A Musical Composer’s Interpretation of Sacred Text

Two Examples


  • Peter B DeWitt Emeritus professor of music theory and organ at Shorter University, Rome, GA
  • Patricia A DeWitt Freelance musicologist




affections, musical composition, Music, requiem, folk hymn, organ music, Duruflé


When a composer in the Western music tradition of the last 500 years sets a text to music, they make certain choices about that relationship, which may depend on their emotional reaction to the text or to their pictorial perception of it. Emotional and pictorial linkages between music and sacred text are described in two examples, one a musical setting of a Christian liturgy, and one a variation set on a Christian folk hymn in which the variations draw on the texts of successive stanzas. These linkages are part of an extensive history of usage of devices by which a composer responds to textual inspiration. Because of the centuries during which associations between music and text have been developed in the minds of composers, performers and listeners of Western countries, the music can become an enhancement of, or even a substitute for, elements present in the text.


Bukofzer, Manfred F. 1947. Music in the Baroque Era. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Catholic Church. 1961. The Liber Usualis: with Introduction and Rubrics in English. New York: Desclee Company.

Encyclopedia Britannica. 2014. “Doctrine of the Affections.” 24 Mar. https://www.britannica.com/art/doctrine-of-the-affections.

Episcopal Church. 1985. The Hymnal, 1982. New York: Church Hymnal Corp.

Hymn Society. 2007–present. “Jerusalem, my happy home.” Hymnary.org. https://hymnary.org/text/jerusalem_my_happy_home_name_ever_dear

Music Committee. 1971. Original Sacred Harp, Denson Revision. Cullman, AL: Sacred Harp Publishing Co.

Patterson, Daniel W. 1988. “William Hauser’s Hesperian Harp and Olive Leaf: Shape-Note Tunebooks as Emblems of Change and Progress.” Journal of American Folklore 101(399): 23–36. https://doi.org/10.2307/540247.

Sessions, Roger. 1966 [1950]. The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener. New York: Atheneum, by arrangement with Princeton University Press.



How to Cite

DeWitt, P. B., & DeWitt, P. A. (2022). A Musical Composer’s Interpretation of Sacred Text: Two Examples. Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts, Cultural Histories, and Contemporary Contexts, 13(2), 197–216. https://doi.org/10.1558/post.23264