Archive for Geoffrey Ward

God as Choirmaster

Posted in Homilies, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2018 by timtrue

Geoff Ward

Job 38:4-7


In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.


According to one well-known evangelical leader, “God created the world for His glory”;[i] yet another answers, God created the heavens and the earth out of love.[ii]

I suppose either answer sounds reasonable enough, especially to modern evangelical Christian ears, which have been taught that God is perfect, immutable, and sovereign. We lowly humans can’t understand God’s purposes; so, I suppose, we just shrug our shoulders and get on with life.

But are these two the only possible answers? Could it be that God created the heavens and the earth for another reason?

According to the Jewish mind, the answer is yes.

A creation myth from the Midrash relates that, before creating our heavens and earth, God created a thousand other worlds, one at a time; yet none pleased God. God would make a world, decide it wasn’t right somehow, destroy it, and—clean slate—try again; until, with ours, at last, God got it right.

God did not create the world to glorify God’s self; nor did God create for love. Instead, according to this Jewish account, God created the heavens and the earth for the sheer pleasure of it.[iii]

Does this make God an artist? Did God create the heavens and the earth as an artist creates a composition, as an expression of beauty?

It’s an intriguing idea.

To explore it, we know from Genesis that one of God’s art forms is voice: the word of God goes forth from God’s mouth, “Let there be light,” and there is light.

Moreover, in the book of the prophet Zephaniah (3:17), God’s voice sings over Israel. It’s not the heavenly angels; and it’s not the people. It’s actually God who sings, who makes music.

Thus God is an artist; more specifically, God is a musician.

Maybe the creation account ought to go something more like this: “And God composed and sang, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”

But the picture is not yet complete, not quite. For over in Job God mentions a celestial choir. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth,” God asks; “when the morning stars sang together?” (Job 38:4-7).

When God sang, “Let there be light,” right there alongside God, the morning stars sang too.

It’s not enough, then, to say God is a musician; or even that God is a singer and composer. The full image here is God as choirmaster.


I wonder what those pre-creation choir rehearsals looked like—before that first day. I mean, when the celestial choir sang the earth into being, I’m sure they didn’t just take the stage, decked in their heavenly gowns and tuxedos, without first rehearsing—lots and lots of rehearsing.

After all, this wasn’t going to be just any old performance, just another Sunday. No! This was to be the first performance ever, the world premiere!

Not to mention, the choirmaster was, is, and will be only the greatest choirmaster ever, world without end, amen! (Don’t be nervous!)

What would the morale have been like in these rehearsals?

Maybe some of the morning stars only recently joined the celestial choir. Understandably, they’re insecure. Regardless of how inherently gifted and talented they may be, they come to their first rehearsals lacking the confidence necessary to perform as their choirmaster desires.

Other morning stars come to these rehearsals with the necessary confidence but—let’s face it—they just aren’t the best musicians. They regularly sing sharp or flat; they can’t seem to get the tune even after the umpteenth time through, even after the choirmaster places them next to someone who can sing; they clap on one and three.

Still other morning stars—not too many but there always seem to be a few in every choir—let me just say the word: ego. They’re here in God’s celestial choir too, thinking they’re God’s gift to this choir, singing out louder than everyone else around them, wanting to be heard, too confident in their abilities. Divas!

And then there’s the grumbling. The choir has failed a thousand times already! How in the world will they get it right this time? It’s the choirmaster’s fault, some of them whisper; he’s too much of a perfectionist!

But these grumblers keep it very quiet, for fear of losing their cherished places in the choir—like that guy Lucifer and the others, who lost theirs.

Anyway, first and foremost, as you can see, the choirmaster must concern himself with establishing and maintaining community. Somehow he must bring all these diverse individuals together as a team that will sound as a single instrument. This is the choirmaster’s primary goal: community.[iv]

Making music is secondary.


So, let’s turn now to consider this aspect of the choirmaster’s task: making beautiful music—in other words, performance. What goes into a good performance?

First, as has already been mentioned, is lots of rehearsal time. The choirmaster and choir work, work, work until the individual choristers sound together as one—musical elements such as rhythm, timbre, and dynamics have to be precise—all must clap on two and four.

Also important is individual pitch. For a choir to be a true musical community, harmonies—even discordant harmonies—are necessary. But woe to the individual who can’t hold a pitch, who sinks flat or rises sharp even a little bit! That’s the quickest and most sure-fire way for a morning star to lose its luster.

How does the choirmaster accomplish all this—tight musical elements and precise pitches?

I recently had a conversation over coffee with Geoffrey Ward, the University Choirmaster at Sewanee. He tells me about a warm-up he does with his choir.

At his signal, his hands cupped together, the choir sings “ah” in unison. Again, at his signal—he moves his hands apart—each chorister goes to a pitch of his or her own choosing and holds it. Of course, every note of the scale, and maybe even every accidental, sounds; dissonance dominates. But it is purposeful; and it works. Finally, again at his signal—hands come back together—the choristers return to the unison.

“At first the students had trouble with this,” he explains. “They wanted to stay on the original pitch or go to the third or fifth, thus making a major triad. And they had a difficult time returning to the unison. But in time they learned to find the tri-tone, the fourth, the sixth, the minor third, or even the major seventh—and come back to the unison successfully.”[v]

Tight musical elements and precise pitches, achieved through many rehearsals.


And then, maybe most important of all, a choirmaster must teach his choir to improvise. And here I don’t mean jazz!

Improvisation has been part and parcel to music for its entire history. We tend not to associate improvisation, however, with the western classical tradition because so much of its music is written down. But improvisation is there; especially when it comes to performance.

Countless decisions must be made before and during every performance—the level of dynamics at any particular point, how long to hold a fermata, when to breathe, which voice to bring out above the others, and so on. Listen to recordings; or do a YouTube search. Each ensemble performs the same piece quite differently.

What is the source of this diversity but improvisation?

In fact, prior to western notation, it was normal for court choirs largely to improvise. Polyphonic performances were based on a melody line called a cantus firmus. The choirmaster would sing this melody while the other singers would improvise their own lines from it.[vi]

This is how I imagine God the choirmaster singing with the morning stars as they set the foundations of the earth into place: God singing the cantus firmus and the morning stars improvising around it.

C. S. Lewis imagined it this way too, in The Magician’s Nephew. As Aslan sang at the founding of Narnia, one morning star improvised and an elephant rose out of the earth; another sang and a small shoot grew up rapidly to become a towering cedar; and so on.[vii]


Now, here’s the best part: God’s celestial choir continues today; and we are members of it.

Creation wasn’t just a one-time, seven-day event; but is ongoing. We know this. God continues to be at work reconciling all the cosmos to God’s self through God’s people—through us, the members of God’s celestial choir.

And so, what does the image of God as choirmaster mean for us?

Two things.

One: we live in community.

Some of us are new at this, maybe lacking confidence, maybe insecure. Others of us may be surer of ourselves than we should be. Still others act like we’re God’s gift to the church—divas! Some of us might even grumble now and then. Nevertheless, God calls us to work as a team. We each keep our individual voices, but use them together, for the common good.

And two: we improvise.

The Bible is our cantus firmus, the melody from which we generate our harmonies and dissonances; just as many other voices before us have generated theirs.

We have great freedom here—to improvise and create. But, likewise, there are constraints. We don’t have the liberty to compose a new cantus firmus, or to deviate from the established rhythms, dynamics, and other musical elements we’ve been practicing together in our many rehearsals, Sunday after Sunday.

Our job is simply to sing: with each other; with the morning stars; with God. Sing.


[i] John Piper, “Why Did God Create the World?” last modified September 22, 2012.

[ii] Dawson McAllister, “Why Did God Create Us? He Doesn’t Really Need Us, so Why Did He Create Anything?” no date given, accessed June 24, 2018.

[iii] Cf. Howard Schwartz, “From Book Two, Myths of Creation: 90. Prior Worlds” no date given, accessed June 24, 2018. Schwartz retells this story in modern English. He lists the Midrash sources from which he draws at the end of the retelling.

[iv] Cf. Lynn A. Corbin, “Building a Positive Choral Attitude,” Music Educators Journal Vol. 81, No, 4 (Jan., 1995): 24-26+49; Mary L. Cohen, “Writing between Rehearsals: A Tool for Assessment and Building Camaraderie,” Music Educators Journal Vol. 98, No. 3 (March, 2012): 43-48; Elizabeth Cassidy Parker, “The Process of Social Identity Development in Adolescent High School Choral Singers: A Grounded Theory,” Journal of Research in Music Education Vol. 62, No. 1 (April, 2014): 18-32.

[v] Geoffrey Ward (University Choirmaster) in discussion with author, June 18, 2018.

[vi] Bruce Ellis Benson, “Improvising Texts, Improvising Communities: Jazz, Interpretation, Heterophany, and the Ekklēsia” in Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology, ed. Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 295-319.

[vii] C. S. Lewis and Pauline Baynes, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1955), chapter nine.