‘It seems that when the church engages at the fringes, it almost always brings life to the center. This says a whole lot about God and gospel, and the church will do well to heed it.’ (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 30)
The South African-Australian writer Alan Hirsch is a provocative thinker whose work on the mission of the contemporary Church in a post-Christendom context has provided me with much food for thought over the last few months. One of his main theses, as expressed by the quote above, is that the Church needs to return from its status as a pillar of the Western social and political establishment since Constantine to the radical engagement of its early centuries as an illegal movement working at the margins of society (pointing to the example of the unprecedented growth of the Church in China in the teeth of Maoist persecution as a template for Christianity today). The context for Hirsch’s remark quoted above concerning the relationship of the fringes and the centre is primarily socio-economic, but I see an intriguing parallel with what I have been observing for a while now on a geographical level in Europe, an area in which Hirsch has – perhaps a little sweepingly – argued elsewhere that there are no credible signs of Christian witness. On the pages of this blog I have tried to contend on a number of occasions that there are in fact such signs in the area of music, of which one seems to be the emergence of spiritually vital artistic initiatives at the Western and Eastern extremities of the European cultural space. This it seems to me is where signals of a renewal of sacred music currently seem to be the strongest in this continent, signals which just maybe serve as a barometer of a more general spiritual re-awakening. There is an uncanny commonality, it seems to me, between the new sacred art presently emerging from the Western edge of Europe (Britain and Ireland), and from the former Eastern bloc, one which will, given time, ‘bring life to the center’ (to adopt Hirsch’s phrase). It is maybe not surprising that the periphery is often the best place to look for creative innovation, as this is where centralizing bureaucracy – the principal instrument of forces wishing to maintain the status quo – are least capable of surveillance and stifling genuine innovation by the imposition of conformity. I could cite many musical examples in support of this intuition, but let me restrict myself to two recent ones. The first was the discovery of the work of the Slovak composer Vladimir Godar (1956 -) in the form of his haunting and powerful Mater, recorded by ECM in 2005. It made me wonder how much creativity from Central and Eastern Europe’s smaller nations may be going unnoticed at an international level for the lack of exposure in the West, and what the impact may be once figures such as Godar come to broader attention. The second was a radio broadcast of Roxanna Panufnik’s new large-scale Tallinn Mass, a British-Estonian collaboration whose near-hypnotic conclusion (compellingly performed by Indian-British soprano Patricia Rozario and local Estonian forces) struck me as some of the strongest contemporary choral music I have heard for a long time.
What counts as the ‘fringes’ of Europe is of course a matter of personal opinion, but the question of whether it is to the continent’s apparent backwaters rather than to Europe’s major cultural hubs that we should be looking for signs of renewal did cross my mind this week as I travelled to Sarospatak in Eastern Hungary, a stone’s throw from borders with Rumania, Slovakia and the Ukraine. Technically this is still Mitteleuropa, but the four-hour train ride eastwards from Budapest definitely gave me the feeling of heading out towards some kind of cultural rim. For several years now, the historic Reformed Collegium in Sarospatak has been the scene of the Crescendo Institute, a pioneering venture in combining high-level music-making and Christian spirituality which has become the region’s largest summer musical academy, drawing participants from a wide range of countries from the US to Vietnam and China. Last year my Hermosura de Dios orchestral song-cycle on words of Saint Teresa of Avila was given its first performance at the Institute (twinned with the Zemplen Festival) by the leading Hungarian mezzo-soprano Andrea Melath. The orchestra conducted by fellow Soli Deo Gloria board member Delta David Gier featured both highly talented students coming from everywhere between Lisbon and Moscow as well as members of the Prague Philharmonia, Dallas Symphony and Cleveland Orchestras. This year, as well as making a couple of spoken presentations on music and faith to the students, I had further proof of the talent on view in Sarospatak when acting as one of the judges of the Institute’s Concerto competition, having the privilege of hearing young Eastern European violinists and flutists every bit as accomplished as the leaders and soloists of many a Western European orchestra.
One particularly interesting event at the Institute was an enthralling lecture on the occasion of the bicentenary of the birth of Franz Liszt in 1811 by the Dutch musicologist Marcel Zwitser, dealing with the intriguing question of the apparent contradiction between Liszt as the 19th century’s foremost rock star and Liszt the musical Franciscan, the composer of almost frighteningly stripped-down scores such as the Via Crucis, whose harmony not only seems to anticipate the Grenzwelt of late Reger, early Bartok or Scriabin, but even the ‘spiritual minimalism’ of the late 20th and 21st centuries. What is remarkable – though clearly not to all tastes – in the late Liszt is that he seems to be the first composer (with the notable exception of Schubert in his bleakest songs such as Der Leiermann or Der Doppelgänger, which Liszt significantly transcribed for solo piano) to have grasped that what is left out of a composition can in fact be just as if not more important than the actual notes on the page. Whether in his overtly religious works of his late period or in the existential wanderings of pieces such as Nuages Gris and the Funeral Gondolas, it is clear that Liszt’s primary interest is in the empty and frequently desolate space between the notes. In opening himself up to this space, Liszt effects an astonishing philosophical reversal from the virtuosity of his early compositions. He no longer dominates the musical material through technique but rather allows the silence to speak for itself – a stance which constitutes the very essence of spiritual minimalism. It is in the embrace of this concept that Liszt is a true radical: there is a remarkable coherence between his ‘Franciscan’ ideal of renunciation and the ‘voluntary poverty’ of an Arvo Pärt, embodied in the decision not to use all technical means at the composer’s disposal, but rather to seek artistic truth through an act of what Valentin Silvestrov has referred to as musical ‘disarmament’ [разоружение]. In the case of the Via Crucis the correspondence between the extreme frugality of musical means and the subject-matter of the self-emptying of God could not be clearer: what we have here is the equivalent of musical ‘kenotic’ theology, an exploration of the Godforsakenness of the Cross as disturbingly modern in its own way as the expressionism of Jürgen Moltmann’s Crucified God or Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale a century later.
This quality in Liszt of the struggle of faith with the apparent absence of God was recently pointed out by Pope Benedict XVI (one of von Balthasar’s collaborators) after a concert of Liszt’s music performed in the Vatican by the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra under Zoltan Kocsis, featuring Liszt’s extended and rarely-heard setting of Psalm 13. Dating from 1855, this 25-minute work is not written in the extreme idiom of the Via Crucis, yet there is a distinct similarity on the level of textual content:
‘This piece dates back to the years in which Liszt stayed in Tivoli and Rome; it was a period when the composer lived his faith intensely, so much so that he almost exclusively wrote sacred music. Let us remember that he took minor orders. The piece which we have heard gives us an idea of the quality and depth of this faith. It is a Psalm in which the praying person is in a difficult situation, the enemy surrounds and besieges him, God seems absent and seems to have forgotten him. And his anguished prayer rises in the face of this situation of abandonment: “How long, O Lord”, the Psalmist repeats four times. The tenor and the choir repeat “Herr, wie lange?”, in an almost incessant way. It is the cry of man and of humanity that feels the weight of evil that is in the world. Liszt’s music conveys to us this sense of heaviness and distress. But God does not abandon. The Psalmist knows this, Liszt does too; as a man of faith, he knows. From the anguish, a cry full of faith leading to joy is born: “My heart shall rejoice in thy salvation. I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me”. Here Liszt’s music transforms itself: the tenor, choir and orchestra raise an anthem full of confidence in God, who never betrays, never forgets, never leaves us by ourselves.'
Pope Benedict’s appeal to Liszt as a composer steeped in prayer is certainly historically grounded, but how does it sit with the near-universal cliché of Liszt as an inveterate womanizer (with his virtuoso piano recitals as domineering acts of seduction), the ‘ultimate Romantic’ in his dealings with the opposite sex? A discussion of the truth of such a view is beyond the scope of this post (and my musicological competence), but what is absolutely undeniable is the passionate eroticism of much of Liszt’s piano music, not excluding works with explicitly religious subject-matter such as the composer’s own favourite piece (and mine), Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Listening to the work being played eloquently during Marcel Zwitser’s lecture by the highly gifted young Russian pianist Polina Kulikova, I was struck by the proximity of the Bénédiction‘s ecstatic nature mysticism to the harmonic progressions of the Liebestod of Tristan und Isolde (the object of another of Liszt’s transcriptions for solo piano). While Liszt’s Catholicism and the longing for a pantheistic absorption into the Weltall expressed by Wagner are in many respects very different, the fact that the music is so similar gives pause for thought. A powerfully erotic spirituality seems to characterize both these instances, but one which in my opinion is (contrary to the view of many of Liszt’s critics) not reducible to a will to sexual domination. The shared element found both in the Bénédiction and the Liebestod is rather a passionate longing for the ultimate communion, the dissolution of the subject-object dialectic, a desire that has been a mark of mystical thought in many religious traditions (the Song of Songs being a prime example). Already in the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses Liszt seems to want to transcend the self, whether in the ecstasy of Romantic love or in the rapt contemplation of Creation. For Liszt, eros and agape are definitely not polar opposites, but rather two sides of the same coin. If in his late works this urge towards self-transcendence takes a radically pared-down form, this should perhaps not be viewed as such a suprise, being simply a new expression of an intense desire for self-surrender which had already been present in his earlier music. In this respect Liszt’s spiritual evolution is maybe not so much a reversal as a purification of a basic attitude which remains consistent throughout his life.
One composer to have grasped this aspect of Liszt was Olivier Messiaen (whose ‘ecstatic’ use of the key of F sharp major in works such as Le Banquet céleste and Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is clearly Lisztian), whose work is marked by a very similar juxtaposition of the sacred and the unashamedly erotic. In his book of conversations with Antoine Goléa (1961), Messiaen responded to critics of his own patently sexual pieces such as Cinq Rechants bycomplaining that the notion of Romantic love in the popular imagination is a pitifully debased and misunderstood caricature of a noble spiritual ideal. For Messiaen, the placing of human and divine love in essential contradiction to one another is a fundamental mistake. Great lovers are as rare as great saints in Messiaen’s view, presumably because they share the same quest for self-abandonment (in this context it is interesting to note that, like his Hungarian predecessor, Messiaen found himself irresistibly drawn to Francis as the epitome of human sainthood) in the other. Against the reduction of notions of the erotic to the exploits of Don Giovanni, Messiaen remarked, with typical Gallic vigour:
“I prefer the attitude of Liszt, answering the importunate question of what he thought of Mme d’Agoult: “What do I think of her? But I would throw myself out of the window for her!'
 Valentin Silvestrov, To Wait for the Music: conversational lectures (Kiev: Duh i Litera, 2010), 263 ff.
 ‘Je préfère l’attitude de Liszt, répondant à un fâcheux qui lui demandait ce qu’il pensait de Mme d’Agoult : « Ce que j’en pense ? Mais je me jetterais pour elle par la fenêtre ! »’ Antoine Goléa, Rencontres avec Olivier Messiaen (Paris: Julliard, 1961), 42.