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Guest Blogger: Ben Falconer (Associate Pastor, URC)

As a worship leader at University Reformed Church and a vocal performance and opera major in college, one of my loves in life is music. I enjoy many different styles of music, but my taste for the classics developed through years of choral singing and was honed in college while studying music history, theory, and performance. There is a reason the classics have lasted, and I am blessed to take the time to listen to and learn from some of the great composers throughout the past four centuries. It is no wonder why Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart are still household names today.

Being a singer, I have a particular interest in vocal music, in part because of my training, but also because words convey concrete meaning. And there is much in the classical repertoire that brings great honor to the Lord through the Biblical and Christ-centered lyrics that are set to soaring melodies.

The amount of classical music now available to us is wonderfully staggering. So where would I encourage a believer to begin listening? I would start with a genre called oratorio. Oratorio is like an opera without costumes or staging. The music and words contain characters and drama, but the entire piece is delivered like a concert, with the soloists and choir in formal attire, standing in place on the stage as they sing their parts. The reason I am drawn to oratorio is that we have so many to choose from that are explicitly Christian in their lyrics. As I review some of my favorite music, I am again amazed how composers took straight Bible passages and set them to incredible music. Composers like Bach, who made his living as a young man employed by various churches, truly were the worship leaders of their day.

My top 5 favorite oratorios

5.  Joseph Haydn’s The Creation – Of the top 5, this is the only one that is not primarily a biblical text set to music. Instead, Haydn’s libretto is almost entirely an interpretive extrapolation of the brief Scriptural account in Genesis 1. This work can be fun and lighthearted as God calls into existence all of his wondrous creation.

4.  Johannes Brahm’s German Requiem – Brahms departed from the typical Latin requiem text and chose instead passages from Luther’s German Bible as the basis for his glorious funeral work. Brahms is at the top of my list of romantic composers and I love listening to any of his music (my favorite piano piece is his Intermezzo in A Major). His lush harmonies and hauntingly beautiful melodies will stir your soul, especially “Denn alles Fleisch” (“For all flesh”).

3.  Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah – After preaching through the life of Elijah last summer, I came to love Mendelssohn’s oratorio on the great prophet. The music is not as intricate or interesting as either earlier baroque or later romantic works, but what Elijah lacks in musical depth, it more than makes up for it in terms of conveying the drama of the events in Elijah’s life. The show down between Elijah and the prophets of Baal is worth listening to over and over. It helps that this work is in English, so it is easy to follow.

2.  George Frideric Handel’s Messiah – This is my favorite Christmas album and it becomes sweeter every time I listen to it. The arias are becoming as familiar to me as “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls”, and yet they are infinitely richer and more profound. From the opening tenor recitative “Comfort ye my people” all the way through to the closing chorus “Worthy is the Lamb”, I am taken up in the prophecy, life, death, and resurrection of my Lord. Messiah includes such memorable songs as “And the glory of the Lord”, “For unto us a child is born”, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion”, “The trumpet shall sound”, and of course “The Halleluiah chorus”.

1.  Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion – Bach is a musical genius, my favorite composer, and wrote his music for the glory of the Lord. His musical setting of Matthew’s passion account is his masterwork. The recitative text comes straight from the Gospel account and involves mainly the evangelist (narrator) and Jesus. This music is accompanied with minimum instrumentation and moves the drama of Jesus’ last hours along. Bach then inserts solo arias and chorus numbers to comment on the unfolding drama (you will recognize “O sacred head now wounded”). Bach’s music may take a little bit of time to get used to, but the focus on the passion narrative, the weeping arias, and ever-inventive musical lines make this my favorite.

Instilling a love of music for our kids

As a parent of 5 young children, I’ve tried to begin early to instill a love for classical music in our kids. One of our practices we began a number of years ago is to give each child a different classical music CD for Christmas. Our aim is twofold: 1) to expose them to and encourage a love for a variety of different music from a young age, and 2) to give them an assortment of some of the great works of musical art so that by the time they leave our home, their musical collection is stocked with the classics. Thus far, our kids’ favorites have been:

  • Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, a playful introduction to a number of key instruments in the orchestra with memorable melodies and a plot the kids all love.
  • Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the popular baroque violin concertos are thoroughly entertaining for children and adults alike. It’s no surprise this is a classic!
  • The Classical Child at the Opera, which has selections from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, and one of my all-time favorite songs (of any genre): Lakme’s “Flower Duet”. This is a staple in our car for any length of trip.

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7 thoughts on “An Ear for the Classics”

  1. We share the same top three! I was delighted to discover that there’s an English version of Bach’s Matthew Passion, which I find easier to follow (since it’s in my language!). The music conveys the sense and emotion of the text, and I find it a really moving devotional time to take an evening and listen to an oratorio right the way through – with the lyrics to aid comprehension. Stainer’s Crucifixion is also good, although some elements/sentiments may tend towards a high church/catholic understanding of the cross.

  2. Joseph Rhea says:

    This is great! I’ve been ‘discovering’ classical/sacred music recently and am seriously into it.

    One of my favorite genres to search out has been old masses (Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli is hands-down my favorite so far). Do you have any other mass/sacred music recommendations?

  3. Glenn says:

    I’m a music teacher, and this is wonderful to hear. My dad, a pastor, raised me with a love of music and I’m so thankful for that. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Traci says:

    What a surprise pleasure this morning to wake up and get to read! I was a vocal major for about half of my college experience and though I ultimately felt called elsewhere, I miss such chorale opportunities. It sounds like you’ve done a great job encouraging your children’s love of music. I tend to go and find enjoyable children’s classics on-line to teach individual pieces in our homeschool, but I think it would be better to gift some music for repeat enjoyment. It is good to be reminded of how beautiful some of the classic oratorios are and I think I need to add again to my collection!

  5. Stephen says:

    I find it interesting you list Brahms here as a favorite composer of Christian classical music. I am no music historian nor am I particularly knowledgeable of much classical music, but I agree that German Requiem is both stirring and an incredible use of the vernacular. But, isn’t Brahms generally considered more of a humanist with a cultural religion (much like many of his contemporary and future German theologians) than a devout Lutheran or even Catholic? One of the more obvious things about his Requiem is that he did not use the standard Mass scriptures, ignoring any explicit Christological texts or verses speaking of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

  6. John Gardner says:

    Hard to argue with any of those Top 5! The above commenter is correct about Brahms, but thanks to common grace, truth and beauty are found in works outside explicit Christian expression. John Rutter (who has identified himself as an “agnostic supporter of the Christian faith”) might be a good contemporary example of someone who has written some amazing settings of Biblical texts and Christian carols though he does not himself hold to the Christian faith.

  7. AF says:

    As a professional opera singer, I’m desperately hanging out to sing Brahm’s Requiem.. I’d also be very keen to have a crack at Macmillian’s recent St John’s Passion and Vaughan Williams’ Pilgrim’s Progress (an opera, actually, but usually done in concert)

    @Stephen – It’s true that Brahms’ requiem is considered a ‘humanist’ oratorio, he didn’t use the standard latin mass, but instead took his texts from the Luther translation of the Bible, and yes, it doesn’t mention Christ explicitly (at the first performance the rector insisted on inserting Handel’s ‘For I know my redeemer liveth’ to rectify that), but it still a wonderfully powerful piece that, perhaps by common grace, declares biblical truth, even if the full Christological nature is not explicit.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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