Keeping Faith: Composers and Belief
"My faith is the grand drama of my life," the French composer Olivier Messiaen declared. "I'm a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith."
The notion of faith is central to all religious conviction. Since manifestations of divine presence, will, and purpose elude both rational thought and ordinary sensory perception, we can accept their reality only as a matter of faith. As Saint Augustine succinctly put it, "Faith is to believe what you do not see." But while faith may be an essential part of religious belief, it is not limited to that alone. Rather, faith takes many forms, and not all pertain to religious orthodoxy.
Music motivated by faith forms a large part of the concert repertory of this year's White Light Festival. Much of this repertory is sacred in the traditional and narrow sense of the term: musical settings of liturgical or scriptural texts. But a substantial portion takes the form of music more generally inspired by religious ideas and feeling, or even by non-theistic spirituality. This music, which ranges chronologically from before the Renaissance to the present day, reflects a wide range of conceptions of faith.
Many of the musical expressions of faith performed during the White Light Festival belong to the rich musical tradition that has accumulated around Christian liturgy and prayer. An important instance is the Stabat mater of Giovanni Pergolesi, performed with choreography by Jessica Lang, on November 1 and 2. We know relatively little of Pergolesi's personal life, which was cut short in 1736, probably by tuberculosis. (The composer was just 26 years of age.) But he wrote a number ecclesiastical works during his short career, and he chose to end his days in a monastery near Naples. All this suggests a devout Catholic, and his deeply affecting music for the verses of Stabat mater, that most sorrowful of Christian prayers, would seem to affirm a strongly held faith.
Orthodox Christian belief also finds reflection in much of the music heard in The Psalms Experience. This series of 12 concerts presents choral settings of Psalm verses by 150 composers working over five centuries and more. Most of them, including Bach, Haydn, and Bruckner, grew up in their faiths and accepted their doctrines unquestioningly. But the repertory for this portion of the festival also includes a setting of Psalm 22 by Felix Mendelssohn. Born into a prominent Jewish family, Mendelssohn converted to Lutheranism as an adult yet retained a strong connection to his forebears' religion. That he composed many psalm settings over the course of his career reflects the importance these sacred poems have for both Christians and Jews.
Mendelssohn's dual religious affiliation hardly constitutes the most unconventional kind of faith embraced by composers represented by this year's White Light Festival. Olivier Messiaen, one of the 20th century's most original musicians, was a devout Catholic, and his convictions shaped nearly all of his work. "The illumination of the truths of the faith is the first aspect of my work," Messiaen said, "the noblest and no doubt the most useful and valuable—perhaps the only one I won't regret at the hour of my death."
Yet the French composer's creed was no garden-variety Catholicism. Rather, it was strange and extreme in its literal acceptance of the miracles and revelations set forth in the scriptures, and in its highly charged imagery and symbolism. For Messiaen, "the Truths of the Faith are startling; they are fairy-tales, in turn mysterious, harrowing, glorious, and sometimes terrifying, always based on a luminous, unchanging reality."
It is notable that this pious composer never wrote a setting of the Mass or any other liturgical text. Instead, he revealed the character and depth of his faith through concert music. An outstanding example is Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus, a cycle of 20 vivid and striking piano pieces, which pianist Steven Osborne plays in its entirety on October 31. (See Engaging with the Divine for Osborne's reflection on performing the work.) Like all of Messiaen's religious music, Vingt regards gives expression to what the composer called the "attraction of the marvelous," the sense of mystery, awe, and violent majesty that was an essential part of his religious views.
"As the years go on," [Monk] states, "I realize more and more that there is no separation between spiritual practice and making music."
Less extravagant but more complex are the spiritual beliefs of Ludwig van Beethoven, whose great Missa Solemnis will be performed on November 12. Beethoven was brought up in the Catholic Church, but with his move to Vienna, at age 21, he came into contact with new philosophical currents that influenced him profoundly. Anton Schindler, Beethoven's secretary and earliest biographer, records that Deism—which proposes that God exists but cannot be known through religion or supernatural revelation—greatly appealed to the composer. And Beethoven's own notes and correspondence indicate that he studied Hindu texts and other eastern religious writings.
Yet perhaps the most salient aspect of Beethoven's inner life was a kind of religious humanism (if we can allow that paradox), in which love of an idealized humanity takes on the quality of a spiritual experience, a glimmer of divinity. Several of Beethoven's most famous compositions give expression to this sentiment, most notably the Ninth Symphony, with its exhortation to universal brotherhood. (See Ode to Joy: The Translated Text for an English version of the symphony's famous call for unity.)
Beethoven's multi-layered spirituality is reflected in the music of his Missa Solemnis, which, as the composer’s biographer Romain Rolland observed more than a century ago, "overflows the church by its spirit and its dimensions." Indeed, the composition is marked by what musicologist Joseph Kerman called its "fierce visionary intensity," a spiritual fervor that greatly exceeds the tone of most ecclesiastic music. This is due in large part to the manner and bearing of the heroic symphony, which especially informs the work and connects it to Beethoven's 19th-century humanism.
Today, spiritual faith and practice remain important factors in the work of many artists. But just as music has changed remarkably during recent decades, offering composers a greatly expanded palette of sonic possibilities, the range of metaphysical traditions available to them now extends well beyond Judeo-Christian principles and Western humanism. Meredith Monk, the pioneering singer, composer, choreographer, and director who presented Dancing Voices with the Young People's Chorus of New York City on October 20 and 21, has long followed the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, which are inextricably linked to her work. "As the years go on," she states, "I realize more and more that there is no separation between spiritual practice and making music."
Monk particularly cites Buddhist technique pertaining to meditative focus as central to her work. "As in dharma practice," she says, "creativity means staying present throughout the process; when desperation and anxiety enter, one remembers to go back to the breath, the space, stillness. . . . This process demands patience, courage, faith, and clarity." It also ultimately unites artist and audience: "The inner transformation and growth that results from meditation practice (or listening deeply) flow into the work, and the work in turn becomes an offering."
Paul Schiavo serves as program annotator for the Seattle Symphony and the Music Academy of the West, and writes frequently for concerts at Lincoln Center.
1. In this case I'm using "orthodox" in the general sense of the word, which is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "conforming to what is generally or traditionally accepted as right or true; established and approved."
2. Bach, Bruckner, and Haydn were deeply and conventionally religious. Bach and Bruckner spent much of their careers in the church; Haydn usually ended his manuscript scores with the motto "To God be the Glory." There is nothing in the correspondence or recorded statements of any of them to suggest the slightest religious doubt.
3. Psalms originated with the Old Testament, but they are read in many, perhaps most, Christian services and are as well known to practicing Christians as to Jews. Hence Mendelssohn, with connections to both faiths, would have felt particularly comfortable with them.