Sacred art or ersatz worship?

Last week, waking up after the performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion conducted by John Nelson at the Festival de Saint-Denis, I found an intriguing message in my email box, quoting three remarks by a four year-old girl in the United States, who had watched the concert on the internet via Medici TV’s live webcast. The first comment was on baritone Stephen Morscheck singing the part of Jesus: ‘He sounds like Captain Hook’. Well, I guess we can forgive that one. The second concerned the conductor, as our young viewer was unconvinced by her mother’s explanation of the necessity of his role in setting a tempo and shaping the flow of the musical discourse: ‘Well, he should just show them once, and then they musicians could just do it on their own.’ Now there’s a debate that will run and run, as various conductorless orchestras beginning with the Russian Persimfans ensemble in the 1920s through to the Orpheus and Australian Chamber Orchestras today have attempted to dispense with the maestro with varying degrees of success. But the comment which really fascinated me was the one which our pre-schooler made watching the audience file into the historic St-Denis Basilica: ‘the people have come to hear about God’. Really? On one level I am inclined towards scepticism. Two days before, wandering into the church prior to the first orchestral rehearsal just as Sunday evening Mass was beginning, I was not the only one to be struck by the fact that over half the chairs in the basilica were turned away from the altar towards the concert platform at the West end of the building, while in the chancel there were perhaps 20-30 people present for the liturgy. Not many coming to hear about God over there…

Saint-Denis Basilica

Is sacred music a form of ersatz worship, as some cynics claim? All too often I have heard the complaint that all that is left of ‘Christendom’ is a great artistic heritage which now constitutes little more than a set of museum artifacts as incomprehensible to the general public as Egyptian hieroglyphics, given that society has completely lost contact with the religious symbolism and narrative on which such art is based. According to this logic, we are deceiving ourselves if we believe that the fact that the Basilica was full for the performance of the St Matthew Passion means anything at all on a spiritual level. The sceptics are only too ready to proclaim that the public is merely there to consume a luxury product like any other, one that was once the living expression of a vibrant Christian culture but which is now nothing more than a beautiful but meaningless relic. Indeed, there are some who would tell us that it is only once even those relics have disappeared that we will be lulled out of a false sense of security and finally wake up to the seriousness of the spiritual situation around us, from which it follows logically that it might be best if classical sacred music were simply allowed to die.

And yet my theological as well as artistic instinct tells me that naïveté of the four year-old is in some ways nearer to the truth than the hard-boiled sociology of sacred music’s cultured despisers. Yes, we are clearly living at a time in Western Europe of considerable alienation from the institutional Church, a phenomenon whose roots I have been trying to probe in my series of posts entitled ‘Spirituality in and out of focus’. Contrary to many media reports there are powerful signs of renewal (I was recently at a vibrant Eucharistic celebration in my local Catholic parish attended by over 1000 people from across the ethnic and socio-economic spectrum), yet we should be under no illusions; vast swathes of the population react allergically to our preaching, are deeply suspicious of our Scriptures and find our liturgies at best exotic, at worst irrelevant. And yet it is my personal experience that they may well cross the threshold of the Church for a concert of sacred music. Their motivation may be mixed – the couple in front of me at the St-Denis performance giggled their way through Part One of the Passion and left at the interval -, but the fact remains that a large audience paid not inconsiderable sums of money to sit through three hours of demanding music, as dense as many a sermon or theological lecture, most following the libretto intensely. For them, so it would seem, this was no mere entertainment.

What is going on here? In his ‘Letter to Artists’ of 1999, Pope John Paul II suggested that it is precisely at a time of great secularization that the arts acquire a particular significance in reminding society of the transcendent openness and innate spiritual quest of the human being:

‘the Church has not ceased to nurture great appreciation for the value of art as such. Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.’

In the secular Western European landscape it can be argued that the undisputed masterpieces of sacred art such as Bach’s St Matthew Passion, as the repository of Christian humanism at its most profound, have become more important than ever. The case of Bach seems very telling: the Lutheran culture generating his peerless body of work seems to have disappeared from the historic Protestant European heartlands (Germany and Scandinavia) just as spectacularly as Catholicism in France, and yet Bach’s music – as a distillation of the best of Christian tradition – has somehow survived. It moreover remains contemporary in a way that a museum exhibit cannot, for a number of reasons. Firstly, a musical score, like a work of literature, is a pattern of information rather than a chunk of matter; it is not subject to the ravages of time as that pattern is infinitely reproducible and does not decay with the paper on which it was originally inscribed. At the same time, inbuilt into the very fabric of a piece such as the St Matthew Passion is the need for actualization, translation into sound through an act of performance unfolding in real-time, meaning that Bach’s works can be experienced today as a living aural reality. The principal reason for the survival of this music, however, is surely that while rooted in the specific historical narrative of the New Testament and Bach’s own cultural location, it simultaneously gives us a glimpse of a transcendent eternal reality of Beauty, Goodness and Truth. As the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, perhaps the foremost living composer of sacred music, remarked in 1968 while still living in a Soviet Union relentlessly hostile to Christianity, Bach cannot simply be relegated to history (even by the You Tube viewing figures for Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, one might add):

‘Many art objects of the past appear to be more contemporary than our present art. How do we explain it? […] I think the modernity of Bach’s music will not vanish in another two hundred years, and perhaps never will […] the secret to its contemporaneity resides in the question: How thoroughly has the author-composer perceived, not his own present, but the totality of life, its joys, worries and mysteries?

Two pages from the fair copy of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion BWV 244 (1736)

And this is where the great sacred masterworks of the past can and surely must serve as an inspiration for the future. In his letter, John Paul II re-iterated his belief in the continued action of the Holy Spirit in the conviction that present-day artistic creativity has its roots in the Divine creativity that brought our universe into being:

‘The Spirit is the mysterious Artist of the universe. Looking to the Third Millennium, I would hope that all artists might receive in abundance the gift of that creative inspiration which is the starting-point of every true work of art.

Dear artists, you well know that there are many impulses which, either from within or from without, can inspire your talent. Every genuine inspiration, however, contains some tremor of that “breath” with which the Creator Spirit suffused the work of creation from the very beginning.’

It is both humbling and inspiring  for a composer of faith to recall these words. For all the stylistic differences between the works of Palestrina, Bach, Bruckner, Franck, Messiaen or Arvo Pärt (just to mention art-music in the classical tradition), we can – if we pay sufficient attention – feel the breathing of the one Holy Spirit in them all across boundaries of time and space. Yes, the St Matthew Passion does leave me speechless and dumbfounded, as there is something almost inexplicably miraculous in the sheer level of inspiration, range and intellectual mastery running through its 68 movements. Yes, it may well be that Bach’s incredible achievement will never be equalled: somehow JSB’s own statement that anyone who worked as hard as he did could do the same is a little hard to believe. But that doesn’t mean that contemporary composers shouldn’t be willing to try, to fail boldly -after all, there is no reason why the same Spirit who infused Bach’s work should not be blowing in the artistic world of today, and it is my experience that the Paraclete is indeed at work in our times through the arts in sometimes bewildering yet profound and powerful ways.

I know from many recent conversations that this sense is shared by many European Christians from Lisbon to St Petersburg who find themselves hovering between excitement and discouragement. Their vision of what could be is tempered by the reality of what is (just yesterday I for example saw a headline proclaiming the imminent disappearance of the Church of England); their enthusiasm for the cause is frequently dampered by geographical isolation, disillusionment with the music profession, lukewarm reception within the Church, and by severely limited resources which prevent their creativity from flourishing not merely for the benefit of communities of faith, but for the common good of believers and unbelievers alike. This is why some of us are convinced that there is a need for the establishment of some kind of network specifically devoted to the realization of projects involving sacred music on this continent, led by those who have a grasp of the particularities of the multiple European cultural situations with their challenges and opportunities, but in conversation with Church circles with serious resources at their disposal, i.e. in North America. There is surely a powerful case to be made for trying connect the great sacred artistic heritage of the past, in whose DNA the Christian tradition somehow remains indelibly engraved, with the energy of contemporary creators seeking to draw upon it and push it in new directions. As I have written before on this blog, there is compelling evidence that remarkable creative initiatives are taking shape along these lines; if many of these are, intriguingly, bubbling up from the ‘periphery’ of Europe (on the ‘Celtic fringe’ or in the ex-Soviet Union), I remain convinced that there is also a potent undercurrent of artistic spirituality waiting to be unleashed in countries such as Germany and France. It is not dead, merely lying dormant, awaiting a revival such as the French renouveau intellectuel catholique of the early twentieth century that produced the writing of Claudel and Bernanos, the paintings of Georges Rouault or the music of Poulenc and Messiaen.

Maybe we would do well to recover the unjaded vision of a four year-old in Illinois watching all this from afar and start believing that the concert audience really has come to hear about God. It may well be that the freshness, generosity, organizational skills and enterprising spirit of North America have a role to play in catalyzing renewal in Western Europe (just as its material reconstruction after World War II would have been unthinkable without the Marshall Plan). We may not yet know what forms such a partnership may take, but it is my intuition if this Transatlantic connection can be nurtured appropriately, then something may well change for good on both sides of the ocean separating our two continents.

Pour la gloire de Dieu et le salut du monde

(For the glory of God and the salvation of the world)


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