Recovering the Sacred in Music

Author: Robert Reilly


by Robert R. Reilly

Music went out of the realm of Nature and into abstract, ideological systems. Not surprisingly, those systems, including Schoenberg's twelve-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 Schoenberg's doctrines were so entrenched in the academy, the concert hall, and the grants and prizes 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. 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 a 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 decade: Henryk Gorecki from Poland, Arvo Part from Estonia, and 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 twelve-tone method and were considered in the avant garde; all subsequently renounced it (as Part said, "The sterile democracy between the notes has killed in us every lively feeling"); and all are 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 recent New York 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 this century, Schoenberg fell silent before he could finish the opera . 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 twenty 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. 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 words thou word that I lack."

Though a Jew, Schoenberg was hardly orthodox. He wandered in and out of his 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 pored 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 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 tell us, "the rock was Christ," and Christ can only be struck down once, "once and for all," a sole act sufficient for the salvation of all mankind.

Gorecki, Part, and Tavener completely believe in the salvific act of Christ, center their lives upon it, and express it in their music. They also share a preliminary disposition necessary for the reception of this belief. During a recent trip to Washington, Gorecki was asked to comment on the phenomenal success of his , the Nonesuch recording of which has sold more than 800,000 copies. Gorecki 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 . 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 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!" Part, Gorecki, 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 Part states: "That is my goal. Time and timelessness are connected." This sense of stasis is conveyed through: the use of silence; consistently slow tempi (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 Part 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 , Gorecki 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 Gorecki, Part, and Tavener, and their harking 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 old means of expression. Their technique changed because they have something new to express. As Thomas Merton once remarked, the perfection of twelfth-century Cistercian architecture was reached, not because the Cistercians were looking for new techniques, but because they were looking for God. Gorecki, Part, and Tavener are looking for God, and they have found a musical epiphany in the pursuit.

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

Gorecki is also the toughest of the three composers and the most modern in his musical vocabulary, though he is considered a conservative reactionary by his erstwhile colleagues in the European avant garde. (He says that leading modernist Pierre Boulez "is unbelievably angry about my music.") Though at times harsh for expressive purposes, Gorecki's music is never hysterical, like so much modern music that reflects the horror of the 20th century without the perspective of faith. He can 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 apparent that can only come from deep belief. When asked from where he got his courage to resist Communist pressure, Gorecki 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."

Gorecki gives very little quarter in facing the nightmare through which his country and this century have gone. Poland was trampled by both of 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 ) as mentioned above. This piece is dedicated to Pope John Paul II, who commissioned it when he was still Cardinal of Krakow. One of the most extraordinary expressions of grief is Gorecki's 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 only, 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 Gorecki draws on Polish folk song, the appeal of this deeply affecting musical requiem can be felt by anyone for whom these themes resonate.

Another piece written with the same basic architectural structure as the first part of is the . Gorecki 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 , 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. is a beautiful work of affirmation and consolation.

Though writing in a thoroughly accessible idiom, Arvo Part 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. Part 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 is 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. Part's music comes out of the fullness of silence. "How can one fill the time with notes worthy of the preceding silence?" he asks. 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. Part appropriately chose the Gospel According to St. John, the most metaphysical of the Gospels, for the text of his . "In the beginning," begins St. John. This feel for ontology, for creation close to its source in the Creator, permeates Part's music. It can be heard in instrumental works such as and , or in striking choral compositions, such as the exquisite and the .

There are two probable responses to Part's : 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 St. John. Certainly is very different from Part's , which it is otherwise most like. In , the instrumental music, like a chorus, reacts to the words, dramatizes them and provides a purgation. Part foregoes this approach in , which is distinctly 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. 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. Part intends to direct us with his music through the words to the Word. What sustains a work like this? What impels a man like Part 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, neither will the music.

However, within the austere means that Part has chosen, there are many very moving moments. A simply held note on (truth) can be electrifying within the spare musical context, as can also Christ's exclamation: (I thirst). In the ECM recording of that Part 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 seventy minutes. It's all or nothing. Sort of like religion. Newcomers to Part are advised to begin their explorations with earlier releases of his music: first try , then move on to and the , and finally come to . It is worth the journey.

John Tavener once wrote in the spirit of Schoenberg "some severely serial pieces." Now he eschews such convolutedness and says, "Complexity is the language of evil." His simplicity, though, has an almost theatrical aspect to it. It is more flamboyant, almost voluptuous compared to Part, whom Tavener calls "the only composer friend I have, really," or Gorecki. 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 states, "I aspire to the sacred . . . music is a form of prayer, a mystery." He wishes to express "the importance of immaterial realism, or transcendent beauty." His goal is 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 says 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 calls his compositions musical icons. Like icons, they are instilled with a sense of sacred mystery, inner stillness, and timelessness. He often employs the unfamiliar cadences of Orthodox chant with its melismatic arabesques, floating above long drones. Though ethereal, his music conveys a sensuousness absent in Gorecki and Part. His orchestral writing, even when confined to strings only, as in , 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: ; ; ; ""; ; ; ; and , which commemorates the Virgin's appearance in early tenth-century Constantinople, where, during a Saracen invasion, she drew her protecting veil over the Christians. This latter piece met with enormous success in England.

Tavener's 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. Pope John Paul II would not be surprised. In , he said of the multitude of martyrs 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 " 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. Theirs 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. Gorecki, Part, and Tavener have found the Word that Schoenberg's Moses lacked, and 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.

Robert R. Reilly is host of the weekly TV show "Vineline."

This article was taken from the May 1995 issue of "Crisis" magazine. To subscribe please write: Box 1006, Notre Dame, IN 46556 or call 1-800-852-9962. Subscriptions are $25.00 per year. Editorial correspondence should be sent to 1511 K Street, N.W., Ste. 525, Washington, D.C., 20005, 202-347-7411; E-mail:

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