Toward the end of my studies at the University of Minnesota, I prepared a conducting recital with the choir of which I was a member. As a Christian, and because of my interest in church music, I selected a program entirely of sacred music.
A friend who was a pastor attended the concert. Afterwards, he found me and asked, “These singers in the choir—are they all Christians?”
“Maybe one or two,” I answered.
“Then why would unbelievers want to sing this music?” he asked in amazement.
He had hit on one of the curious paradoxes of the art music world—many musicians with no particular religious belief will still perform explicitly Christian pieces if the music is of excellent quality.
As another example, consider this: every year thousands of musicians around the world perform George Frederick Handel’s masterful oratorio Messiah for tens of thousands of people. The gospel message of the libretto couldn’t be clearer. Yet how many of the performers or audience members have truly trusted in that Messiah alone for their salvation? Apart from saving faith, the performances, no matter how excellent, become merely music for music’s sake.
On one hand, I’m thankful for these professional-quality performances. Hearing great music performed by the world’s best musicians is a thrill under any circumstances. But what if a group of dedicated believers who were also skilled musicians joined together to perform great sacred music not just as great music but as an offering of worship to the God whom the pieces proclaim? What if they partnered with likeminded musicians from around the area and the region so that these musicians could then return to their own churches to strengthen their own local church music programs?
The musicians of Deo Cantamus seek to turn these theoretical questions into reality. This is the unique focus of the organization. To this end, Deo Cantamus has performed major works and shorter anthems by some of history’s greatest composers, from Palestrina to Brahms and beyond. Deo Cantamus sets these sacred classics alongside arrangements of cherished hymns to demonstrate the viability of offering all this music up in praise of the God we serve.
But eventually we run up against a problem—Bach hasn’t written any new music in more than 250 years, and Haydn, Mozart and Mendelssohn aren’t faring much better. There’s new music being written for the evangelical church, but much of it seems to ignore the heritage handed down to us. We could simply deplore the current state of music in the evangelical church. Or there could be a positive alternative.
This is the unique opportunity that Deo Cantamus has. The people behind the organization believe that all the great sacred music has not yet been written, and want to be a part of its creation. While I was a member of the board, we partnered with local composer Josh Bauder to present a number of his choral anthems, as well as the oratorio Abraham. We were among the first to perform the chamber orchestration of Dan Forrest’s "Te Deum", and in 2016 we premiered the large work “Remember” by award-winning Connecticut-based composer Josh Hummel. For the 2017 commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Josh Bauder wrote five new choral anthems exploring the five solas of the Reformation, and in the spring of 2017 we brought Dan Forrest to Minneapolis for a performance of his major work Jubilate Deo.
This work has continued in subsequent seasons as well, with the premiere of Josh Bauder’s second oratorio Tyndale and his song cycle “Songs for the Unborn.” Recordings of these two important works will be available soon. A performance of Ed Willmington’s new major work Consolation for the Suffering has been a highlight of the current season as well.
God has been gracious to us in giving Deo Cantamus this opportunity, and He has provided the organization’s financial needs through the generosity and support of people who have also caught this vision for the future of church music. If the future of Deo Cantamus excites you, would you consider supporting the organization financially? Will you consider attending or live-streaming the performances, and telling others about them as well? Will you pray for Deo Cantamus? The future of church music does not have to be bleak, and you can play an important part in helping Deo Cantamus work toward these goals.