The Meaning of Salzburg – Kugeln, Kitsch or Kultur?

The Meaning of Salzburg – Kugeln, Kitsch or Kultur?

August 27, 2016

Well, it’s time, I guess. Time to dust off this blog after a long while away. As I write I am rolling westwards back to France through the Austrian and Swiss Alps after a brief but intense visit to what you might call ‘Classical Music HQ’, that most outrageously beautiful and thoroughly ambiguous of European cities – Salzburg in all its disconcerting glory at the back end of the 2016 Festival, where ‘culture’ is spelt not only a capital K but also capitals U, L, T, U and R. If you don’t pen something about Salzburg on a music blog, then you’re probably not going to write about anything.

In case you haven’t been, all (well, perhaps almost all) of your clichés about Salzburg have at least a grain of truth to them. The Old Town, where you are more likely to meet visitors from St Petersburg and Shanghai toting selfie-sticks than Austrians wearing Lederhosen and Dirndl, is a tourist trap to beat all tourist traps, a heady mix of shameless pseudo-Mozart-Kitsch and high-end international fashion à la Prada. If you aren’t careful, you are likely to find yourself regretting the good euros with which you were persuaded to part in order to hear sub-standard versions of Wolfgang Amadeus’s Requiem sung by well-meaning but vocally-challenged choirs from Oklahoma or operatic wannabees performing your favourite tunes from Die Zauberflöte accompanied by beatbox or didgeridoo. And yes, although I didn’t actually see anyone boarding the Sound of Music Bus, walking through Salzburg’s wonderfully narrow streets is like being in a film set.

Nonetheless, even though peeling away the layers of the city in order to find what is real is no easy matter (I was witness to an involved conversation between locals as to what constitutes the difference between an ‘original’ and an ‘authentic’ chocolate Mozartkugel), there is no denying it: Salzburg is still ravishingly beautiful. Walking on a summer evening through the Mirabell Gardens or along the banks of the Salzach river, there is a palpable sense of idyllic repose which cannot be dismissed as merely manufactured, in this place where classical music somehow improbably remains king and the bicycle is the preferred means of locomotion. Even the most anti-Romantic observer might just find it within themselves not to sneer inwardly at the over-dressed festivaleers who have come from far away to fulfill the Dream Of A Lifetime by attending Gounod’s Faust in the Grosses Festspielhaus.

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Salzburg has for a long time been a combination of transcendent beauty – not least because of its peerless Alpine setting – and relentless human ambition. That didn’t begin with the creation of the Salzburg Festival, even if the careers of those all-too-flawed geniuses Richard Strauss and Herbert von Karajan (the latter labelled with laudable transparency ‘The Last Absolutist Ruler’ in the history section of the official Festival website) perhaps demonstrate that juxtaposition more famously than any other classical musicians of the twentieth century. You can already sense the ambiguous relationship between aesthetics, sprituality and power politics in the magnificent Baroque Cathedral where I had the privilege of giving an organ recital – the purpose of my visit to Salzburg – yesterday. On one hand, the sight that greets an organist climbing the steps in order to practise on the sumptuous Metzler organ in the loft at the west end of the Cathedral is somewhat overwhelming, not only on a visual level but because of the historical associations of this incomparable space. For a church musician whose whole education is based on reverence for the musical greats of past centuries, this place – like the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, San Marco in Venice or La Trinité in Paris – is hallowed ground in more than one sense. If you do not experience a feeling of spiritual elevation and a stirring of your musical blood here, then you probably need help. Walk down the steps to the Cathedral Museum on the other side of the loft, however, and the reverse side of the medal becomes troublingly apparent in the form of a display of the dazzlingly excessive liturgical trappings of the Baroque archbishop-princes who made Salzburg their fiefdom. If you don’t find yourself asking the question of what precisely this unapologetic show of clerical-political vainglory has to do with the Carpenter of Nazareth born in a stable and mercilessly executed at Jerusalem’s town dump, then you definitely need help.

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It is this ambiguous relation between the Sacred and the brazenly Secular, the Church and the World, which arguably lies at the heart of Salzburg’s split personality. Start practising on the gallery organ during the daytime and you will experience this ambiguity directly, but be forewarned: you had better abandon lofty notions of communing in blessed artistic solitude with the harmony of the spheres, as the reality is that you are more likely to be surrounded by curious tourists at arm’s distance from the organ console, meaning that your wrong pedal notes stand a fair chance of appearing on YouTube even before you’ve reached your final cadence. A softly-spoken but wise cathedral musician informed me that, much to my astonishment and his chagrin, tourists are even allowed to circulate freely in the gallery during the liturgy (of which many of them naturally have no concept whatever)! I leave it up to the reader whether this deconstruction of the boundary between the sacred and the profane should be interpreted as a praiseworthy – if highly unusual – form of ‘openness to the world’ or simply an act of capitulation to the prosaic logic of market forces. All I would say is that the musician in question saw it all as the sign of a dying culture (sterbende Kultur..), although at the same time he did emphasize that, thankfully, Salzburg Cathedral is still a church. If that might seem like stating the obvious, his words gave me pause for thought as the previous day I had seen a Facebook post by the justly famed improviser David Briggs concerning his concert on another Metzler organ in the Grote Kerk in The Hague – a church which despite retaining its former name is now a museum.

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A stroll through Salzburg’s Old Town with its many functioning churches serves as a welcome reminder that, for all the commercialism and the influx of Big Money of sometimes questionable provenance, a persistent undercurrent of devout, mystical Christian faith remains present in the city. In Salzburg you can still find wayside shrines in public places with figures of the crucified Christ that would be unthinkable in The Hague, and although the chocolate-box image of religious life immortalized by Julie Andrews and co. in The Sound of Music has precious little to do with reality, the fact remains that bell-drenched Salzburg still bears the profound imprint of its monastic communities. An obvious example are the Capucins on the Kapuzinerberg that dominates the bank opposite the Cathedral, where a steep but brief climb away from the boutiques of the Linzer Gasse takes you up to a world of Franciscan spirituality reminiscent of other mountain-top sanctuaries such as La Verna, where Il Poverello received the stigmata.

Salzburg aparat Oli 8 (2)So what do you play in the Salzburger Dom knowing that your audience has probably been pestered with fake-Mozart all the way to the Cathedral steps? Well, J.S. Bach, of course (while remembering Karl Barth’s famous quip that in God’s presence the angels only play Bach, but in private they play Mozart and God listens with special pleasure) and my own small tribute to the master’s O Mensch bewein’, but I decided to intersperse works of the Thomaskantor with two pieces whose purity and innocence I felt would provide a temporary antidote to the calculated schmaltz-mongering outside the walls. One was Arvo Pärt’s utterly stripped-down Pari Intervallo, both starkly penitential and yet humbly confident, accompanied by the Pauline text ‘in life or in death, we belong to the Lord’ (Romans 14:8). The other was the 2010 Diptych by the Anglo-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova (b. 1980) whose output I have only recently discovered. She has come to international attention of late (my friend John Metcalf for example programmed a hatful of her works at last year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival) thanks notably to some stunning recordings of her radiant string music displaying a genuine, unaffected melodic gift and a refreshing lack of concern for alignment with any compositional school or trying to second-guess the listener’s expectation. Basically, with each piece that I’ve heard by Dobrinka Tabakova, my impression is that she simply writes what she feels she has to write and ignores the rest (in this respect her approach for me somewhat resembles that of Gavin Bryars or the Latvia Peteris Vasks). This is music which doesn’t pretend to be anything, but simply is, without any sense of embarrassment at its own beauty. Tabakova’s organ Diptych is no exception, particularly in the highly original opening ‘Pastoral Prelude’ which demonstrates her typical and intriguing synthesis of Southeast European and British influences in transforming the organ into what she describes in the score as ‘something resembling a giant bagpipe and flute’. This is followed by a slow-moving, pan-diatonic Chorale which builds to a truly ecstatic culmination from the simplest of materials (the closest parallel that comes to my mind, though probably an unconscious one from the composer’s standpoint, is the modal writing of Jehan Alain (1911-1940) back in the 1930s which could be termed pre-minimal). Spatially rather than temporally conceived, the Chorale found in the vast nave of the Cathedral a perfect environment in which to resound.

Dobrinka Tabakova (photo: Dobrinka Com)

Dobrinka Tabakova (photo:Dobrinka Com)

Leaving the Old Town for the station this morning, my feeling was that I am still no closer than when I arrived to solving the riddle that is Salzburg and its relationship to an outside world increasingly marked by conflict and chaos. Indeed, that outside world is rapidly advancing on the sacred halls of High Culture; Salzburg has after all found itself over the last couple of years on the ‘refugee/migrant highway’ leading from Budapest and the Balkans to Munich and beyond, with the associated challenges and consequences. The question is inescapable: as the operagoers fan themselves in front of the Festspielhaus, more modest tourists contentedly munch their bruschetta in the restaurants and children play in the improvised fountains on the Old Town pavements to the accompaniment of the sounds of a ‘come-and-sing’ Mozart Lacrimosa in the Cathedral, is this ultimately all simply mindless escapism, more highbrow and yet only slightly more in touch with reality than dulling one’s intellect by chasing Pokémon-Go monsters?

Although I naturally don’t have a definitive answer, I am inclined to suggest that it largely depends whether we still have the sensitivity to treat the monuments of the past as more than simply beautiful ‘cultural artefacts’ or museum-pieces. In the case of music, can we cut through the numbing effect of attributing canonical status to ‘masterworks’ in order to recover the frequently timeless message they were originally intended both to convey and embody? If we can muster up just enough intensity to hear the Dies Irae from the Requiems of Mozart, Verdi or Dvorak, or Bach’s Erbarme dich on this level, listening according to what I referred to on this blog’s very first post as the ‘hermeneutics of danger (to use a term of theologian Johann Baptist Metz) then we might just yet perhaps find in what is left of Kultur a source of inner strength, one that goes beyond Kitsch and Kugeln and has relevance for the facing of contemporary crises. That still has meaning in the world of Brexit and Donald Trump, ISIS and the Boko Haram. But if not, if a once vital culture is reduced to an albeit consoling repetition of ‘our favourite things’ on the part of a moneyed elite (to which by comparison with the refugees from Syria and elsewhere most of us de facto belong, regardless of whether we are inside the Festspielhaus or eating ice-cream outside), then I suspect that we risk facing a re-run of what followed ‘the last Golden Days of the Thirties’, as that film puts it in its opening line.

Outside Salzburg Cathedral on my way to practise I saw a guitarist soothing the crowds with his version of Sting’s Every breath you take. The thought of the Cathedral’s Doors of Mercy reminds me to be charitable, so I won’t begrudge him or his listeners a few moments of what I might otherwise be tempted to describe as Romanticism for baby-boomers. But what would their reaction be, I wonder, if our would-be troubadour instead fired up his amplifier to some words from Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower that I for some strange reason found running through my mind as I made my way back to the Hauptbahnhof past the wandering street people, Roma and refugees?:

‘Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl. Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.’

 

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Valentin Silvestrov: ‘For our freedom and yours’

I write this post in some haste. Just a few minutes ago Russian president Vladimir Putin publicly acclaimed Sunday’s vote, rejected as illegal by Ukraine and the international community, of the Crimean peninsula’s self-proclaimed referendum in favour of joining the Russian Federation. Since the change of régime in Kiev and flight of former president Viktor Janukovych, Western public opinion has clearly been divided as to how to respond to the crisis and Moscow’s de facto annexation of Crimea. Despite the apparent unity demonstrated at governmental level by the European Union and North America, a number of dissenting voices (including former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder) have not been slow to accuse the West of mis-managing the situation and alienating Russia. Others, particularly in the ‘alternative media’ and blogosphere, have gone further in laying the blame for the current predicament with the US on account of the heavy-handed diplomatic actions of individuals such as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland during the final phase of the Maidan Square protests that led to the ousting of Janukovych, seen as a Western-sponsored coup led by Nazi militias.

This blog is obviously not the place to undertake a political analysis of the crisis, but it is difficult not to be surprised at some basic misunderstandings of the situation that have transpired in the statements even of experienced commentators such as American ex-budget director David Stockman (on http://www.kingworldnews.com) who are currently arguing that the crisis is of no relevance to the US, that the West is simply meddling in others’ business and that Crimea is in any case historically Russian. The latter is of course true, it being well-known that the peninsula was only transferred from Russia to the Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Krushchev. Two elementary facts however appears to be insufficiently understood by those who see the present crisis primarily as the result of Western arrogance: i) the international condemnation of Sunday’s referendum is based principally on its contravention of the Ukrainian constitution which does not allow such votes for secession without consultation of the country as a whole. Not to recognize its validity is not merely a hypocritical refusal of the principle of self-determination on the part of the international community ii) it is surely beyond dispute that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations as a signatory to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which the Ukraine’s territorial integrity was guaranteed, in return for which the Ukraine agreed to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. That this last point is crucially important in terms of the present power dynamics between Kiev and Moscow ought to be self-evident.

This having been said, a number of questions do arise in the present dramatic situation whose complexity defies a simplistic reading. Is it possible that the international community (admittedly provoked by the current Russian leadership) has allowed itself to become trapped within a false dichotomy of East-West confrontation when what is needed is a more holistic approach? Is fast-tracking the Ukraine’s process of affiliation with the EU not playing into the hands of the hawks in Moscow? Why should the belligerent foreign policy of the current Russian authorities be crudely equated with the attitude of the Russian people as if there were no internal differences of opinion within Russia itself (despite undeniable public support for Putin a sizeable anti-war march was held in the Moscow on March 15)? And does it logically follow that being in solidarity with the new government in Kiev necessarily means being perceived as ‘anti-Russian’, with no possible third way?

Silvestrov Duh i litera

In this respect, a thought-provoking document that transcends this ‘either-or’ logic has just been released by a group of Ukrainian intellectuals, first among them being the Ukraine’s most prominent living composer Valentin Silvestrov (1937-), a hero of this blog (in honour of whose 75th birthday in 2012 I wrote my choral cycle Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae). This ‘letter of the Ukrainian intelligentsia to their Russian friends’, the original of which can be found over at the website of publishers Duh i litera , is worth quoting in full:

‘To participants of the congress of the intelligentsia “against war, against Russian self-isolation, against the restoration of totalitarianism .”

Dear friends,

Today our people a common danger hangs over our nations. The current government of the Russian Federation, in its mad quest to revive a semblence of the Soviet Union and to halt democratic processes in Eastern Europe , has placed our countries on the brink of a large-scale geopolitical catastrophe. In the interests of their authoritarian rule they violate your and our right to a dignified life, destroying pan-European and global security mechanisms one after another .

Today is required the defense not only of the integrity of the Ukrainian state, but also the honour and reputation of Russian culture. Therefore, rejecting Putin’s version of Russia, we, Ukrainians, consistently defend and support another Russia. The Russia of the fighters for freedom of conscience – the Russia of Chaadayev[1] and Vladimir Soloviev[2] , Akhmatova and Pasternak , Sakharov and Grigorenko[3], Natalia Gorbanevskaya[4] and Anna Politkovskaya. The Russia that you represent to us .

We understand that today is particularly difficult for you . Yet surely your voice will be heard – both in Russia itself and in the Ukraine, and in the world. The civil society of the civilized world can and must be stronger than the Kremlin propaganda machine. The truth about the new democratic Ukraine must be connected with the truth about a genuine, democratic Russia. Together we and you are called to spread one and the other.

The brotherhood of the peoples of Europe grew and acquired strength in the common struggle for freedom. “For our freedom and yours “, cried Herzen and his Polish friends. This call sounded in Spain in the 1930s and in Red Square  on August 25, 1968[5]. Today’s resistance to the Russian occupation of the Crimea – is also a fight for “our freedom and yours .” In this resistance we are united .

The voice of truth shall be heard!

We thank you for your initiative and solidarity,

[1] Russian writer and philosopher (1794-1856).

[2] Philosopher-theologian (1853-1900), “pioneer and example of dialogue between Eastern and Western Christians” (Pope John Paul II), regarded by Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar as second only to Thomas Aquinas as a systematic thinker. Soloviev spent the last years of his life in dialogue with Catholicism over his ideas for bringing Russian Orthodoxy back into communion with Rome. Author of the remarkable Story of the Antichrist, his final work.

[3] Petro Grigorenko (1907-1987). Former Red Army General who became a dissident in the 1960s, campaigning for the rights of Crimean Tatars. Confined to Soviet mental institutions. Stripped of Soviet citizenship in 1977 while visiting the US, subsequently barred from entering the Soviet Union. Became a worshipper at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Manhattan during the last decade of his life.

[4] Poetess and dissident (1936-2013). Natalia Gorbanevskaya was among the eight women and men who on August 25, 1968 unfurled a banner in Red Square with the words ‘For our freedome and yours’ in protest at the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Subsequently punished in psychiatric wards  by being force-fed anti-psychotic medication haloperidol in the ensuing years before emigrating to Paris in 1975. Author of the book Red Square at Noon.

[5] See n.4.

(Translation and notes mine)

This plea in favour both of guaranteeing the security of the Ukraine and of honouring the best traditions of Russian culture surely has to count as one of the sanest declarations of recent weeks. It also demonstrates that, while the existence of problematic extreme-right elements within the forces that overthrew Janukovych needs to be acknowledged, Moscow’s stereotypical portrayal of Maidan as the work of nationalist fanatics and neo-Nazis is a gross over-simplification for propaganda purposes. That the more extreme Western critics of EU and American policy should have bought into this analysis simply shows their naiveté with regard to the Kremlin’s information strategy.

That Valentin Silvestrov should be a prominent signatory of this appeal to the Russian intelligensia should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his catalogue. While he like many other Ukrainian intellectuals appeared among the Maidan protestors, Silvestrov can hardly be construed  as being a Russophobe of any sort. Russian poetry by Pushkin, Lermontov, Blok, Jessenin, Mandelstam and others has inspired many of his most significant works such as his 24 Silent Songs (1974-1977) and Stufen (1982 – in my opinion one of the greatest of all twentieth-century song-cycles for voice and piano). Like Arvo Pärt – a great admirer of his work -, he has written choral music setting texts both in Latin and in Church Slavonic, embodying the dual identity of the Ukraine as shaped both by Catholicism and Orthodoxy; similarly to his Estonian colleague, he is a composer who does not attempt to choose between East and West, but embraces both.

Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov

Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov

Silvestrov has now written three short diptychs connected in Maidan Square in Kiev, all intended for a cappella choir, the tone becoming increasingly sombre with the unfolding of the epochal events in the Ukrainian capital. Sketch versions of the three sets sung and played at the piano by the composer himself in his inimitable style can be heard on the website of Duh i litera; together they constitute a moving but sobering chronicle of history in the making.

The first, written at the turn of the year, consists of a ‘Hymn’, a variant on the Ukrainian anthem sung by the crowds in Maidan Square featuring an evocation of the ringing of the alarm bell of St Michael’s monastery , together with a ‘Christmas Psalm’.

http://duh-i-litera.com/prysvyata-majdanu-tvory-valentyna-sylvestrova/

If these two pieces are relatively optimistic in tone, the second couple of settings is distinctly darker, composed in memory of Sergei Nihoyan, a young ethnic Armenian worker from the eastern Ukrainian village of Bereznovativka born in 1993, who was one of the first fatal victims of the Euromaidan protests during gunfire clashes on January 22

Sergei Nihoyan (1993-2014)

Sergei Nihoyan (1993-2014)

It is not hard to see why Nihoyan’s tragic death should have moved the composer; the young protestor had come to public attention for having recited the poetry of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), whose bicentenary is being celebrated this year and whose work had been put to music by Silvestrov on multiple occasions in the past. In response to the killing of Nihoyan, Silvestrov set the lines of Shevchenko declaimed by the victim – ‘i vam slava, sini goury…’ (‘Glory to you, blue mountains’), together with the prayer ‘s sviatimi upokoi (‘Peace with the saints’)

http://duh-i-litera.com/pamyati-serhiya-nihoyana-novi-tvory-valentyna-sylvestrova/

The latest diptych, a ‘Hymn’ and ‘Lord’s Prayer’, was penned in response to the large-scale violence of February 18-20: Silvestrov’s voice and piano simulation of this poignant work is accompanied by an unsigned commentary which sounds a note of hope even in what are turning out to be increasingly dramatic circumstances:

Эти звуки оплакивания воплощают неизгладимую скорбную атмосферу тех дней, и, в то же время, из них – «путем зерна» – рождается тихое ожидание Пасхи.

These sounds of grief embody the unforgettably mournful atmosphere of those days, yet at the same time a quiet anticipation of Easter arises from them “like a seed”

http://ru.duh-i-litera.com/novyiy-diptih-valentina-silvestrova/

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As I write it has to be said that this ‘anticipation of Easter’ seems distinctly faint at the moment in the light of hard geo-political reality, while the shadow of a rapidly approaching Good Friday looms ominously over the Ukraine. The Ministry of Defence in Kiev has now authorized the use of firepower by its troops in the Crimea in reaction to the killing  of a soldier by masked gunmen in Symferopol. The intellectuals’ congress “against war, against Russian self-isolation, against the restoration of totalitarianism ” is scheduled for tomorrow, March 19. Whether anyone is listening is another matter.

P.S. I would like to conclude with a personal offer. As a token gesture in honour of Valentin Silvestrov I have made a handful of recordings of some of his piano works which can be heard on my YouTube channel . If any church or other institution would like to use this uniquely meditative music as the basis for an ecumenical musical vigil in favour of peace and reconciliation, or if other musicians appreciate of Silvestrov’s work would like to collaborate in such an endeavour, please contact me. As soon as possible.

Valentin Silvestrov (1937 -) Two Epitaphs

Valentin Silvestrov Nostalghia (2001)

Valentin Silvestrov Melodie (2001)

Valentin Silvestrov Hymne (2001)

Valentin Silvestrov Intermezzo

Valentin Silvestrov “Benedictus” (Night)

Valentin Silvestrov “Sanctus” (Morning)

Valentin Silvestrov Two Dialogues with Postscript I. “Wedding Waltz” (1826-2002) Fr. Schubert…V.Silvestrov

Quanto costa una preghiera? (What price a prayer?)

Well, I have to hand it to him. A real Italian pro at work. He slipped in, waited, selected his victim, checked that nobody was looking, then struck. Even though the closed circuit cameras caught sight of him as he took the bag, they didn’t catch his face as he disappeared through the back exit. A perfect crime.

Diocletian baths, now walls of the Santa Maria degli Angeli Basilica. Photo: Giovanni dall'Orto

Diocletian baths, now walls of the Santa Maria degli Angeli Basilica. Photo: Giovanni dall’Orto

An all-too-familiar story in Rome, of course, the sort of thing the guidebooks warn you about (the specialità romana being Vespa-riding thieves seizing handbags at intersections). Unfortunately for me, I was the unsuspecting victim, and in a surprising location – the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli located a stone’s throw from Opera Roma. I had strolled in having a few minutes to spare before catching my bus out to the airport, intrigued by its architectural origins as part of the huge Diocletian complex of baths, once the largest building of its type in the Roman world. Once inside, I sat down to pray, ruminating among other things upon the whole complex relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity. When I opened my eyes, my baggage only two inches away from me was gone (including my plane ticket and a computer with six years’ worth of files, though thankfully not my passport or credit card). As I remarked to the very helpful parish priest who watched the CCTV video with me to no avail, that was a pretty expensive prayer! But then again… the second before the thief made his getaway I had been thinking about the scourging of Jesus at the hands of Rome, and as I left the church for the bus, I imagined a voice saying: ‘they stripped me of everything, you know…’ So no point in complaining about a few lost electronic gadgets, although I would advise anyone headed for the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli (well-known to the local Carabinieri , it turns out) either to pray with their eyes open or else chain themselves to their valuables!

Basilica_santa_maria_degli_angeli_dei_martyt_2011_4It was an inauspicious end to what had nonetheless been a memorable day in the Eternal City. In the morning, I had joined a crowd of some 50,000+ in a pleasantly dry St Peter’s Square for Pope Francis’s General Audience, and I have to say that the atmosphere was electric. Somehow I have always found the Piazza when full a more moving sight than St Peter’s Basilica itself (excluding Michelangelo’s Pietà), perhaps because of the collective energy, the sensum fidelium represented by the massed pilgrims from around the whole world. On this occasion what impressed me was the sense of anticipation, the feeling as Pope Francis arrived and began to ride around the square to the delight of the crowd that this was not simply ‘business as usual’, but that something important was actually happening.  It is difficult to identify any one factor behind the buzz in St Peter’s Square: the Pope’s spontaneous manner and proximity to the crowds, the limpidity of his uncomplicated yet profound teaching, his roots in the Global South where the demographic centre of gravity of world Christianity is now located, the heartfelt longing of so many ordinary believers for the Church’s return to the simplicity of the Apostolic Age… all these contributed to creating an unforgettable event. The closest parallel in my own experience is probably the annual European Meetings of the Taizé Community that I attended some two decades ago in the years around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when there was a similar feeling among the crowds of being caught up in ‘history in the making’, that we were participating in something radically new , the Divine novum which cannot simply be extrapolated out of the past.

St Peter's square RomeThe same can be said of the ‘concert for peace’ at the Auditorium Conciliazione (formerly home to the Accademia di Santa Cecilia’s symphony concerts) the evening before, where Russian soprano Svetlana Kasyan certainly lived up to her billing  as a major talent. Although I tend to be wary of published comparisons of any artist with Maria Callas or any of the legends of the past, I have to say that in my years spent coaching lyric artists at the Opéra Bastille in Paris and elsewhere, I have rarely heard someone as young as Ms Kasyan capable of such vocal power (even if at times the usual problems of balance between even the most accomplished soloist and an onstage orchestra performing music written for an opera pit were in evidence). Her performance of arias by Verdi, Puccini and Catalani, delivered in a refreshingly unaffected and unpretentious manner, left no doubt as to her formidable expressive capabilities.

A no less remarkable feature of the concert, however, was the music and presence of Russian Orthodox bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, highlights being Svetlana Kasyan’s rendition of the plaintive Rachel’s Lament from his Christmas Oratorio (which also provided the evening’s encore) and a sombre, brooding song-cycle to texts by Federico Garcia Lorca. It might be argued that the setting – a hall whose heavy, uninspiring stage décor reminded me somewhat of the Salle Olivier Messiaen in Radio France – was not optimal for the more meditative moments of Metropolitan Hilarion’s music, and Italian orchestras such as the Rome Sinfonietta perhaps need an extra ounce of gravitas to convey its imposing solemnity. Yet this did nothing to diminish the success of the evening, and it would be hard to overestimate the symbolic significance of an event in which the bishop-composer found himself seated between Catholic Cardinals Gianfranco Ravasi (President of the Pontifical Council of Culture) and Kurt Koch (President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity), an intriguing additional ecumenical factor being the saturation of references in Bishop Hilarion’s works to the greatest ever Protestant musician – J.S. Bach. Here too, this was not merely a concert but a happening oriented not so much to the past as to a future of unprecedented conversations between Christian traditions that lies tantalizingly open. That it should have taken place in an auditorium on the Via della Conciliazione (the ‘Way of Reconciliation’) is surely more than a coincidence.

In the back of my mind as I walking back after the concert across an empty, moonlit St Peter’s Square and now as I write these words was the spiritual vision of one of the greatest modern pioneers of Christian Unity, Frère Roger of Taizé (1915-2005). Last December the ‘Pilgrimage of Trust’ organized by the Taizé Community filled the square in order to pray with Benedict XVI, from whose hand this Swiss Reformed pastor personally received communion in the last months of his life. Frère Roger’s overwhelming conviction was that the way forward for the Church lay in re-unifying the riches of the three Christian traditions within the one undivided Body of Christ- the Eucharist, devotion to the Mother of God and the role of the Pope as a visible universal pastor in Catholicism, the liturgical depth and connection with ancient Christian tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy,  the passion for the Scriptures of his own Protestant upbringing.  If there was much excitement around the time of the Second Vatican Council (at which he was an observer) that this vision might one day be realized, it has to be said that in recent decades it has seemed to have suffered a certain loss of impetus. But on the strength of my few days’ observation of goings-on in Rome, the time is ripe for its resurgence.

What price a prayer? Yes, my brief to the Italian capital turned out to be more expensive than anticipated, thanks largely to my brush with the professional services of the Roman branch of Organized Crime Inc. But a prayer for unity, in echo of the words of Jesus himself in John 17, is worth every last Euro. And if the thief happens to be reading this blog, in the bag you stole is a CD of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s St Matthew Passion given to me by the composer himself. Go ahead and take a listen – you might just learn something.

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You can read Svetlana Kasyan’s own reflections on her meeting with Pope Francis in the latest instalment of the ‘Moynihan Letters’ here

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

Opera seria in Rome?

Much virtual ink has been spilled over what must be one of the most-dissected interviews of recent months, the three-part conversation of Pope Francis with Antonio Spadaro, S.J. published in La Civiltà Cattolica and translated in outlets such as America Magazine at the end of September. It is regrettable, if sadly understandable given social media’s unfortunate tendency to diminish everything to soundbites that this wide-ranging 12,000-word dialogue has largely been reduced to a few albeit compelling sentences about questions of sexual ethics and the need for a re-appraisal of the role of women in the Church. The conversations with Spadaro are remarkable for their profusion of ideas, even if they surface at a rate such as to leave the reader a little breathless. Moreover, the Pope’s strikingly original turns of phrase are accompanied by a wealth of references pointing not only to the anchoring of his profound spirituality in a breadth of tradition but also – and this has perhaps come as a surprise to some – his formidable intellect and cultural awareness.Pope Francis soccer pennant

For example, if it has for some months now been public knowledge that the Pope, very much a man of the Argentinian people, is a long-time supporter of the San Lorenzo soccer team in Buenos Aires and a lover of tango, it is perhaps not so widely acknowledged that he is also no less a connoisseur of classical music than his predecessor:

Among musicians I love Mozart, of course. The ‘Et incarnatus est’ from his Mass in C minor is matchless; it lifts you to God! I love Mozart performed by Clara Haskil. Mozart fulfills me. But I cannot think about his music; I have to listen to it. I like listening to Beethoven, but in a Promethean way, and the most Promethean interpreter for me is Furtwängler. And then Bach’s Passions. The piece by Bach that I love so much is the ‘Erbarme Dich,’ the tears of Peter in the ‘St. Matthew Passion.’ Sublime. Then, at a different level, not intimate in the same way, I love Wagner. I like to listen to him, but not all the time. The performance of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ by Furtwängler at La Scala in Milan in 1950 is for me the best. But also the ‘Parsifal’ by Knappertsbusch in 1962.

It ought to be unsurprising that opera holds a special place in the Pope’s musical affections given his Italian parentage (in his preference for Furtwängler’s La Scala recordings the reader may detect a note of patriotism which is prepared to indulge the approximations of the Milanese pit orchestra!). What is striking, however, is the way in which he is unafraid to use examples from the secular operatic repertoire to make spiritual points, as if to emphasize that the whole of human culture is in some way a possible locus of the sacred (or at least not sealed off from it). Jorge Maria Bergoglio is an opera buff who hears in Puccini’s Turandot much more than Nessun dorma, bringing the famous (and electrifying) scena degli enigmi exchange between Turandot and Calaf into conversation with the New Testament’s view of hope:

[Spadaro]I ask: “Do we have to be optimistic? What are the signs of hope in today’s world? How can I be optimistic in a world in crisis?”

[Pope Francis]“I do not like to use the word optimism because that is about a psychological attitude,” the pope says. “I like to use the word hope instead, according to what we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, that I mentioned before. The fathers of the faith kept walking, facing difficulties. And hope does not disappoint, as we read in the Letter to the Romans. Think instead of the first riddle of Puccini’s opera ‘Turandot,’” the pope suggests.

[Spadaro]At that moment I recalled more or less by heart the verses of the riddle of the princess in that opera, to which the solution is hope: “In the gloomy night flies an iridescent ghost./ It rises and opens its wings/ on the infinite black humanity./ The whole world invokes it/ and the whole world implores it./ But the ghost disappears with the dawn/ to be reborn in the heart./ And every night it is born/ and every day it dies!” These are verses that reveal the desire for a hope. Yet here that hope is an iridescent ghost that disappears with the dawn.

“See,” says Pope Francis, “Christian hope is not a ghost and it does not deceive. It is a theological virtue and therefore, ultimately, a gift from God that cannot be reduced to optimism, which is only human. God does not mislead hope; God cannot deny himself. God is all promise.”

Poster for Puccini's 'Turandot', 1926

Poster for Puccini’s ‘Turandot’, 1926

Wagner, too, is the source for a provocative philosophical illustration about genius and delusion later in the course of the interview, from which it becomes plain that the Pope’s desire to remain close to the poor and his deep respect for popular piety in no way imply that he is anti-intellectual:

“Humans are in search of themselves, and, of course, in this search they can also make mistakes. The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.

“When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. The deceived thought can be depicted as Ulysses encountering the song of the Siren, or as Tannhäuser in an orgy surrounded by satyrs and bacchantes, or as Parsifal, in the second act of Wagner’s opera, in the palace of Klingsor. The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.”

All these operatic references bring me to the occasion for writing this present post. I am currently in Rome, where tomorrow evening the young Russian soprano Svetlana Kasyan will be giving a recital of arias with orchestra in the Auditorium Conciliazione, a ‘concert for peace’ in solidarity with victims of war throughout the world and in honour of Pope Francis (with whom, the soprano’s Facebook page proudly informs us, she had dinner last night). This concert is co-sponsored by the Urbi et Orbi Foundation for Christian – particular Catholic/Orthodox – unity established by Dr Robert Moynihan, hero of a post on this blog earlier this year, and will feature both Italian repertoire and the music of Russian Orthodox theologian, churchman and composer Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk. Barely out of the Moscow Conservatory and Bolshoi Theatre’s Young Singers’ Academy, Georgian-born Svetlana Kasyan has already been making considerable waves in the opera world, and on the strength of this RAI broadcast excerpt of her Elisabetta/Don Carlo duet with the peerless Ramon Vargas, it is not difficult to see why:

This concert comes at an intriguing time for East-West Christian relations, as Robert Moynihan has pointed out repeatedly in his ‘Moynihan Letters’ over the last few months, as well as in his recent biography of Pope Francis, Pray with me. Pope Francis’s unusual awareness of and deep respect for Eastern Christian tradition (in Buenos Aires he had responsibility for the archdiocese’s Eastern Rite Catholics) is no secret, while there are also signs of a new openness to collaboration with Rome on the part both of Constantinople (with Patriarch Bartholomew I breaking new ground in attending Pope Francis’s inauguration) and Moscow, as can be seen from Metropolitan Hilarion’s typically thought-provoking recent address to the World Council of Churches in Korea . To which must be added the intriguing prospect – whatever one may think of its possible motivation – of Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Vatican later this month.

In this context, rich with possible ramifications both theological and socio-political, a recital including music by an Eastern Orthodox Archbishop sung by a Russian diva in honour of an opera-loving Pontiff is potentially serious business. Watch this space as we report back.

Musical ecumenism in Wales (ii)

In the first part of this post I discussed the premières of new Psalm-settings by Galina Grigorjeva and John Metcalf given by the Estonian vocal ensemble Vox Clamantis last week at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in South Wales. These two first performances alone would have been enough to make this a memorable evening, but it should be said that the way in which they were contextualized was no less remarkable. And in what follows we will be talking theology as much as musicology.

Vox Clamantis are certainly no ordinary ensemble, and their programme formed an intriguing conceptual whole which can best be described as ‘ancient-future’ (exemplified by the sight of singers reading Gregorian chant off IPads!). They are not of course alone in mixing pre-Renaissance and contemporary music – an approach which dates back at least to the pioneering work of their Estonian colleagues Hortus Musicus (who were the first performers of Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli works of the mid- to late 1970s), and which has attained considerable popularity since the Officium collaboration between the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek in 1994.

Vox Clamantis CD cover

As with these precedents, what made the Vale of Glamorgan Festival concert particularly captivating was the way in which music separated by many centuries seemed to flow seamlessly together. Ancient chant somehow emerges as engagingly contemporary (its anonymity offering a corrective to the cult of the individual that has been an integral part of post-Enlightenment musical history), while new composition draws on timeless tradition. It was for example difficult to know where the Gregorian Offertory Ave Maria finished and the beautiful, semi-improvised piece on the same text by Tõnis Kaumann – himself a member of Vox Clamantis and Hortus Musicus whose musical tastes range from the medieval to post-bebop jazz and Abba – began. Similarly there was clearly a correspondence of  mood as well as text between the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary which opened the evening and Helena Tulve’s Stella matutina, during which the audience were mesmerized by the sound of the composer’s own prepared piano accompaniment (reminiscent both of John Cage and Pärt’s Tabula Rasa).

As I have commented before, a focus on the person of the Mother of God Incarnate is one of the most striking features of what can be termed the ‘New Devotional Music’ of recent decades, and which was perfectly encapsulated by the Welsh performance of Vox Clamantis. Given that expressions of Marian devotion are frequently considered outmoded and sentimental in certain intellectual Catholic circles, it should be a cause for reflection that the figure of Mary should have come to the forefront of the work of a new generation of composers whose music is accessible yet anything but conservative. Furthermore, focusing musical attention on Jesus’s mother is by no means an exclusively Catholic phenomenon; the programme concluded with a recent composition by Arvo Pärt entitled Virgencita addressed to Our Lady of Guadalupe, which the pre-eminent Eastern Orthodox composer wrote as a ‘present to the people of Mexico’ for a visit there in 2012. Speaking of how he was impacted by the famous account of Mary’s apparition to Juan Diego in 1531 (which triggered the subsequent conversion to Christianity of nine million Aztecs), Pärt’s programme note mentions how his anticipation of being in the country and the name Guadalupe ‘left me no peace’. Virgencita is effectively a Spanish counterpart to Pärt’s Most Holy Mother of God written in English for the Hilliard Ensemble, and provides further evidence of the way in which many of the composer’s recent compositions have been moulded by the location of their première, with Pärt expressly looking for ways to combine his own idiom with the authentic spiritual tradition of the place in question (other examples being his La Sindone for Turin, Cecilia, vergine romana for Rome or his setting of ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ entitled The Deer’s Cry for Louth in Ireland).

Arvo Pärt’s commitment to the reconciliation of Eastern and Western Christian spirituality is long-standing and well-known, but wandering around the venue, St Augustine’s Church in Penarth, prior to the concert, it struck me that this was also an ecumenical musical event in a wider sense on at least two counts. Firstly, the church is something of a pilgrimage site for lovers of Protestant hymnody, with the graveyard being the final resting-place of the nineteenth-century Welsh composer Joseph Parry, author of one of the most well-loved tunes in the world’s hymnals, Aberystwyth , which first appeared in the Welsh-language hymn collection Ail Lyfr Tonau ac Emynau in 1879 but was subsequently immortalized in combination with Charles Wesley’s famous poem ‘Jesus, Lover of my soul’.

Grave of Joseph Parry (1841-1903)

Grave of Joseph Parry (1841-1903)

Secondly, inside St Augustine’s itself, although belonging to the Anglican Church of Wales, I noticed the incorporation both of Eastern Orthodox iconography and the text of St Bernard’s Memorare prayer beside a statue of the Virgin, making the Marian focus of the Vox Clamantis programme all the more appropriate in the local context.

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I have to admit that I might well not have paid such attention to these details had ecumenism, and especially signs of Catholic-Anglican convergence, not already been on my radar in the days preceding the Vale of Glamorgan Festival concert for a different reason. On May 13 and 14, the Anglican church Holy Trinity Brompton held a major leadership conference at the Royal Albert Hall in London with guests including both the new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, whose moving interview with HTB’s Nicky Gumbel can be viewed online here

Cardinal Schönborn is undoubtedly one of the Catholic Church’s leading intellectuals, as should be obvious to anyone who has read his Chance or Purpose: Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007). However, he has also acquired both admirers and critics for being unafraid to speak in public in an intuitive manner not wholly reducible to conventional logic; whether you see him as an inspired, out-of-the-box thinker or a loose cannon (or both) depends on your point of view. In the course of his Albert Hall appearance he  made some typical arresting remarks about what he experienced as the ‘supernatural’ aspect of the recent Papal conclave (strangely congruent with similar comments appearing on the blog of Cardinal Mahony of L.A.) which have since gone viral in Church circles. He also made the intriguing observation – unprompted by Gumbel – about Pope Francis’s

‘strange similarity with your Archbishop Justin. I hope so much that they will meet soon […] I don’t know the secrets about how the conclave in Lambeth Palace works, but it looks like a little miracle that he became the Archbishop, doesn’t it ? So I think the Lord has given us a great sign through these two elections, and other signs. And you know what I have deeply in my heart, what the Lord is telling us and what I feel in what is going on here, what He is doing here, it is as if He would say to the world : ‘Come home, I wait for you.’’

Gumbel Schönborn

Cardinal Schönborn (right) with Nicky Gumbel

Anglican-Catholic dialogue and cooperation is of course nothing new, but three aspects of the top-level Catholic input into the Holy Trinity Brompton leadership conference strike me as particularly thought-provoking in terms of the their implications for the direction in which ecumenism currently seems to be progressing.

The first is the way in which Cardinal Schönborn’s recent trip to London is consistent with the ecumenical profile of Pope Francis himself (on which I have already commented on this blog). As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the present Pontiff enjoyed a cross-denominational reputation in Argentina which was nothing short of remarkable, and he had been involved with the work of Holy Trinity Brompton’s ‘Alpha course in a Catholic context’ initiative, sending  four bishops from Argentina to an Alpha course leadership conference.

Secondly, Pope Francis and Cardinal Schönborn – both of whom have for example demonstrated an unusual degree of openness to the alleged Marian apparitions in Medjugorje, Bosnia – defy the stereotypical notion that Marian devotion needs to be downplayed on the Catholic side if ecumenical conversation is to make headway. If anything, the dialogical energy in the dialogue between Rome and Canterbury would appear to be flowing in the opposite direction, with Justin Welby’s predecessor Rowan Williams famously becoming the first Anglican Archbishop to preach in Lourdes as a pilgrim in 2008. Might it just be the case that, contrary to received notions in many quarters, restoring the mother of Jesus to her rightful place of honour as Theotokos will not exacerbate divisions within Christianity but help to overcome them?

Thirdly, in the final section of his interview with Nicky Gumbel, noting that both he and Archbishop Justin have (like himself) Jewish roots, Cardinal Schönborn moved registers, going beyond the Church in its present form to address the question of the need for the most fundamental of all reconciliations – mending the tragic historical fracture between Jew and Gentile:

‘the deepest wound in the Body of Christ is the wound between Israel and the Gentiles. In your body, in your life, and in Archbishop Justin’s life, and a little bit also in my own life […] I think we are called to ask the Lord to heal this deepest wound when it is His time.’

The reciprocal warmth of Pope Francis’s own relationship with the Argentine Jewish community is well-known, and little more than a few weeks after his accession to the Papacy, he accepted an invitation to visit Israel from President Shimon Peres, who intriguingly commented

“I am expecting you in Jerusalem, not just me but the whole country of Israel”

The prospects for this visit, it would appear, have stirred up just as much expectation within the Church as within Israel. Judging by the intuitions of Cardinal Schönborn, something of historical import seems to be ‘in the air’ here which runs counter to the obvious political tensions and violence in the Middle East which seem to be deepening with each day. Even if it is difficult for the moment to specify exactly what may lie ahead in what are perhaps both the worst and the best of times.

To be continued.

Musical ecumenism in Wales (i)

One of my great musical pleasures over the last few years has been my visits to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, where I have just been for the fourth time. On each occasion I have returned home enriched by the discovery of intriguing compositional voices brought to South Wales from all parts of the globe by the untiring advocacy and unfailingly open ears of festival director John Metcalf, whose artistic policy has consistently been marked by a refusal to pander to musical fashion and a commitment to favouring content over superficial effect. It was through the Vale of Glamorgan Festival that I for example came across the symphonies of Australia’s Ross Edwards, the extraordinary choral works of the Dane Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen or the deeply spiritual music of Galina Grigorjeva, a Ukrainian living in Estonia who is rapidly emerging as one of Eastern Europe’s most potently expressive composers of sacred music in the generation after Arvo Pärt, Valentin Silvestrov and Sofia Gubaidulina.

It was Galina Grigojeva’s work, as well as that of John Metcalf himself, which led me to Wales last week in order to attend the first performances of their new Psalm-settings commissioned as part of the SOLI DEO GLORIA Psalms Project, sung by the unique Estonian 13-member vocal ensemble Vox Clamantis. Last year’s collaboration with the festival had borne fruit in the form of a wonderful Psalm 141 by Gavin Bryars premièred by the stunning Ars Nova Copenhagen, so inevitably my question when travelling to Cardiff was whether the two new Psalms commissions would reach the same artistic standard. I am happy to answer with a resounding yes on both counts, with the pieces delivering the musical goods in completely different yet complementary ways.

Galina Grigorjeva’s compositional style is both wide-ranging and technically impressive; she is equally at home when writing in a highly accessible diatonic idiom as when producing intricate atonal choral soundscapes whose texture is at times reminiscent of Penderecki (Nature Morte, 2008). The first Eastern Orthodox composer to join the SDG Psalms Project roster, Grigorjeva provided us with an invigorating setting of Psalm 103 which, in spite of its English text, is clearly rooted in Byzantine tradition. As such, it is very much in keeping with her previous choral works such as the riveting On Leaving (1999) which had alerted me to its composer as soon as I heard the ear-tingling first seconds of the piece sung by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Paul Hillier.

Balticic Voices 2 cover

In our public pre-concert discussion, Galina Grigorjeva explained that her choice of words had been motivated by Psalm 103’s emphasis on a Divine – as opposed to merely human – strength which is badly needed in today’s world. If this strength was already well conveyed by the modestly-sized forces of Vox Clamantis, I found myself imagining the full visceral impact that Grigorjeva’s Bless the Lord might have when sung by a larger choir (preferably with the assistance of a few stray Volga boatmen to underpin the bass section!).

The contrast between the eternal character of God and this-worldly transience structures the setting; after a bold, largely homophonic opening section recounting God’s constant redemptive action (‘Bless the Lord, o my soul, and forget not all his benefits’), there is a transition to a more fluid, fleeting texture (marked by skilful canonic writing) at the lines

‘As for man, his days are as grass, as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more’

With Galina Grigorjeva in St Augustine’s Church, Penarth

Chordal declamation then returns at the pivotal verse ‘but the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him’ and continues unabated until the final acclamation ‘Bless the Lord, all his works in all places of his dominion; Bless the Lord, o my soul’. Grigorjeva’s Orthodoxy comes through in the the resolutely theocentric focus of her setting, whose affirmative tone nonetheless avoids any kind of cheap triumphalism.

John Metcalf’s choice of Psalm 150, Laudate Dominum, as the text for his Psalm-setting might have created expectations of a similarly robust treatment of a supremely musical text which has inspired many composers from Schütz to Bruckner, Franck and Stravinsky. However, both as a composer and as a frequently counter-cultural champion of New Music, John Metcalf has never been one to conform to received ideas. His Laudate Dominum offers us a purposefully understated work of great delicacy and subtle harmonic shifts, evoking a feeling of hushed wonder at the mystery of God’s universe (‘laudate eum in firmamento virtutis ejus‘/’praise Him in the firmament of his power’). Musically, this sense of worshipful humility is symbolized by Metcalf’s self-limitation in terms of compositional means, the writing being constrained by the constant appearance of the note G (in various octaves) at every moment of the piece in sonorities varying from single notes to rich 8-part pan-diatonic harmonic clusters. The success of the work lies in Metcalf’s ability to make highly expressive music on the basis of what might at first seem a dry compositional exercise, while consistently refusing clichéd solutions. No concessions are made to stereotypical word-painting; although the choir reaches an obligatory fortissimo at the words laudate eum in cymbalis jubilationis (literally, ‘cymbals of jubilation’), there is no artificial interruption of the work’s stately, dignified pace for the sake of obvious textual illustration, as if to remind us that jubilation is essentially a matter of an inner spiritual state and only secondarily one of external expression. Likewise Psalm 150’s reference to ‘timbrel and dance‘ (‘laudate eum in tympano et choro) is reflected in the music’s slow, exquisitely choreographed movement, conjuring up images of the silent motion of the heavenly bodies. Two precedents for this type of treatment spring to mind. The first is the conclusion of Henryk Górecki’s vastly underrated ‘Copernican’ Symphony n.2., a true ‘cosmic liturgy’ in music if ever there was one,  a work in which the Polish composer (a visitor to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in 1994) sets words from Psalms 145, 6 and 135 alongside texts from Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium [‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’]. A second, more well-known example is the quiet, rapt final ‘Laudate’ of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. John Metcalf’s insistence during our discussion that he deliberately avoided listening to the work of the great Russian composer while writing only makes this convergence more striking. While the Psalms undoubtedly possess extraordinary generative power in their capacity to elicit new responses from successive generations of artists, there is something no less extraordinary in their gravitational pull, in the frequent underlying similarity of these artistic responses across barriers of time and space. As in the famous epigram of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808-1890), plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same.’

These two first performances on their own would have been enough to make the Vox Clamantis concert a memorable one. Equally remarkable, however, was the rest of their highly imaginative and ecumenical programme, which will be the subject of the second part of this post.

IMG229

John Metcalf (centre-right) with members of Vox Clamantis and conductor Jaan-Eik Tulve

A selection of works by Galina Grigorjeva can be heard online at: http://www.reverbnation.com/galinagrigorjeva

More information on the music of John Metcalf can be found at http://www.johnmetcalf.co.uk/

Отправлено с iPhone (Sent from IPhone) – Metropolitan Hilarion (2)

As I hinted in my last post, one of the voices that I have increasingly come to appreciate in recent weeks has been the Vaticanista Robert Moynihan, editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican Magazine, whose regular postings at http://themoynihanletters.com on the dramatic events unfolding in Rome on a daily basis I have found unfailingly captivating. During the run-up to the conclave that elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the Papacy, I found him to be one of the few commentators able to strike a balance between an appropriate respect for Church leaders and straight talking on difficult issues (such as ‘Vatileaks’ and the 300-page dossier on the inner workings of the Holy See compiled by the ‘007 Cardinals’ Herranz, Tomko and De Giorgi which Pope Francis has presumably begun to peruse). In particular, Robert Moynihan has proved an invaluable resource for English-speaking readers who may not be aware that the vast majority of genuinely informative articles on Vatican affairs appear in Italian-only sources – with whose authors he is evidently personally acquainted and whose findings he makes available to a public outside Italy who might otherwise find the world of Catholic HQ utterly opaque.

Inside the Vatican publicity

What makes Dr Moynihan a rare quantity in my estimation is not only the extent of his frequently piquant insider information but an unusual theological depth of analysis (his training is in medieval studies, having written his doctorate at Yale on Joachim de Fiore under the legendary Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan). Nor is it merely a question of theoretical knowledge of ecclesial tradition and doctrine severed from a living spirituality. A good example of this was his letter #43 commenting on Cardinal Sodano’s homily on the eve of the conclave; in it Moynihan respectfully – and with the appropriate caveats – yet boldly expressed his feeling that what had been missing from the former Vatican Secretary of State’s message was ‘an emphasis on the mystical role of the Church in a process which leads ultimately (as Eastern Orthodox theology especially emphasizes) through union with Christ to the very “divinization” of man, the very sharing by man of the divine life’.

This is not the normal language of journalism, which is what makes the Moynihan Letters’ blend of investigative reporting and mystically- inclined reflection so fascinating.

Of particular interest for the current blog is the fact that it transpires from his recent posts that Robert Moynihan has been receiving messages via IPhone from the hero of a relatively recent article on Da stand das Meer, the Russian Orthodox archbishop, prolific theologian and fully paid-up classical composer Hilarion Alfeyev, a.k.a. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, commonly regarded as the ‘foreign secretary’ of the Moscow Patriarchate.

As his quote about the Orthodox doctrine of theosis (divinization) indicates, East-West Christian reconciliation is a subject which Dr Moynihan holds dear. One of his first letters following the election of Pope Francis was a moving (at least for anyone with a heart for ecumenism) account of the new Pontiff’s meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, whom Francis chose to address as ‘My Brother Andrew’, a greeting whose historic significance is hard to over-estimate given the centuries of often painful relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Francis Benedict XVI icon

The occasion for the IPhone message of Metropolitan Hilarion was the unprecedented meeting on March 23 of the two living successors of Peter, Francis and Benedict XVI, at which the former presented his predecessor with a Russian icon (the Madonna of Humility) – which it turns out had been given to the Argentinian Pontiff by Metropolitan Hilarion a couple of days previously at a private Papal audience. Rather than taking this as an act of ingratitude (along the lines of offloading an unsolicited box of chocolates when caught short of presents at a family gathering on December 26), the Orthodox Metropolitan was reportedly ‘very pleased and touched’.

Seeking to penetrate beneath the surface of events in characteristic fashion with the kind of intuition which makes his letters compelling reading, Dr Moynihan then offers his speculative interpretation of the symbolic importance in the appearance of the Russian icon – of Mary’s humility – in Rome as a gift from the East:

‘I sense in this a mysterious design, yes, a mystical design, something transcending our ordinary understanding of cause and effect, a design, as I see it, for Christians, for the Christian Church, to return to greater communion, greater unity, East and West, Greek and Latin, Orthodox and Catholic — with one of the great “hinge points” being… Russia.’

This would seem to resonate strongly with Metropolitan Hilarion’s own musico-theological vision, about which I wrote at the time of the Ecumenical Synod in Rome in October 2012. His words expressing his ecumenical understanding of Bach are worth re-quoting in the present context for the indication they offer of his understanding of the universal Church (emphasis mine):

Bach is a universal Christian phenomenon. His music transcends confessional boundaries; it is ecumenical in the original sense of the word, for it belongs to the world as a whole and to each citizen separately. We may call Bach an ‘orthodox’ composer in the original, literal sense of the Greek word ortho-doxos for throughout his life he learnt how to glorify God rightly. Invariably he adorned his musical manuscripts with the words Soli Deo Gloria (‘Glory to the One God’) or Jesu, juva (‘Help, O Jesus’). These expressions were for him not merely verbal formulae but a confession of faith that ran through all of his compositions. For Bach, music was worship of God. He was truly ‘catholic,’ again in the original understanding of the Greek word katholikos, meaning ‘universal,’ or ‘all-embracing,’ for he perceived the Church as a universal organism, as a common doxology directed towards God. Furthermore, he believed his music to be but a single voice in the cosmic choir that praises God’s glory. And of course, throughout his life Bach remained a true son of his native Lutheran Church. Albeit, as Albert Schweitzer noted, Bach’s true religion was not even orthodox Lutheranism but mysticism. His music is deeply mystical because it is based on an experience of prayer and ministry to God which transcends confessional boundaries and is the heritage of all humanity.
(‘Music and Faith in My Life and Vision’, lecture at the Catholic University of America, Washington D.C., February 9, 2011)

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

One of Hilarion Alfeyev’s latest works is a Stabat Mater which received its première in 2012 and of which video can be viewed online on his YouTube channel(!) MetropolitanHilarion. His musical language may at first strike some Western listeners as puzzlingly traditional, but it should be remembered that Eastern Orthodoxy has never considered innovation for its own sake as a virtue. Indeed it can be said that one of the most striking characteristics of his compositions are their total by-passing of the theoretical issues which so often dominate ‘classical’ contemporary music, despite the fact that the composer is manifestly a man of penetrating intellect whose scores have been promoted by major figures of Russian musical life such as Vladimirs Spivakov and Fedoseyev. Moreover, within his chosen modal/tonal idiom, he demonstrates an enviable fluency in his handling of the musical material and an ability to modulate which surpasses that of some well-known ex-avantgardistas I could mention whose attempted returns to tonal writing have often come to grief for want of the necessary harmonic and contrapuntal toolbox.

'The Conductor', dir. Pavel Lungin

‘The Conductor’, dir. Pavel Lungin

If Metropolitan Hilarion’s commitment to traditional musical means is obvious, this does not mean that he should be viewed as a composer operating in a time-warp. As its fourth section ‘Paradisi Gloria’ demonstrates, Metropolitan Hilarion’s Stabat Mater is not without some intriguingly postmodern populist touches, perhaps showing the influence of his teacher Vladimir Martynov, mixing some updated Vivaldi (à la Philip Glass?) with nods in the direction of Karl Jenkins, a figure for whom he has expressed a surprising degree of admiration. Start around the 15 minute mark and you’ll see what I mean; whatever your aesthetic preferences in terms of contemporary music, one thing is clear –  Hilarion Alfeyev, for all his monastic past, is a composer who is not shy of direct communication with a mass public. His listening audience appears to be considerable within Russia, and increased dramatically last year when his large-scale St Matthew Passion became the basis (and not merely the soundtrack) of the decidedly un-monastic film ‘The Conductor’ by cullt director Pavel Lungin, with whom the Archbishop has since appeared publicly.

Metropolitan Hilarion (not unlike Robert Moynihan) shows an apparently paradoxical blend of a commitment to ancient spirituality with an awareness of the possibilities of new technology and mass communications. At the age of 46 his is a name from whom we will doubtless be hearing a good deal more in the future both as a theologian and composer. And the odds are that it may well be via Twitter.

Robert Moynihan with Pope Benedict XVI and Metropolitan Hilarion

Robert Moynihan with Pope Benedict XVI and Metropolitan Hilarion

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A two-part English-language podcast about Archbishop Hilarion which provides an insight into his musical childhood and study at the specialist Gnesin Music School and as a Moscow Conservatory composition student can be downloaded at http://english.ruvr.ru/2009/05/14/258997/ (part 2 focuses on his work as a composer of Church music). Russian speakers can watch an extended conversation between Pavel Lungin and Metropolitan Hilarion at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzKOfv6mh9c, with the archbishop speaking about his collaboration with the film director at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhjSAubYV3w. A trailer for ‘The Conductor’ can be viewed on-line at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XYB5MKyk5U

New Devotion in Amsterdam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Click on http://ntrzaterdagmatinee.radio4.nl/uitzending/194155/NTR%20ZaterdagMatinee.html
2. Click on the play button on the audio player marked ‘Uitzending van Zaterdag 10 November’ and wait for the large file to load
3. Drag the cursor across to 12:55 on the slider (under the ‘I’ of ‘UITZENDING’) which is where the interview starts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NOTES

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

[2] Proposition 20 : THE NEW EVANGELIZATION AND THE WAY OF BEAUTY
In the New Evangelization, there should be a particular attention paid to the way of beauty: Christ, the “Good Shepherd” (cf. Jn 10:11) is the Truth in person, the beautiful revelation in sign, pouring himself out without measure. It is important to give testimony to the young who follow Jesus, not only of his goodness and truth, but also of the fullness of his beauty. As Augustine affirmed, “it is not possible to love what is not beautiful” (Confessions, Bk IV, 13.20). Beauty attracts us to love, through which God reveals to us his face in which we believe. In this light artists feel themselves both spoken to and privileged communicators of the New Evangelization.

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

http://www.vatican.va/news_services/press/sinodo/documents/bollettino_25_xiii-ordinaria-2012/02_inglese/b33_02.html

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

Guardians of beauty – James MacMillan in Rome

Vatican-II-opening-300x199

Opening of Vatican II, October 11, 1962 (photo: Peter Geymayer)

One for the dispatch box – our thoughts today are with regular SDG collaborator and advisory board member James MacMillan, currently in Rome for a very special assignment. At today’s Mass in St Peter’s Square launching the Year of Faith, ‘a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world'[1], the Scottish composer received from Pope Benedict XVI a copy on behalf of the world’s artists of a message given by Pope Paul VI on December 8, 1965. Proclaimed during the concluding ceremonies of the Second Vatican Council (whose proceedings opened fifty years ago today), Paul VI’s message contains a passage directly addressed to the artistic community on the role of art in the contemporary world which surely offers as much food for thought in 2012 as in 1965:

To Artists:

We now address you, artists, who are taken up with beauty and work for it: poets and literary men, painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, men devoted to the theater and the cinema. To all of you, the Church of the council declares to you through our voice: if you are friends of genuine art, you are our friends.

The Church has long since joined in alliance with you. You have built and adorned her temples, celebrated her dogmas, enriched her liturgy You have aided her in translating her  divine message in the language of forms and figures, making the invisible world palpable. Today, as yesterday, the Church needs you and turns to you. She tells you through our voice: Do not allow an alliance as fruitful as this to be broken. Do not refuse to put your talents at the service of divine truth. Do not close your mind to the breath of the  Holy Spirit.

This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the wear and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration. And all of this is through your hands. May these hands be pure and disinterested. Remember that you are the guardians of beauty in the world. May that suffice to free you from tastes which are passing and have no genuine value, to free you from the search after strange or unbecoming expressions. Be always and everywhere worthy of your ideals and you will be worthy of the Church which, by our voice, addresses to you today her message of friendship, salvation, grace and benediction.

Paul VI, December 8, 1965

For more about James MacMillan’s participation in the ceremony, which was also attended by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (the composer’s theological consultant for his work Parthenogenesis (2000), a collaboration facilitated by another SDG advisory board member, Jeremy Begbie) and Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, see

http://www.scmo.org/articles/james-macmillan-honoured-in-papal-ceremony.html

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2012/10/11/benedict-xvi-and-council-fathers-to-open-year-of-faith/

[1] ‘This, then, is how we can picture the Year of Faith: a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world, taking with us only what is necessary: neither staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, nor two tunics – as the Lord said to those he was sending out on mission (cf. Lk 9:3), but the Gospel and the faith of the Church’ Excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI’s homily, which can be read in full at

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2012/10/11/full-text-of-popes-homily-opening-year-of-faith/

Silvestrov at 75

It may be an event which has largely passed under the Contemporary Music radar, but today is the 75th birthday of the great Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, whose work has been featured in a number of articles on this blog. Silvestrov may not be as well-known a name as other composers of his generation from the former Soviet Union such as Sofia Gubaidulina (1931-) and Arvo Pärt (1935-), but he is the author of a huge and unique body of music, including works such as the Fifth Symphony (1980-82), the cycle of 24 Silent Songs (1974-77), the violin symphony Dedication (1990-91) or Requiem for Larissa (1997-99) which can be said to have become cult classics.

File:Valentinsilvestrov.JPG

Silvestrov’s dream-like and sometimes frighteningly intimate, private world may not be to all tastes. Certainly listeners who are searching for easy gratification or facile effect will find little here. To those of us, however, who have fallen under its spell there are few composers active today whose music is as consistently mesmeric or emotionally rich. Not merely on account of the notes, which often have a studied anonymity to them, especially on the many occasions on which Silvestrov deliberately restricts himself to a pre-1900 harmonic vocabulary, but also and even perhaps primarily because of what lies between the notes. That which eludes rationalizing analysis, which can only be sensed intuitively. Silvestrov is arguably unparalleled in his attention to the mysterious, indefinable boundary between sound and silence, to minute fluctuations in mood and pulse whose painstaking notation makes his scores far denser than one might suspect on a first hearing. Although he playfully describes his series of limpid Bagatelles as ‘pet animals’ in comparison to the ‘tigers’ of his larger, more philosophical works, to perform even the simplest piano piece of Silvestrov with the requested attention to detail – subtle shading of tone, almost imperceptible shifts in tempo, pedalling as a quasi-autonomous musical parameter – can at times feel like an impossibly demanding task. One that has something of the feel of a metaphysical exercise (Silvestrov’s output for piano includes works with overtly sacred titles such as Sanctus, Benedictus or Hymn 2001 as well as the haunting, quasi-Mozartian The Messenger which doubles as the Agnus Dei of the Requiem). A contemplative attitude is a pre-requisite on the part of the player, who finds herself not so much performing a ‘piece of music’ as meditating on the nature of Music in a supra-personal sense; the composer regards himself not as a creator bringing something into being but rather as the channel through which a pre-existing universal Music flows. Each new work merely continues where other composers of the past (Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Tchaikovsky …) have left off,  offering one more expression of ‘the song of the world about itself’.[1]

In recent years, Silvestrov’s catalogue has been unexpectedly expanded by a remarkable series of choral works on liturgical texts written for the Kiev Chamber Choir under their director Mykola Hobdych. A first group of these were released by ECM in 2009 on the critically acclaimed CD Sacred Choral Works , including the unearthly Litany and a Diptych which can also be found on a Latvian Radio Choir recording for the GB label of Gavin Bryars, who described it is ‘the most beautiful music I had ever heard’ when he came across the piece without knowing the identity of its author in 2003. In conjunction with Silvestrov’s 75th birthday year, ECM will next month be releasing a second album of Silvestrov’s works for choir dating from 2006-2008 which may not become 2012 ‘s best-selling release but will certainly be on my wishlist.

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Although the ECM New Series recordings of Valentin Silvestrov’s music (together with Gidon Kremer’s compelling performance of Dedication with the Munich Philharmonic on TELDEC) probably constitute the best introduction to his catalogue, there is also a fair amount of stimulating live concert footage available on the internet. Silvestrov’s inimitable quasi-improvisatory piano playing can for example be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gdgEFTvFzE , while he can be seen rehearsing his recent String Quartet n.3 with the Kronos Quartet at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-16758798 . His contribution to Schott Music’s multi-composer ‘Petrushka Project’ can be heard online at http://www.petrushka-project.com/works/composers/show,20856.html For serious devotees, a dense but richly rewarding book of interviews  ‘To Wait for Music’ (in Russian), accompanied by a DVD-ROM with most of Silvestrov’s works and unique home-recorded piano sketches can be ordered from the Ukrainian publishers Duh i Litera http://duh-i-litera.com

[1] https://www.eamdc.com/news/Valentin-Silvestrov-Turns-75/