2016 Press Releases

Bible music: from Bach to Bono

1 Nov 2016
Dr Siobhán Dowling Long in St Fin Barre's Cathedral Photo: Provision

A UCC academic has co-authored a book, the first of its type, which lists the music and musicians from plainchant to Lady Gaga who have referenced the Bible in their lyrics.

The book also shows how the Bible, the best-selling book of all time, is open to multiple interpretations and how down through the ages it has been appropriated, subverted, sanitized to further the political agendas and religious beliefs of certain people.

Music has played a major role in teaching people of faith and none about the Bible, its characters, stories, and sayings, as well as keeping it alive in individual and collective imaginations.  For example, the Bible is at the heart of music for the FA Cup Final at Wembley (Abide with Me), the English Rugby Union (Swing Low, Sweet Chariot), international dance productions (Lord of the Dance), film music (Fifty Shades of Grey; Home Alone II; The Empire Strikes Back; Shrek), musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar; Godspell) and in music heard on the radio, in supermarkets, and elsewhere (Judas by Lady Gaga; Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen).

Written by Dr Siobhán Dowling Long from the UCC School of Education and Professor Emeritus John F. A. Sawyer (Universities of Newcastle upon Tyne and Lancaster), the Bible in Music: A Dictionary of Songs, Works and More is a treasure trove of music - from classical to pop and rock - all based on or inspired by the Bible. 

Surveying the entire history of music, the book tells how male and female composers have been interpreting the Bible for centuries.

In the twentieth century, the World Wars inspired many great compositions that were set to biblical texts, such as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Frank Martin’s In Terra Pax, and Paul Gallico’s The Apocalypse.

The last century also witnessed the rise of popular settings of the Bible in musicals, pop, rock, hip-hop, folk music, and metal. “Indeed, many modern interpretations of Eve from the Adam and Eve story in Genesis portray Eve in a negative light and reinforce the interpretation that all women are evil and in cahoots with the devil. Examples of this include songs such as Adam and Evil by Fred Wise and Randy Starr, Adam and Eve by Bob Marley and All Women are Bad by the Cramps” says Dowling Long. “Interestingly, these misogynistic interpretations are similar to interpretations put forward about Eve by the Christian apologists in the second, fourth and fifth centuries,” she adds. 

In the twenty-first century, contemporary pop artists, such as Lady Gaga (Judas), Regina Spektor (Samson) and Brooke Fraser (Hosea’s Wife) have subverted the biblical text and empowered biblical characters with no voices to speak. “These interpretations,” says Dowling Long, “not only challenge listeners to think about the Bible from new and thought-provoking perspectives, but they reflect other similar interpretations by composers and songwriters who have been illuminating the Bible in Music down through the centuries.”    

The authors note how in the sixteenth century, with the advent of opera and oratorio, music based on or inspired by the Bible moved into the theatres primarily to reach and teach ordinary people.

University College Cork

Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh

College Road, Cork T12 K8AF