of the Cathedral of Notre Dame some 745 years ago. He was alone in the cathedral the evening before his performance when he encountered and was powerfully moved by a statue of Mary with the Christ Child. He was unable to speak what he felt, so he did the thing he could do best: he did somersaults before the statue as an expression of his love and respect. For him, somersaults were the highest spirituality.
The fifth area is what I call Deep Structure. Two years ago, I had the good fortune to be able to spend three months here in Southern Utah finishing a large work. One of the frequent experiences of that time was going to the top of Brianhead Peak. From there we could see a good part of Cedar Breaks, and way off in the distance, Pine Valley Mountain. Down the road just a few miles is the overlook where you can look down into the top of Zions Canyon. A few miles to the east is Strawberry Point.
One thing that always impressed me about those views is the beauty of the geology. Up on top you can see the surface of what was once the upper layer of the whole region: the volcanic soil that supports the spruces and firs that make up Dixie National Forest and those spectacular fields of wildflowers. A few hundred feet below the surface, the top layer has eroded away exposing the gorgeous pink cliffs that are visible at Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon and Strawberry Point. From Strawberry Point you can see the mountains of the Kaibab Forest that surround the Grand Canyon. As you go down Cedar Canyon you can see many of the deeper layers in rather spectacular formations. When you get to the bottom of Grand Canyon you are at the same layers that are some 12,000 feet below Brianhead, and all of it is so beautiful that people come from many parts of the world to look at it.
No matter where you go there are miracles of beauty to delight the senses. And wherever you stand, all of that beauty, and much more, lies in the ground beneath you, supporting all that you see on the surface.
That is how it is with the arts. There is a surface, which is the scenic layer that engages the attention of even the most superficial audiences. But beneath that upper layer lie wonder upon wonder upon wonder. Wherever you penetrate beneath the surface, the deeper layers of the art have to be considered a miracle. The structure of a work, the ways that structure is elaborated and decorated, the nature of the whole system upon which it revolves, the derivation of the single pitches, the nature of sonic vibrations themselves-- they are all miracles to be savored, enjoyed, treasured.
In the arts it really makes little difference which style is developed, how much consonance or dissonance they have, whether their lines are simple or complex. What matters is that all of us have a responsibility to accept and understand that we may be edified together.
As David said, it is before the Lord that these things have their ultimate meaning. It is also before the Lord that they can be judged. I say this as a challenge not only to our artists, but also to our audience's response. You need the Spirit as much in judging a work of art as you do in any other aspect of your life. If you do not like Schoenberg or Bach or even country-western music (to mention my own particular trial) you are not getting close enough to them to share their ultimate message. On judgment day, I would hate to stand before God and have Schoenberg or Bach or even Garth Brooks say that they do not feel I should go into heaven because I have not been fair to them and their music. But I think that we may have to run that kind of gauntlet.
In summary, what I am saying here is that Art demands of all of us, not arrogance about what we like and do not like, but humility before the indescribable gift. God has blessed us with the senses and the minds to be able to perceive values in the Arts. We need to look with awe at the things that our fellow human beings have done, never with scorn. They are, after all, prayers unto God. We ought to say, "Amen." It is a privilege to be involved with the arts. And a joy.
One day while we were here in St. George two years ago, I was helping my wife prepare lunch when we heard a mockingbird singing as only mockingbirds can do. After a few moments, I got out my binoculars and located him on the chimney of the building next door. As I watched him, with his throat throbbing with a song, he suddenly leaped into the air and did a somersault--a "wing spring" if you will. That is what it is like to be active in the arts--such a privilege that from the pure joy of it we could do handsprings every day.
I would say, further, that if the Kingdom is the be built artistically, the work must be done by those who create. It will not be done by those who are Pharisaically critical. If you want to see the Kingdom flourish artistically, you have to do your own part, humbly, devotedly, and with all the energy you can muster in whatever area or style you are comfortable with. After all it is our responsibility to communicate with each other with understanding and love. Nothing less will be successful and nothing more can be required of anyone--except maybe the handsprings!