Recovering the Sacred in Music

Westminster Institute

EDITOR’S NOTE: This chapter from Robert R. Reilly’s remarkable book, Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music, is reprinted here with the gracious permission of both the author and Ignatius Press.

The attempted suicide of Western classical music has failed. The patient is recovering, no thanks to the efforts of music’s Dr. Kevorkian, Arnold Schoenberg, whose cure, the imposition of a totalitarian atonality, was worse than the disease – the supposed exhaustion of the tonal resources of music. Schoenberg’s vaunted mission to “emancipate dissonance” by denying that tonality exists in Nature led to the successive losses of tonality, melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Music went out of the realm of Nature and into abstract, ideological systems. Thus we were given a secondhand or ersatz reality in music that operated according to its own self-invented and independent rules divorced from the very nature of sound. Not surprisingly, these systems, including Schoenberg’s 12-tone method of mandatory atonality, broke down. The systematic fragmentation of music was the logical working out of the premise that music is not governed by mathematical relationships and laws that inhere in the structure of a hierarchical and ordered universe, but is wholly constructed by man and therefore essentially without limits or definition.

Sound familiar? All the symptoms of the 20th century’s spiritual sickness are present, including the major one diagnosed by Eric Voegelin as a “loss of reality.” By the 1950s Schoeberg’s doctrines were so entrenched in the academy, the concert hall, and the awards system, that any composer who chose to write tonal music was consigned to oblivion by the musical establishment. One such composer, Robert Muczynski, referred to this period as the “long-term tyranny which has brought contemporary music to its current state of constipation and paralysis.”

The tyranny is now gone and tonality is back. But the restoration of reality has not taken place all at once. What began emerging from under the rubble of 12-tone music back in the 1960s was minimalism. In it, tonality returned with a vengeance but was, at first, more like a patient from a trauma ward gradually recovering consciousness. The traumatized patient slowly comes out of a coma, only gradually recovering motor skills, coordination, movement, and coherent speech. The musical movement known as minimalism is the sometimes painfully slow rediscovery of the basic vocabulary of music: rhythm, melody, and harmony. During this convalescence, such minimalists as American composer John Adams have spoken of the crisis through which they passed in explicitly spiritual terms. He said, “I learned in college that tonality died, somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died. And, I believed it.” His recovery involved a shock: “When you make a dogmatic decision like that early in your life, it takes some kind of powerful experience to undo it.” That experience, for Adams and others, has proven to be a spiritual, and sometimes religious, one. In fact, the early excitement over minimalism has been eclipsed by the attention now being paid to the new spirituality in music, sometimes referred to as “mystical minimalism.”

If you have heard of the “new spirituality” in music, it is most likely on account of one of these three somewhat unlikely composers who have met with astonishing success over the past several decades: the late Henryk Górecki from Poland, Arvo Pärt from Estonia, and the late John Tavener from England. Though their styles are very unlike, they do share some striking similarities: they, like John Adams, all once composed under the spell of Schoenberg’s 12-tone method and were considered in the avant-garde; all subsequently renounced it (as Pärt said, “The sterile democracy between the notes has killed in us every lively feeling”); and all are, or were, devout Christians, two of them having converted to the Russian Orthodox faith, the other having adhered to his Catholic faith throughout his life.

Anyone who has tracked the self-destruction of music over the past half century has to be astonished at the outpouring of such explicitly religious music and at its enormously popular reception. Can the recovery of music be, at least partially, a product of faith, in fact of Christian faith? A short time ago, such a question would have produced snickers in the concert hall, howls in the academy, and guffaws among the critics. In fact, it still might. In a New York Times review, a critic condescended to call the works of the three composers nothing but “Feel-Good Mysticism.” However, the possibility gains some plausibility when one looks back at the source of the problem in Schoenberg himself and to a mysterious episode that brought what he thought would be his greatest achievement to a creative halt.

Though one of the greatest compositional talents of the 20th century, Schoenberg fell silent before he could finish the opera Moses und Aron. It is not as if he ran out of time. The first two acts were finished in the early 1930s. Before he died in 1951 at the age of 76, he had close to 20 years to write the third and final act. He tried four different times to no avail. His failure is particularly ironic because Schoenberg saw himself as the musical Moses of the 20th century. Moses und Aron was to be the tablets on which he wrote the new commandments of music. He was saving music with his new system of serialism. But, like the Moses he portrays at the end of the second act, he despaired of ever being able to explain his salvific mission to his people. As Moses falls to the ground, he exclaims: “O word, thou word that I lack.”

Schoenberg wandered in and out of his Jewish faith, with a side trip through Lutheranism. He saw no need to be scripturally faithful in his libretto for the opera, so it is all the more curious that he was stymied by what he called “some almost incomprehensible contradictions in the Bible.” More specifically, he said, “It is difficult to get over the divergence between ‘and thou shalt smite the rock’ and ‘speak ye unto the rock.’ …It does go on haunting me.” Schoenberg was troubled by the question: Why was Moses, when leading the Jews through the Sinai, punished for striking the rock a second time? The first time Moses struck the rock, water poured forth. The second time, God said to Moses, “Speak to the rock.” But Moses impetuously struck it instead. For that, he was banned from ever entering the Promised Land. Why? That unanswered question left Schoenberg with an unfinished opera.

As it turned out, Schoenberg was not the Moses of music. He led his followers into, rather than out of, the desert. However, the silence into which Schoenberg fell before the end of Moses und Aron has now been filled. And the music filling it is written by Christian composers who have found the answer to the question that so tortured him. The answer is in the New Testament. The rock could not be struck a second time because, as St. Paul tells us, “The rock was Christ,” and Christ can be struck down only once, “once and for all,” a sole act sufficient for the salvation of mankind.

Pärt completely believes, and Górecki and Tavener believed, in the salvific act of Christ, centered their lives upon it, and expressed it in their music. They also shared a preliminary disposition necessary for the reception of this belief. During a trip to Washington, DC, in the early 1990s, Górecki was asked to comment on the phenomenal success of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the Nonesuch recording of which sold more than 800,000 copies. Górecki responded, “Let’s be quiet.” Perhaps that is the most urgent message of all three composers, “Be quiet.” Or perhaps more biblically, “Be still.” This stillness is not the empty silence at the end of the second act of Moses und Aron. It is a full, gestational silence that allows one, like Moses, to hear the remaining words: “And know that I am God.”

This profound sense of silence permeates the works of the three composers. Some of their compositions emerge from the very edge of audibility and remain barely above it, conveying the impression that there is something in the silence that is now being revealed before once again slipping out of range. The deep underlying silence slowly surfaces and lets itself be heard. For those precious moments one hears what the silence has to say. When not used in this way, a grammar of silence is nonetheless is employed that punctuates even the more extrovert and vociferous works. Moments of silence stand like sentinels, guarding the inner stillness from the violence of sounds that have not come out of the silence.

Another shared feature of the music of these composers is its sense of stasis. Every critic has noted this feature and some complain about it: “Nothing happens!” Pärt, Górecki, and Tavener do not employ the traditional Western means of musical development. They have found the sonata principle of development that has driven music since the 18th century, and which gives music so much of its sense of forward motion, extraneous for their purpose. Their purpose is contemplation, specifically the contemplation of religious truths. Their music is hieratic. As such, it aims for the intersection of time and timelessness, at which point the transcendent becomes perceptible. As Pärt states, “That is my goal. Time and timelessness are connected.” This sense of stasis is conveyed through the use of silence; consistently slow tempos (that make any temporary quickening particularly dramatic); the use of repetition and through the intensification this repetition implies; and a simplicity of means that includes medieval plainsong and organum. (As Pärt says, “It is enough when a single note is beautifully played.”)

Repetition can be used as an adornment or a means of meditation, as it was in medieval and Renaissance music. Some of the hymns to Mary that endlessly repeat her name are a form of musical caress. They create a musical cradle in which to hold her name. With these composers, repetition of musical phrases, words, or both is also used as a means of recovery. The repeated invocation is all the more insistent when there is a sense of loss and devastation. In his Beatus Vir, Górecki cries out unconsolingly, almost angrily: “Domine!” Where is God in the midst of the horror? The almost grating insistence with which “Domine” is repeated moves from a sense of despair to one of assertion and then finally to consolation and release. The repetition is exorcistic.

Because of the predominance of these characteristics in the work of Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener, and their hearkening back to earlier periods of music, they are accused of being reactionary, if not archaic. However their work is not a form of cultural nostalgia. Their change in technique is not an attempt at a new or an old means of expression. Their technique changed because they have something profound to express. As Thomas Merton once remarked, the perfection of 12th-century Cistercian architecture was reached not because the Cestercians were looking for new techniques, but because they were looking for God. Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener are looking for God, and they have found a musical epiphany in the pursuit.

Aside from these shared traits, Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener are quite unlike in the sounds they create. Curiously, Pärt, the Russian Orthodox Estonian composer, uses Western Latin idioms from the Roman Catholic Church, while Western English composer, Tavener, uses the exotic Russian Orthodox idioms hailing from Byzantium. Górecki, the Pole, stayed right where he was, in the middle, using earlier modes of Western liturgical music but staying fairly mainstream. He sounds the least exotic of the three.

Górecki (19332010) was also the toughest of the three composers and the most modern in his musical vocabulary, though he was considered a conservative reactionary by his erstwhile colleagues in the European avant-garde. (He said that leading modernist Pierre Boulez was “unbelievably angry” about his music.) Though at times harsh for expressive purposes, Górecki’s music is never hysterical, like so much modern music that reflects the horror of the 20th century without the perspective of faith. He could look at suffering unblinkingly because Christianity does not reject or deny suffering but subsumes it under the Cross. At the heart of the most grief-stricken moments of his work, there is a confidence that can come only from deep belief. When asked where he got his courage to resist Communist pressure, Górecki said, “God gave me a backbone – it’s twisted now, but still sturdy. …How good a Catholic I am I do not know; God will judge that, and I will find out after I die. But faith for me is everything. If I did not have that kind of support, I could not have passed the obstacles in my life.”

Górecki did not shrink from facing the nightmare through which his country and the 20th century have gone. Poland was trampled by both the destructive ideologies of our time, Nazism and Communism. The moving consolation his works offer comes after real and harrowing grief. (Can someone really refer to this as “Feel-Good Mysticism?”) One can recover from a loss only if one grieves over it, and, yes, expresses anger over it as well. The anger is heard in Beatus Vir, as mentioned above. This piece is dedicated to the late Pope John Paul II, who commissioned it when he was still the cardinal archbishop of Kraków. One of the most extraordinary expressions of grief is Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 for soprano and orchestra: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It is a huge, arching, heart-breaking lament, written in 1976. Its three texts are on the theme of grieving motherhood. The first movement, based on Mary’s lament at the Cross, is a slow-moving extended canon for strings that unfolds in a moving, impassioned crescendo over the course of nearly half an hour. The central text is a prayer to Mary inscribed by an eighteen-year-old girl on the wall of her cell in the basement of Gestapo headquarters in Zakopane, Poland, September 1944. It includes the admonition: “No, Mother, do not weep.” Though Górecki drew on Polish folk song, the appeal of this deeply affecting musical requiem can be felt by anyone for whom these themes resonate. This one work gathers up the whole tragedy of Poland in the 20th century and places it before Mary, standing at the Cross.

Another piece written with the same basic architectural structure as the first part of Symphony No. 3 is Miserere. Górecki wrote it as a protest over the bludgeoning of members of Solidarity by the militia in 1981, shortly before the declaration of martial law. But, in this work, unlike in Beatus Vir, one cannot hear the protest. Its text is: “Domine Deus noster, Miserere nobis.” The Lord’s name is at first gently, then with growing strength, and finally expectantly invoked for nearly half an hour. The words “Miserere nobis” are not heard until the final three minutes. Rather than a crescendo, they are presented, to moving effect, diminuendo. Mercy arrives with tender gentleness. Miserere is a beautiful work of affirmation and consolation.

Though writing in a thoroughly accessible idiom, Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is not an “easy listen.” His work emerges from deep spiritual discipline and experience, and demands (and gives) as much in return. One will not be washed away in sonorous wafts of highly emotional music – there is no effortless epiphany here. Pärt is the most formally austere of the three, but is also the one with the most ontological sense – he presents a note as if it were being heard for the first time. Even more than the other two, his work is steeped in silence. When he abandoned the modernism of his earlier work, he retreated to a Russian Orthodox monastery for several years of silence. When he emerged, he began writing music of extraordinary purity and simplicity, using medieval and Renaissance techniques. Pärt’s music comes out of the fullness of silence. “How can one fill the time with notes worthy of the preceding silence?” he asks. During a rehearsal of his composition The Beatitudes, Pärt told the conductor, “The silence must be longer. This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.” The puzzled conductor asked Pärt, “Exactly how many beats? What do you do during the silence?” Pärt responded, “You don’t do anything. You wait. God does it.”

The closer to the source of silence out of which it comes, the closer his music is to being frightening ­– or awesome, in the original sense of the word – and heart-breakingly beautiful. Pärt appropriately chose the Gospel of John, the most metaphysical of the Gospels, for the text of his Passio. “In the beginning,” begins St. John. This feel for ontology, for creation close to its source in the Creator, permeates Pärt’s music. It can be heard in instrumental works such as Fratres and Tabula rasa, or in striking choral compositions, such as the exquisite Stabat Mater and the Miserere.

Pärt’s Stabat Mater from 1985 brings us back to the piercing purity of the 13th-century text and to the liturgical roots of the work. Composed for a trio of voices and a trio of violin, viola, and cello, this 24-minute opus, employing medieval and Renaissance techniques, is startlingly simple, intensely concentrated, and devotional. Like all of Pärt’s work, it grows out of a respect for silence – in this case, the silence at the foot of the Cross. What sort of music would one make from the foot of the Cross? His answer is both harrowing and profoundly moving. This is not an exercise in musical archaism, but a living testament to faith. It is music to listen to on your knees. (A sublime performance is available with the Hilliard Ensemble on a CD entitled Arbos, ECM 1325/831959).

More of Pärt’s mesmerizing musical asceticism comes from Harmonia Mundi (HMU 907182) with its release of De Profundis, Magnificat, and a number of other works covering a span of nearly 20 years (19771996). If you are living life in the fast lane, listening to Pärt will be like hitting a brick wall. Everything suddenly stops and becomes very simple. Anyone puzzled by the starkness and seeming severity of his work should know that for Pärt the Word is the priceless jewel that his music sets. It is to the jewel he is calling attention, not its setting, and the necessary precondition for hearing the Word is silence.

This is the reason for Pärt’s profound respect for silence and its fullness as the Word emerges from it. Pärt’s is music for meditation; it is the sound of prayer. Some might call this a fetish for archaic; others, a witness to perdurability of true faith. The choral works on this CD may not be the ideal introduction to Pärt (for that go to ECM’s Tabula rasa or Arbos CDs), but those who know his music will want to have these beautiful performances by Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices.

There are two common responses to Pärt’s Passio: (1) It is boring, ersatz medieval and Renaissance music; why is someone going back to the triad in this day and age? (2) It is a profoundly moving setting of the Passion according to the Gospel of John. Certainly Passio is very different from Pärt’s Stabat Mater, which it is otherwise most like. In Stabat Mater, the instrumental music, like a chorus, reacts to the words, dramatizes them and provides a purgation. Pärt foregoes this approach in Passio, which is dinstinctly not dramatic and far more austere. The austerity does not translate into barrenness, but into an intense expression of purity. There is very little in the way of specific dramatic response to this most dramatic Latin text as it literally moves to the crux of Christianity. For example, when the mob in the garden answers Christ’s question, “Whom seek ye?” The chorus does not shout his name, but sings it in a most gentle, reverential way. Passio clearly is meant as a meditation on the Passion. As such, the words carry more weight. Indeed, one must read this Passion in order to listen to it. It was fashionable not long ago to write vocal music that treated syllables of words independently, oblivious to their meaning. Now the word has returned – or one should say, the Word. With his music, Pärt intends to direct us through the words to the Word. What sustains a work like this? What impels a man like Pärt to write it? Clearly, the answer is faith, for there is no ego in this work. The temptation to focus on the music alone does not present itself. Indeed, if the words mean nothing to you, so will the music.

However, within the austere means that Pärt has chosen, there are many very moving moments. A simply held note on veritate (truth) can be electrifying within the spare musical context, as can also Christ’s exclamation: Sitio (I thirst). In the ECM recording of Passio that Pärt authorized, he seems to have anticipated response (1) above, and did not provide any indexing for the curious to search for “high points;” you will either give up in the beginning or listen to and experience the full 70 minutes. It’s all or nothing. Sort of like religion. Newcomers to Pärt are advised to begin their explorations with earlier releases of his music: first try Tabula rasa, then move on to Arbos and the Miserere, and finally come to Passio. It is worth the journey.

John Tavener (19442013) once wrote in the spirit of Schoenberg “some severely serial pieces.” Later he eschewed such convolutedness and said, “Complexity is the language of evil.” His simplicity, though, has an almost theatrical aspect to it. It is more flamboyant, almost voluptuous compared to Pärt, whom Tavener called “the only composer friend” he had. Because of his embrace of Russian Orthodoxy and its oriental musical idioms, his music sounds the most exotic and unfamiliar of the three. But his purpose is as clear. “In everything I do,” he stated, “I aspire to the sacred. …Music is a form of prayer, a mystery.” He wished to express “the importance of immaterial realism, or transcendent beauty.” His goal was to recover “one simple memory” from which all art derives: “The constant memory of the Paradise from which we have fallen leads to the Paradise which was promised to the repentant thief.” As he said elsewhere, “The gentleness of our sleepy recollections promises something else; that which was once perceived ‘as in a glass, darkly’ we shall see ‘face to face.’”

Tavener’s music also often begins at the very edge of audibility, rising reverentially from the silence out of which it flows. He called his compositions musical icons. Like icons, they are instilled with a sense of sacred mystery, inner stillness, and timelessness. He often employed the unfamiliar cadences of Orthodox chant with its melismatic arabesques, floating above long drones. Though ethereal, his music conveys a sensuousness absent in Górecki and Pärt. His orchestral writing, even when confined to strings only, as in The Protecting Veil, can be very rich. He dramatically portrays visionary moments of epiphany with climaxes that are physical in their impact. The titles of his compositions convey the range of subject matter: The Last Sleep of the Virgin; The Repentant Thief; Ikon of Light; “We Shall See Him as He Is”; Mary of Egypt; Canticle of the Mother of God; Resurrection; and The Protecting Veil, which commemorates the Virgin’s appearance in early 10th-century Constantinople, where, during a Saracen invasion, she drew her protecting veil over the Christians. This latter piece met with enormous success in England.

Devotion shines forth in Tavener’s compositions such as Thunder Entered Her, whose short text by St. Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306373) begins, “Thunder entered her / And made no sound.” Tavener’s The Lament of the Mother of God is a striking piece. The ritualized grief of this haunting work is expressed by a soprano voice, representing Mary, and an unaccompanied choir. The beautiful soprano voice floats above wordless drone of the chorus and ascends step-wise over the span of an octave with the beginning of each stanza, which each time repeats the opening line: “Woe is me, my child.” The text of the second stanza reads, “I wish to take my son down from the wood and to hold him in my arms, as once I held him when he was a little child. But alas there is none to give him to me.” This is a very affecting work ­– the Pietà in sound.

Tavener was able to have his Funeral Canticle performed at his father’s funeral. This 24-minute piece appears with four shorter works on a Tavener Harmonia Mundi release, entitled Eternity’s Sunrise, performed by the Choir and Orchestra of the Academy of Ancient Music and various soloists, led by director Paul Goodwin. Tavener had complete confidence in beauty and simplicity. The melismatic vocal lines in Eternity’s Sunrise, a setting of a short poem by William Blake, and Song of the Angel, in which the soprano sings only one word, “Alleluia,” are soaringly beautiful. They are sung seraphically by soprano Patricia Rozari. Eternity’s Sunrise, written to mark the Academy’s 25th anniversary, was Tavener’s first work for period instruments, but it does not have a period sound. Tavener’s Funeral Canticle employs a gently rocking motion in the music that slowly ascends and descends the scale, as if it were cradling one to sleep. It is touching but restrained; it does not call attention to itself. This is ceremonial music, meditative and mesmeric. The text from the Orthodox funeral service conveys the real substance: man’s frailty, the hope for salvation, and God’s surpassing goodness. As in almost all of Tavener’s works, the constant refrain is “Alleluia.”

Tavener’s Akathist of Thanksgiving for chorus and orchestra was composed for the celebration of the millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988. An akathist is a hymn of thanksgiving or supplication used on special occasions. The text of Tavener’s work was written in the late 1940s by Archpriest Gregory Petrov shortly before his death in a Siberian prison camp. His inspiration came from the dying words of St. John Chrysostom: “Glory to God for everything.” So, shortly before his own death, this priest, surrounded by misery and death, wrote, “I have often seen your glory / Reflected on faces of the dead! / With what unearthly beauty and with what joy they shone, / How spiritual, their features immaterial, / It was a triumph of gladness achieved, of peace; / In silence they called to you. / At the hour of my end illumine my soul also, As it cries: Alleluia, alleluia.”

It is undoubtedly surprising to a modern, secular sensibility that the texts for these consoling, spiritual compositions should come not only from Scripture and liturgy, but from the 20th century’s death camps, both Nazi and Soviet. The late Pope John Paul II was not surprised. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he said of the multitude of martyr’s in the 20th century, “They have completed in their death as martyrs the redemptive sufferings of Christ and, at the same time, they have become the foundation of a new world, a new Europe, and a new civilization.” Twentieth-century martyrdom as the foundation of a new civilization? Can this be so, and, if so, how would such a civilization express itself? Part of the answer is in the music of these three composers. Thiers is the music of this new civilization. Like the martyrs from whom they have drawn their inspiration, they have gone against the prevailing grain of the 20th century for the sake of a greater love.

“O word, thou word that I lack,” cried Schoenberg’s Moses before falling to his knees silent. Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener have found the Word that Schoenberg’s Moses lacked, and they have sought new expressive means to communicate it. The new expressive means have turned out to be the old ones, lost for a period of time in the desert, but now rediscovered by these three who know that “the rock was Christ.”

That something like this could emerge from under the rubble of modernity is moving testimony to the human spirit and its enduring thirst for the eternal. Is this too large a claim to make for these three composers? Perhaps. But be still, and listen.

About the Author

Robert R. Reilly is Director of the Westminster Institute, formerly a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, and has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, and National Review, among many other publications. A former director of the Voice of America, he has taught at the National Defense University and served in the White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Reilly is a member of the board of the Middle East Media Research Institute and lives near Washington DC.
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  • “…tonality returned with a vengeance but was, at first, more like a patient from a trauma ward gradually recovering consciousness.”
    Perfect. Thanks for this. Best description ever.

  • The sympathetic enthusiasm in this interesting article is only to be appreciated, but it also invites for some comments. To begin with, there are no ‘religious truths’ but only metaphorical intimations of some metaphysical reality, which can only be confirmed by subjective experience but cannot be shared by simple information. This does not mean that such realities are not ‘true’ but that human descriptions are translations, rather than descriptions.

    The recovery of musical meaning from under the rubble of 20C modernism certainly has a strongly spiritual component, and the fact that composers who began their career with atonal serialism experienced a conversion, like St Paul, shows that atonalism touched the deepest layers of talented composers, who reacted accordingly. As we now understand, the idea of atonal music (a contradiction in terms) rests upon denial, both of nature and of the essence of the art form which is to convey some expressive meaning in emotional terms. But as with St Paul, the extreme of writing ‘atonal music’ caused a reaction, extreme in the same degree. The sacred in music is not merely demonstrative religious music, using the religiously traditional forms and tropes, but the spiritual component of the art form in its highest manifestations; in this sense, Beethoven is religious music, as Bach is, and Debussy.

    The form the mentioned three composers choose to express their rediscovery of meaning in music is a rather restricted one, and in some ways as fanatic as any fervent serialist (‘Complexity is the language of evil’, or God will fill-out the silences, or the hope to have been a ‘good Catholic’, all expressions of a very restricted, truly archaic world view). But such reaction is a normal human one, like the one of a communist pursuing liberal capitalism after his conversion with the same fierce dedication as he invested in his former creed. Also the way in which their music is expressive, is extreme; in my opinion, only Pärt achieves – in some works – a spiritual quality not bogged down by a pathos that can be banal in its raw exaggeration (Gorecki) or by gestures so theatrical that they provoke doubt about their sincerity (Taverner).

    The recovery of the sacred in music can also be described in less literal, less archaic terms: it is the rediscovery of the human soul as the mystical quality which is embedded both in nature and in the human being, because the mystery of creation embraces both nature and man, they are part of the same reality which is not closed at the boundaries of matter but open-ended by consciousness and intimation.

    • Although often deeply personal and subjective, music (from Bach to Pärt) inimitably expresses many spiritual truths. These spiritual truths, although inexpressible “by simple information”(by words), are beautifully expressed by music!

  • I re-read this. I hope your book sells well. Never have I encountered writing on this subject more knowledgeable, succinct, courageous and enlightened — a world apart from the “correct” drivel (I’m looking at you NYT) that has infected the field for decades.

    • Mr. Brennan, you do know, don’t you, that the NYT has published numerous favorable reviews of and articles about the music of Pärt, Górecki, and Tavener (not to mention younger composers influenced by them) over the years?

      Just last month, for instance, the NYT published a major Sunday feature article about Górecki’s Third Symphony, complete with sound clips.

      • The New York Times has for decades been on the forefront of the “If you like it, it’s crap. Claiming to understand music proves that you don’t. If you hate it, that’s proof of its quality.” Fortunately, about the same thing happened in much of the visual arts — “pretty” is proof of a lack of depth.
        I tried. I really tried. But music that blew me away was all old, often ancient. When I said I hated a piece of new music, that cemented the proof that I was ignorant. But when I was told that the Great Works of the Great Masters were boring and mundane, why could it so reach me when the new stuff couldn’t?
        I finally decided that they or I could be right, but not both. That made it easy.
        I won’t say nothing in the atonal scale can have value; just that I couldn’t find its value. So I spent my time with the composers who were recognized long before I was born. I see no reason to change my habits.

  • Sorry, but this is pretty much ridiculous. Everyone wants to blame poor Arnold, as if tonal music somehow halted the minute he wrote Verklärte Nacht. Of course, that’s the furthest from the truth. Across the 20th century there were all the American symphonists, the Lou Harrisons, the Samuel Barbers, Benjamin Brittens, Bela Bartok, Shostakovich, Bernstein, and I can go on and on, and on.

    And, not to mention the romantic works of Schoenberg himself. Perhaps a better and more informed question might be: why the large repertoire of tonal works written across the entirety of the 20th century are somehow missed by articles like this, as if the music doesn’t exist, seeking to blame Arnold Schoenberg or Charles Ives or Pierre Boulez for the deline in popularity of classical music. Another good question might be why beautifully melodic and interesting works by composers such as Lou Harrison are rarely played by orchestras and chamber ensembles?

    I think it’s time to stop making Mr. Schoenberg the whipping boy for a decline in classical music.

    • Mr. Porter, of course we agree with you that Schoenberg does not get all the credit for what happened to music composition in the 20th century. And the question you raise about the many beautiful, modern works that don’t get played is a good one.

      The answer to that question, though, is inextricably linked to the philosophical derailment of classical music perpetrated by “poor Arnold” – who did in fact make a very concerted effort to vanquish tonality despite having written some lovely tonal works (such as the Verklärte Nacht you mentioned). His ideology – and its parallels in art, architecture, and wider culture – are of particular interest to us here at FSI. It is one of our ongoing pursuits to understand how it rose to hegemony and effectively edged out any competing philosophies.

      We think you would appreciate the rest of Reilly’s book which, though it does not so much concern itself with why these works have been neglected, does focus precisely on bringing to light the vast body of beautiful and interesting contemporary compositions that has been unjustly neglected.

    • That is precisely what I was going to comment. Tonal works of all kinds, written in places whose composers are rarely heard of, have been written for many decades after Schoenberg, the whipping boy, “killed” something or other. If there is any cuprit is someone who, while in charge of an orchestra, declines to explore all these beautiful compositions from all over the world.

  • It gladdens my heart to know that there are men still in this world capable of such loving insights, such profound depths of comprehension. I am not kidding when I tell you I just aborted mid-stream an Ariana Grande remix, to revel in Beatus Vir. It’s been on youtube for two and a half years, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Thank you, Mr. Reilly, for prying open my ears. Brick by brick we rebuild.

  • This article could have been written 15 years ago. (Actually, I can’t help suspecting that it WAS written 15 years ago or so, and updated for Reilly’s new book simply by inserting “the late” in front of Tavener’s and Górecki’s names.) I’m frankly surprised to see material this dated appear on the website of an organization calling itself the Future Symphony Institute.

    Pärt, Górecki, and Tavener have been popular for decades now, and there’s an entire generation of composers in North America and parts of Europe who have been following in the footsteps of those three or combining their influences with those of Louis Andriessen, Morton Feldman, and/or others. By no means is all of their music religious (let alone specifically Christian) in nature, though a good bit of it is. Much of it is for professional-level choir or vocal ensemble.

    I’d direct Mr. Reilly and those with similar interests to the work, in particular, of the choirs The Crossing ( and Tenebrae ( (I doubt Mr. Reilly would care much for the music sung by Roomful of Teeth) and the contemporary music performed by Cappella Romana ( and New York Polyphony (

    – – – – – – – – – –

    Speaking of this essay reading like it was written 15 years ago, it strikes me as disingenuous to slam The New York Times — “In a New York Times review, a critic condescended to call the works of the three composers nothing but ‘Feel-Good Mysticism.’” — using a single capsule CD review from 1995 (, written by a critic who left the paper nearly a decade ago, when the Times has published quite a lot of favorable coverage of all three composers (and their artistic progeny) in the 22 years since that one review.

    • The point is that this review has been typical of the resistance the music of those 3 received, and there is still quite some resistance to music which does not conform to the ideological position of (post-)modernism which requires a ‘reflection of contemporary concerns’ in terms of ugliness, chaos, conflict, (post-)apocalyptic impressions, and aural aggression. If new music does not sound apocalyptic, it must be kitsch or feel-good-music. It is difficult to imagine a more primitive idea about music, but it is one which has infected the brain of lots of professionals in music life and they are still around. Only a year ago, the programmer of the well-known Konzerthaus Orchester in Berlin complimented me on a recent symphonic work which had been premiered elsewhere with success, saying it was beautiful, well-made and accessible, but THEREFORE not relevant because it did not ‘reflect the problems of modernity’. Similarly, young composers who put lots of angst, aggression and an overload of dissonance and chaos in their work, are warmly embraced by the new music establishment because they promise to perpetuate the status quo of modernism, although this postwar culture trauma has already fizzled-out long ago.

      What goes on in the mind of such people, who want to cement the destruction of the art form into something of a static, timeless situation? The remnants of early expressionism (‘everything is awful’) and the ideas as first spread by Schoenberg, later-on confirmed and extended by the German philosopher Adorno. If there is any contemporary concern, it is the need and the challenge of recovering something of the meaningfulness of art, and in this case: classical, serious music.

  • Schoenberg, a profoundly spiritual composer, left his two great works, Die Jakobsleiter and Moses und Aron, unfinished because he was trying to do the hitherto impossible in music. He hit the wall. Having transcended the duality of the tonic-dominant tonal language, his real mission was to transcend the subject-object duality in human consciousness. The ultimate spiritual goal of music. Certainly from the point of view of Vedic culture, which Schoenberg must have gleaned from Schopenhauer. Schoenberg was vastly, and heroically, ahead of his time. He was a great musician, yet not a mystic or realized master. So he had the dignity not to fake it. He took it as far as he could and then no further. Which is more than can say for the subsequent backsliding minimalists, who are anything but the ‘success stories’ in the wake of Schoenberg’s ‘failure.’ The fetishizing of new-agey slow and soft is all well and good, and the ‘Zen’ of the shakuhachi is surely a lovely thing. My preference is for the raucousness of Tibetan Buddhist ceremonial music (actually derived from military music), which is a literal spiritual wake-up call. Arnold would have understood.

    • “Having transcended the duality of the tonic-dominant tonal language, his real mission was to transcend the subject-object duality in human consciousness. The ultimate spiritual goal of music.”

      Interesting. But has the transcendence of the subject-object duality of consciousness not already been achieved many times in Western music? What is it exactly, what we mean by ‘transcending the subject-object duality of consciousness’? Finding the wholeness of the human being within the context of the world, of outer reality? But music is an interior experience.

      The idea that there is an essential distinction between interior experience (subjective) and outer reality (objective) has been fully explored for the first time by Emmanuel Kant (end 18th century) with the devastating result that since then, philosophers have been struggling with the logical and rational conclusion that what we experience of the world is, in fact, what our senses create from the input from outside. So, there is nothing out there but our senses create the world inside our consciousness – nowadays we would say: we experience the world inside the brain. Hence the usual philosophical description that ‘the world’ is the creation ‘by the individual’, which is nonsensical of course since the world exists entirely independently from us. Before we were born, the world existed and will go on to exist after we die. And for a short while we are part of the world, because our senses connect us to it.

      The separateness of inside and outside (subject and object) is merely a rational construct, like the difference between spirit/mind and body as described by Descartes (17th century); it was all part of the development of a rationalistic, scientific world view. With art music, we cannot do very much with such concepts, because they disconnect things within a process which can only happen as a whole; the effects of musical experience can be better understood in terms of resonance and the ‘holistic nature of human perception’ (Steven Semes). The proportional mathematics of music are similar of those in nature, and both are part of the same evolution, hence we can immediately experience consonance and dissonance and the flow of energies travelling from one moment in the musical narrative to the other. Schoenberg took all those things much too rationally and literally, after all he was the child of an age of the developing scientific, progressive world view. He was also hooked on inventing little gadgets, multiple-sided chess games, better time tables for Berlin’s public transport system, etc. etc. – so, a fertile rationalistic mindset. I think it was Debussy who got it right about the relationship inside/outside, and deeply felt the connections between the subject and the object, and wrote an impressive number of mysteriously eloquent masterpieces where the voice that Schoenberg vainly searched for, found an immediate expression, and without any artificial theoretical structure – not because he was not clever enough, but because he instinctively knew how music worked and that was enough for him.

  • As a composer who has written atonal sacred choral works, I find this has-to-be-one-or-the-other thinking very biased and closed-minded. Not all religious experiences are as serenely dull as Mr. Part would have us believe.

    • It depends upon how one would define ‘atonal’. In the case of sacred choral works, the combination of the words ‘atonal’ and ‘sacred’ in one sentence, is a contradiction in terms, and suggesting some exceptional occasion, like desperation about the absence of God’s voice, or something similar. But the interrelatedness of tonality is, in sacred music, a prerequisite means of expressing connectedness and thus, sacred music cannot possibly do without it. It is not ‘either / or’, but the common sense of observing the appropriate means for something.

      To call Pärt’s music ‘serenely dull’ merely betrays insensitivity to what he is doing. It does not always work though, but in Tabula Rasa, for instance, it works brilliantly well:

      His St John’s Passion however I find indeed serenely dull, and unbearable actually if you force yourself to listen it out:

      Schoenberg’s Psalm 130 is a good example of music at the edge of tonal/atonal, and what does the music ‘say’? It is alieanated, desperate music, ‘sacred’ in an inverted sense, expressing unsolvable conflict and pain with gestures clinging to tonal phrases but they hang desperate in the air, without any direction to go:

      A more atonal example: Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna is a sacred choral work – but how atonal is it? I think it is, mainly, atonal, but with many touches of tonality, which gives it a frighteningly lonely and alienating character, suggesting the absence of the sacred rather than its presence. Is it sacred music? I think it is, but an extreme exception, lamenting the absence of anything divine. So, I would say, atonality can be used in sacred music but hardly as the obvious means:

      Struggling with the absence, or with the presence, of the sacred, or the divine, can also be expressed by tonal means and as such these means are far richer and musically much more interesting and more brautiful, as in Stravinsky in spite of the sombre mood

    • Well, what you call atonal music is what I would call and many people would agree with me, as complete garbage. It is such garbage no sane person would every think of going to a concert full of it.

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