New Devotion in Amsterdam

In an age where it seems that you can be virtually transported to more or less any concert hall in the world via the internet at a mouse-click’s distance, it might seem that few musical locations still possess any mystique these days. But there are (thankfully) still some magical places where entering through the door is enough to provoke a racing of the pulse. It was to one of these – the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – that I had the privilege of making a day-pilgrimage last Saturday for the latest instalment in our unfolding Psalms Project. The occasion was a concert by the English chamber choir Polyphony under Stephen Layton featuring the first performance of a new unaccompanied setting of Psalm 67 by the highly-talented young Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, to my mind one of the hottest properties in the world of contemporary sacred music.[1] Also on the programme was the première of a second setting of Psalm 67 by the Pole Paweł Łukaszewski (b. 1968) as well as works by Arvo Pärt (Bogoroditse Djévo, Magnificat) and Benjamin Britten (Ad Maioram Dei Gloriam, Hymn to St Cecilia).

Concertgebouw-Hans-Peter-HarmsenAmsterdam Concertgebouw (photo: Hans-Peter Harmsen)

The concert, intriguingly entitled ‘New Devotion’ (Nieuwe devotie), was part of the Dutch Radio’s highly innovative ‘ZaterdagMatinee’ series, held at 2.15 on Saturday afternoons. This somewhat unusual timing had been making me somewhat nervous all week. I was hoping against hope that the not-always-reliable Thalys hi-speed train from Paris that morning wouldn’t play a trick on me similar to the mechanical breakdown and four-hour delay that I experienced on my previous Dutch excursion for SDG a year ago to hear the première of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s recent a cappella Mass in Utrecht. Back then I had only missed the Dutch Radio Choir’s final rehearsal, but this time a comparable delay would have meant missing the event altogether! So I was highly relieved when I reached Amsterdam Centraal in time to take the tram across the Venice of the North to the Concertgebouw, arriving just as the morning rehearsal was finishing. The Concertgebouw surely remains a truly mythical hall (I suppose that only the Wiener Musikverein has an equivalent cachet in Europe) both in terms of acoustic and tradition, so it was a very special moment when I had the chance to greet Stephen Layton and the two composers of the day in the empty auditorium, surrounded only by the great names of the past embossed in big gold letters (‘BRUCKNER – MAHLER – FRANCK’ …) on panels below the balcony seats. As the context for the first performance of one of our Psalms Project pieces, we could hardly have asked for any better stamp of approval given that one of our objectives with the Project is to demonstrate that new compositions being written explicitly for use in Christian worship are not some second-rate ‘Church music’ which can only survive in a parallel universe where religious sincerity is accepted as a substitute for artistic excellence.  The occurrence of a Psalms Project première at a venue such as the Concertgebouw is, on the contrary, evidence this is some of the best new music around which needs no special pleading, even in an apparently ‘secular’ context. Within the constraints of a compressed seven-minute framework, Ešenvalds’ Psalm 67 came over as a powerfully communicative yet subtle piece, its harmonic and melodic gestures consistently well thought-out, with moments both of hushed intimacy and great strength.

Esenvalds-right-w-LukaszewskiEriks Esenvalds (right) with Pawel Lukaszewski

To see the hall packed to capacity for a daytime concert of 20th/21st century sacred unaccompanied choral works was pretty surprising, especially as the tickets weren’t exactly cheap (around $40). The audience moreover gave Polyphony a standing ovation at the end of the type they would normally give a Mahler symphony conducted by Riccardo Chailly or Mariss Jansons (Ešenvalds recalled having sung Mahler 8 under the latter in the Concertgebouw some years ago as a member of the Latvian State Choir). It does however have to be said that Polyphony is no ordinary choir, as you can judge for yourself by listening to the whole concert as streamed by Dutch Radio here. Having myself been a fellow music student alongside Stephen Layton at King’s College, Cambridge in the late 1980s, I was present at the some of Polyphony’s very first concerts 25 years ago, so it was interesting for me to reflect on the way in which they have since developed into one of the world’s truly great choral ensembles. In particular, Polyphony has done impressive service to the cause of sacred music through their many acclaimed recordings of well- and lesser-known composers (including both Ešenvalds and Łukaszewski).  As the Amsterdam concert demonstrated, their technical level is outstanding, combining great attention to details of rhythmic precision, diction and balance between voices with a richness of sound capable of filling the 1400 seat hall with only 27 singers.  Their dynamic range in particular was quite exceptional and cannot be conveyed by a radio recording made via close miking and dynamic compression technology. The audience reaction was however not merely – indeed not even primarily – an acknowledgement of superlative choral technique; I had the distinct sense that what was being appreciated was the emotional depth of the performance and, at least to some extent,  the profound and explicitly Christian spirituality expressed through the programme. Exactly the kind of spirituality that Holland – until the 1950s one of the most devout countries in Western Europe – seems to have tried to erase from its own collective memory.

It has to be remembered that the Concertgebouw is located in a city whose centre now has very few functioning places of worship. It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which Amsterdam has violently and ostentatiously rejected its own rich Christian (and Jewish) tradition; as I have noted elsewhere on this blog, this is where ‘Paradiso’ is the name which was mockingly given to a deconsecrated church turned into a rock venue plastered with occult posters. Or, as I discovered on my way to the train station afterwards to take the Thalys back to Paris, where the sign ‘Church’ may well indicate a porn bar rather than a house of prayer. In this ultra-secular Dutch context, my impression was very much that the concert was in some ways a ‘para-liturgical’ event, the re-surfacing in a concert hall of a latent spirituality that may well for historical reasons be technically severed from formal religious institutions but is no less real for all that.

Dutch-Radio-interview-Esenvalds-300x225Hans Haffmans interviews Eriks Esenvalds and Pawel Lukaszewski

Just as thought-provoking as the concert were fascinating pre-concert radio interviews in English (followed by Dutch translation) with first Stephen Layton and then Ešenvalds/Łukaszewski, It was all pretty lively stuff as the interview was conducted in a corner of the Concertgebouw café where we were all sitting (if you listen hard you can probably hear me munching sandwiches and slurping coffee in the background …)

Accessing this isn’t as easy as listening to the recording of the concert, but for anyone interested in digging a little below the surface and undeterred by the Dutch-only interface, I highly recommend doing the following:

1. Click on
2. Click on the play button on the audio player marked ‘Uitzending van Zaterdag 10 November’ and wait for the large file to load
3. Drag the cursor across to 12:55 on the slider (under the ‘I’ of ‘UITZENDING’) which is where the interview starts

Layton, Ešenvalds and Łukaszewski all make thought-provoking comments which are I think highly pertinent to the question of the historical and social rôle of New Sacred Music in a contemporary European context (but one which I would venture is not without a North American application at a time when the ‘spiritual but not religious’ constituency is growing all the time). I would also term it ‘gently subversive’ to the extent that all three, from their Anglican, Baptist and Catholic perspectives respectively, speak directly and without apology about belief in God. This, as one Dutch Radio representative commented to me, is a real taboo in the Netherlands, even going as far as to remark that he could hear the Divine Humour’ at work as we were listening. There was certainly a peculiar irony in hearing the Polish and Latvian composers, both of whom grew up in countries where the Church was subject to very real persecution, speaking out about their faith into a climate which is just as steeped in atheistmaterialism (of the consumer rather than the Marxist dialectical variety) as the former Eastern Bloc [2]. An additional point of interest here is the East-West aspect of the conversation, as Stephen Layton points out when discussing the inclusion on the programme of works by Benjamin Britten, seeing Arvo Pärt’s decision to write his famous Cantus in memory of the British composer on his death in 1976 as somehow prophetic of the events of the next two decades and the reunification of a continent which had seemed irremediably divided at the time of the Cold War.

Returning by train to the French capital that evening, I found myself wondering what to do with the term ‘New Devotion’ when applied to music, and struggling to put feelings into words. Perhaps nothing more should be read into it than a convenient descriptor for marketing purposes. Yet, as I listened again to the concert, I had the impression that whoever applied the phrase Nieuwe devotie to it was indeed attempting to denote something that merits a little conceptual exploration (and which has in the past been described – not necessarily positively – as  ‘holy’ or ‘spiritual minimalism’).

So … assuming for argument’s sake that ‘New Musical Devotion’ of the Christian variety exists, and at the risk of gross simplification, let me take a stab at outlining what might be seen as some of its salient features. And here I am not only referring to the ‘Holy Minimalists’ Pärt, Górecki, Tavener (to whom we can add Valentin Silvestrov), but also younger composers such as Ešenvalds, Łukaszewski, Roxanna Panufnik, Galina Grigorjeva (Estonia/Ukraine), Rihards Dubra (Latvia), Vladimir Godar (Slovakia) or Dobrinka Tabakova (Bulgaria).[2]

i) Even when expressing itself in a concert setting, the New Devotion conceives music as an act of worship whose focus is not the self-expression of the artist but the contemplation of a transcendent reality. It therefore has as basis outside itself.

ii) Its primary focus is liturgical/doxological – any didactic component is secondary; I may be generalizing here, but New Musical Devotion prefers to ‘pray with’ rather than to ‘preach at’.

iii) New Musical Devotion seeks simplicity and sees music as being in a continuum with silence.

iv) New Devotion is unafraid of beauty, despite the ideological taboos placed on consonance by the post-1945 avant-garde. It shows no interest in proving its credentials with the New Music establishment; it does not attempt to argue with the critics who see it as sentimental or intellectually vapid, but quietly goes its own way without waiting for ‘official sanction’ from musical institutions. Although not ‘anti-intellectual’, New Musical Devotion appeals strongly to the heart and to audiences who may feel alienated by other forms of contemporary music.

v) Geographically, New Musical Devotion seems from the outset to have had its main poles in the British Isles and the former Eastern Bloc, with considerable cross-fertilization between the two (facilitated in many cases by the championing of Central/European composers by British performers whose training is strongly linked to the Anglican liturgical tradition).

vi) Although there are considerable commonalities of musical idiom and subject-matter linking the composers in question, the New Devotion – unlike, say, the ‘Second Viennese’ or ‘Darmstadt’ Schools – has not arisen because of the work of any teacher, institution or adherence to an artistic ‘manifesto’; the artists concerned have largely developed independently from one another and their similarities only observed a posteriori.

vii) New Musical Devotion is ‘new’ to the extent that it has emerged after a major historical rupture which it does not attempt to deny (the years of Communist rule in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the institutional Church in the West). The musical acknowledgement of this rupture can be seen in a desire to write music with tonal references while refusing to reinstate functional tonality – the product of a limited historical and geographical context – as a system. Instead, New Devotion’s use of tonal sonorities occurs within a broader modal framework antedating tonality per se and open to other musical idioms outside the Western post-Renaissance tradition (an obvious example being the Hilliard Ensemble/Jan Garbarek Officium Novum project).

viii) Following on from this, New Musical Devotion makes considerable retrieval of pre-modern musical and textual sources in order to generate a post-modern idiom (in theological terms, this can be termed ‘ressourcement‘, a ‘return to the sources’).

ix) Although its individual practitioners are rooted in their own confessional traditions, New Musical Devotion is an ecumenical phenomenon involving Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant composers; it moreover sees no contradiction in appealing to traditional Christian spiritual practices while also being actively involved in inter-faith dialogue (Pärt’s Adam’s Lament , Tavener Beautiful Names, R. Panufnik Abraham). While maintaining Christian distinctiveness, the New Devotional Music honours others’ religious traditions.  It exhibits an especially strong convergence with the New Jewish-American Music of Steve Reich, Aaron Kernis, David Lang and others.

x) As a matter of observation, New Musical Devotion, while primarily focused on the worship of the Trinity, also appears to  be significantly Marian on two levels (Protestants please bear with me on this one before hitting the ‘exit’ button, as the phenomenon in question is not exclusively Catholic!).

The first level is thematic, as borne out not only by the considerable number of Ave Marias (Silvestrov, Łukaszewski, R. Panufnik …), but by many other ‘New Devotional’ compositions written over the last 40 years in which Jesus’s Mother features prominently: Górecki Ad Matrem (1971), Symphony n.3 (1976), O Domina nostra (1982/1990), Totus Tuus (1987), Tavener The Protecting Veil (1989), Sollemnitas in Conceptione Immaculata Beatae Mariae Virginis (2006), Pärt Stabat Mater (1985), Magnificat (1989), Bogoroditse Djevo (1990), Salve Regina (2001/2), Most Holy Mother of God (2003), Ešenvalds Passion and Resurrection (2005), Vladimir Godar Mater (2006), Rihards Dubra Hail, Queen of Heaven (2008) …

The second, deeper level is more a question of general orientation – the New Devotion can be described as ‘Marian’ to the extent that its fundamental attitude is contemplative, regarding music as a gift to be received with gratitude rather than the product of the artist’s ego. This is of course only my personal interpretation, but there is a sense in which the composers of  New Devotional Music are linked in their refusal to impose artistic will on the musical material, to impress or to seek novelty for its own sake. Here there is an attitude of relinquishment which Christian tradition has seen as taking its human cue from Mary’s response to the Annunciation in Luke 1:38, foreshadowing the life of obedience and self-emptying of her Son in words that surely ought to resonate with all Christians across denominational boundaries:

Behold, I am the servantof the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. (ESV)

Perhaps the most moving moment of Polyphony’s triumphant concert at the Concertgebouw came when, to everyone’s surprise, conductor Stephen Layton himself sang the opening baritone solo to Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Psalm 67. With his back to the audience, quietly and without any sense of show, just as an Anglican priest might chant during an Evensong service of the sort for which the piece was written. Both musically and gesturally the moment seemed to me to capture the meditative essence of the ‘New Musical Devotion’ at its best – a ‘letting go’, a freedom from the desire to prove anything to anyone.



[1] Plans are well in hand for a first US performance of Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Psalm 67 in 2013. Watch for further details.

In the New Evangelization, there should be a particular attention paid to the way of beauty: Christ, the “Good Shepherd” (cf. Jn 10:11) is the Truth in person, the beautiful revelation in sign, pouring himself out without measure. It is important to give testimony to the young who follow Jesus, not only of his goodness and truth, but also of the fullness of his beauty. As Augustine affirmed, “it is not possible to love what is not beautiful” (Confessions, Bk IV, 13.20). Beauty attracts us to love, through which God reveals to us his face in which we believe. In this light artists feel themselves both spoken to and privileged communicators of the New Evangelization.

In the formation of seminarians, education in beauty should not be neglected nor education in the sacred arts as we are reminded in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (cf. Sacrosanctum concilium, 129). Beauty should always be a special dimension of the new evangelization.
It is necessary that the Church be vigilant in caring for and promoting the quality of the art that is permitted in the sacred spaces reserved for liturgical celebrations, guarding both its beauty and the truthfulness of its expression.It is important for the New Evangelization that the Church be present in all fields of art, so as to support with her spiritual and pastoral presence the artists in their search for creativity and to foster a living and true spiritual experience of salvation that becomes present in their work.

[3] Much of what follows can also be applied to others major contemporary composers of sacred music such as Gubaidulina, Penderecki or MacMillan, although their relationship to European Modernism is complex and merits separate treatment.


One thought on “New Devotion in Amsterdam

  1. Pingback: Musical ecumenism in Wales (ii) | Da stand das Meer

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