Yale institute observes 50 years studying, celebrating the sacred arts

Over five decades, Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music has grown into an interdisciplinary center for the study of worship and sacred arts across faith traditions.

In 1973, after the Union Theological Seminary’s School of Sacred Music, in New York City, closed its doors, the Indiana-based Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation offered a grant to relocate the school to the campus of Yale University.

The effort to relocate the institution was spearheaded by the late Clementine Miller Tangeman, whose husband, Robert, had been professor of music history at Union, and her brother, the late J. Irwin Miller ’31, a patron of the arts, former Yale trustee, and the chairman of the Cummins Engine Company.

Given the presence of the Yale Divinity School and Yale School of Music, they said, Yale was an ideal setting for an institute devoted to the study of worship and music in the context of a broad-based theological education. Working closely with then-president Kingman Brewster, Divinity School Dean Colin Williams, and School of Music Dean Philip Nelson, the sister-brother pair soon realized their vision.

A year later, in 1974, the Yale Institute of Sacred Music (ISM) welcomed its first students.

Fifty years later, the ISM has blossomed into a vibrant interdisciplinary community of more than 100 students, faculty, and staff devoted to the study of sacred music, worship, and the related arts across time and religious traditions.

This spring, the institute is marking its 50th anniversary with a series of celebratory public programs highlighted by an April 27 performance in Woolsey Hall of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Mass in B Minor,” a masterpiece widely considered the pinnacle of the composer’s career, performed by the Yale Schola Cantorum and the Juilliard415 music ensemble. Then on May 5, there will be an ecumenical hymn festival in Woolsey Hall, where the Yale Camerata — a 70-voice vocal ensemble composed of Yale graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, staff, and experienced singers from the New Haven community — and a community choir of 300 voices will sing hymns around the theme “All Creation Sings.” The Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor and the Rev. Dr. James Forbes will be the special guest preachers.

Since its beginnings, ISM has convened ministers and church musicians to train together. The idea was that the former could learn about music and the arts, while the latter could explore theology and religious practices in addition to their musical training, said Martin Jean, who has served as the institute’s director since 2005.

Today, ISM students pursuing music degrees receive rigorous conservatory training in choral conducting, organ, or voice. Students in divinity programs study worship, music, literature, and/or the visual arts in the context of a broad-based theological education.

As Jean explains it, the institute’s mission encompasses three concentric circles. Training musicians and clergy remains at the center. But the mission has broadened over the years to include scholars and non-musical artists who engage in Christianity more generally. It further expanded to include the sacred arts and theology and other faith traditions.

Students are encouraged to identify connections in their chosen field and explore the role of arts in human flourishing, Jean said.

Our students have the opportunity to study some of the most important, some of the most weighty, some of the most personal and intimate aspects of human communities,” said Jean, an acclaimed organist. “It’s very cool.”

In 2009, ISM launched a multi-faith, international fellows’ program that annually hosts groups of artists and scholars from around the world. Long-term fellows reside at the institute for one year to teach and pursue interdisciplinary projects. Short-term fellows come to campus for one to three months to pursue research in relevant Yale collections.

Three years ago, the institute established the Interdisciplinary Program in Music and the Black Church, which brings scholarly attention to the music of the Black church and the tradition’s extraordinary influence by convening scholars, practitioners, and students for a range of programing and events — concerts, residencies, and symposia.

ISM also sponsors the Yale Schola Cantorum, a chamber choir that performs sacred music from the 16th century to the present day in concerts and choral services around the world, and the Yale Camerata. Both are key to the public programming that the institute regularly sponsors, providing an opportunity for the campus and Greater New Haven communities to enjoy world-class music, talks, and lectures by leading scholars and artists, and exhibitions of other sacred arts.  

William I. Miller, the son of J. Irwin Miller, said the institute has expanded its scope while staying true to his aunt’s and his father’s original vision.

The institute has far outstripped what anybody originally thought it would be able to do and it has done so in ways consistent with my family’s interests and hopes for it,” said Miller, who served as a Yale trustee from 2005 to 2011.

For Rachel Segger, ISM’s manager of academics and student affairs, who earned Master of Musical Arts (M.M.A.) and Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.) degrees from the institute, the institute has become a family affair. She met her husband, Glen Segger, while they were students in the institute’s organ program. He serves as a lecturer in pastoral theology and worship at the ISM and the Divinity School. Their eldest son, Auggie, is pursuing an M.A.R. degree at the ISM. 

Coming here as an organist and being immersed in the interdisciplinary atmosphere was transformative and life-giving,” Segger said. “There was the opportunity to make music at the highest level and study with renowned musicians who were fabulous teachers. It gave us the opportunity to dig deeply into why we do what we do as church musicians.”

Citing the ISM’s mission, Segger explained that faith communities need musicians and clergy who know how to communicate with each other.

The arts are so important to the sacred experience,” she said. “It is a pathway into the soul and heart that people from all generations and backgrounds embrace and respond to. The ISM trains musicians and clergy to harness the power of the sacred arts. It’s done that since I was a student here in the 1990s and that is what it continues to do.”

Share this with Facebook Share this with X Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this

Media Contact

Allison Bensinger:,