Going back to an earlier entry regarding controversies that divide churches or religions, music is one of those controversies.
People come to sacred music in different ways. A few years ago, I met two famous but very different Estonian composers, each with their own belief system. One was born to a church organist and became deeply religious in a very Estonian way despite his upbringing in the church. When he was growing up, having anything to do with the church was at his own peril considering the strictures of the Soviet regime. His belief system, which is found in so much of his music, is very similar to the beliefs of many Native Americans (First Nations) who feel at one with nature. They feel there is a balance with nature that must be maintained and that this has very powerful properties. It is a similar belief held by many Estonians who have lived this way for many centuries.
The other composer’s beliefs are found in more traditional religion, although they, too, go back many centuries but are rooted in a more Christian-like tradition. With the various Soviet crackdowns it is a wonder he was able to get out of the country as he did. He now frequently travels to Estonia but lives elsewhere.
The two composers are Veljo Tormis and Arvo Pärt. After meeting Pärt and hearing him talk about himself and his music with such humility, I was quite moved by him. Whether he’s writing a piece that is technically a sacred or a secular piece, he uses his beliefs to guide his composition. He talked about the slightest musical change or dynamic level indication as being of great significance to him in his composition.
Tormis’s music, which has this great rhythmic drive and tremendous power to it, seems to come from the earth – again, a sacred force for him. For both men, their music is very much a part of their belief system. What they create is stunning yet completely different. I consider both to write sacred music using sacred sources.