Book Review: The Bible in Music

The Bible in Music is a large book, 550 pages. This reflects the enormous impact scripture has had on music through the centuries but also the comprehensive scholarship of Robert Letellier.

In the first chapter Letellier writes of the use of music in ancient Israel, which would later influence the worship of the early Church. At a time when literacy was limited, plays, like stained glass windows, were used as vehicles to record the stories of Christianity. From this, musical dramas developed, such as those of Hildegard of Bingen, b.1098, while in the 1600s the oratorio emerged to be followed by sacred opera. The impact of the Reformation is noted, a recurrent theme in the chapters. At the end of the chapter Letellier speculates that the tension between ‘the spiritual and philosophical experience’ of Hebrew and Greek thought would have ‘ramifications in the development of modern art’. Chapter two lists biblical themes and identifies the oratorios and operas which they have inspired librettists. For example, Letellier explains the story of Moses and the Exodus and then identifies 31 oratorios and 13 operas based on this theme.

9781443873147Chapter 3 takes the reader through religious works written for use in worship. The format for this is a scriptural theme with biblical quotations and then a discussion of composers and their works. Thus the Requiem Mass has quotations from Joel and Maccabees; this is exemplified in the works of 23 composers. Chapter four discusses scripture and its impact on 53 works of opera and ballet. The final chapter provides a climax, the impact of biblical theology on opera. Letellier succinctly explains this as the ‘fusion of philosophy, theology and music’ using opera, a vehicle ideally suited, to ‘explore the passion, and rhapsody of love and death’. In his arguments he addresses the influence of the renaissance, reformation, revolution, church state relations and the issues of religious minorities, Jewish and Christian.

The text despite the complexity of the subject is interesting and readable and includes beautiful illustrations. Its significance as a reference work is underlined by its comprehensive bibliography combined with 11 indices covering topics such as composers, themes, librettists and works.

This work complements the author’s earlier text Bible and Art. It is of use to music lovers as well as those interested in both Christianity and European culture. But above all it will prove to be a must have reference source for presenters on Radio 3 and ClassicFM.

Robert Gibson

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