Music and the Quest to Rediscover the Sacred

Composer

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from Standpoint Magazine, where it was originally published in July 2016.

There are certain words associated in the public mind with modernism in the arts and modernism in music in particular. Modern music can sound wild and even savage. Like much  else in the modern arts, contemporary music can open a door to the dark side of human nature and our thoughts, our fears and our experiences. Yet it is modern music that sparkles and bedazzles as generations of composers fell in love with new bright instrumental colours and experimental orchestrational vividness. And in spite of the retreat of faith in Western society, composers over the last century or so have never given up on their search for the sacred. From Elgar to Messiaen, from Stravinsky to Schnittke, from Schoenberg to Jonathan Harvey, one constantly hears talk of transcendence, mystery and vision.

Visionary mysticism is much in vogue in discussion about the arts these days. “Spirituality” is held to be a positive factor by many, especially among the non-religious, or those who pride themselves on their non-conventional unorthodoxy in religious matters. Music can be described as the most spiritual of the arts by those who proclaim their atheism and agnosticism. In an age of crystals, vapours and fashionable New Age chic, the word spirituality can be used by many, covering everything from yoga and meditation to dabbling in religious exotica.

For example, William Blake’s visionary mysticism has become popular in our own time. Its private mythology, its narcissistic religion and its gesture politics chime with the mishmash of sexual libertarianism and virtue-signalling at the heart of contemporary liberal culture. It presaged our New Age, and his work is greatly admired and has genuine popular appeal. Jung described him as having “compiled a lot of half or undigested knowledge in his fantasies”. In the face of his unassailable popularity in our own times it might be this very flaw which has alerted the wariness of others. It is worth exploring the scepticism that exists about him and his influence, among perhaps more clearheaded and analytical artists, going right back to G.K. Chesterton in 1910 and T.S. Eliot in 1921.

Chesterton regarded Blake as a mystic, but in his book William Blake, he gives an account of why he thinks mystics go off-base, as he would put it, especially mystics of the modern world who deliberately seek to put clear blue water between themselves and any traditional experience of visionary mysticism springing from Judeo-Christianity. Chesterton suggests that it is this rudderlessness that lacks some of the fundamental values of genuine mysticism, as he would see it. Because Blake trusted and followed no tradition he invented his own unseen world, leading in timeless gnostic fashion to obscurity and mystification. Blake’s mysteriousness, in the negative sense, prompted Chesterton to define a true hallmark of visionary mysticism – that it illuminates rather than obscures:

A verbal accident has confused the mystical with the mysterious. Mysticism is generally felt vaguely to be itself vague – a thing of clouds and curtains, of darkness or concealing vapours, of bewildering conspiracies or impenetrable symbols. Some quacks have indeed dealt in such things: but no true mystic ever loved darkness rather than light. No pure mystic ever loved mere mystery. The mystic does not bring doubts or riddles: the doubts and riddles exist already. The man whose meaning remains mysterious fails, I think, as a mystic: and Blake did . . . often fail in this way.

To widen the context, poets have very interesting things to say on these and related matters, and their wider implications. Seamus Heaney has referred to “the big lightening, the emptying out” of our religious language, and David Jones saw the English language littered with dying signs and symbols, especially those associated with our Judaeo-Christian past. Michael Symmons Roberts says that “the resultant impoverishment hasn’t just affected poets, but readers too, and this has been borne out by the now common struggles of English teachers in schools and universities to provide the biblical and historical literacy necessary to make sense of Milton, Donne, Herbert, Eliot, etc.” This, one might say, was the unintended or perhaps intended result of what might be described as “the enlightenment project”, which was meant to see off religion. Except that hasn’t happened. Many sociologists now claim that it is secularism that is in retreat, and a recent report placed the number of atheists worldwide at three per cent and falling – a powerful and well-heeled three per cent though, almost completely based in the rich West, wielding great clout over matters political, economic and cultural.

In his book of essays, Post-Secular Philosophy, Phillip Blond suggests that “secular minds are only now beginning to perceive that all is not as it should be, that what was promised to them – self-liberation through the limitation of the world to human faculties – might after all be a form of self-mutilation.” To which Michael Symmons Roberts adds,

The romantic myth of the uncommitted artist (free-spirited and unshackled from the burdens of political, religious or personal commitment) was always an empty one. To be alive in the world is to have beliefs and commitments, and these extend at some level to politics and theology. But this myth has left us with a terror of the imagination in thrall to a belief. Surely this could limit the scope of the work, may even reduce it to a thin preconceived outworking of doctrine or argument? But this fear was always unfounded. The counter examples are obvious, including great 20th-century innovators like Eliot, Jones, Auden, Moore, Berryman, Bunting. And there’s an equivalent list in the other arts too (music’s list would include Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Messiaen, Poulenc, Gubaidulina, Schnittke). The relationship between creative freedom and religious belief is far from limiting. Most of these writers and composers would argue on the contrary that their religious faith was an imaginative liberation.

Some, like David Jones, have said that this withering of religious faith and the resulting negative reduction of imaginative liberation represents a parching of our culture – a parching of truth and meaning, a drying up of historical associations and resonances leading to an inability for our culture to hold up “valid signs” (as Jones put it). The opposite of Jones’s “valid signs” would have to be invalid signs, and there is evidence that T.S. Eliot saw manifestations of these in what he saw as the faulty, incoherent vision of Blake and his gnostic, romanticised heritage and legacy. Eliot disapproved of Blake’s rejection of tradition. He thought that his obsession with inventing a religious worldview, self-consciously at odds with Judaeo-Christian roots, was a distraction from the vocation of writing original poetry. Eliot saw a strong framework as the means of avoiding the parching of the poetic flow, and as a structural conduit to a fuller and truer vision:

. . . about Blake’s supernatural territories . . . we cannot help commenting on a certain meanness of culture. They illustrate the crankiness, the eccentricity, which frequently affects writers outside of the Latin traditions . . . and they are not essential to Blake’s inspiration.

Blake was endowed with a capacity for considerable understanding of human nature, with a remarkable and original sense of language and the music of language, and a gift of hallucinated vision. Had these been controlled by a respect for impersonal reason, for common sense, for the objectivity of science, it would have been better for him. What his genius required, and what it sadly lacked, was a framework of accepted and traditional ideas which would have prevented him from indulging in a philosophy of his own, and concentrated his attention upon the problems of the poet. Confusion of thought, emotion, and vision is what we find in such a work as Also Sprach Zarathustra. The concentration resulting from a framework of mythology and theology and philosophy is one of the reasons why Dante is a classic, and Blake only a poet of genius. The fault is perhaps not with Blake himself, but with the environment which failed to provide what such a poet needed.

And it is to this question of environment that we should now turn, because the very things disparaged by Eliot are the very things held in highest regard by our own culture. And the very framework of theology and tradition held to be an essential grounding for Eliot are the very focus of disdain and rejection in our contemporary prejudices.

The musicologist, conductor and professor of music at Glasgow University John Butt wrote: “Elgar’s Catholic upbringing tends to be underplayed in most writings on the composer, but it may nevertheless be one of the most significant sources of his compositional character.”

Since the composition of The Dream of Gerontius commentators have fallen over themselves in an attempt to paint Elgar’s Catholic faith as weak or insignificant. Even his biographer Jerrold Northrop Moore says this: “It is therefore perhaps inevitable that, when he produced The Dream of Gerontius, a setting of a poem by a Roman Catholic Cardinal which explores various tenets of the Catholic faith, people should jump to the conclusion that his Catholicism underlay his whole life. But his faith was never that strong.”

This anxiety on the part of some has nevertheless been explained recently by the Princeton scholar Charles Edward McGuire: “The popular negating of Elgar’s Catholicism both at his death and today serves an obvious end: it makes Elgar’s music safer, more palatable for a British audience. In essence, it creates an avatar for Elgar as the ‘essentially English composer’ beyond the reach of any of the complicating factors of partisan religion.”

In a Radio 3 Essay on “Elgar and Religion” the pianist Stephen Hough said: “When he decided in 1899 to set Cardinal Newman’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ to music, he was taking an enormous risk. It was his first major commission, and his career was all set to take off. So to choose this deeply Catholic text in a country where ‘Papists’ were a suspicious, despised, and even ridiculed minority was to court disaster. Yet he went ahead, with total disregard for any possible censure or disfavour. So it’s hard to believe that the words had no religious meaning for him at the time, especially as he was aware that his faith was an impediment to his career.”

If it is true that The Dream of Gerontius is the composer’s masterwork, and a work of extraordinary vision, then it was a vision burnished with courage, foolhardiness even, and gained singularly through a particularly defined religious tradition and sensibility. This was the kind of framework regarded as vital and necessary by T.S. Eliot when he outlined the conditions required for outstanding visionary art and which had so eluded, or had been so self-consciously rejected by, as he would no doubt put it, lesser seers such as Blake and his romantic self-delusionists.

Elgar was to suffer for his courageous vision as performances of The Dream were banned as “inappropriate” in Gloucester Cathedral for a decade after the premiere, and performances in places like Hereford and Worcester were only permitted with large sections bowdlerised, with much of the objectionable Catholic dimension removed. It is thought by some that the vehemence of the reaction impacted greatly on the composer, even to the extent of him gradually losing his faith over the rest of his life. He may also have been seduced by the fame and praise which came his way in the wake of his more secular instrumental works which turned him into a national treasure. Indeed, he was to become Britain’s official composer, being made a baronet, awarded the Order of Merit and appointed as Master of the King’s Music. Proclaimed as “quintessentially English” he became a totem of nationalism. Enjoying all that, why go back to the depredations of Catholic martyrdom?

But it was from this religion of martyrs and saints that Elgar drew his most unfettered freedom to visualise a work of greatness. The etymology of the word religio is interesting as it implies a kind of binding. David Jones wrote: “The same root is in ‘ligament’, a binding which supports an organ and assures that organ its freedom of use as part of a body. And it is in this sense that I here use the word ‘religious’. It refers to a binding, a securing. Like the ligament, it secures a freedom to function. The binding makes possible the freedom. Cut the ligament and there is atrophy — corpse rather than corpus. If this is true, then the word religion makes no sense unless we presuppose a freedom of some sort.” This implies that supreme visionariness requires religion and theology. Now there is an interesting and challenging idea! How would that go down in today’s fashionable citadels of metropolitan bien pensant culture? Michael Symmons Roberts explains: “There’s a popular view, influenced by Romanticism, that only the pure, unfettered imagination can produce the great work. Poets should not be religious, or overtly political, or committed to anything much outside the poetry. Poets should be freewheeling, free-thinking free spirits. As if that meant anything.” David Jones’s implication is that the idea of the free-spirited artist is a myth and a delusion. The binding makes possible the freedom and opens the eyes to the vision.

Major modernist composers of the last 100 years were, in different ways, profoundly religious men and women. Stravinsky was as conservative in his religion as he was revolutionary in his musical imagination, with a deep love of his Orthodox roots as well as the Catholicism he encountered in the West. He set the psalms, he set the Mass; he was a man of faith.

Schoenberg, that other great polar figure of early 20th-century modernism, was a mystic who reconverted to Judaism after he left Germany in the 1930s. His later work is infused with Jewish culture and theology, and he pondered deeply on the spiritual connections between music and silence. It is no surprise that John Cage chose to study with him. Cage found his own route to the sacred through the ideas, and indeed the religions, of the Far East. It is intriguing that his famous, or indeed notorious 4’33” (that is four minutes, 33 seconds of silence), a profound provocation to our listening culture and sensibilities or lack of them, was originally entitled Silent Prayer.

The great French innovator and individualist Olivier Messiaen was famously Catholic, and every note of his unique contribution to music was shaped by a deep religious conviction and liturgical practice. There are two composers in history who are described as theologians. One is J.S. Bach, the other is Olivier Messiaen. He was a powerful influence on Boulez and Stockhausen and therefore can be counted as one of the most impactful composers of modern times. His Catholicism, far from being an impediment to this, was the major, indeed singular factor behind it.

He wrote one opera – St Francis of Assisi – but the most important French Catholic opera of the 20th century was written by Francis Poulenc. His Dialogue des Carmélites appeared in 1956. No other opera combines 20th-century musical sensibilities with such profound theological themes on Catholic mysticism, martyrdom, and redemption. There is no comfortable, airy-fairy, pick’n’mix spirituality here. It is based on a true story from the beginnings of modern revolutionary violence – of 16 Carmelite nuns guillotined in the terror of the French Revolution. It was an act of defiance on the part of the composer against the secular terror of that time and the secular orthodoxies of the modern world. For a culture that was meant to have put these old things behind it, Dialogue des Carmélites is probably the most successful modern opera of the last 60 years. It is not just another avenue on the search for the sacred but a bold rebuttal of secular arrogances and certainties, and a beautiful proclamation of Catholic truths.

Here traditional Catholicism becomes intellectually compatible with all that was modern and progressive in recent French culture. Poulenc’s opera is at once a Catholic story of heroism and faith and yet speaks to the modern world, an opera for postwar Europe.

The list of composers in recent times radiating a high degree of religious resonance is substantial, covering a whole generation of post-Shostakovich modernists from behind the old Iron Curtain – Gorecki from Poland, Arvo Pärt from Estonia, Kancheli from Georgia, Silvestrov from Ukraine, and Schnittke, Gubaidulina, and Ustvolskaya, all from Russia – again, courageous figures who stood out and against the prevailing dead-hand orthodoxy of the day, state atheism. And, in this country, after Benjamin Britten have come Jonathan Harvey, John Tavener and many others. Far from being a spent force, religion has proved to be a vibrant, animating principle in modern music and continues to promise much for the future. It could even be said that any discussion of modernity’s mainstream in music would be incomplete without a serious reflection on the spiritual values, belief and practice at work in composers’ minds.

But with these “spats” between the outlooks of Eliot and Blake, between Chesterton and the New Age, between orthodoxy and majoritarian scepticism, are we looking at different types of transcendence? The search for spirituality seems ubiquitous these days. But in what sense can we call a spirituality made in our own image, to suit our own comforts, to fit our own schedules and agendas, transcendent of anything? Sometimes transcendence has to be fought for, as when Messiaen’s music encounters the baffled sneers of its secular, super-rationalist modernist audience and critics, who are eventually won round and see the full glory of the composer’s genius, and realise the music is the way it is, precisely because of its theology. As when Elgar composes a huge work that he knows will meet with immediate hostility and animosity. But in this work he seems to be preparing for the inevitable; he had to face up to an unavoidable spiritual challenge which for him involved rejection and ridicule. The cleansing flames of public disapprobation, he would no doubt maintain, was the navigation of a path towards the cleansing flames of Purgatory itself, the very subject of the Newman poem he set.

When people say they are baffled by what The Dream of Gerontius is all about but are profoundly moved by the music, the transcendence, the revelation, and the understanding has already begun in their souls.

The search for the sacred seems as strong today in music as it ever was. Perhaps that search now, as it was with The Dream of Gerontius, as it was with the theological rootedness of Messiaen’s masterworks, as it is in Poulenc’s glorious celebration of the mercy, sacrifice, and redemption at the heart of Catholic teaching, as it is for any artist who stands out and against the transient fashions and banalities of the cultural bien pensant, is the bravest, most radical and counter-cultural vision a creative person can have, in the attempt to re-sacralise the world around us.

About the Author

Sir James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful living composers and is also internationally active as a conductor. His musical language is flooded with influences from his Scottish heritage, Roman Catholic faith, social conscience and close connection with Celtic folk music, blended together with influences from Far Eastern, Scandinavian and Eastern European music. MacMillan first became internationally recognised after the extraordinary success of “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie” at the BBC Proms in 1990. His prolific output has since been performed and broadcast around the world, placing him in the front rank of today’s composers. His major works include percussion concerto “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”, which has received more than 400 performances, a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, large scale choral-orchestral work “Quickening”, and four symphonies. Recent major works include his new opera “The Sacrifice”, premiered by Welsh National Opera and conducted by MacMillan, and his “St John Passion”, premiered by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Colin Davis in 2008, with performances in 2009 and 2010 by co-commissioners the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boston Symphony and Rundfunkchor Berlin.

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