View from the West: Sacred Music Anyone?



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

In recent years, there has been a tiny revival of sacred music, though not necessarily liturgical music. Yet composers today, for the most part, continue to ignore a genre of music that has a long-standing and rich heritage in Western culture.

Clearly, we are living in a post-Christian culture that is a far cry, spiritually, from what our founding fathers must have envisioned. (I say post-Christian culture as our Western and American culture is rooted in Christian ideals, morality, and principals. Of course, our culture has come to include a multitude of faiths.) In the nineteenth century, Nietzsche declared God dead, and around 1968, Time magazine came out with an issue, the cover of which posed the question, “Is God Dead?” The question was, of course, rhetorical, but the clear inference was that God was indeed dead. With the baby boomers coming of age, a generation of somewhat over-indulged and idealistic individuals came to the realization that the American Dream was a vision caught through rose colored glasses and that the world offered up something quite different. As the generation of peace and love, of a utopian ideal, gave way (gave in?) to the “me decade” and as a long simmering liberal theology took over the church, God was dismissed from the lives of many Americans and even barred from some of the most liberal churches. Just recently, a British “Christian” theologian was on the radio dialoguing with a member of the clergy from San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral and both were speculating, even asserting that God might not exist and that it was the idea of God that was of paramount importance. If God is dead, absent, or a figment of our imagination, what then is the need for sacred music? I also recall a critical review of a piece of sacred music (I think it was a recording of Daniel Lentz‘s Missa Umbrarum) suggesting that by virtue of the fact that it was sacred music (and Lentz is hardly a religious man), it was utterly and completely irrelevant. Is this the case?

Of course, a sense of the absence of God in the early part of the twentieth century led to despair, anguish, and hopelessness, as manifested in the anarchistic tendencies of the Italian Futurists, the absurdities of Dada, and the bleak turmoil and angst of Expressionism, which dared to stare truth in the face. Witness The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Wiene (1919); unjustly cast into a prison cell, the prisoner’s only hope of escape and the only source of light is a small window that impossibly high and out of reach. The tiny glimmer of hope offered by the window is cruelly and completely dashed by its location.

While sacred music had long been in decline, Schoenberg grappled with his Jewish heritage and belief system, and sought expression through works such as Moses und Aron, Kol Nidre, a work which uses a Jewish liturgical theme, and Modern Psalms, among several others, and even a drama, Der biblische Weg (The Biblical Way). The expressionistic angst captured in some of these works by Schoenberg set the stage for the horror of war captured in Penderecki‘s semi- or quasi-sacred works such as the famous Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and the oratorio Dies Irae.

Stravinsky, after a spiritual re-awakening and a return to the Russian Orthodox Church, composed numerous sacred works, some of them suitable for use in the liturgy, including Symphony of Psalms, a Mass, Requiem Canticles, Canticum Sacrum, Abraham and Isaac, and a host of others. Of course, many other twentieth-century composers have written all manner of sacred music or music based on religious texts, ideas or works which are, in one way or another, informed by some religion, its music, beliefs, scriptures, and practice. Lou Harrison has written a number of Masses. Messiaen, a mystical Catholic, was one of the most prolific composers of sacred and religious music in the last century. Alan Hovhaness, an eclectic like Messiaen, borrows from numerous religious traditions in his music on sacred themes. Satie not only wrote music on religious themes, he even founded his own church, the Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus the Leader, of which he was, for all intents and purposes, the only member.

More recently, Lentz’s aforementioned Missa Umbrarum (Mass of Shadows) of 1973 brings together the sacred and profane, using the traditional layout of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) while the eight vocalists also perform on tuned crystal wine goblets that are rubbed, à la glass harmonica, and struck. The pitches of the goblets are adjusted and changed throughout the performance by having the performers sip wine from them. There is a dramatic element in the work, as the performers may drink significant amounts wine by the end of the work affecting their ability to sing in tune and properly articulate the text, play their parts accurately, and tune the goblets (drinking, adding more wine if the pitch is not correct, and drinking again, re-tuning the glasses as the piece demands from section to section, movement to movement). By the Postludium, the goblets are all empty and brain chemistry is altered, yet the long tones of the rubbed glasses remain reverent, celestial. Lentz wisely constructed the work such that the parts become progressively easier as the potential for intoxication rises.

Steve Reich, who took up the practices of his Jewish faith in his mid-thirties, first dealt with religious matters in his work Tehillim (Hebrew for “praises” and the term used for Psalms), a setting of four Psalms. Bringing together his Judaism and the Western tradition, Reich sets the word “Hallelujah,” the final word in the last Psalm (Psalm 150) in an exultant and exuberant D Major, making reference to the best known of all “Hallelujah” choruses, that from Händel‘s oratorio, Messiah. Later, in The Cave, Reich, in collaboration with his wife Beryl Korot, an artist working with the medium of video in this music-theater piece, built a piece around the biblical Abraham, a father figure to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. In preparing for the work, they video-taped and recorded interviews with Israelis, Muslim Palestinians, and Americans, among them religious scholars, artists, intellectuals, journalists, friends, and everyday folk, asking them questions related to the story Abraham: “Who is Abraham?”; “Who is Sarah?”; “Who is Ishmael?”; and the like. Their spoken response became fodder for musical transformation (melodic and rhythmic, and by way of implication, harmonic). In response to the question “Who is Abraham?” the responses from Americans range from “Abraham Lincoln High School,” “I have no idea,” and “Irrelevant” (the force of Nietzsche’s assertion at work in contemporary culture) to “Our mythology,” “when you read the Bible, it’s God speaking to you,” and “the father of faith” (a faithful remnant remains even in our post-Christian culture).

The greatest surge in sacred music, however small, seems to have occurred in the past couple of decades with the popularity of composers such as Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Henryk Górecki. The spiritual overtones, if not overt content has caught the attention of a large crossover audience, again those baby boomers frustrated and disappointed by their quest for personal fulfillment vis-à-vis career, materialism, self-indulgence, and hedonism. The reverent tone, traditional beauty, larger than life gestures, and soothing character of music by Pärt, Tavener, and Górecki has served as a kind of balm and salve to host suffering from weltschmerz. The rejection of modernism and the return to the conventions of beauty by these composers, as it was for the minimalists, represents a swing of the pendulum, moving away from a structuralist and mannerist extreme.

In his The Music of Silence: A Composer’s Testament (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), Taverner comments:

“So much modern music is taken up with the construction of musical jigsaws. I’m not saying, of course, that modern composers do no think about anything other than their music. But from my point of view, their music is an idolatry of systems, procedures, and notes. If inner truth is not revealed in music, then it is false. It is one thing to follow a spiritual inclination and another to suppose that the idolatry of “art” is any sort of realization of the spirit.

If man is made in the image of God, the music for me is a process of redefining him. Modernism knows nothing about this process. How can it when it is itself a form of idolatry? It worships its notes, it worships its techniques, it worships its colors, it worships its man-made structures – sonata form, fugue canon, development, serialization, minimalism, the new complexity et al. – and, perhaps worst of all, it has bound itself to a way of thinking that is barely human, let alone spiritual.”

Many will reject this statement by Tavener and many have no interest in or inclination to write sacred music. However, there is a long history of writing sacred music as a part of musical tradition and the epitome of high art and artistic achievement. Masses, for example, were even composed by those who were not Catholic. Bach, a devoted Lutheran, viewed the Mass as a musical challenge. The many contributions by centuries of musical forebears he viewed as a king of tossed gauntlet. His monumental Mass in B Minor, far too lengthy to be a liturgical work suitable for a church service, was his response to the challenge of writing a historically monumental form or genre. Brahms, who rejected the Christian faith but was attracted to its ideals, metaphors, and symbolism, wrote Ein deutsches Requiem, based not upon the liturgical Latin Requiem Mass, but on biblical texts chosen by the composer as a meditation on mortality and death, rather than on God’s redemption. As mentioned, Lentz’s Missa Umbrarum is in no way a liturgical or truly sacred piece, yet this most earthly composer found it the perfect vehicle for his artistic vision.

Perhaps there is more room and even a real need for a return to sacred music.