Ed's talk: Jul 14, 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008

a survey on music and religion

Music has had, from earliest times, a very strong relationship to religion and the sacred. There is no doubt that it was used to direct the human mind to whichever gods and goddesses were being worshiped in any given civilization or pre-civilization.

But from those earliest times, the function of religion has remained unchanged, that is, to pray or cajole the reigning deity into listening to various supplications and, when those supplications are heeded, to thank and praise the deity and when they are not, to say it is "the deity's will". This function is often supported musically, perhaps from the earliest days with chant or chantlike phrases.

As music has become more sophisticated (notice, I don't use the term "improved"!), the means of support have also become more sophisticated. But, in my opinion, religion has pretty much remained unaltered despite the change of names for the deities. Christianity, for example, is largely based on earlier pagan faiths with various attributes of Jesus or Mary shared by many other gods or heroes from earlier times. Many have thought this was one of the "geniuses" of Christianity, that is, to base it's beliefs on those which existed earlier so as to make its followers as comfortable as possible with its "new" dogmas.

Many of the composers who wrote sacred music were undoubtedly quite devout like Johann Sebastian Bach (at least this is the majority opinion!) and Joseph Haydn, but in the time of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph the Second
, (reigned 1765-90) there was also a strong Masonic influence, most notable in the output of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91).

Mozart was also influenced by Moses Mendelssohn,
(1729-86) as was Schubert later on. Schubert set some of the Psalms in Mendelssohn's German translations though he also set one in the original Hebrew (Psalm 92)! (Moses was the grandfather of the composers Felix and Fanny but, starting with Abraham their father who was the son of Moses, the family were converts to Lutheranism!)

It is interesting that Schubert (1797-1828) was a friend of Salomon Sulzer the cantor and later composer of "Shir Tsiyyon" ("Songs of Zion") and equally interesting was that he never, in his Christian Mass settings, set the Credo complete, always leaving out the words to do with the belief in the "Holy and Apostolic Church". (They have often been added in later editions.) Beethoven too, at least in his Missa Solemnis in D, tended to suppress these words under the louder statements of "Credo" ("I believe"). (I don't remember how he deals with this in the earlier Mass in C.)

As the size and scope of musical settings of liturgical texts increased in the 19th Century along with the text alterations, these were less tenable as church settings and became essentially concert pieces even with the occasional performance in a church where "the tail is really wagging the dog" so to speak.

At the height of the Romantic "gigantic" period there are the Requiem Mass settings by Berlioz and Verdi, two outspoken atheists and the much more modest Fauré Requiem whose text is not set completely. (
Fauré's own opinions on religion are unknown, to me at least, but he was notably anti-clerical, understandably, due to his day-to-day often fraught dealings with the clergy.) All of these are rarely done in a church setting but are often used as memorial and commemorative works.

As was the Brahms Requiem which is not a liturgical setting but based on a selection of texts from the (German) Luther Bible and whose composer also seemed to be pretty much a non-believer but with an interest in scripture. Though born a Lutheran, Brahms essentially traveled in Jewish circles. His contemporary, Anton Bruckner (a sort of "Holy Fool") was a devout Catholic as was Liszt, of course, who famously took minor orders. (Liszt is, I discovered, a great favorite of Catholic nuns equally for reasons of his "naughty" life as for the more "saintly" aspects of his biography.)

In the 20th and 21st Centuries, composers of religious music had varying backgrounds. Igor Stravinsky was Russian-Orthodox even if he left the church for a time. Francis Poulenc was a devout Roman Catholic, as was Olivier Messiaen.

The English tradition of religious music of the 19th and early 20th centuries tells quite a different story. George Frideric Handel was, of course, an immigrant from Germany and his influence on English music in the eighteenth century was quite extensive. But it was Felix Mendelssohn who, with his two oratorios "Elijah" and "St. Paul" and his visit to Windsor Castle when Victoria and Albert were in residence, really cast a pall on English music for many years. (Prince Albert was not only a great admirer of these works but wrote some music in the same style influencing others to do the same, mostly to their detriment.)

One need only think of the output of the non-Savoy Sir Arthur Sullivan and others such as William Sterndale Bennett and Sir John Stainer to apprehend the lack of vitality of English music, sacred and secular, of this period.

It took an Edward Elgar to revive sacred music at the turn of the twentieth century. The Cantata "The Light of Life" (1896) was rather uneven but the vitality was there and it was followed in 1899-1900 by "The Dream of Gerontius" (On part of the poem by Cardinal Newman which I find an especially cloying one in which the angelic folk in heaven are listening carefully to the rituals on earth for some reason or other, but the music makes it work.), "The Apostles" (02-03) and finally "The Kingdom" (01-06). During this time, Elgar gradually lost his faith and, after his religious period, wrote the well-known overtures, symphonies and concertos.

Elgar's contemporary Sir Hubert Parry was, despite "Jerusalem", "Blest Pair of Sirens" and the "Songs of Farewell", a non-believer.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was a self-described "Christian agnostic". (His great uncle was Charles Darwin and the other side of the family were the non-comformist Wedgwoods so this is understandable.)

And oddly enough, not only did RVW edit the 1906 English Hymnal but he wrote a fair amount of sacred music including the "mostly sacred" Cantata "Hodie" with an odd setting of a poem by Thomas Hardy "The Oxen" showing his more skeptical side. In his Mass in G minor he, incidentally, omitted the same words as Schubert but grudgingly added them to the bass part only when the proof reader mentioned it.

Frederick Delius was an atheist and wrote an atheist "Mass of Life" and a similar Requiem. Gustav Holst was more into Eastern mysticism than Christianity though he did set the gnostic "Hymn of Jesus" and other Christian texts.

Among the French, Debussy wrote an early cantata "L'enfant prodigue", "La demoiselle élue" on a French translation of the poem by Christina Rossetti and "Le martyre de Saint Sébastien" with Gabriele d'Annunzio for Ida Rubinstein the dancer but these are not really religious. Ravel wrote no real sacred settings, at least that have survived, except for the Jewish Aramaic song for voice and piano, "Kaddish".

As we can see, those composers who set music to liturgical or sacred texts, had varying degrees of religious beliefs or lack of them but, one thing is clear: it is not necessary to be a believer to write sacred music!