New sacred Nordic Music

New sacred Nordic Music
© Vala Halldors

The sacred genre of passions, oratorios and gospels is a monumental task for a composer. In Danish composer John Frandsen’s words, the oratorio is ‘the greatest task a composer can give themself’. But composers can also renew a genre, reinterpreting classical texts and adding modern texts. Christian music, both contemporary and historical, is often related to love and compassion, whether it's about love and compassion for each other, spirituality, the afterlife, or just life itself. Though many associate the sacred genre with classic masterpieces such as Mozart’s Requiem, Händel’s ‘The Messiah’, and Bach’s Mass in B-minor, the genre is thriving.

Bent Sørensen

Bent Sørensen's St. Matthew Passion (2019) with texts curated by Jakob Holtze was composed in 2019 and commissioned by the Oslo International Church Festival and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.

Sørensen himself describes the piece as a 'love passion.' In his own words: ‘In the music – and in my choice of texts – lies a love passion. Not only Christ’s declaration of love to all humankind, through crucifixion and resurrection, but also the simple and beautiful love. The passion for the people we love. The passion one feels for the one we love.’

Besides the text from the St. Matthew Passion, curator Jakob Holtze uses text from six different poets: Edith Södergran, Anna Akhmatova, and Emily Dickinson, and three male writers: Frank Jæger, Ole Sarvig, and Søren Ulrik Thomsen. As said by the UK magazine ‘Gramophone’: ‘While fragments of St Matthew’s Gospel and the traditional Passion narrative do remain, they are cut up into tiny scraps and restitched together with words from (the) six other poets.’

Listen to Bent Sørensen’s St. Matthew Passion:


Hugi Gudmundsson

Another take on the sacred genre can be seen in Icelandic composer Hugi Gudmundsson’s The Gospel of Mary (2021) for sinfonietta, choir, and solo soprano. The piece was commissioned by the Reykjavík Friends of the Arts Society, Oslo International Church Music Festival, and Aarhus Sinfonietta and premiered in Reykjavík‘s Hallgrímskirkja.

This work is based on the apocryphal text attributed to Mary Magdalena. Fragments of the text were found in the 1890s and gives Mary Magdalena, and women in general, significantly greater importance in early Christian society than the other non-apocryphal gospels.

The role of Mary Magdalene is sung by the solo soprano, where arias are theological dialogues and discussions. The choir takes on different roles as the people and the sceptical disciples who question whether Jesus appeared to her as the first person after his resurrection. Between movements, the audience can reflect on their own beliefs through meditations for solo instruments.

Listen to Hugi Gudmundson’s Gospel of Mary:


Tyler Futrell

In 2021 the Norwegian-based American composer Tyler Futrell composed his Stabat Mater. The work is set to the classical Latin text of the same name from the Middle Ages and is for solo soprano, mezzosoprano, string orchestra, and harpsicord. The work was commissioned by Oslo International Church Music Festival and was performed no more than four times at the festival in 2022. One of the attendances wrote: ‘(…) I’ve attended my life biggest music experiences. First, I heard Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater, which was fine but nothing compared to the musical and emotionally shock after the premiere performance of Tyler Futrell’s Stabat Mater. It was such a great and heart wrenching sorrow performed by a soprano and mezzosoprano, and I’ve never heard anything that have led such a great impact on me before.’

Listen to Tyler Futrell’s Stabat Mater:


John Frandsen

Frandsen's Requiem was composed in 2010-2012 and commissioned by The Danish National Symphony Orchestra. The piece was a monumental task both religious and compositional. The requiem uses the traditional Latin requiem text plus additional texts by the Danish poet Simon Grotrian.

After a long time in Frandsen’s life with freedom from care, he experienced a great deal of despair from climate change, terror attacks, hunger and starvation, and immigration debates that harms the world piece and the world community. After the tragic terror attack on the Norwegian island of Utøya in 2011 Frandsen decided to dedicate the requiem to the victims of this gruesome crime.

In Frandsen’s own words: ‘I think that’s why my requiem has a contemporary relevance – I don’t think I’d have written my requiem in 1968. The requiem connects to the mood of our time, and I’ve further tried to emphasise this by letting the texts by Simon Grotian be the focus point for the entire work. The lyrics are freely associative, incredibly trippy and actually have a great deal in common with the original requiem text.’

Originally written for full orchestra, choir and girl’s chorus, John Frandsen reworked the Requiem for Chorus and organ in 2020.

Listen to John Frandsen’s Requiem: