[This entry focuses on the use of the Bible in sacred and secular Western music. For music in biblical times, see Music and Musical Instruments].

The Bible has been used in Western music for several purposes: (1) At worship Christians and Jews frequently sing biblical passages in psalms or hymns. (2) Biblical material in liturgy is also accompanied and, in effect, interpreted by music. (3) The Bible is present in music intended not for worship but for the opera house or concert hall.


Both Judaism and Christianity have used biblical texts for liturgical purposes. The Psalms were composed for ritual singing, as some of the superscriptions show: “To the Choirmaster” (NRSV: “To the leader”; Pss. 18–22 etc.) probably designates a collection of songs and also suggests organized liturgical music. Exodus 15.1–18 is a psalm concluding the narrative of the Passover celebration. Early Christians sang “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5.19), doubtless psalms in translation and Christian hymnody, such as the Magnificat and Benedictus (Luke 1.46–55, 68–79) or musical outbursts like Revelation 11.17–18; 19.1–2, 5, 6–8.

Though Judaism and Christianity generated other texts for liturgical singing, biblical language had great importance. Not all of the canon of the Mass is derived from the Bible (e.g., Kyrie eleison and Credo), but the opening lines of the Gloria are from Luke 2.14, and the Agnus Dei augments John the Baptist's remark in John 1.29.

We know very little about the music of late antiquity. Ambrose (Bishop of Milan, 374–397 CE) introduced antiphonal singing of psalms and hymns, and the Ambrosian liturgy strongly influenced liturgical practice in France and Spain. The great figure of medieval liturgical music was Pope Gregory I (590–604 CE), who had chants collected and assigned to liturgical occasions, bringing liturgical music into a systematic whole (hence “Gregorian” chant). Music was understood as the servant of faith; it was not intended to interpret the text. Thus, melismatic embellishments on certain syllables in the chant, far from calling attention to important religious concepts in the text, fell mostly on unstressed syllables. Music, expected to dispose the mind to truth and open the heart to pious feelings, was subordinate to words. Thus, though the psalms refer to instruments, and secular music freely used them, Christian liturgy was purely vocal until the thirteenth‐century revival of the organ to accompany singing. The organ, known from Hellenistic times, had been used earlier for ecclesiastical processions, and organs were known in some European churches well before the thirteenth century.

When polyphony (Greek, “many voices”) replaced the older monophony (“single voice”) with more complex musical textures, around 1000 CE, greater freedom to interpret the text words became possible. Sounding several musical lines simultaneously, polyphony enlarged the expressive potential of the music and became the distinctive mark of European music. It was performed in monasteries, where the monks were trained to sing, or by choirs in churches. Congregations were not expected to sing polyphony, and its introduction made the congregation in most cases the silent partner in worship.

Early polyphony consisted of one to three voices weaving faster‐moving melodic lines above a slower voice holding (Lat. tenere, hence “tenor”) a Gregorian chant melody. In the thirteenth‐century polyphony of the Notre Dame school, the quick rhythms of upper voices above the long notes of the chant produce emotional depth in the psalm text. The effect is not interpretation of the words but a more emotional aspect to the experience. Polyphonic music became even less accessible to ordinary people, and the Reformation aimed to revive congregational hymn‐singing. Lutheran chorales and Reformed hymns and psalms continued to be polyphonic, in that voices sang different notes at the same time, but the melody was sung by one voice (originally the tenor), with other voices in chordal accompaniment. Interpretive scope was limited.

Since the Reformation, the liturgical settings of biblical words have been mainly hymns and anthems, the former sung by congregations, the latter by choirs. Hymn melodies are conventionally sung by the soprano, not the tenor, with the other voices accompanying in chords. Many hymns have been metrical paraphrases of psalms (some Protestant, especially Calvinist, groups would sing nothing but psalms). Metrical psalms were often stilted in wording, with the meter taking precedence over clarity of sense. They usually used standardized metrical patterns in order to fit more than one tune. Some perennially favorite hymns are psalm paraphrases. For example, “Our God, our help in ages past” derives from Psalm 90, and “A mighty fortress is our God,” for which Martin Luther wrote both words and melody, is a paraphrase of Psalm 46. Tunes might be written for the words, but frequently secular melodies were employed. When a melody has become traditionally associated with certain words, the melody itself is enough to recall the words to those trained in the tradition. The hymn tune “St. Anne” brings immediately to Protestant minds “Our God, our help in ages past,” and the association arouses emotional resonance in the hearers.

Since the eighteenth century, congregational singing has usually been accompanied by organs, sometimes by other instruments, though a few sects refuse instruments altogether. Pianos may appear in less formal settings. In the latter twentieth century, many churches have introduced even into major liturgical occasions unison hymns accompanied by a guitar instead of an organ. Increasingly, such hymns are contemporary religious verse and not paraphrases of the Bible.

Musical Interpretation.

With polyphony came more complex interpretation in the musical settings of the Bible. Voices accompanying the chant melody (cantus firmus, “fixed song”) of the polyphonic motet might sing different, even secular, words. In a thirteenth‐century motet on Haec dies quam fecit Dominus (This is the day that the Lord has made, Ps. 118.24), from a gradual for Easter Sunday, the middle voice sings of the Virgin Mary as bringer of grace, the upper one a plaintive love song about “fair Marion.” Easter suggested Christ's grace mediated by the Virgin, and springtime justified a declaration of love for “fair Marion,” whose name echoes Mary. Simultaneous different texts might seem confused cacophony, but they lent a symbolic and interpretive depth to the “day that the Lord has made.”

Understanding such a work depended on conventional frames of reference. Those who knew the Easter reference of Haec dies would grasp the other symbolism. Music refined its conventions of reference, making interpretive gestures familiar to congregations. Every system of musical style has such conventions. In European‐derived music of the last several centuries, a reed instrument playing slowly in a 6/8, 9/8, or 12/8 rhythm conveys the pastoral, a shepherd's song or a meadow scene. Music featuring horns and drums in a heavily accented duple meter is recognized as a march, and so on. The music by itself cannot show whether the shepherd be Greek, Palestinian, or Scandinavian, or whether the marchers are Egyptian soldiers, English constables, or an American marching band.

Complex polyphony has been sung by choirs, which can be trained to sing expressively interpretive music, rather than by congregations. In addition to “anthems” (a word corrupted from the medieval and Renaissance “antiphon”) set to biblical words—some of which are no harder than hymns, though others are extremely difficult (e.g., Charles Ives's Psalm 90 [1923])—Christian churches developed more elaborate musical forms to present biblical texts. The term “motet” came to refer to almost any liturgical choral composition, and especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to an unaccompanied choral work on a biblical text. Johann Sebastian Bach's Jesu, meine Freude (1723?) has no biblical text, but Johannes Brahms wrote beautiful motets (e.g., Psalm 51 [1860]). In the late Renaissance, cantata meant merely something “sung” (Ital. cantare), whereas in northern Europe, the term came to mean a multimovement religious choral work, accompanied by organ or orchestra, often with solos. In J. S. Bach's busy hands (he wrote hundreds), the cantatas meditated musically on a theme in the lectionary reading for a given Sunday, or focused on an apt chorale (e.g., Cantata no. 140, Wachet auf [1731], alluding to Isa. 40.9). The text often refers to the prescribed biblical reading, and the recitatives and arias expand upon its religious meaning to the pious soul. This kind of cantata, especially characteristic of pietistic Lutheranism, was extended in the Passions by Lutheran composers. Bach probably wrote five Passion settings, though only those on St. Matthew (1727) and St. John (1724) are complete, one on St. Mark is reconstructed, and two are lost. They intersperse narration with chorales (possibly sung by congregation and choir), interpretive recitatives, arias, and duets set to devotional words. Solo voices sing words of the characters in recitative, and words of Jesus are always accompanied by the special timbre of the orchestral strings. The chorus sings the words of groups—disciples, priests, or the crowd—to orchestral accompaniment.

A more dramatic form, often with biblical contents, was the oratorio. Originally a musical morality play performed in an oratory, a room devoted to prayer to a saint, the form developed in the seventeenth century into something like a sacred opera. Giacomo Carissimi's Jephtha (1650), based on Judges 11, has recitatives, arias, duets, choruses, and a narrator. Whether oratorios were staged remains uncertain. From the seventeenth century to the present many have been biblical stories or extended comment on biblical themes. The text of George F. Handel's Messiah (1742), the most familiar of the latter kind, is a catena of biblical verses, and the music combines vast choruses, arias, duets, and orchestral pieces. His Saul (1739) and Judas Maccabaeus (1747) dramatically interpret the biblical stories. Hundreds if not thousands of oratorios have biblical content. Franz Joseph Haydn's The Creation (1798), Felix Mendelssohn's Elijah (1846), Hector Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ (1854), César Franck's Béatitudes (1869–1879), John Knowles Paine's St. Peter (1873), and Charles Gounod's Redemption (1882) are examples from a list that could be extended for pages. Brahms's A German Requiem (1868) is an oratorio like the Messiah, that is, an interpretation of biblical texts about death. Many oratorios, including Handel's, were written for performance not in church but in music halls or concert rooms.

In the nineteenth century, it was sometimes argued that religious music ought to be stylistically distinct from secular music. Some composers were criticized for liturgical works indistinguishable from their operas. Gioacchino Rossini's Stabat mater (second version, 1841) and Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem (1874) are perhaps the textbook examples. The argument rested both on liturgical conservatism perceptible in a Christianity that felt beleaguered by secularity's growing self‐confidence and on the theological principle, always present in Christianity, that the life of faith is distinct from the life of the world.

Secular Biblical Music.

Early sacred cantatas were like small operas, and oratorios like larger ones. Opera was originally drama continuously accompanied by music, the work of Florentines around 1600 intending to revive Greek drama. As the form moved beyond Florence, we find opera on religious subjects in Rome as early as Stefano Landi's Sant'Alessio (1632). We might have expected North German Protestants to pioneer biblical operas, but there were only sporadic compositions. Hamburg saw such works as Johann Theile's Der erschaffene, gefallene, und wieder aufgerichtete Mensch (Created, Fallen, and Restored Humanity, 1678). Paris had Marc‐Antoine Charpentier's David et Jonathan (1688). Energy that might have gone into biblical opera in the eighteenth century was apparently put mostly into the oratorio (Jephté by Michel Montéclair [1732] is a rare operatic exception). Perhaps the line between “sacred” and “secular” handling of biblical matters was becoming fainter.

Biblical operas proliferated in the nineteenth century, and a long list might begin with Etienne Méhul's Joseph (1807) and continue through such works as Rossini's Moses in Egypt (1818), Verdi's Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar, 1842), Gounod's The Queen of Sheba (1861), Camille Saint‐Saëns's Samson and Delilah (1877), Jules Massenet's Hérodiade (1881), Richard Strauss's Salome (1905, based on Oscar Wilde's one‐act play on the New Testament story), Artur Honegger's King David (1921), to Arnold Schoenberg's incomplete masterpiece, Moses und Aron (1931–1932). Carlisle Floyd's Tennessee‐mountain setting of the story of Susanna and the elders in Susannah (1955) is perhaps the most successful American biblical opera.

“Secular” biblical music includes such orchestral works as Ralph Vaughan Williams's Job, A Mask for Dancing (1931), Ernest Bloch's Schelomo (Solomon) for cello and orchestra (1916), and Leonard Bernstein's Jeremiah Symphony (1942), in which a mezzo‐soprano sings part of Lamentations in Hebrew. Some vocal works intended for the concert hall are Zoltán Kodály's Psalmus hungaricus (Ps. 55, an old Hungarian translation [1923]), Igor Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms (1930, rev. 1948), using Vulgate texts, Aaron Copland's “In the Beginning” (1947, Gen. 1.1–2.7), Luigi Dallapiccola's remarkable Job (1950), and Mario Davidovsky's Scenes from Shir Hashirim (1975–1976, Song of Solomon). Dvořák's Biblical Songs (1894) and Brahms's Four Serious Songs (1896), for voice and piano, set biblical passages in a style not different from their other songs.

Johann Kuhnau wrote six sonatas for harpsichord (1700), dramatically narrating biblical episodes: “Saul's Madness Cured by Music,” “David and Goliath,” and others. Instrumental music conveying biblical atmospheres must use referential conventions or composers' programmatic titles. There are few such works. Jaromír Weinberger published Bible Poems (1939) for organ, and the Black American composer R. Nathaniel Dett wrote Eight Bible Vignettes (1941–43) for solo piano, an attractive set in a Late Romantic style.

Such a survey can only drop a few names and make a few generalities. Western music has used the Bible mostly to enrich the liturgies of Christianity and Judaism. In the past century or two, the Bible has provided composers more comfortably than before with material for music other than “religious.” Twentieth‐century music shows the Bible's secure place as an artifact of the culture rather than as the exclusive possession of religious associations.

Edwin M. Good