Feb 23rd 2018

Classical music's divorce from God has been one of the great failures of our times

by George Corbett

Lecturer in Theology, Imagination and the Arts, University of St Andrews

Reverend Jonathan Arnold, dean of divinity at Magdalen college, Oxford, has written about the “seeming paradox that, in today’s so-called secular society, sacred choral music is as powerful, compelling and popular as it has ever been”.

But is this a paradox? Arguably the power of this music derives from having been written by supremely talented, well-trained composers who just happened to live in a Christian tradition, writing mainly for the church. If the dominant religion over the past millennium had been atheist secularism, say, talented composers might still have written equally compelling music.

The same might also be true elsewhere in the arts – not just for Christian composers such as Mozart, but also for Christian poets like Dante, and Christian artists like Beato Angelico. If so, the power of Mozart’s famous Ave Verum has nothing to do with the mystical body of Christ in the Eucharist and everything to do with the innate genius of the composer.

A problem with such counter-factual hypotheses, however, is that this is all they are: hypotheses. By contrast, sacred music and extraordinary Christian art is a reality. Many of these Christian artists also experienced their own creative process as “inspired”, believing God had had a hand in their work.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI claimed that “in no other cultural domain is there a music of a greatness equal to that which was born in the domain of the Christian faith”. He even added that “this music, for me, is a demonstration of the truth of Christianity”.

Many others have touched on this sense that music springs from faith and can only be artificially separated from it. This includes non-religious people, who often speak of their experience of music in spiritually inflected terms, describing it as “soulful” or “transcendent” or “mystical” or whatever. This is where there really might be a paradox: secular people being moved by the sacred through music.

The God exclusion

Classical composers in the post-war period sought to make a clear break with tradition, including with the cultural baggage of Christianity. The Scottish composer James MacMillan, who is also a professor at the University of St Andrews divinity school, lamented the divorce of music from extra-musical inspiration in this period:

Composers like Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio and the young Turks of the post-war generation wanted to start afresh from year zero, to write a music that was untainted by tradition.

British music departments and conservatoires of MacMillan’s generation in the 1970s saw music as “complete in itself” and that “anything else was extraneous and irrelevant”.

The English-Polish composer Roxanna Panufnik described something similar:

I left music college swearing never to write another note again … It was during the mid-1980s when esoteric and cerebral avant-garde music was still considered the right kind of music to be writing.

Classical music in this era became ultimately sterile, delighted with its own inaccessibility and unpopularity; a cerebral playing around with notes on the page. MacMillan and Panufnik only discovered their own compositional voices by being true to themselves; allowing the “spiritual dimension to emerge” and reacting against the culture of the time.

The irony, as MacMillan has pointed out before, is that mainstream modernist music has often been more plugged into the Judeo-Christian tradition than is sometimes appreciated. Arnold Schoenberg reconverted to Judaism after the Holocaust. Igor Stravinsky was Russian Orthodox, Olivier Messaien was Catholic. From this perspective, Christianity is an extraordinary source of artistic originality; rejecting a search for the sacred leads ultimately to a dead end.

21st century composition

Today, if you go to a concert even of sacred music, you are unlikely to find reference in the programme notes to religious inspiration. There remains a snooty condescension in intellectual circles towards the “extra-musical”, and a privileging of pure musical analysis.

The recording industry is driving technical perfection, while the notion of “historically informed performance” is becoming ever more dominant as part of a wider focus on achieving a supposedly “correct” style. All too easily these become goals, rather than the means to express something deeper.

Our response at St Andrews has been to try to introduce the next generation of composers to the creative power of Christianity, pioneering what we call theologically informed programming and performance. We paired six of the best upcoming composers from around the UK and Ireland with doctoral theologians from the university.

The theologians were tasked with researching passages from scripture that could be set to music by the composers. Participants didn’t need any faith, and were encouraged to engage with the Christian tradition however they wanted. Mentored by MacMillan and part of our wider TheoArtistry project, the collaborations have produced six wonderful new works of sacred music, which are available on the CD Annunciations: Sacred Music for the 21st Century.

One great example is by Rebekah Dyer and Kerensa Briggs. Dyer’s research on fire in theology, combined with her hobby as a fire spinner, gave talented composer Briggs a fresh perspective on Moses’ encounter with God through the Burning Bush. Using textured sounds of choir and organ, the composition conveys a meeting between earth and heaven, history and eternity.

When music encounters religion, I see the result as being like the scriptural image of water and wine: the art can be transformed and come not to serve theology, but to be theology – or more exactly theoartistry, insofar as it may reveal God in a new way through artistry.

From the earliest Gregorian chants through Bach and Mozart to the very different contemporary sacred music of MacMillan and Arvo Pärt, there are so many examples of the great beauty that this can achieve.

 

George Corbett, Lecturer in Theology, Imagination and the Arts, University of St Andrews

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."
Apr 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "A crisis such as this one demands that we exercise what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘public use of reason’ – as opposed to merely the ‘private use of reason’ where, briefly put, the expert, the specialist is tasked with resolving a defined problem. The private use of reason is sufficient when we are dealing with a problem that can be solved by simply applying the appropriate expertise...............The public use of reason asks: how we are defining the problem? Is our definition – our conceptualization of the problem – perhaps part of the problem itself? Is this pandemic solely a problem of public health, or is it also a problem of extreme economic inequality? ..............Since this crisis began, the greatest failure of the administration is not the denial, the lies, the lack of preparedness, but the inability to rally and unify the nation against this common threat, the lack of genuine leadership – Trump’s utter inability to bring the nation together."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Rarely has an architectural experiment aroused such extremes of ire and admiration. One side is convinced the house is a masterpiece. The other expresses brutal condemnation of the entire project (leaky roof, danger of flooding, too-hot, too-cold interiors depending on the American Midwest weather).........Farnsworth encapsulated her personal ambiguity in her comment to a Newsweek interviewer: “This handsome pavilion I own is almost totally unworkable.” She told one journalist, “ … all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a house as a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”
Apr 1st 2020
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government fresco, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.
Mar 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "The coronavirus crisis has forced us to look at our behaviour in a way that we’re not used to. We are being asked to act in the collective good rather than our individual preservation and interest. Even for those of us with the best of intentions, this is not so easy."
Mar 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "In March 2020, my sister Nancy and I did something that, as scholars, we had never done before: we wrote about ourselves, comparing our own experiences receiving cancer care on either side of the Atlantic. As we recently reported in the BMJ, much of our experience is similar. As twins, we both have the same form of cancer. Both of us received excellent treatment in well-established university teaching hospitals. Both of us are now in remission. But there is a glaring difference. Nancy lives in the US, covered under a good private healthcare scheme. I live in the UK, covered by the NHS."
Mar 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "In philosophy, individualism is closely linked with the concept of freedom. As soon as restrictive measures were imposed in Italy, many people felt that their freedom was threatened and started to assert their individuality in various ways. Some disagreed with the necessity of cancelling group gatherings and organised unofficial ones themselves. Others continued to go out and live as they always did. We often assume that freedom is to do as we choose, and that is contrasted with being told what to do. As long as I am doing what the government tells me, I am not free. I am going out, not because I want to, but because that shows I am free. But there is another route to freedom..........."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Repeated stress is a major trigger for persistent inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to a range of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. The brain is normally protected from circulating molecules by a blood-brain barrier. But under repeated stress, this barrier becomes leaky and circulating inflammatory proteins can get into the brain. The brain’s hippocampus is a critical brain region for learning and memory, and is particularly vulnerable to such insults. Studies in humans have shown that inflammation can adversely affect brain systems linked to motivation and mental agility. There is also evidence of chronic stress effects on hormones in the brain, including cortisol and corticotropin releasing factor (CRF). High, prolonged levels of cortisol have been associated with mood disorders as well as shrinkage of the hippocampus. It can also cause many physical problems, including irregular menstrual cycles."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s important to do things that make you happy or content as you are doing them – and doing them for yourself. Research has found that picking recovery activities you find personally satisfying and meaningful is more likely to help you feel recovered by the next morning."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACTS: "A recent study of nearly 3,000 physicists found that a scientist’s most highly cited publication had an equal probability of being published at any point within the sequence of papers the scientist published.........Creativity is not the prerogative of the young, but can occur at any stage in the life cycle...........there is not a single kind of creativity, but that in virtually every intellectual discipline there are two different types of creativity, each associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over the life cycle. The bold leaps of fearless and iconoclastic young conceptual innovators are one important form of creativity. Archetypal conceptual innovators include Einstein, Picasso.......very different type of creativity, in which important new discoveries emerge gradually and incrementally from the extended explorations of older experimental innovators.......The single year from with Paul Cézanne’s work is most frequently illustrated in textbooks of art history is 1906 – the last year of his life, when he was 67."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "As our global population is projected to live longer than ever before, it’s important that we find ways of helping people live healthier for longer. Exercise and diet are often cited as the best ways of maintaining good health well into our twilight years. But recently, research has also started to look at the role our gut – specifically our microbiome – plays in how we age."
Feb 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "In an increasingly polarised political landscape, we see differing political views challenged, not through debate and discussion, but through tribal behaviour. We often consider the groups that we belong to as worthy of empathy, respect and tolerance – but not others. What’s more, recent research has identified that we reward our leaders for being naysayers – negating, refuting or criticising others – rather than empowering them."