Composers have been adapting and setting Scripture to music for centuries. The more poetic passages, such as from the prophetic books and the Psalms, are the most common sources. But narrative passages, too, have inspired grand works, like the Passion oratorios of Bach. As for treatments of whole books, some admirable examples from the last decade are The Book of Jonah by David Benjamin Blower and The Lamb Wins and The King Dreams by the Lesser Light Collective, musical retellings of the books of Revelation and Daniel, respectively.
What to my knowledge has never been attempted is a systematic musical adaptation of an entire epistle—that is, until Psallos came onto the scene in 2015 with their first full-length album, Romans, which was followed up in 2017 by Hebrews.
Music Interpreting Scripture
A collective of musicians associated with Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, Psallos exists to help “clarify Scripture through music” that is both “artistically excellent and theologically rich.” The group is led by Cody Curtis, a doctor of musical composition and the writer behind all the songs. Curtis’s approach is not “let’s take these words and put pretty music around them” but rather “let’s use music to exegete these dense passages in an imaginative way.”
Psallos exists to help clarify Scripture through music that is both artistically excellent and theologically rich.
The notes are not just ornamenting the words but actually interpreting them, drawing out their meaning—as are the other musical tools like tempo, rhythm, style, mode, and timbre.
Hebrews is a 90-minute art music composition for vocals, folk rock band, and chamber orchestra (listen on Spotify). The overall feel is of a Broadway musical, as the album draws listeners into a dramatic world with a lush orchestral score that moves through different moods. Strings, winds, and brass combine with piano, guitars, and drums to accompany lead singers Thomas Griffith and Kelsie Edgren, who show amazing versatility, pulling off both quirky and grandiose. While the predominant musical style is orchestral folk, the 27 tracks also encompass bluegrass, hot jazz, rock, slow hip-hop, Irish dance, minimalism, and electronic. And then there are moments when the music gives way to sounds of live theater, such as introductory remarks, ambient noise, and spoken dialogue.
Discerning the form of the biblical letter was the first step to composing Hebrews, Curtis said, as that would determine the musical structure. He then spent time studying the book’s themes and literary features, with the aid of a New Testament professor at Union. The author of Hebrews, Curtis found, uses the rhetoric of argument and debate as well as exhortation, with theological exposition running throughout. The quality is thus sermonic. The key themes—Christ is better, the old is gone, the new has come, endure in faith—are all underscored musically. The first song, “Heaven and Earth,” swells and then bursts on the words “Son” and “better,” and it ends on an unresolved musical phrase: “Christ is better than the.” This anticipates the final song, where a list is given of all the people and things that Christ is better than: the angels, the prophets, Moses, the Levites and their offerings and prayers.
Eclectic Yet Cohesive
One of the hallmarks of Hebrews is its simultaneous eclecticism and cohesiveness. Connectivity between tracks is established through recurring musical motives and reprises. For example, there are five warnings, all scored with the same beating piano and agitated strings, suggesting a severe tone. Some of the titles bear further clues of linkage, like “Wandered” and “Wondered,” which each sets an Old Testament citation, the one bleak (“They shall not enter my rest,” 3:11), the other hopeful (“I will be merciful toward their iniquities,” 8:12). “Peace on Earth . . .” is reprised in “. . . For Heaven’s Sake” because these two texts function as bookends, framing the central narrative about Jesus as high priest and offering; the anthemic “hold fast our confession” is doubly present (4:14, 10:23).
One of the main musical themes, and perhaps my favorite, is “Before the Throne of God Above.” Charitie Lees Bancroft’s 19th-century hymn text is known today mostly from Vikki Cook’s congregation-friendly tuning of it, which is beautiful in itself, but the Psallos tune is grander, more elevated, transporting. It glimmers faintly at the end of the second warning and is then progressively developed, instrumentally, until the album closes with a full voicing.
These aren’t the only familiar hymn lyrics that appear. “Angels We Have Heard on High” receives a lyrical revision, and “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus” is likewise adapted, in a jarring manner, in “The Old.”
Incarnation, Ascension, and the Triumph of the New
Among the several theological doctrines the album explores are the incarnation and the ascension. The song “Ex Paradiso” quotes Fauré’s Requiem, a mass for the dead, but changes In paradisum deducant te angeli (“May angels lead you into paradise”) to Et perducant te angeli ex paradiso (“And angels lead you [Jesus] out of paradise”). Whereas the musical source pertains to the ascent of the souls of believers into heaven, Psallos marries that majestic tune to Hebrews 2:5–18, making it about Christ, who descended to earth so that we can ascend to heaven. At the end, a spoken word in Christ’s voice: “Goodbye, heaven! Hello, earth.” Then, nine tracks later, we hear “Goodbye, earth,” which tags the beginning of the next track: “Hello, heaven!” Here Jesus returns to his exalted position on high (8:1).
The climax of Hebrews is “Two Mountains,” a reference to Sinai (representing the old) and Zion (representing the new). The “long ago” theme from the beginning returns, dark and shadowy, but it builds and then breaks; the shadows lift, and the Zion theme enters, bright, triumphant.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say Hebrews is a contemporary masterpiece. The level of sophistication and intentionality executed on such a large scale is astounding. Curtis employs a musical vocabulary that’s much wider than what most Christian artists employ, and it serves the biblical text so well.
Listening to the book sung in such an intricately crafted manner enhances our understanding and appreciation of its truths.
My small group has been studying Hebrews, and we’re doing so in conjunction with this album. Listening to the book sung in such an intricately crafted manner enhances our understanding and appreciation of its truths, which, having settled into our ears and hearts, we won’t soon forget. What a gift to the church.
- Paul’s Letter to the Romans Set to Music (Trevin Wax)
- How One Church Is Making Scripture Sing (Chris K. Davidson)