Why theology doesn’t know what to do with Gustav Mahler

Every so often you receive snippets of information that make you jealous as a musician. Today was a case in point; just as I was about to start writing this post, I read a brief Facebook jotting from my Dutch musicologist friend Marcel Zwitser that read ‘Enjoyed a two and a half hours rehearsal of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Mariss Jansons for the upcoming New Year’s Concert in the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna this afternoon. Gorgeous’. Very timely, as my thoughts for the last couple of days have been very much in Vienna and with that orchestra; I made a resolution that before the year is out I would try to write something on this year’s Mahler centenary, and I’m determined to keep it. However, I do so with not a little fear and trembling, not merely because of the vastness of the literature on the composer and the complexity of his work, but also because when it comes to Mahler, it is hard to avoid the feeling that the most important word of all is ‘ambiguity’. As with few if any composers before him, Mahler’s work has given rise to diametrically opposed interpretations, depending not least on whether one thinks he is speaking with or without quotation marks, sincerely or ironically. As we shall see, this is particularly problematic when it comes to trying to find one’s way out of the labyrinth of his complex and shifting metaphysical views.


Gustav Mahler, 1909

A courageous recent attempt at theological dialogue with Mahler can be found in the essay ‘Musical Time and Eschatology’ by Alastair Borthwick, Trevor Hart and the late Anthony Monti in the collection Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology; in this stimulating article on the parallels between musical process and theological conceptualizations of the Last Things, the authors turn to Mahler’s ‘eschewing of strong authentic cadences’ which they see as ‘a natural musical parable for a similarly “strong” and satisfying end to the world and its history.’ Their purpose in examining Mahler is to make the bold claim that his creative, non-cadential solutions to the problem of how to attain musical closure without the kind of straightforward resolution favoured in classical tonal music ‘can model an alternative kind of eschatological “closure” entirely consonant with the wider shape of Christian hope.'[1] Such a hope, they assert, neither degenerates into modernity’s discredited myth of progress nor resigns itself to the ultimate futility of the world, but posits an open, dynamic future in which possibilities are never exhausted.


The chief example chosen to illustrate this point is the remarkable ending of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, which the authors aptly describe as a ‘the end point of a process of fragmentary dissolution that fades into silence’, quoting Leonard Bernstein’s opinion that this is ‘a sonic presentation of death itself …which paradoxically reanimates us every time we hear it.’[2] To support this affirmative interpretation, they point to Mahler’s brief instrumental citation of a melodic fragment from his Kindertötenlieder, which is accompanied in the song-cycle by the words ‘O be not afraid. The day is beautiful. They [the dead children of Friedrich Rückert’s poems] are only on their way to yonder height’, contending that Mahler’s ending can be read as pointing not to death as a full-stop, but to a life whose future is left mysteriously open by the symphony’s refusal of an unambiguous conclusion:

‘Mahler’s gestures of closure suggest […] that “completion need not imply an ending.” Rather, completion may suggest an opening out onto that which is without end or limit – that is, onto infinity or, better perhaps, the transcendent future of God’s promise.’[3]

This is undoubtedly a highly creative and theologically fertile interpretation, in that the chief aim of the article is to argue (following both Gregory of Nyssa and Jürgen Moltmann) for an eschatology which is neither simply the telos of the historical process of the world, nor a ‘state of static timelessness’, and for a life beyond death which ‘is not a world where we finally “arrive” and all loose ends are tied, but instead is one of infinite progression into the unfathomable mystery of God.’ [4] To the extent that the ending of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is radically open and does indeed function as a singular evocation of a deep mystery, their point is certainly well-made. Moreover, Borthwick, Hart and Monti are surely pursuing a fruitful line of inquiry in seeing the questioning, open-ended Mahler – who has always struck me personally as being at his most ‘truthful’ when refusing easy solutions – as offering more fertile territory for theological reflection on the nature of eternity than the rousingly affirmative conclusions of his Second and Eighth Symphonies, via which the composer has often been co-opted into something resembling a traditional Christian framework (a mistaken interpretation which is dispelled by anything more than a superficial reading of the works’ texts). The authors of the article are perhaps wise to avoid theological appeals to these two symphonies; for all their undeniably thrilling moments – and I say this while still counting myself as fervent an admirer as any of the Second Symphony – the aspect of public celebration in both seems to render these two works, like all artistic apotheoses, vulnerable to ideological appropriation of the most dubious sort.


Ticket for the first performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Munich, September 12, 1910

A perceptive recent study by Carl Niekerk focusing particularly on Mahler’s Jewishness has underlined this by pointing out that the performance of the Second and Eighth Symphonies in 1936 on the 25th anniversary of Mahler’s death by the Vienna Philharmonic can plausibly be construed as part of an attempt to make the composer acceptable to a ‘deeply Catholic, autocratic, anti-parliamentarian Austrofascist regime that envisioned a state modeled after Mussolini’s Italy’ and whose chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg was a close friend both of Alma Mahler and Bruno Walter.[5] This historical observation would appear to vindicate the trenchant critique levelled at the  Eighth Symphony by Theodor Adorno in 1960, in which he pinpoints the undeniable element of self-glorification in the work’s deliberate conflation of the Holy Spirit and the Zeitgeist :

‘The magnum opus is the aborted, objectively impossible resuscitation of the cultic. It claims not only to be a totality in itself, but to create one in its sphere of influence […] In reality it worships itself. The spirit that names the Hymn in the Eighth as such as degenerated to tautology, to a mere duplication of itself, while the gesture of sursum corda underlines the claim to be more.’[6]


Mahler’s Eighth, claims Adorno somewhat cruelly but not unjustifiably, mistakes the Spirit for itself in a way which is typical of its epoch; ‘it confuses art and religion, under the sway of a false consciousness that extends from Die Meistersinger to Pfitzner’s Palestrina, and to which the philosophical conceptions of Schoenberg, the man with Die glückliche Hand, the chosen one of Die Jakobsleiter, are also subject. Like no other composer of his time, Mahler was sensitive to collective shocks. The temptation that arose from this, to glorify the collective that he felt sounding through him as an absolute, was almost overwhelming. That he did not resist it is his offense.’[7]


Veni Creator Spiritus, opening

Typically irreligious?

While the gist of Borthwick’s, Hart’s and Monti’s argument (that ‘open’ models of God’s future are ultimately more hopeful than ‘closed’ ones) strikes me as theologically attractive, their use of Mahler to illustrate their case makes me more than a little nervous from a historical and musicological standpoint. The basic problem with attempting to annex the dénouement of the Ninth Symphony to notions of the ‘transcendent future of God’s promise’ is that this overlooks the possibility that the concept of infinity can also be construed pantheistically; the ‘yonder height’ beyond this life can equally well be interpreted as the liberating dissolution of the individual into the Weltall. Furthermore, an examination of the historical background to Mahler’s work demonstrates that to interpret it in non-theistic terms is by no means a fanciful hermeneutical move, as it is well-known that the composer’s major philosophical influences included several thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and the panpsychist Siegfried Lipiner who can hardly be seen as congenial to traditional forms of Christian doctrine.

As Niekerk argues persuasively on the basis of a detailed analysis of Mahler’s literary sources, the biographical evidence against any attribution of a traditional metaphysical outlook (whether Christian or Jewish) to Mahler is considerable.[8] What seems far more plausible is to see Mahler as the prototypical ‘spiritual but not religious’ composer, turning to art as a substitute for religious practice, with music being the vehicle for what might be termed a ‘postmetaphysical’, non-dogmatic piety in which the search for transcendence is not so much abandoned as collapsed into an ‘immanent frame’, to use a useful term from the eminent Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s reading of the long-term emergence of ‘A Secular Age’. Otto Klemperer’s description of the composer in his memoirs captures this essential ambivalence towards religious belief: ‘Mahler was a thorough-going child of the nineteenth century, an adherent of Nietzsche and typically irreligious. For all that, he was – as all his compositions testify – devout in the highest sense,’ though his piety was ‘not to be found in any church prayer-book’.[9]


Cartoon by Theo Zaschke, 1906

Imagine there’s no judgment …

If Klemperer’s straightforward alignment of Mahler with Nietzsche has been shown by contemporary scholarship to be something of an over-simplification, it is incontestable that Mahler was deeply impacted by the author of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft. An acquaintance with Nietzsche’s and other literary critiques of metaphysics dating back to Jean Paul, whose Titan Mahler referenced in his First Symphony, made acquiescence to conventional religious belief as problematic for him as it had been for Brahms, who famously claimed in his late exchange on religion with Dvorak that he had ‘read too much Schopenhauer’ to espouse traditional Christian faith. At the same time it needs to be emphasized that Mahler did not simply jettison a Judeo-Christian symbolic framework in the overtly confrontational manner of other musical Nietzscheans such as Richard Strauss or Frederick Delius. Right up until his late works, Mahler instead explicitly attempted to integrate elements of Christian symbolism (shorn of their doctrinal basis) into his work on a philosophical rather a than theological basis, as if to preserve religion’s inner core through art; his friend Siegfried Lipiner’s statement that ‘He who means well toward religion should protect and support the efforts of those critics who want to kill its dogmas'[10] could well have been his own.

The two most obvious large-scale examples of this effort to re-define religious concepts by severing them from their dogmatic connotations are of course Mahler’s adaptation of Klopstock’s Resurrection in the finale to the Second Symphony (to which Mahler added his own works in place of the poet’s) and his daring – or shocking, depending on one’s point of view – combination of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus with the conclusion to Part II of Goethe’s Faust in the Eighth. In both cases, the result is uniquely personal and cannot be described in terms of Mahler’s adherence to any pre-established religious or philosophical framework.

A startling example of the composer’s revisionism is provided by his program for a Dresden performance of the Second Symphony on December 20, 1901. Here Mahler begins his discussion of the 5th movement in the relatively conventional terms of Biblical apocalyptic:

‘The end of all living things is at hand, the last judgment is announced, and the whole horror of that day of days has set in.- The earth trembles, graves burst open, the dead arise and step forth in endless files.[…] the cry for mercy and grace falls terrifyingly on our ear.- The crying becomes ever more dreadful – our senses forsake us and all consciousness fades at the approach of eternal judgment.’

At this point, however, a surprising reversal occurs; Mahler has in mind something radically different in his finale from the vision of the Last Things offered by Christian theological orthodoxy:

‘Softly there rings out a chorus of the holy and the heavenly: “Risen again, yea thou shalt be risen again!” There appears the glory of God! A wonderful gentle light permeates us to our very heart – all is quiet and blissful! – And behold: there is no judgment – There is no sinner, no righteous man – no great and no small – There is no punishment and no reward! An almighty feeling of love illumines us with blessed knowing and being!'[11]

Mahler’s 1896 version of this program had been arguably still more radical, with the Nietzschean influence unmistakable:

‘What happens now is far from expected: no divine judgment, no blessed and no damned, no Good and no Evil, and no judge.’[12]

For Mahler, the belief in universal resurrection expressed in the Second Symphony must therefore be seen as an essentially philosophical rather than a religious notion. His poem expresses not the desire for eternal life as bestowed by the personal deity of Judeo-Christian tradition, but rather the intuition of the ontological necessity of dying and rebirth, in terms which have overtones of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence: ‘What has come into being must perish, what perished must rise again’.

The Second Symphony can thus be read in terms of Mahler’s life-long conversation between philosophy and religious tradition, as can the Eighth (Mahler’s letters to Alma on the subject speak explicitly of his ambition to reconcile Jesus and Socrates within a common framework of ‘creation through Eros’), in which Mahler follows the trajectory already mapped out by Goethe in terms of the philosophical appropriation of religious symbols, for example in the linking of the Mater Gloriosa and the Eternal Feminine.[13]

As Niekerk points out, the Abschied of Das Lied von der Erde , with its unforgettable final repetition of the word ewig, is an especially enigmatic instance of this dual philosophical and religious track in Mahler. The composer’s specificity, argues Niekerk, lies precisely in his willingness to embrace the full ambiguity of the word , with overtones both of religious transcendence and its reduction to pure immanence in the form of Nietzsche’s cyclic notion of eternal return. It is Mahler’s apparent refusal to choose unequivocally between the two which gives the music its persistent fascination and ongoing appeal in a present-day intellectual climate suspicious of unambiguous readings:

‘The term lives off the tension between the desire to find something eternal beyond the here and now and the realization that it is precisely life on earth that will carry on perpetually. […] In spite of its religious etymology, it does not in any way contain a promise that anything like a divine order or ongoing spiritual essence of nature exists.’[14]


Whereas Hart, Borthwick and Monti appeal to Bernstein in their reading of the ending of the Ninth, Niekerk turns to another great Mahlerian, Bernard Haitink, on the Abschied: “I don’t know if the end of Das Lied von der Erde is a consolation. I don’t know. It is just more than that. Humanity dissolves into the air and nothing is left. A sort of emptiness – which is very moving.”[15] Whether one accepts Niekerk’s line that ‘Mahler is searching for a philosophy of life and death that is decidedly postmetaphysical’, his point seems historically well-grounded when he asserts that we are dealing with something which is ‘more complex than any scenario that seeks to read some form of redemption into the end of Das Lied von der Erde.’[16] And it it this irreducibility to a conclusive reading which makes Mahler both an intriguing and problematic figure for theology in a way that mirrors the complexity of the Western intellectual tradition’s relationship to classical theism in the modern era. However, he is a composer whom theology can ill-afford to ignore; it is surely significant that the Mahler revival of the 1960s coincided with the rise of an ever-growing ‘spiritual but not religious’ constituency in the Western world, with whom the composer’s non-dogmatic spirituality would appear to resonate deeply. Here Niekerk’s remark at the outset of his analysis, that ‘music seems particularly well suited to accommodate a residual longing for meaning beyond the purely subjective that still exists in postmetaphysical times such as the early twenty-first century’,[17] seems highly pertinent. To engage with the many questions thrown up by Mahler’s oeuvre is to engage with just such ‘residual longings’ .

Devout musician?

As I conclude this post, another Facebook entry has just appeared which confirms the intuition that the position I describe is especially common within the artistic community – a ‘quote of the day’ from Sting offered by the Rock & Theology website:

‘In an interview for Time magazine, Sting said his religion was “devout musician.” When asked what he meant by that he responded:

It’s not a frivolous answer. I’m essentially agnostic. I don’t have a problem with God. I have a problem with religion. I’ve chosen to live my life without the certain ties of religious faith. I think they’re dangerous. Music is something that gives my life value and spiritual solace.’

This sounds strangely similar to an anecdote told by one of Mahler’s closest collaborators, the Vienna Opera set designer Alfred Roller, which is perhaps as good an encapsulation of Mahler’s fundamental ambivalence towards religious faith as any other:

‘Ernst Bloch describes Mahler among other things as “a human hymnal” and that is probably the most apt summing-up of Mahler’s essential nature. He was deeply religious. His faith was that of a child. God is love and love is God. This idea came up a thousand times in his conversation. I once asked him why he did not write a mass, and he seemed taken aback. “Do you think I could take that upon myself? Well, why not? But no, there’s the credo in it.” And he began to recite the credo in Latin. “No, I couldn’t do it.” But after a rehearsal of the Eighth [symphony] in Munich he called cheerfully across to me, referring to this conversation: “There you are, that’s my mass.”‘[18]


[1] Alastair Borthwick, Trevor Hart, and Anthony Monti, ‘Musical Time and Eschatology’ in Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie (eds), Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 271-294: 275.

[2] Ibid., 280-281.

[3] Ibid., 283.

[4] Ibid..

[5] Carl Niekerk, Reading Mahler : German Culture and Jewish Identity in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (Rochester, NY : Camden House, 2010), 217.

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler: a Musical Physiognomy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 138. Emphasis mine.

[7] Ibid., 139. Emphasis mine.

[8] It has long been the established scholarly consensus that Mahler’s formal conversion from Judaism to Catholicism in 1897 was essentially a tactical manoeuvre designed to ensure his acceptability as a candidate for the post of music director of the Vienna Court Opera.

[9] Klemperer on Music: Shavings from a Musician’s Workbench, ed. Martin Anderson (Lancaster: Toccata Press, 1986), 147.

[10] Quoted Niekerk, Reading Mahler, 92. Niekerk’s discussion of the philosophical influence of Lipiner upon Mahler in chapter 3 is especially lucid.

[11] Reprinted in A. Peter Brown, The Second Golden Age of the Viennese Symphony (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003), 579. Stephen Hefling has conjectured that Mahler’s universalism derived from Lipiner’s teacher Gustav Fechner, whose opinion was that ‘there is no heaven and no hell in the usual sense of the Christian, the Jew, the heathen, into which the soul may enter … after it has passed through the great transition, death, it unfolds itself according to the unalterable law of nature upon earth … quietly approaching and entering into a higher existence.’ (Das Büchlein vom Leben nach dem Tode (1836), quoted in Stephen E. Hefling, Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 10.

[12] Quoted in Martha C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) , 634n..

[13] Mahler’s simultaneous turn to the themes of the Spirit and das ewig Weibliche raises the tantalizing and as far as I can see unexplored possibility of a conversation between the composer and Teilhard de Chardin, whose poem L’éternel féminin, later analysed by Henri de Lubac, appeared in 1918, as well as with the Russian Orthodox exploration of the figure of Sophia in the work of Vladimir Soloviev and Sergei Bulgakov; like Mahler all can in some way be seen as trying to re-conceptualize notions of divine transcendence and immanence.

[14] Niekerk, Reading Mahler, 208.

[15] Frank Scheffer, Conducting Mahler, DVD (Paris; Idéale Audience, 2005). Quoted in Niekerk, Reading Mahler, 269n.

[16] Ibid..

[17] Ibid..

[18] Quoted in Norman Lebrecht, Mahler Remembered (Norton: London 1987), 163-4.

Top ten books 2011

Another ‘Top Ten’, this time of the most thought-provoking pieces of writing I’ve come across in 2011, listed in alphabetical order. Inclusion here doesn’t necessarily indicate my agreement with the authors concerned – who I’m sure would generate a lot of friction among themselves if you let them slug things out in an enclosed space! They have however all given me a good deal to chew on over the last year.

  • Jeremy Begbie Resounding Truth
  • Jason Clark, Kevin Corcoran, Scot McKnight, Peter Rollins  Church in the Present Tense
  • Harvey Cox The Future of Faith
  • Ian Morgan Cron Chasing Francis
  • Elizabeth A. Johnson Quest for the Living God
  • René Girard and Gianni Vattimo Christianisme et Modernité
  • Stanley Hauerwas Hannah’s Child
  • Jean Staune Notre existence a-t-elle un sens
  • Peter Rollins Insurrection
  • Holmes Rolston III Three Big Bangs: Energy-Matter, Life, Mind

Top ten of 2011

Da stand das Meer‘s Top Ten of new sacred music heard (though not necessarily composed) in 2011, listed alphabetically:

  • Eriks Esenvalds (1977-) Passion and Resurrection (Hyperion recording with Stephen Layton, Carolyn Sampson, Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia)
  • Vladimir Godar (1956-) Mater (ECM recording with Iva Bittova, Milos Valent, Marek Stryncl, Solamente Naturali, Bratislava Conservatory Choir, Dusan Bill)
  • Galina Grigorjeva (1962-) Molitva for saxophone and organ (live recording with Virgo Veldi, Ulla Krigul)
  • Sofia Gubaidulina (1931-) In tempus praesens (Deutsche Grammophon recording with Anne-Sophie Mutter, Valery Gergiev, London Symphony Orchestra)
  • Betty Olivero (1954-) Neharo’t, Neharo’t (ECM recording with Alexander Liebreich Kim Kashkashian, An Raskin, Philipp Jungk, Lea Avraham, Ilana Elia, Münchener Kammerorchester)
  • Roxanna Panufnik (1968-) Tallinn Mass ‘Dance of Life’ (Estonian Radio broadcast with Mihhail Gerts, Patricia Rozario, Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and chorus)
  • Arvo Pärt (1935-) Adam’s Lament (live performance with Olari Elts, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris
  • Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-) Mass (live performance with Michael Gläser/Netherlands Radio Choir)
  • Terje Rypdal (1947-) Lux Aeterna (ECM recording with Kjell Seim, Palle Mikkelborg, Iver Kleive, Åshild Stubø Gundersen, Bergen Chamber Ensemble)
  • Valentin Silvestrov (1937-) Sacred choral works (ECM recording/DVD-ROM with book To Wait for Music (Duh i Litera)) with Mykola Hobdych, Kiev Chamber Choir)


The Dumb Ox and the Deaf Composer

Those of you acquainted with SDG’s work will hopefully not have failed to notice the recent release of the DVD of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis Op. 123 conducted by our artistic director John Nelson at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon in February 2010 with the peerless Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Gulbenkian Choir, a trailer for which you can watch here. My only personal claim to fame with regard to this recording is as the work’s ‘invisible organist’ tucked away behind the chorus – in some respects a frustrating location in terms of the distance from the rest of the orchestra, but in other respects right in the heart of the action, as it gave me a chance to appreciate the fantastic achievement of the Gulbenkian Choir in performing this most demanding of choral masterpieces four nights in a row with unremitting commitment and intensity.

As any of you who may have played organ continuo in any of the great works for choir and orchestra of the classical period are probably aware, there is a long and venerable tradition of including wholly inaudible (unless you happen to make a mistake that reveals your existence) but technically challenging organ parts within the orchestra for the purpose of supporting instrumental or choral lines. The Missa Solemnis is no exception in this respect; but if there is a certain apparent pointlessness in cutting one’s fingers on Beethoven’s speed-of-light fugati in the knowledge that you will never be heard, this is more than is compensated for by the sheer, humbling joy of being able to feel some of the greatest counterpoint ever written coming to life under one’s hands.


Despite its obvious monumental grandeur as well as moments both of kinetic exhilaration and great melodic beauty (in passages such as the violin solo in the Benedictus), the Missa Solemnis remains for many one of Beethoven’s most difficult and indeed forbidding works, both musically and conceptually. If its position within the canon of great masterpieces of Western sacred music is beyond dispute, it has attained none of the popularity of the Ninth Symphony (despite equalling if not surpassing it in scale and elevation), continuing rather to stand in musical history as a huge, unanswered question mark. And perhaps precisely therein lies its enigmatic greatness, its unexhausted capacity to challenge, indeed dislocate the listener on each hearing.

One of the most interesting aspects of the project for me was the opportunity it gave to do a little digging into the fascinating, if sometimes perplexing history of the genesis of the work and Beethoven’s lifelong religious quest. Those interested can download the results of this musico-theological inquiry download by clicking on this link. Here, too, it seems that the Missa Solemnis leaves us far more questions than answers. Which in my estimation is usually a good sign when it comes to works of art. Or theology.


A typically untidy manuscript page of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

Resounding Visions

Resounding Visions

I have just finished Jeremy Begbie’s latest book-length treatment of the music-theology relationship, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2007), a penetrating but accessible exploration of a wide range of musical and spiritual issues destined for a educated but non-specialist readership which has merited strong endorsements from the likes of contemporary heavyweights such as Rowan Williams and NT Wright. As some of you will probably already know, Jeremy Begbie, currently Thomas Langford Research Professor of Theology at Duke University, is without doubt one of the foremost figures in the interdisciplinary conversation between Christian faith and the arts, a compelling writer and dynamic speaker who brings his understanding of music as a trained practitioner to bear on his theology in highly creative ways.

After an opening section outlining a basic approach to looking at music as ‘art in action’ (drawing on the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff) and dealing with music in Biblical times, Resounding Truth embarks on a concise but far from superficial history of the sometimes stormy relationship between music and theology. The journey from Pythagoras and Christian neo-Platonism through the Reformation, Bach and Schleiermacher through to Barth, Bonhoeffer, Olivier Messiaen and James MacMillan is skilfully set against a broader backdrop of the search for resolutions to ancient tensions in conceptualizing the relation between God and World, matter and spirit, the visible and the invisible, nature and culture, music and text, an objectively existing world and human subjectivity. Part Three, perhaps the most original and thought-provoking section of Resounding Truth, argues persuasively that music has a positive rôle to play in a present-day context as a component of a responsible ‘Christian Ecology’ that would avoid the false dichotomies of the past with regard to human beings’ relationship to the physical world, offering neither escape from temporal embodiment into a realm of timeless spirituality, nor the idolization of the material as such.

To affirm music’s place as belonging to a broader ‘ecology’ rooted in an ultimate and loving purpose to the world’s existence requires that music has to be acknowledged as more than simply a social construct. This, Jeremy Begbie contends, is

‘arguably the important question facing the theology-music conversation in the present climate: Is music in any way grounded in or obliged to be faithful to a world that we did not make but that is in some sense given to us? Are music making and music hearing to be understood as embedded in and responsible to an order wider than that which we generate – one that is worthy of respect and trust?’[1]

One reason that this question is so significant is that we are living at a time when, because of the ambivalent trajectory of modern Western thought over several centuries, many are no longer convinced of ‘the extent to which our world is to be considered anything more than is simply there in a bare, neutral sense.’ Although not mentioned by name, it is clear that contemporary debates between reductionist materialism and a theistic world-view are in the background here: ‘Even if not raised with theological concerns in mind, this issue inevitably presses us strongly in a theological direction – if the world is given, then by what or whom, and to what end?’[2]

Begbie-Resounding-Truth-cover-200x300A core assertion in Resounding Truth is that we need to recover a sense that the universe has meaning as a created cosmos which, as modern scientific research into natural processes is increasingly showing, is an interplay of order and freedom (theologically this can in Trinitarian terms be mapped on to God’s creative activity through the Son and Spirit respectively – a line which regular readers of this blog may well recognize):

‘A stress on both Christ’s and the Spirit’s work in creation can help us here. In the New Testament, Christ is associated especially with the ordering and coherence of the world […] [b]ut along with this, do we not also need a strong sense of the activity of the Spirit, whose particular ministry is to realize now in ever fresh and unpredictable ways what has already been achieved in the Son? To put it another way, the Spirit is the improviser.’[3]

Given such a framework of creation, the structure which we discern in music is therefore not merely a projection of our own making, but is a question of the ‘grain of the universe’. Music is certainly a human activity, and many of its ‘meanings’ are undoubtedly the products of cultural encoding, but it relies at a deeper level – as Pythagoras was the first to discover – on the inherent properties of sound, without which no music would be possible. Until the late Middle Ages the link between these properties and the proportions of a ‘harmonious’ universe was assumed as the basis for theorizing about music; Resounding Truth’s contention is that the history of music in the West from the Renaissance onwards can in some respects be viewed in terms as a mirror of the gradual collapse of the belief in an objectively ordered cosmos and its replacement by a concentration on the human subject as the generator of meaning. This trend in Western art-music reaches its ultimate point in the absolute determination of the music material in ‘integral serialism’ of the avant-garde in the 1950s (the subjection of all parameters of musical composition to mathematical control). The paradoxical outcome, however, is not the apotheosis of human freedom but – as Adorno saw half a century ago – the resistance of the material, with an artistic result which is aurally indistinguishable from its theoretical opposite, randomly generated chaos. This Begbie sees as a form of ‘control at the price of destruction’, emblematic of the modern ecological crisis, which he describes in terms reminiscent of Jacques Ellul: ‘through ever stricter control we lose control of our God-given home and become increasingly alienated from it.’[4]


Jeremy Begbie


At the heart of post-Enlightenment modernity, it has been argued not only by Begbie but also a variety of other thinkers such as John Milbank, Charles Taylor or most recently Oxford University’s Professor of Religion and Science Peter Harrison[5], is a dualistic view of the universe as divided into an inert, demystified and ultimately meaningless material realm on one hand which is dominated ruthlessly by a seemingly all-powerful technology on the other. Developing Resounding Truth’s line of interpretation, it might be said that this outlook – which has also had a major impact on religious thought, not least through a disastrous reading of Genesis 1:26-28 in terms of domination rather than stewardship – expresses itself in (at least) three different but equally problematic ways.

A first consequence, as has just been noted, has been the steadily increasing alienation of human beings from nature, resulting in the over-exploitation of the earth’s resources, the generation of Adorno’s soulless ‘administered world’ and the ecological devastation we see all around us. That this has to a large extent become the default position of Western civilization in late modernity is something which, thankfully but belatedly, increasing numbers of people are now realizing.

The second consequence of the disenchantment of the natural realm is in some respects the opposite of modernity’s hubristic elevation of humanity to God-like status, although it follows logically from it. Once non-human nature has been stripped of any metaphysical significance (no longer ‘charged with the grandeur of God’, to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous formulation), then reductionist scientific materialism’s deconstruction of the supposed qualitative difference between humanity and nature effectively reduces human beings to nothing but ‘machines controlled by our genes’ (Richard Dawkins). According to this nihilistic scheme, the ‘ancient covenant’ of meaning is ‘in pieces’, to cite Jacques Monod’s memorable conclusion in Chance and Necessity; humanity is as much an instantiation of an underlying futility as volcanic ash or pond scum.

The third possibility arises out of a reaction to the first two: in an attempt to re-invest the universe with meaning while (understandably) accepting the continuum between human beings and the natural world, this view takes the ‘pantheist’ option of deifying nature, an option followed by much New Age spirituality. This at least restores some semblence of sense to the sphere of the material, but at the price of leaving no room either for a transcendent deity or for human culture as being somehow more than nature. Once an impersonal vitalism is embraced as a governing interpretive framework for viewing the world, it is human history and civilization which risks being deprived of any significance.


Olivier Messiaen, 1930

The philosophical interest of a figure such as Olivier Messiaen (whether or not one likes his music) is that he seems to believe that there is an alternative to all three of these scenarios, and that this alternative consists in some way of a return to a ‘sacramental’ universe in which things point beyond themselves not to a Kantian sublime of abstract concepts which relegates the realm of the senses to insignificance, but to a transcendent, loving source of all beauty, goodness and truth which imbues the material world with meaning. However, if there is an element of nostalgia for a pre-modern world-view here, Messiaen’s approach is not regressive (his belief that all times are simultaneous for God relativizes human categories of historical progress or regress). For all his frequent appeals to Thomas Aquinas in works such as Les Corps Glorieux, Messiaen is not embracing a reactionary, obscurantist agenda (his Aquinas is far closer to the holistic blend of theology and devotional spirituality promoted by the nouvelle théologie than to a dry scholasticism). Messiaen’s fantastic cosmos is certainly ‘re-enchanted’, but not by a denial of modern scientific discovery; like many thinkers at the frontier between science and faith from Teilhard de Chardin to Alister McGrath or Holmes Rolston III, he instead finds an element of wonder and mystery in modern science itself that he intriguingly reconciles with the pre-modern, with a profound meditation on the nature of number providing the most obvious common element shared between the two historically distant epochs. The musical universe that results is ‘half-medieval, half ultra-modern’, to use his description of one of his heroes and main influences, the composer and organist Charles Tournemire (1870-1939). Messiaen is every bit as much at home with Einsteinian relativity as with Gregorian chant, as a glance at the bewilderingly wide array of topics in his multi-volume compositional treatise reveals.

Where Messiaen’s work is fascinatingly actual is in the clue that it perhaps provides to a possible way out of some contemporary quandaries as to how our world might be ‘re-enchanted’ without relapse into superstition. Messiaen is not a fundamentalist in the sense of asserting that the modern scientific enterprise is to be dismissed en bloc as a snare and delusion. But neither does he suggest that the Biblical narrative needs a thorough-going demythologization in the light of science, of the type famously proposed by Rudolf Bultmann, whose famous essay on de-mythologizing the New Testament appeared in 1941, the same year as Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps. In that work, as in Visions de l’Amen, Messiaen appeals to a robustly orthodox over-arching framework of Creation (of an evolutionary sort, it should be said, a gradual emergence from an initial nebulous potentiality as depicted in the first ‘Vision’), Redemption and ultimate Consummation. But at the same time Messiaen approaches composition not merely as a form of self-expression – although his music can at times be extremely lush and provocatively emotional – but also as a type of ‘scientific’ experimentation with new technical procedures, mathematical permutations and startlingly original combinations of apparently irreconcilable musical materials. As a composer, Messiaen is indisputably one of the great pioneers of the twentieth century. There may be some validity to the criticism of Jeremy Begbie and others that Messiaen’s thought is too uncritical of static categories of being that set an immutable Divine eternity in polar opposition to this-worldly temporality (it has to be said that the category of becoming is not a natural one for him), but on the other hand, Messiaen’s praxis as a teacher and participant in French cultural life over six decades demonstrates that he was anything but disengaged from historical processes and the life of the world around him.


As a thinker, Messiaen undoubtedly has his limits. His written commentaries on his own music are highly idiosyncratic and frequently, if not always fairly, laughed out of court for the naïveté of theirextravagant language. For all his considerable knowledge of Christian tradition, his Biblical exegesis and use of literary sources frequently border on the whimsical. And yet it would surely be unreasonable to require of Messiaen, as someone who cautiously called himself a ‘theological musician’, the type of intellectual rigour expected either of a professional philosopher or a systematic theologian. To see Messiaen as providing the conceptual resources for a refutation of atheistic post-modern thought, as has boldly been claimed by writers such as Milbank and Catherine Pickstock in their arguments with Gilles Deleuze,[6] is perhaps to stretch the point too far, despite their many intriguing insights. Argumentative coherence is not Messiaen’s primary aim – although there are definite elements both of dogmatic theology and philosophical speculation in his work which cannot be neglected for its proper appraisal, his greatness principally lies in the richness of his musical output.

Here it would seem important to bear in mind the extent to which Messiaen’s mindset was shaped by his day-to-day experience over 60 years as a church organist in the service of the Eucharist. Messiaen’s theorizing and composing are both ultimately best seen as acts of prayerful worship; viewed in this light his intellection is essentially a ‘liturgy of the mind’ as it meditates on Creation. His music may remain impossibly arcane for some, crassly sentimental for others, but perhaps Messiaen’s greatest achievement is his reconciliation of theology as rational reflection with an authentic spirituality expressed through music, the testimony of a life which is liturgical in the sense of being shot through by wonder, lived in a spirit of ‘supernatural childhood before God’ (Romano Guardini). And at its best, as in the wartime works such as the Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps, Visions de l’Amen and Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine as in his later masterpieces such as La Transfiguration, Messiaen’s music strikes a remarkable balance between the head, the heart and the gut, offering us an inspiring glimpse of the wholeness intended by God not only for human beings but for the entire cosmos.

[1] Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth : Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Grand Rapids, MI : Baker Academic, 2007), 307.

[2] Ibid..

[3] Ibid., 200.

[4] Ibid., 247.

[5] In his 2011 Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh University, which can be viewed on-line at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLEA9467E8E8D991AE . See especially Lecture 3, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’.

[6] See Catherine Pickstock, ‘God and Meaning in Music: Messiaen, Deleuze, and the Musico-Theological Critique of Modernism and Postmodernism’ in Sacred Music Vol. 134/4 (Winter 2007), 40-62.

Into the mystic – Einojuhani Rautavaara

‘The subconscious is the best friend a composer has.’ Einojuhani Rautavaara



Most musicians, I suspect, have a ‘best friend they never had’, a composer or performer present or past with whom they feel a spiritual affinity, even intimacy, without ever having met them personally. In my own case I like to think of Olivier Messiaen in this way, as although I heard him play the organ at the Paris church of La Trinité on a number of occasions and have since learnt an almost embarrassing amount about his life through reading the work of fellow Messiaen scholars, I never studied with or even saw him face-to-face, having arrived in Paris a few years after his retirement from teaching. This will always remain one of my great regrets; I can relate to the sentiments expressed by Arvo Pärt when hearing of the death of Benjamin Britten in 1976 which inspired his own Cantus in memory of the English composer he realized that he would never meet:

‘In the past years we have had many losses in the world of music to mourn. Why did the date of Benjamin Britten’s death — December 4, 1976 — touch such a chord in me? During this time I was obviously at the point where I could recognise the magnitude of such a loss. Inexplicable feelings of guilt, more than that even, arose in me. I had just discovered Britten for myself. Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music [..] And besides, for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally — and now it would not come to that.’[1]

Although I consider myself extremely privileged to have met Pärt himself on a number of occasions, I am now resigned to not meeting a number of my other ageing musical heroes. Schnittke and Lutosławski left us shortly after Messiaen, while among living composers a particular chagrin of mine was a ‘near miss’ with the great Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916). He actually came looking for me backstage after the première of my Pursued by Bronze Horsemen at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 2006 while I was out meeting friends in the lobby (although I’m sure I would have been so overawed by him that I would probably have mumbled something pathetically incoherent in reply to anything he might have said to me).

Well, it now looks as if I can add the name of Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928) to this list. As I write, I am travelling up from Paris to Utrecht in Holland, where later today the Netherlands Radio Choir will be giving the first performance of the elder statesman of Finnish music’s new large-scale a cappella Mass, a work which SDG is helping to fund and which is already scheduled for further performances by the Swedish Radio Choir, the BBC Singers (at next year’s Cheltenham Festival in the UK, which is the focus of our involvement), and in Australia with the Sydney Philharmonia Chamber Singers. The première of a substantial new piece by Rautavaara is a major event, and I had hoped to make an interview with the composer for www.sdgmusic.org , but unfortunately health reasons prevent him from attending in person.


This is doubly frustrating, as Rautavaara is not only the author of an impressively copious and multi-faceted output of music spanning half a century, but also one of the most intriguing composers of sacred music working today. What is particularly interesting is the way in which he seems to occupy a position which is clearly ambivalent towards traditional institutional Christianity but which is unwilling to jettison religious language and ancient liturgical texts in favour of New Age spirituality (in this respect he strongly resembles Valentin Silvestrov). Rautavaara instead engages both with the Christian heritage and with shamanism in a way that is not untypical for Scandinavian and ‘Baltic Rim’ composers since Sibelius’s recourse to the legends of the Kalevala.[2] Ambiguity is evident in Rautavaara’s description of himself as a ‘non-practising’ member of the Finnish Lutheran Church in which he was brought up, ‘ecumenical’ in the sense of maintaining a certain distance from all creeds. A self-confessed mystic, Rautavaara freely accepts the label ‘religious’, but restricts its meaning to that of a non-doctrinal ‘aesthetic phenomenon’.[3] This he defines by alluding to the nineteenth-century pioneer of German Protestant liberal theology, a reference which I would have loved to discuss with him:

“People ask me if I’m religious and I quote the German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher: ‘Religiosität ist Sinn und Geschmack der Unendliche’. Religion is a sense of, and taste for, the eternal. I have no religion, although officially I am Lutheran; I have only a sense of depth and mystery.”[4]

Elsewhere Rautavaara describes this sense of the infinite in terms of oceanic consciousness, the feeling of being part of a greater transcendent reality which is not unlike that of Walt Whitman or other poets of ‘nature mysticism’:

“It is my belief that music is great if, at some moment, the listener catches ‘a glimpse of eternity through the window of time’, if the experience is one which Arthur Koestler might call ‘the oceanic feeling’. This, to my mind, is the only true justification for all art. All else is of secondary importance.”[5]

It would seem that, with Rautavaara, religious language functions as a symbolic representation or Vorstellung (to use Hegel’s conceptual categories) of a reality that is not ultimately expressible in words. Although much the same could be said from either a Catholic mystical or an Eastern Orthodox perspective, Rautaavara’s own Lutheran tradition has historically been less congenial to this stance. This is perhaps the reason why Rautavaa is more likely to quote Thomas Mann or Rainer Maria Rilke in explanation of his musical poetics than to use the framework of Protestant dogmatic formulations (although he has not been averse to writing works with explicitly theological titles such as Laudatio Trinitatis for organ (Op. 39)).

His Rilke-inspired exploration of the theme of the angelic, expressed in pieces such as Angels and Visitations , the Fifth Symphony (1985, with the working title ‘Monologue with Angels’), or the celebrated Seventh, Angel of Light (1995), is a good example of his poetic stance. On one level, this would seem to parallel the multiple references to angels in Messiaen from La Nativité du Seigneur and Quatuor pour la fin du temps to St François d’Assise or more recently the Fourth Symphony ‘Los Angeles’, structured around the Canon to the Holy Guardian Angel, by Pärt (himself an ex-Lutheran). However, while Rautavaara shares with Messiaen (whose second mode of limited transposition he employed in his early works without formal knowledge of the Frenchman’s modal system) and Pärt a sensitivity to the invisible, his attitude towards angels is more agnostic than theirs –

‘I have set several of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems to music. He speaks of angels as terrifying archetypes common to all civilizations. My conviction is that there are other kinds of realities, other kinds of consciousness. They are real but beyond rational approach. If you want to use words you can say “angel,” for lack of a better word.’[6]

At the same time, Rautavaara’s thinking is mystical, not ‘de-mythologized’. His use of the word ‘angels’ goes beyond mere human projection, implying an external referent, however obscure:

‘From this alien reality, creatures rise up which could be called angels. They may bear some resemblance to the visions of William Blake, and are certainly related to Rainer Maria Rilke’s awe-inspiring figures of holy dread: ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich (every angel is terrible).”’[7]

Part of music’s attraction for Rautavaara lies in its ability to touch upon this trans-material reality and somehow to provide insight about it (the title of Messiaen’s late orchestral work Eclairs sur l’au-delà – ‘Flashes on the beyond’ – comes to mind here) at the point where verbal concepts break down:

‘Music is a language where we can probe those other realities, without words. Besides immense pleasure, music gives to the listener information. The information is not anything you can transcribe in words.’[8]

Paralleling similar remarks by Gubaidulina and Silvestrov, Rautavaara views composition metaphysically as the uncovering of a pre-existing reality independent of the composer’s intentions, somewhat akin to a realm of Platonic Ideas. His description of how the music seems to have a will of its own which transcends that of the composer is one that resonates strongly with my own artistic experience –

‘In the end […] the work of art is unpredictable and creates its own laws. When it’s complete, then there is nothing to add, nothing to take away. When the work is performed, I’m always full of admiration for it. I ask: How is it possible for this to be born? I am not able to make anything like that. It must have been somewhere, somehow in existence even before I found it. I’m not really mother or father but the midwife. I am just a nourishing medium for it.’[9]

It is this which leads Rautavaara to see a correspondence between his compositional work and the shamanistic tradition:

‘A shaman – in Siberia or within the Sami culture in Finnish Lapland – wants to act as a mediator between us humans and the transcendental world, often through the act of singing an incantation. This relates to my work as a composer.’[10]

Rautavaara seems to intuit transcendence, a ‘kind of universal metaphysical will’[11] within the immanent processes of music as well as within nature, in a way that closely resembles Sibelius at his most existential in symphonic poems such as The Oceanides orTapiola.  This link between transcendence and immanence is however clearly difficult for Rautavaara to reconcile with the austere and dualistic Lutheranism (positing a strong disjunction between the ‘two kingdoms’ of God and World) in which he was brought up[12] and which he nevertheless does not simply wish to discard. This perhaps explains why he is attracted to the sacramental, mysterious aspect of liturgy in Catholicism and Orthodoxy traditions which are for him ‘exotic’, but which suggest an alternative to dualistic thinking from within Christian tradition.


Valamo/Valaam monastery (photo: Jussihuotari)

In this respect, the composer’s account of the genesis of his largest sacred work, the All-Night Vigil written for the Finnish Orthodox Church in 1971-2 and reworked in 1996, is especially striking.[13] He relates the piece to a childhood visit to the island monastery of Valamo on Lake Ladoga (now in Russia[14]), where the the liturgy’s appeal to the senses made a deep and lasting impact on the young Rautavaara:

‘We went to the island and stayed overnight in the monastery. I had never seen Orthodox churches and services before; it was strange to me. When we came to the island, I saw the onion domes and towers on the chapels, painted with bright colors. The bells started to ring for the morning matins. The universe seemed to be full of bright sounds and colors. There were monks with dark beards and dour countenances, icons with saints’ faces and candles burning everywhere. The sensuous mystery of the place made a profound impression on me.[..]Forty [sic] years later the Orthodox church in Finland commissioned a large-scale choral work from me. I was happy to have that task, because those bells and colorful towers were with me.’[15]

Rautavaara’s relationship with Eastern Orthodoxy again demonstrates both his proximity to and distance from Arvo Pärt. While both composers are in some respects looking to an ‘ecumenical’ musical and spiritual reconciliation of East and West, Rautavaara opts not for the meditative way favoured by Pärt, but for a more dialectical approach which assumes the Western European heritage in all its ambivalence and attempts to live with its internal conflicts. Though he is perhaps best-known for his richly lyrical, overtly neo-Romantic works such as Angel of Light, his catalogue is extremely varied in terms of compositional idiom, for example including the totally serial Symphony n.4 ‘Arabescata’ (1962) or the fiercely abrasive writing of the double bass concerto Angel of Dusk (1980) Against the frequently heard charge that his music is stylistically disparate, Rautavaara asserts that the synthesis of highly diverse techniques actually constitutes the essence of his one style seen as a unity. This distinguishes his output from that of his Estonian colleague, whom he nonetheless greatly admires:

”I love Part’s music very much,” […] ”But his attitude is Oriental, monotonic. I’m very much a European, Faustian. Extremes and contrasts are important to me. European culture is built on polarity, which creates great energy. That is why Western culture is still strong and alive after 2,000 years.”[16]

This train is late. Very late. I am normally a big fan of the Thalys high-speed rail link that gets you from Paris to the Belgian capital in a mere 80 minutes. But not today. We broke down somewhere in the fields near the Franco-Belgian border, only arriving in Brussels three and a half hours late. Not only will I miss Einojuhani Rautavaara, but also the final rehearsal of his new Mass which I was hoping to attend. But never mind. The delay has given me a chance to think a little more deeply about Rautavaara’s trajectory, meaning that I will be listening to tonight’s performance with a greater intentionality and intensity than might have been the case had everything gone according to schedule. If nothing else, writing this article has reinforced my conviction that with Rautavaara, there is – in every sense – much more than meets the eye.

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s new Mass was performed to a standing ovation by the Netherlands Radio Choir under Michael Gläser in the Jacobikerk in Utrecht on Friday November 2011. The broadcast can be heard on-line at http://player.omroep.nl/?aflID=13427115 (the Rautavaara Mass begins at 1:33:40)




[1] ECM sleeve note, quoted in Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 102.

[2] Rautavaara is fully aware of the complexity of the relationship between Christianity and paganism: ‘As a Finn I became aware how this ancient shamanistic culture had been embattled on two fronts, caught between Christian conquerors from the Catholic west and the Orthodox east’ (quoted in ‘Conveying the inexpressible’, interview with Rich Heffern, National Catholic Reporter, 13 December, 2002). He regards the Finnish experience as one of ‘the collision and ultimate fusion’ of the Western Christian and indigenous pagan culture; here Rautavaara’s setting of the final rune of the Kalevala in which the virgin Marjatta gives birth to a child interpreted as the Christ child (Marjatta’s Christmas Hymn, 1976/1995) can be seen as emblematic of a theme treated at length in his opera Thomas (1985).  See Siglind Bruhn, Saints in the Limelight: Representations of the Religious Quest on the Post-1945 Stage (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2003), 130.

[3] Interview with David Allenby on the subject of the percussion concerto Incantations, September 2009.

[4] Interview with Rick Jones, ‘Music is the Mystery’ in The Tablet, 6 October 2007, 25.

[5] Quoted at http://articles.philly.com/2000-04-28/news/25592116_1_finnish-composer-einojuhani-rautavaara-philadelphia-orchestra-cantus-arcticus

[6] ‘Conveying the inexpressible’.

[7] ‘Einojuhani Rautavaara 70 : Music has a Will of Its Own’ in Nordic Sounds, 1998/3 Vol. 17 :18-21.

[8] ‘Conveying the Inexpressible’.

[9] Ibid..

[10] Interview with David Allenby.

[11]”I believe music uses me as a channel, the piece already exists and wants to be born. You can’t force your music, because it is much wiser than you, it will tell you where it wants to go.

“It is like an egg, nothing can be changed about it. Music or any work of art creates itself, and when you are involved in it, you cannot avoid believing in a kind of universal metaphysical will.” http://articles.philly.com/2000-04-28/news/25592116_1_finnish-composer-einojuhani-rautavaara-philadelphia-orchestra-cantus-arcticus

[12] ‘The milieu in which I spent my childhood, Finland in the ‘30s, was in many ways an archprotestant, Lutheran, pietistic land. In other words, somewhat grey and bleak, with not much colour.’ (‘On a Taste for the Infinite’ in Contemporary Music Review, 1995, Vol. 12/2, 109-115:110)

[13] Rautavaara’s first work to reference Eastern Orthodox spirituality was his cycle Ikonit for piano from the 1950s, to which he added three prayers and a concluding ‘Amen’ in an orchestral version completed in 2005. This re-engagement with old material is typical for the composer: his new Mass is clearly another long-term project, featuring a re-working of his Credo of 1972 which was initially designed to be part of a large setting.

[14] It is interesting to note that a retreat at the same monastery played a pivotal role in the composition of Sofia Gubaidulina’s St John Passion.

[15] Quoted in Matthew Gurewitsch, ‘A Journey Begun in Opera Continues in Symphony’, New York Times, April 23, 2000. Emphasis mine.

[16] Ibid..

Squaring up over religion


So it’s official. ‘Religion’ has lost. Or so it was announced at the end of a much-publicized Intelligence Squared debate held last week at NYU, to which a friend alerted me a few days ago. The case for and against the motion ‘the world would be better off without religion’ had just been argued by the atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling and Darwin’s great-great-grandson Matthew Chapman on one side  and on the other by renowned Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza and America’s ‘n.1 pulpit Rabbi’ David Wolpe. It has to be said that prior to the debate, a poll had already established that 52% of the audience were in favour of the motion and 26% against, so the voters were hardly neutral to begin with, but by the end these figures had moved to 59% and 31% respectively. According to Intelligence Squared‘s rules, this 7% increase in support on the side of the atheists as against 5% for their opponents meant victory for Grayling and Chapman as an affirmation that their case had been made more persuasively (whether my compatriots’ apparent success should be put down to their British accents is a question that I won’t even attempt to tackle here!).

I found watching the debate (which can be viewed on http://www.fora.tv) instructive and frustrating in equal measure. Although in general both sides tried to preserve a measure of decorum in their presentations, the British secular humanists’ picture of religion was very much the New Atheist caricature, characterizing persons of faith as superstitious, anti-scientific obscurantists manipulated by their parents and other authority figures into espousing all kinds of violent, misogynistic and homophobic beliefs legitimated by ancient sacred texts. Somewhat depressingly, against the notion that they were simply attacking fundamentalism rather than religion per se , Grayling and Chapman contended that it is the fanatics who are the true religious believers, whereas their more moderate counterparts are merely hypocritical ‘cherry-pickers’ who are dishonest towards their foundational texts (here D’Souza’s important point that a non-literal reading of the Mosaic Law was already integral to the practice of the early Church and therefore internal to the Biblical text seems to have fallen on deaf ears).


AC Grayling at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention

Against this D’Souza’s and Wolpe’s chief argument, namely that a fair appraisal of the habits of religious practitioners reveals them to be among the more generous, altruistic and compassionate members of society proved to be of no avail. Neither did the theists cut much ice with their assertion that atheism has at least as inglorious a record as theism when it comes to crimes against humanity, particularly when it comes to the twentieth century. In effect, Grayling’s and Chapman’s description of the essence of religious practice in our world carried the day. Indeed, I would have to say that if I accepted their terms of reference in defining faith (which I don’t, of course, as otherwise there would be no reason for me to be involved with Soli Deo Gloria) I would probably have voted with them. After all, if that is what religion is all about – i.e. oppressive ideology, by which standard dogmatic atheism or political totalitarianisms of Right and Left certainly must count as ‘religions’, then perhaps the question should rather be: ‘Would Faith be better off without Religion?’ To which advocates of Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’ such as Peter Rollins or those who like Jacques Ellul (La subversion du christianisme) Harvey Cox (The Future of Faith), Gianni Vattimo (After Christianity) or René Girard see Christian faith as concerned with unmasking ‘religion’ in the negative sense would surely answer with a resounding ‘yes’, and they would to a great extent have my sympathy.

In thinking of whether D’Souza and Wolpe could have done anything more to sway opinions in the auditorium, I find myself having mixed feelings. On one hand they made an admirable attempt to distance themselves from fundamentalism and religious particularism (D’Souza for example acknowledging the Islamic contribution to world civilization and Rabbi Wolpe being extremely gracious in holding the Christian relief organization World Vision up as a paragon of humanitarian engagement). On the other hand, I am not so sure of the tactical wisdom of a primarily ‘utilitarian’ defense of religion as making better citizens than secular humanism; here I had the impression that the atheists had a case in contending that the non-religious are just as capable of empathy and service of neighbour as their religious counterparts, and was left feeling less than satisfied by the two sides’ wrangling over sociological statistics. I was also made rather nervous by D’Souza’s efforts – not unlike those found in his What’s so great about Christianity – to relativize the behaviour of the Church in episodes such as the Salem witchtrials (reports of which were greatly exaggerated, he argued) and even more so the rôle of Christians in the Third Reich. His assertion that Hitler ultimately had a radically anti-Christian agenda is certainly correct, but his contention that the Church refused the notion of an Aryan Christ is not borne out by the sad facts of the 1930s, as anyone familiar with the work not only of Jewish scholars such as Susannah Heschel but also the accounts of Christians such as Eberhard Bethge (in his massive biography of  Bonhoeffer) will attest. There is no getting away from the unpalatable truths that i) the official Deutsche Christen allied to the Nazi State represented the majority option within Protestantism, particularly in the early years of the Third Reich ii) that Hitlerian anti-Semitism built quite deliberately on the rabid anti-Jewish polemics of Luther’s late writings such as Von schem Hamphoras and iii) that most of those who actually implemented the Final Solution had been baptized as Christians. In this context, a better defence of Christianity is surely offered by gestures of repentance and acknowledgement of moral responsibility than any attempt to relativize the evidence of history, especially when the historiography employed is less than watertight.

Perhaps the most compelling case for the defence was made in Rabbi Wolpe’s eloquent summing-up, during which he appealed to the explicitly religious hope which keeps countless thousands alive in the midst of seemingly unalterable circumstances which might otherwise cause them to despair. Had the debate continued, I am fairly sure that this would have been countered by the philosophers as merely further evidence of the accuracy of the Marxist analysis of religion as the ‘opium of the people’; it is interesting to wonder whether D’Souza and Wolpe might have rebutted this with appeals to empirically verifiable, this-worldly examples of the transformative power of hope, where faith has clearly acted as anything but a narcotic (Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Heschel in the Civil Rights movement, perhaps, or the Solidarity Trade Union in Poland?). Although the voters were evidently unimpressed by this appeal to hope, one person who thought otherwise seems to have been the moderator, ABC newsman John Donvan. In a remark to Slate commentator Elizabeth Weingarten, he registered his surprise at the outcome, feeling that ‘Wolpe and D’Souza’s arguments had more blood, sweat and sinew in them’. ‘They were are arguing that it would be a bleaker world’, he noted, ‘and to some degree, I did feel like I was hearing about a bleaker world from the side that won.'[1]

What was surprisingly missing from the theistic arguments – although I admit that it is doubtful whether it could have been accommodated within the limited timeframe of the debate – was any attempt to make a coherent argument for religious belief on the grounds of its truth, regardless of how badly that truth may have been embodied by the world’s religions throughout history. It may have been emphasized at the outset that the motion did not primarily concern the existence of God, but given that Matthew Chapman was quite forthright in putting forward the view that religion arises from ‘superstitious fear and delusion’, some effort to show that belief in a Deity is not necessarily false would surely have been legitimate self-defence, even in an intellectual climate which is (understandably) somewhat hostile to propositional apologetics. Here if anywhere would have been the place to raise the issue of a ‘depth dimension’ of human existence which cannot be explained away by genetics and sociobiology – of the irreducibility of ‘mind’ to ‘brain’, the experience of moral freedom, of value and beauty which many of us cannot simply dismiss as groundless. A transcendent dimension which humans have intuited in their encounter with death ever since the cave paintings of Lascaux.

And here we transition to the realm of aesthetics, on which the debate only touched tangentially when Grayling and D’Souza briefly skirmished about the Church’s patronage of the arts. The British philosopher seemed generally appreciative of the great architecture of the Middle Ages, but asserted that the real breakthrough for human culture came with the Renaissance’s revival of pagan antiquity (obscured, obviously in this narrative, by the Church’s wilful obscurantism during the millenium following the demise of Rome), as this led to a new and liberating affirmation of the integrity of the purely human.

Much could of course be written at this point in terms of a corrective to this simplistic narrative, but what is regrettable is the clear ‘either-or’ dichotomy in Grayling’s mind between transcendence and immanence, which assumes that the affirmation of the former requires the denial of the latter (and vice versa). The idea of a genuine Judeo-Christian humanism seems not to occur to him as a possibility. Yet it is here that the tradition of Western sacred art-music tells a wholly different story. What of the incarnational fusion of intensely human expression and worship of the divine that we find in Monteverdi’s Vespers, the elevation toccatas of Frescobaldi, Handel’s He shall feed his flock or Mozart’s Et incarnatus est, Bruckner’s Christus factus est, Messiaen’s Trois Petites Liturgies or Arvo Pärt’s La Sindone? I would like to think that I am not the only one to suspect that the Intelligence Squared debate might have turned out rather differently had the opposers of the motion simply stopped arguing and instead ended by playing Bach’s Erbarme dich from the St Matthew Passion. Would the world be better off without religion? It all depends what you mean. Without the rampaging worshippers of Odin, the Ku Klux Klan and the Lord’s Resistance Army? Yes, absolutely. But without this music?


Manuscript ending of the aria ‘Geduld’ in J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion

[1] http://intelligencesquaredus.org/wp-content/uploads/slate-111611.pdf

‘Fighting a losing battle’? Composers as angels of history

A couple of days ago a composer friend of mine Galina Grigorjeva (a Ukrainian living in Estonia whose work is highly respected in contemporary music circles and deserves exposure with a broader public) flagged an interesting article on Facebook in The Independent by the prominent music journalist and novelist Jessica Duchen. In this piece, written in conjunction with the November 11th commemorations of the armistice of 1918 and provocatively entitled ‘Requiem for an art form: Why modern composers are fighting a losing battle’, the author puts forward the idea that, whereas in the past music and poetry played a key role in helping society deal with the aftermath of the horror of armed conflict, 24-hour news coverage has now effectively pushed such artistic responses out of the picture. This for Jessica Duchen constitutes an impoverishment: ‘Where are the war requiems for the early 21st century?’, she asks (well, we  at SDG commissioned a heavyweight 90-minute Requiem from Pulitzer prize-winner Christopher Rouse a few years ago, which anyone interested is more than welcome to consider programming), noting that contemporary ‘art-music’ composers have been backward in coming forward in response to present-day warfare.

Although this thought-provoking article seems to have occasioned a fair number of undeservedly negative comments, it seems to me that Ms Duchen’s assertion is not unfounded and therefore merits a little probing. Are contemporary composers afraid of tackling ‘big questions’? Or is it unrealistic to expect a steady flow of new counterparts to Britten’s War Requiem (which, as some readers pointed out, was not written until 1962, over 40 years after the poetry of Wilfred Owen which it sets)? Are such works completely lacking in the current classical musical landscape, or are they perhaps present in less obvious guises – after all, as she herself hints, would it not be plausible to argue that the negative musical dialectics that became the language of the post-World War II avant-garde were in some way a ‘War Requiem’ raised to the level of artistic form itself?

Shostakovich-stamp-300x213A few immediate points come to mind by way of a sketch response to these questions. It is certainly true that today’s composers who have stuck with what is sometimes referred to as ‘serious music'(!) – or at least the more lucid among them – are by and large intensely suspicious both of facile lament and propaganda. Their reticence towards the former may have a number of causes – a fear of lapsing into sentimentality, or the false consciousness engendered by pretending that a work of art can actually catalyze genuine change in a socio-economic climate where classical music has become an industry, or sensitivity to accusations of voyeurism in the ethically dubious act of making human suffering into an aesthetic object. Especially if this involves appropriating the narrative of non-Westerners within a Western art-form. Equally prevalent is a distrust of agitprop, the instrumentalization and reduction of art to the communication of a simplistic ‘message’ (here Jessica Duchen’s example of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony – famously if also somewhat unfairly lampooned by Bartok in his Concerto for Orchestra – is maybe a little unfortunate because of its obvious though understandable use for propaganda purposes: his Eighth might have served Ms Duchen’s case better).

If what is required is immediacy of reaction to world events, it might be argued that popular song, because of its concision and directness, is inherently more suited than art-music as a medium for anti-war protest. Is it mere coincidence that the most recent track on Simon Keenlyside’s ‘classical’ Songs of War dates from 1969, by which time rock had made the protest song a genre all of its own? Here it is worth pointing out the difference between these two musical streams. I am not arguing that ‘classical’ music is by nature reactionary, but its traditionally lofty aesthetic ideals mean that musical responses to war in the classical tradition inevitably ring hollow if not accompanied by a painstaking (and time-consuming) working-through of artistic questions on a technical level: a lack of unity between form and content reveals the art-work as false, mere ideology. The stance of ‘all I have is a red guitar, three chords and the truth’, which works very effectively in U2’s cover version of All Along the Watchtower, can’t really wash in a classically-oriented Requiem (unless of course an ‘anti-aesthetic’ is a deliberate part of the compositional strategy). Simply tacking on a title or sung text related to current affairs to a banal musical discourse is a superficial solution lacking in the striving for depth which is classical music’s greatest asset – which is why Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory is an embarrassment whereas the unexpected and form-shattering intrusion of the sounds of war into the final movement of the Missa Solemnis is a master-stroke.

Attaining this depth furthermore requires a certain distancing from the event under consideration (by the time of the Missa Solemnis, the Napoleonic wars were over by nearly a decade), a distance which is in distinctly short supply in the contemporary industrialized nations due to the rise of round-the-clock news media. Indeed, whether it will return at some juncture is debatable: the clear division between war-time and peace has effectively ceased to exist now that we are instantly aware of conflicts the moment they erupt anywhere in the globe – there is simply no reflective vantage-point from which to contemplate what is effectively a moto perpetuo of constantly-morphing combat whose focus merely shifts from one hotspot to another, perpetually distracting our attention. Unless we are intentional about behaving otherwise, this pace of change makes it difficult for us to retain what was headline news even as recently as last year, let alone a decade ago. This evidently renders the psychologically indispensable work of collective mourning on the part of the victims – or soul-searching on that of perpetrators or guilty bystanders – highly problematic. Walter Benjamin seems to have grasped this 70 years ago in his famous interpretation of Paul Klee’s picture entitled Angelus Novus:

‘It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm'[1]


Paul Klee, ‘Angelus Novus’

It can be contended that contemporary artists seeking to respond substantively to the wreckage hurled in front of their feet are caught in precisely the same trap as Klee’s/Benjamin’s angel. The difference is  that the storm with which they now have to contend is not so much blowing from a cruel Hegelian paradise of the ‘end of history’ that cares nothing about the collateral damage of the dialectic of progress, as from the exponential rate of change both exemplified and propelled by the evolution of information technology. In such a situation, classical music’s apparent refusal to provide soundbites to measure in the face of contemporary tragedies may actually have more wisdom to it than it might appear. The organization of charity concerts for humanitarian relief or the organization of musical performances as rallying-points for community reconstruction in war zones are perhaps better forms of immediate reaction to human tragedy than the hasty composition of works attempting to deal with emotions which, as Jessica Duchen rightly points out, ‘can require time to process’. Indeed, it is perhaps the insistence on this need to take time more generally that can constitute one of art-music’s most valuable contributions in our frenetic cultural climate; one might say that the task of artists as ‘angels of history’ is to keep their gaze fixed and wings folded in spite of the storm that would turn their – and all our faces away from contemplating an unreconciled past whose pain remains long after the media spotlight has directed itself elsewhere. Composers, unlike protest singers, are not primarily activists; the chronicler working patiently to preserve collective memory for future generations and the despatch journalist trying to raise immediate awareness may have a common theme and certainly both have their place, but their timeframe and methods are different.

In this context it is wholly understandable that thoughtful composers such as Steve Reich should therefore continue to deal with World War II as a piece of tragically ‘unfinished business’ whose sheer enormity as a kind of ‘anti-Revelation’ of the depths to which humanity can sink defies rational analysis. Indeed, thinking specifically of the 1918 Armistice commemorations, the same might be said of World War I, not so much in spite of the fact that so few survivors of its butchery are still alive but because of it. I was reminded of this when listening outside our local Mairie here in Paris on Friday November 11th to a highly cogent and sobering speech by the mayor of the 14th arrondissement, Pascal Cherki (former secretary of SOS Racisme), who underscored the bewildering complexity of factors involved in the outbreak of the Grande Guerre in 1914 and the sheer absurdity of the pointless bloodshed of the years of trench warfare that ensued. In one sense our reflection on 1914-1918 can never be ‘finished’; to use the categories of the eminent French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, it is a ‘saturated phenomenon’ whose ‘meaning’ eludes us however much we may apply the tools of critical inquiry to it. As Marion remarks,

’In effect, in the case in hand, we have an overabundance of available causes, all of which are sufficient: expansionist rivalries in Europe, imperialist confrontations in the colonies, economic competition for basic resources and access to waterways, demographic pressures, territorial claims linked to the principle of nationalities, bellicose and revolutionary ideologies, finally all the forms of development or all the forms of crisis, including the anecdotal psychology of the players, even the least among them (Princip or Villain) etc. All these causes, in one way or another, competed; all are widely documented for us. The event therefore accepts all the causalities one would assign to it. But it is precisely this overabundance that forbids assigning it a cause, and even forbids understanding it through a combination of causes.

“This is the very secret of the event”- this is the interaction and unanalyzable intrigue of infinitely converging causes.’[2]

In other words, the catastrophes of history ‘saturate’, overpower our cognitive capacity and leaves us ultimately speechless, however well-informed we may be about them. Art in general – and music in particular given its inherent irreducibility to verbal analysis – can arguably come into its own at this very point of the breakdown of discursive reason, in that it has the power to evoke in a way that is clearly meaningful without necessarily seeking to explain. Here the stirring of the sub-conscious is maybe even more important than conscious reflection; this is perhaps one reason why musicians such as myself remain both troubled and fascinated by the strangeness of Viennese expressionism of the years immediately prior to 1914. The atmosphere of nameless existential dread evoked by Webern’s Six Pieces Op. 10 or the haunting and haunted premonitions of warfare in the poetry of Georg Trakl (1887-1914) may seem opaque, but its visceral power suggests the disclosure of a deep if disturbing truth in this art of decay and imminent collapse. To paraphrase some words of pastor and author Larry Kalajainen,  to face the darkness of our world is to face the darkness in ourselves.

Adams-Lament-cover-210x300Art has always done its work through symbol and allegory, and so if we are looking for contemporary compositional responses to the horror of conflict, we maybe need to look to pieces in which this response is handled at a deeper level through the retrieval of ancient material whose present-day resonance is all the more powerful for being left implicit. I have already hinted in this blog that Arvo Pärt’s recent work is a particularly good example in this respect, and I was provided with further evidence of this at the French first performance on November 4th of his Adam’s Lament, given by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris under Olari Elts, at which I had the great joy of talking with the composer for the first time since our last meeting in November 2010. As I wrote some months ago in the post Adam’s continued lament – a point of conversion?, the stimulus for the composition of this sombre but powerful and ultimately uplifting setting of a text by Saint Silouan of Mount Athos was a commission from the 2010 Istanbul Music Festival, which Pärt used as an opportunity to pursue his vision of East-West reconciliation (embodied by the joint Christian-Muslim performing forces involved in the première) by taking as his subject-matter the concept of Adam as the father of a universal humanity beyond religious divisions. Francophone readers can download the French translation of the complete Russian text here, and the first few pages of the score can be perused on the Universal Edition website, but I would especially like to highlight the section of the work in which Saint Silouan’s poem turns from the sin of Adam to the crime of Cain:

‘Adam knew great grief when he was banished from paradise,
but when he saw his son Abel slain by Cain his brother,
Adam’s grief was even heavier.
His soul was heavy, and he lamented and thought:
‘Peoples and nations will descend from me, and multiply,
and suffering will be their lot, and they will live in enmity
and seek to slay one another’[3]

If what we are seeking is a constructive engagement on the part of contemporary classical music with what has transpired not only in Iraq, Afghanistan, but also Bosnia, Rwanda, Northern Ireland or indeed any kind of inter-necine conflict, then we need look no further. Because no conflict is named explicitly, all wars are implied within this universalizing poetic narrative (and here Pärt’s work to my mind resembles René Girard’s account of violence in going back to a primal story of mimetic rivalry lying at the roots of human culture). If we are looking for a ‘message’, it surely only takes a little deciphering – all war is inherently and senselessly fratricidal, in that it relies on the logic of the dehumanization of the ‘enemy’ which is made possible by the forgetting of a truth which is deeper and more ultimate than conflict: that of our common humanity as created beings. Yet to acknowledge this commonality as more primordial than violence is already to identify a source of profound hope – for, to put it in the words of a celebrated and luminous statement by Paul Ricoeur, ‘however radical evil may be, it can never be as primary as goodness.'[4]


Paul Ricoeur


[1] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings vol.4: 1938-1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard College, 2003), 392.

[2] Being given: toward a phenomenology of givenness, translated Jeffrey L Kosky, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 165.

[3] Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY; St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 449.

[4] ‘On comprendra que le mal n’est pas le symétrique du bien, la méchanceté le substitut de la bonté de l’homme, mais la flétrissure, l’obscurcissement, l’enlaidissement d’une innocence, d’une lumière et d’une beauté qui demeurent. Aussi radical que soit le mal, il ne saurait être aussi originaire que la bonté’ (Paul Ricoeur, Finitude et Culpabilité, vol. 2 (Paris: Aubier, 1950), 150).

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Thirst is our only light (or ‘on almost agreeing with Peter Rollins’)

Is anybody out there in the theological blogosphere as frustrated as I am at the way in which the internet seems to have stoked the fires of what can only be described as rabies theologorum (theo-abuse)? On one hand the web is indisputably a wonderful tool for the propagation of theological ideas at a tempo unthought-of even fifteen years ago, which has brought myriad voices into the public square that would previously have been excluded from debates reserved for a professiorial or clerical elite. Indeed, I would now say that much of the most stimulating reflection on the current state of theology is no longer to be found in academic publications but on rapidly-evolving and collaborative blogs such as Patheos, Homebrewed Christianity or The Other Journal. On the other hand, I think I am probably not the only one to cringe at the frequent colonization of such sites by those interested not so much in an honest search for truth as in the strident proclamation of religious propaganda of various sorts and the ferocious denunciation of all who may disagree.

In this context it is therefore extremely encouraging to read the constructive and generally respectful dialogue that seems to have been elicited by a recent book which makes no bones about its own claim to be incendiary, Insurrection by the Irish pioneer of what he terms ‘pyro-theology’, Peter Rollins. Drawing particularly on the lives and words of the late Bonhoeffer (hence the interest for this blog, named as it is after a line from the German martyr’s poem Jona) and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Insurrection is a passionate – although at times also hilariously funny – denunciation of the ways in which Christianity so often degenerates into ‘religion’ in the worst sense, the projection of our own fantasies of power and security onto the object of our worship which effectively becomes an idol. Not least because the idol functions in such a way as to provide us with a means of convenient escape from facing the Way of the Cross.

Peter-Rollins-Insurrection-coverInsurrection is certainly nothing if not controversial, and I have voiced a number of reservations about it in a review (for which I take sole responsibility and which should not be seen as necessarily representing the opinions of Soli Deo Gloria) which you can read by clicking here. However, for anyone unafraid of being made uncomfortable by difficult questions and the ‘refiner’s fire’ constituted by an engagement with contemporary philosophical debate, this is essential (and highly accessible) reading which contains a great deal of insight and truth, at least to my mind. Much of what Rollins has to say can be traced back to the time-honoured via negativa, the tradition of ‘negative’ theology which is perhaps most succinctly expressed by St Augustine’s famous phrase ‘Si comprehendis, non est Deus’ ( ‘If you understand it, it ain’t God’).

Rollins is reflecting a recurring theme of much recent writing in what is normally categorized as Continental Philosophy of Religion (beginning with Emmanuel Lévinas and the later Jacques Derrida, then continued by figures such as Jean-Luc Marion, Gianni Vattimo, John D. Caputo and the ‘academic rock star’ Slavoj Zizek). These writers are of course not unanimous in their views on religion and have on occasion disagreed with each other in spectacular fashion, but one thing they have in common is the conviction that dogmatic certainties are inherently idolatrous and need unmasking as human constructs. If we are to talk about ‘God’ at all (which some of these authors are highly reluctant to do), then it can neither be the despotic, monolithic God of imperial religion (Caesar writ large), nor the abstract metaphysical deity of the philosophers denounced by Pascal or Heidegger. Instead, all these thinkers find themselves drawn to yet also wrestling with the ‘weakness of God’ and the figure of the self-emptying, crucified Christ. In setting out his agenda Rollins refers to the celebrated lines of Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned in his prison cell in Tegel shortly before the failure of the plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 in which he was involved and for which he would be excuted in Flossenbürg in the final days of World War II:

‘God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.

Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deux ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.’[1]

How Bonhoeffer might have developed his programme for a ‘religionless Christianity’ sketched in Letters and Papers from Prison had he lived remains as much matter of debate now as in the 1960s, when first Bishop John Robinson (in Honest to God) and then the ‘Death of God’ theologians such as William Hamilton and Thomas Altizer notoriously claimed Bonhoeffer’s legacy in the name of a radical revision, if not outright jettisoning of Christian doctrine. The scholarly consensus would now seem to be that this was indeed ‘creative misuse’ of Bonhoeffer[2], and that a careful reading of the writings of his final period reveals a a questioning of ‘religion’ that is certainly radical, but is always held in tension with a rather traditional Lutheran personal piety. The latter, centred around the notion of union with Christ and a mysticism of the Cross exemplified by the 17th century hymns of Paul Gerhardt which Bonhoeffer so loved, is perhaps best expressed in his poems such as the famous Stations on the Road to Freedom and Powers of Good. There is in Bonhoeffer a constant dialectic between a desire for worldly engagement and what he termed Arkandisziplin, the life of worship, prayer and silence.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1939

This tension can be summarized as ‘Struggle and Contemplation’, the English title of one of the diary collections of Roger Schütz (1915-2005), better known as Brother Roger of Taizé, to whom Peter Rollins does not refer in Insurrection, but who could well have merited a place, if only by virtue of having co-authored the books Mary, Mother of Reconciliations and Seeking the Heart of God with Mother Teresa. Consideration of Brother Roger in his study might well have contextualized Rollins’ thoughts on Mother Teresa and shown that it is possible to subscribe to precisely the type of ‘weak theology’ that Rollins, Caputo and others are advocating without necessarily leaving an orthodox Christian framework behind in a way that seems to be taken as a given by much postmodern thought.

The village of Taizé in Burgundy is of course now known throughout the world as a place of pilgrimage for the young and not-so-young where thousands gather to participate in the life of the ecumenical monastic community based there, which now numbers around 100 brothers, many of them living in ‘fraternities’ located in the slums of the developing world. What is perhaps less well-known is that this was not at all the result of a long-range ‘ministry plan’, but rather the unplanned-for result of the decision of a young Swiss Reformed pastor cycling through Eastern France at the outset of World War II to live in a quasi-abandoned hamlet of seven houses on the strength of a conversation with an old woman who asked him to join the villagers in their solitude. At the outset he pursued his dream of founding a monastic community of a handful of brothers in virtually complete obscurity, accompanied only by his sister Geneviève, a cow, two goats and the (lifelong) conviction that God was to be found ‘in the midst’ (in Rollins’ terms) in the poorest of the poor. A remark concerning a chance encounter during his early years in Taizé with an impoverished stranger encapsulates Brother Roger’s thought:

‘Since then, I have sometimes found myself asking: whom did I meet that day? Today I think I know. In that stranger, Christ was as present as can be. And he is the one whom, together with my brothers, we continue to meet in the most abandoned human beings.'[3]

For many, the word Taizé is synonymous with a highly distinctive style of meditative sung prayer, the majority of the best-known songs used by the community being penned by the self-effacing French organist and composer Jacques Berthier (1923-1994), who must rank as one of the great liturgical composers of the twentieth century. One which Brother Roger especially loved was De noche iremos, a setting of words by the Spanish poet Luis Rosales (1910-1992) but inspired by St John of the Cross, one of the most radical of all exponents of the via negativa: ‘De noche iremos, de noche, que para encontrar la fuente. Solo la sed nos alumbra.’ [sung translation: ‘By night, we hasten, in darkness, to seek for the living water, only our thirst lights us onward’]

Rosales’ astonishing final line (which I used in 1989 in the suite for organ Aunque es de Noche, one of my first compositions to be performed professionally) continues to make as strong an impression on me now as when I first sang it back in 1986, not least as the music at this point has a haunting Phrygian coloration of the type associated with the magical Spanish words duende and cante jondo (deep song).  The song’s impact was reinforced on reading Brother Roger’s Letter to a young Spaniard (1977), written somewhat in the idiom of the sixteenth-century Spanish mystics, where the link between the thirst for God and for justice, as in the spirit of the Beatitudes, is made plain:

‘You live in Spanish lands, lands that have always been burning with the passion of a Love, thirsting for the tenderness of God, ravaged by the violence of men, and refreshed at the living waters of the Risen Christ; you were able to cross the deserts, you knew the silences of God, you went right to the tomb, and that empty tomb did not frighten you […] To take the risk of the Gospel today, will you stand beside the Risen Christ, who is in agony for every human being? You sustain the hope of those who are thirsting for justice: will you radiate the bright light of his communion.[4]

Brother-Roger-Mother-Teresa-173x300Reading Peter Rollins’ Insurrection, De noche iremos rang through my mind, as it seems to express the notion of spiritual desire in a way that relates very closely to what much ‘deconstructive’ postmodern philosophy is trying to articulate in its search for what cannot be deconstructed. A quote from John Caputo’s Deconstruction in a Nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida illustrates this striking structural proximity:

‘the undeconstructible is not knowable or foreseeable or forehavable but hangs on by a prayer, “Come.”
Everything in deconstruction is driven by the undeconstructible, fired and inspired, inflamed and impassioned, set into motion by what is not deconstructible.[…] What is undeconstructible – justice, the gift, hospitality, the tout autre, l’àvenir [sic] – is neither real nor ideal, neither present nor future-present, neither existent nor idealizable, which is how and why it incites our “desire,” driving and impassioning deconstruction.'[5]

However, there is a crucial difference between Rosales as read by Brother Roger and Caputo’s ‘theo-poetics’, despite their commonality. In the case of the latter, the ‘arrival’ of justice is formally impossible, a contradiction in terms; its coming would in effect destroy the very passionate thirst that ‘lights us onward’ and constitutes the motivating force of meaningful human activity. For Brother Roger, the living waters of the Spirit of the Risen Christ serve as the ‘future-present’ that Caputo’s poetics cannot easily accommodate, a foretaste of a future reality that does not annul but rather impels practical, this-worldly action. Whose of these two narratives of desire you find more convincing is not primarily a matter of logical analysis.


I vividly recall two of the many occasions on which I have sung De noche iremos in the company of the brothers of the Taizé community. The first was in Notre-Dame de Paris at the end of 1988 (with Jacques Berthier himself at the organ), in a cathedral where the seating had been removed and where 10,000 people were praying seated on the floor, creating an atmosphere that I have never experienced before or since. The second was in Taizé itself just a few days after Brother Roger was fatally stabbed during an evening prayer service in August 2005 by a mentally disturbed young woman known to the community. I had made the trip down to Burgundy to pay my final respects to Taizé’s founder after hearing of his death and found the brothers (some of whom were just arriving from other continents) in a state of total shock and disbelief. In this context, with Brother Roger’s dead body lying exposed in the Eglise de la Réconciliation, De noche iremos seemed to express the inexpressible – the palpable feeling of entering, in a sense that can only be described as mystical, into the incomprehensibility of the brokenness and suffering of this world. Fundamental to Roger Schütz’s spirituality was the notion that Christ has united himself irrevocably with that brokenness, and in a way that cannot be grasped by reasoned argument, his violent death was, like that of Bonhoeffer before him, somehow a participation in that unfathomable mystery.

What struck me more than anything about that surreal day was the fact that, in their distress and disarray in the face of apparent absurdity and meaninglessness, the first thoughts and prayers of the brothers were to express their sympathy with the family of Brother Roger’s killer. As a form of testimony to the transforming power of faith, that alone carries a weight of authenticity that pure philosophy – if such a thing exists – cannot know. Strange though it may seem, Roger Schütz might well have agreed with Peter Rollins’ provocative catchphrase for his ‘pyro-theological’ programme, taken from Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti, that ‘the only church that illuminates is a burning one’, with one important proviso: the flame is none other than that of the living presence of the Paraclete. As the Letter to a young Spaniard puts it:

‘Breath of Christ’s loving, fire of his Spirit, kindle the deserts of the heart.'[6]

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, abridged edition (London : SCM, 2001), 134.

[2] The case against an ‘atheistic’ interpretation of the late Bonhoeffer was first argued at length by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s relative and correspondent Eberhard Bethge in his classic biography Dietrich Bonhoeffer (London: Collins, 1977, 757-795). See also Martin Marty, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: a Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), ch.5.

[3] Choisir d’aimer: Frère Roger de Taizé 1915-2005 (Taizé: Ateliers et Presses de Taizé, 2006), 33. Translation mine.

[4] Brother Roger of Taizé, And Your Deserts Shall Flower: Journal 1977-1979 (Oxford: Mowbray, 1984), 19.

[5] Deconstruction in a Nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida, edited and with a commentary by John D. Caputo (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), 128.

[6] Brother Roger of Taizé, And Your Deserts Shall Flower, 19.

Sofia Gubaidulina at 80


Well, having missed Steve Reich’s 75th birthday by one day, I realized with alarm a few minutes ago that October 24, 2011 marks the 80th birthday of another composer who has been featured heavily on this blog – Sofia Gubaidulina. Although I’m sorry to say that I’ve failed to meet the deadline in Europe where she herself lives (my guess is that she celebrated the occasion by attending a Dutch performance of her violin concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter entitled In tempus praesens[1]), I console myself with the thought that for anyone who may be reading this on the U.S. West Coast I still have a couple of minutes to mark the date (and the luxury of a whole three hours for anybody who happens to be following this blog from Hawaii or French Polynesia).

tempus-praesens-score-coverI was alerted by a Facebook post by Eamonn Quinn of the Louth Contemporary Music Society (who hosted Gubaidulina in Ireland a couple of years ago) to an article on the website of Gubaidulina’s publishers Sikorski which contained a typically counter-cultural and outspoken comment recorded by the composer in a recent interview with the Ulmer Nachrichten newspaper:

“We are faced today with a completely different world that is unfortunately not necessarily a better one. People are becoming one-dimensional, since we are losing religion. This lost spirituality is dangerous for art. For the second dimension is the core of human life. Everything today is running according to nothing but the principle of cause and effect: earnings and eating, eating and earnings.”[2]

Sofia Gubaidulina’s work is predicated in its entirety on positing the existence of this ‘second dimension’, thereby flying in the face of materialism in both its Soviet dialectical and Western consumer versions.[3] At a moment of global financial crisis in which the cycle of ‘earnings and eating’ is clearly unravelling in a way that for many is forcing a radical probing of the destructive effects of self-enclosed economic systems, her words are nothing if not timely.


For those interested in reading more about Sofia Gubaidulina’s life and work, you can find three articles on her in the Da stand das Meer archive:

‘Sofia Gubaidulina: a deeper silence and a darker abyss’
‘Sermonizing rant or visionary spirituality? Sofia Gubaidulina and Maria Yudina’
‘The Passion according to Sofia’

For German speakers, Zeit-Online have a substantial article marking the composer’s 80th birthday which can be read by clicking here.


[1] Several video clips concerning the genesis of In tempus praesens (described by Anne-Sophie Mutter as ‘a piece which will change your life’) can be viewed on-line. The most compelling are definitely two trailers: i) the 5-minute trailer to Parsmedia’s documentary concerning the genesis of the concerto, including fascinating footage from Gubaidulina’s own compositional workshop where she shows sketch material detailing the structural outline and mathematical outworking of In tempus praesens and ii) a Naxos excerpt showing Gubaidulina’s meeting with the soloist. In a clip produced by the New York Philharmonic, Anne-Sophie Mutter compares the piece with Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto in terms of its combination of intellectual rigour and personal inspiration, while a Deutsche Grammophon promotional video focuses on the link between Gubaidulina and Bach, including extensive comments from the composer.

[2] Wir stehen heute vor einer ganz anderen Welt, die leider nicht unbedingt besser ist. Die Menschen werden eindimensional, da uns die Religiosität abhanden kommt. Diese verloren gegangene Spiritualität ist gefährlich für die Kunst. Denn die zweite Dimension ist der Kern des menschlichen Lebens. Alles läuft heute nur noch auf das Prinzip von Ursache und Wirkung hinaus: Verdienst und Essen, Essen und Verdienst.“

[3] Ever an unfashionable philosophical Idealist committed to the primacy of the invisible, Gubaidulina’s programme note to In tempus praesens makes a similar point about the intersection of ‘ordinary time’ and ‘lasting present time’ as an experience of eternal reality:

Art is always situated between sleep and reality, between wisdom and folly, between the statics and dynamics of everything that exists.

In ordinary life we never have present time, only the perpetual transition from the past to the future.

And only in sleep, in the religious experience and in art are we able to experience lasting present time.

I think that musical form serves this very function: during its course it undergoes many events. A few of these turn out to be most important. (I call these architectonic nodes of form.) And they can make a kind of generalized shape, the shape of a pyramid, for example. (The episode of ritual sacrifice stands at the pinnacle of the pyramid of “In tempus praesens.”) The integral experiencing of this pyramidal form produces lasting present time. (In tempus praesens, programme notes reprinted on-line at http://www.schirmer.com/default.aspx?tabId=2420&State_2874=2&workId_2874=36157 )