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Religious Art in the Twenty-First Century

August 2013

I want to ask a large question in a short space: whether it is possible in the West to produce genuine religious music in the twenty-first century. The problem is not a recent one, but goes back to the eighteenth century Enlightenment and the beginnings of Romanticism. I'd like to begin by quoting the first paragraph of Wilfrid Mellers's study of Beethoven, Beethoven and the Voice of God, his sequel to Bach and the Dance of God, where he says:

In The Dance of God we saw how Bach was a man of faith, both in the sense that he belonged to a society that knew or thought it knew what it believed in, and also in that his mind was of its nature theologically orientated. In another sense, however, he and his society were marooned in a past era, for his Christianity inherited much from traditions that were already outmoded. Now Beethoven was born into precisely the world that had superseded Bach's; and though this world was politically buoyant, in religious matters its inhabitants were animated by doubt rather than by hope, and by reason rather than by conviction. All the major composers of the nineteenth century except Bruckner were to tend to agnosticism; and even Bruckner's single-hearted though not simple-minded faith was compromised by the fact that, revering Bach and Beethoven equally, he expressed himself most consummately through the divisiveness of sonata rather than through Bachian formal absolutes.

The last point, implying that form may mirror belief, is important. The sonata is essentially about becoming rather than being, and I would claim that the way Beethoven used sonata structures to dramatize his inner conflicts and his quest for meaning makes him still the essential model for a composer today, who (most of us anyway) is faced with the same existential questions as was Beethoven. At the end of his life, in the Missa Solemnis, the late piano works and the last five quartets, Beethoven arrived at profound solutions to his lifelong struggle to achieve harmony from diversity, and at the same time, as Mellers says, "he arrived at a transcendent religious experience that was individualized rather than communal". Mellers also points out that "the last page of Beethoven's last quartet [is] a sublimated folk song", a symbol of rebirth: in my end is my beginning, to quote T.S.Eliot.

Bruckner's Catholic faith came more naturally to him than it did to Beethoven, but Bruckner's most searching music is in his Eighth and Ninth Symphonies where he is struggling with religious doubt as he approaches death. The symphony was an ideal vehicle for him to work through these doubts towards a final triumph of renewed faith, which in the Eighth is felt as wholly genuine. His Ninth Symphony contains the darkest, most despairing music he ever wrote. Bruckner was unable to complete his finale before he died; recent completions by others - and only the crucial ending needs to be added - reveal an angst-riven movement struggling to maintain musical coherence, yet all of it enacted on the highest spiritual level. The speculative endings by the several completers are in the expected triumphant D major: though effective, they inevitably lack Bruckner's special authority, and we don't know if he could ever convincingly have brought the work to the conclusion he wanted.

The twentieth century begins with Mahler also struggling to find religious conviction in a series of symphonies that chart his spiritual autobiography. I think that part of the popularity Mahler enjoys today stems from the ready identification of audiences with the quest for meaning that takes place, often on a heroic scale, in his music. It's also clear that they turn to Mahler and Bruckner, as to Beethoven, because they find no comparable quest for meaning in most contemporary music. The first half of the twentieth century did produce several important religious works, and some of its major composers were still untroubled believers. Stravinsky was brought up in the Russian Orthodox Church and returned to it in the 1920s under the influence of the Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain. His Symphony of Psalms and his Mass are both Classical religious works in the tradition of Bach rather than Beethoven. Yet they are also works of High Modernism, like those of Picasso and Eliot, though this was a modernism that was still intimately concerned with tradition. The same is true of the Catholic Olivier Messiaen who, although he often uses a radically new harmonic and rhythmic language, did not, for the most part, renounce tonality. Messiaen's music is full of praise of the Christian God and is always in a state of being, not becoming. The music, which is full of references to the natural world in birdsong, has slowed down to the pace of the natural world, or perhaps more accurately to the timeless world of heaven.

The same sense of timelessness is true of other pre-eminent religious composers of today, notably Gorecki, Pärt and Tavener. I have some doubts about Tavener but there's no doubt about the genuineness of the other two. My doubts about the adequacy of their music language I'll return to later. I'll also mention here two contemporary British composers: Jonathan Harvey, who wrote largely from a Buddhist perspective, though also some fine pieces for the Anglican church in which he was brought up; and James MacMillan, a Roman Catholic who is most successful as a composer when he writes specific religious music (I would single out his Seven Last Words from the Cross). MacMillan's clearly genuine religious music can be contrasted with a number of widely performed composers of sacred music in Britain and the USA whose work does not have any discernible spiritual quality. It would perhaps seem that the cosiness of the Anglican Church, admirable though it is in many ways, is not conducive at present to the production of outstanding religious music.

The majority of artists today don't have any religious faith, and the later development of musical modernism into a largely incomprehensible language might seem to reflect this. I'm inclined to agree with the American Catholic writer Robert Reilly who, talking about the death of God, says that "If external order does not exist, then music collapses in on itself and degenerates into an obsession with techniques." Certainly there is a sense of bleak despair in much post-war music. The great English Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:

O pity and indignation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time beats level.

He counters this with:

Enough! The Resurrection,
A heart's-clarion! Away grief's gasping, joyless days, dejection.

It's likely that Hopkins would not have achieved his extraordinary, ecstatic vision without the comfort of the Resurrection. But do we need it?

I think I should say something here about my own religious attitude. I'm temperamentally inclined towards religion, though I don't now belong to any particular faith. In my early twenties I was a Roman Catholic convert, having become dissatisfied with the Anglican church in which I was rather loosely brought up. But I soon came to reject the doctrines bit by bit. I was left with a solitary vision of the world (I recall the English philosopher A. N. Whitehead's definition of religion: "Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness"), though a world that appears more than something just produced by chance - I can't help sensing meaning, even if I don't know what this meaning points towards. It isn't a traditional religious explanation - I suppose the nearest religious term for what I believe would be pantheism - though surely it was at least partly that same sense of wonder and awe that produced religious explanations, which now seem to me defunct. So I would hesitate to call myself a religious composer, yet in the act of composing music I feel I'm asserting a sense of meaning in the universe, in that I'm wanting to find meaningful form and content in contract to its opposites, whether the nihilistic language of Harrison Birtwistle or the random, chaotic approach of John Cage, both of which I reject.

To observe and enter into this spirit of wonder seems enough. It was enough for Vaughan Williams, a self-confessed agnostic who produced in Sancta Civitas one of the great religious works of the twentieth century, in the tradition of William Blake and Thomas Traherne. Or for Michael Tippett, whose music at its best can be described as visionary, again in the spirit of Blake and also of Beethoven who was his lifelong inspiration. Beethoven is my model of a visionary religious composer too. In the Credo of Bach's B minor Mass you feel the certainty of accepted faith, as the interweaving lines roll on like a great river. In the Credo of the Missa Solemnis you feel Beethoven striving to believe every word he sets. Nothing is certain. The prayer for peace at the end is assailed by military trumpets and drums. This is still the Mass for the modern world. Which brings me back to Gorecki and Pärt. Theirs is music that tries to restore Christianity to its pre-modern state, and although it convinces on one level, it is not wholly adequate for our time. Surely we need to confront the modern world and try to find modern solutions rather than ignore them. The extreme simplicity of the language Gorecki and Pärt choose is a metaphor for this deliberate ignoring of modernity. But perhaps the rebirth of tonality, after the unsuccessful attempt of the serialists to replace it, had to be like this, and the function of minimalism was to provide a stepping-stone to something more complex. The rediscovery of tonality in our time opens up the way for music again to celebrate life, and so religious music, or rather music that expresses the spiritual, is still possible, if difficult - but then writing good music was always difficult.

I'd like to finish by saying something about what I believe to be my most important religious statement, my oratorio Vespers, which I wrote twenty years ago, and which has just been recorded for CD. Vespers began when I was listening a lot to Monteverdi's Vespers, marvelling at the clarity of its musical language and the joyous spirit of the dance that infuses it, but which has disappeared from most music today, whether sacred or secular. I didn't want to write an orthodox Roman Catholic Vespers, but did include some of the texts that Monteverdi set: so for instance there is a version of the psalm Laudate pueri, and part of the Magnificat - but I purged these texts of specific Christian or Jewish associations to try to make them accessible to members of all major religions. Interspersed with these Latin texts are three poems by Rilke from the Stundenbuch (The Book of Hours) in English translations by the American poet Babette Deutsch. Rilke's approach to religion was unorthodox and, it seems to me, completely modern; but these poems are religious in the deepest sense. The first poem, which opens the work, is an invocation to God at evening, when the blinding light of reality has softened; the second, at the work's mid-point, after a violent storm in the orchestra which is calmed by the anthem Alma redemptoris mater, is a prayer for stillness; the third, which ends the work, is a vision of a future free from religious strife. In this work I know I have said something very real to me, and I hope to others.