While mainstream popular music receives far more publicity than contemporary classical music (also ambiguously called “new music”), the 21st century is proving to be one of the most exciting and diverse times for classical music creation and stylistic fusion. You may also be surprised to know that even in today’s highly secular arts culture, many of its most significant contributors identify as Christians.
Here are seven notable contemporary Christian composers whose work you should hear.
1. Ēriks Ešenvalds
A rising star in new choral music, Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds writes music of devastating beauty and emotional directness that has captivated audiences across the globe. His work exudes a wonder at nature and its Creator: “Stars” (watch below) revels in the magnificence of the night sky, and “The Long Road” includes a wordless “ah” section that Ešenvalds refers to as a musical response to the splendor of the heavens—“a glory beyond words.” Ešenvalds has been commissioned by Boston Symphony Orchestra, Utah Symphony, The King’s Singers, BBC Proms Youth Choir, and has won the Latvian Great Music Prize three times. But before specializing in composition, Ešenvalds attended Latvian Baptist Theological Seminary and was headed toward the pastorate. Although he changed vocational direction, his work ministers to people from diverse walks of life and is rich in theological insight (check out: “St. Luke Passion” and “O Salutaris Hostia”).
2. James MacMillan
Arguably Scotland’s leading composer and an outspoken Roman Catholic, James MacMillan combines the brash cacophony of the classical avant-garde with the melodic and rhythmic vitality of Celtic folk music. Recognizable fragments of a Scottish dance emerge from dark orchestral textures in his “Violin Concerto.” Medieval-sounding vocal lines blend with strident string clusters in a musical depiction of the lamentation of a parent losing a child in his “Stabat Mater” (listen below)—a work that holds personal depth for MacMillan, whose grandchild died after a short life fraught with health complications. His “Symphony No. 3” (yes, some composers still write symphonies) is inspired by Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence about Jesuit priests suffering persecution in 17th-century Japan (also a film by Martin Scorsese). In Jeremy Begbie’s words, MacMillan’s music gives “voice to a vibrant hope, but never descends into sentimentality, never allows us to forget that God heals the world by descending into its darkest depths.”
3. Sofiya Gubaydulina
Tartar-Russian composer Sofiya Gubaydulina’s exploration of sound ranges from comfortingly consonant to harrowingly dissonant. Her grandfather was a Muslim Mullah; her father was an anti-religious man. But 5-year-old Sofia recalls seeing an icon of Jesus Christ in the corner of someone else’s home, and immediately “recognized God. . . . This religious experience lived within me. Somehow music emerged naturally with religion and sound became sacred to me.” The strong religious and innovative temperament of her music did not agree with the atheist Soviet establishment, and she was blacklisted in 1979. In “The Seven Words on the Cross” (listen below), Gubaydulina depicts the agony of Christ’s final hours with abundant creativity and insight. The painful cello sighs, and interjecting gasps of the bayan (a Russian accordion) discomfort the listener much like the graphic images of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, reminding listeners of the gory devastation before the glorious resurrection. With intense focus on the resonance of each sound and polyrhythmic texture, Gubaydulina’s music journeys through the psalmist’s “valley of the shadow of death,” prompting the listener to yearn for God’s promised but often delayed “goodness and unfailing love.”
4. J. A. C. Redford
J. A. C. Redford’s work as orchestrator can be heard in Sam Mendes’s harrowing masterpiece 1917, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, James Cameron’s Avatar, and Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E, to name only a few of his high-profile collaborations. As composer, his diverse output includes Disney’s musical Newsies, MGM’s Trip to the Bountiful, and NBC’s television series St. Elsewhere. Raised as a Mormon, Redford transitioned to orthodox Christianity and found a well of deep spiritual life in Anglicanism (this story is chronicled in his memoir, Welcome All Wonders: A Composer’s Journey). His non-film music includes an oratorio (“The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp”), chamber music (“The Alphabet of Revelation,” “Dream Dances”), and powerful choral settings of poetry, including Malcolm Guite’s O Antiphon sonnets, John Donne’s Batter My Heart, and his own “Let Beauty Be Our Memorial” (listen below).
5. Shawn Okpebholo
Raised in Kentucky’s government housing and a beneficiary of the Salvation Army’s tradition in music and social justice, award-winning Nigerian-American composer Shawn Okpebholo has crafted a growing collection of compelling concert music, influenced by a variety of traditions. Inspired by a trip to Kenya, “Kutimbua Kivumbi” (a Swahili phrase that loosely means “stomp the dust”) juxtaposes explosive percussive textures with quotations of a Kenyan folk song. His award-winning “On a Poem By Miho Nonaka: Harvard Square” explores the opulent resonance of the flute and offers an aural interpretation to a Japanese poem. Perhaps best known for his reimagined spirituals, Okpebholo—who teaches at the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music—says “it is impossible for me to create without the hand of God, the Creator who created all of us as creative beings. Most of the music I write is not sacred programmatically. However, everything I compose I call sacred because my creative process is a spiritual journey.”
6. Sungji Hong
South Korean composer Sungji Hong has collected numerous accolades and commissions from the Fromm Foundation, Texas Flute Society, and National Flute Association for music that integrates unconventional instrumental technique with elements of Asian folk music and Western sacred music. She has embarked on a 20-year project on the life of Christ that already includes 15 original works for a dizzying array of instrumental and vocal ensembles. “Luminous Flux,” “Exevalen,” and “Bisbigio” (listen below)—each wild and strangely beautiful—feature highly imaginative instrumental writing, while “Missa Lumen de Lumine” and “Nunc dimittis” explore the human voice. Inspired by painters such as Fra Angelico and El Greco, Hong’s music reflects a “strong expression, dramatic shaping of ideas, harmonic color, and on a lyrical sense of line.”
7. Arvo Pärt
Arguably the most widely performed composer on this list, Arvo Pärt’s entrancingly beautiful music appears regularly in Hollywood and arthouse films (e.g., “Silouan’s Song” in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups; “Fratres” in P. T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood). The music associated today with Pärt was born from a period of artistic silence in the 1960s when he turned away from the atonal cacophony of mainstream art music to embrace early church music and minimalism. Pärt states, “You can kill people with sound, and if you can kill, then . . . maybe there is also this sound which is something opposite of killing.” An important aspect of his style —tintinnabuli—involves the pairing of two voices: one freely melodic voice and the other, more restricted in movement, provides the grounding. About his melodic pairing, Pärt has said: “One line is my sins, and the other line is forgiveness.” His music largely consists of musical settings of Scripture and Christian writings, yet this is accomplished with such grace and beauty that even the unreligious are receptive to its ministry. Alex Ross, in his brilliant book The Rest Is Noise, points out that Pärt’s music offers “oases of repose in a technologically oversaturated culture.” Indeed, his “Magnificat,” “Spiegel im Spiegel” (listen below) and “Adam’s Lament” seem to momentarily suspend the march of time, inviting the listener to meditation and prayer.