A drop in the ocean

In the course of the last week much has been said and written about the Catholic Church’s newest saint (newest in a formal sense, as in the eyes of millions throughout the Catholic and non-Catholic world her sainthood was already a certainty at the time of her death in 1997),  Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It was perhaps predictable that news outlets looking for sensation (goodness is boring, after all) would scour the horizon for dissenting voices, for example complaining about the lack of attention to issues of basic hygiene on the part of the Missionaries of Charity or accusing Mother Teresa of using her work as a pretext for proselytizing the population of Kolkata. The critics have however thankfully been in a distinct minority compared to those for whom the diminuitive Albanian nun from Skopje in a tangible sense epitomized God’s mercy in an all-too-often merciless 20th century.

Pope Francis’s homily for Mother Teresa’s canonization, which you can read here speaks for itself and I will not attempt to add anything to it. I would however like to make some brief comments relating to her profound and mysterious spiritual life as revealed in her writings, which have perhaps not occasioned as much comment as they deserve but are arguably no less significant for our society than the visible testimony of her practical work.

Seeking the heart of God cover

Above all else, St Teresa of Calcutta’s mission cannot be properly understood without grasping the essential unity of action and contemplation in her life, a distinguishing feature that she shared with another emblematic Christian witness of the twentieth-century, Frère Roger of Taizé (1915-2005), with whom she co-authored the books Mary, Mother of Reconciliations (1988) and Prayer: Seeking the Heart of God (1992). The rootedness of her work in the eternal rather than merely temporal perspective offered by Christian contemplation effectively constitutes the difference between action and mere activism ; failure to comprehend this difference lies at the heart of the misunderstanding of the fundamental purpose of her ‘homes for the dying’ by those whose frame of reference is primarily socio-political and whose yardstick by which to measure success is quantifiable results.

While stressing the importance of the contemplative dimension, it is important to emphasize that what makes the deep insights of Mother Teresa’s contemplative writings all the more remarkable is the fact that, as was only discovered after her death, they were written not in some kind of ecstatic rapture at God’s presence but rather in a state of spiritual aridity, even ‘darkness’, that seems to have lasted for decades. For example, Jesuit priest Albert Huart recalls how in 1985 Mother Teresa spoke to him bluntly about her sense of God’s absence:

“Father, I do realize that when I open my mouth to speak to the sisters and to people about God and God’s work, it brings them light, joy and courage. But I get nothing of it. Inside it is all dark and feeling that I am totally cut off from God.” (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The revealing private writings of the Nobel Peace Prize Winner (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 306.)

Such posthumous revelations of Mother Teresa’s inner state over a period of many years naturally came as a shock, even an affront to many who now viewed her as a hypocrite or even a plain atheist. This was however clearly not the case of her spiritual directors who were able to make sense of her often distressing interior experiences by pointing out their commonality with the path followed by some of the giants of Christian spirituality such as St John of the Cross.

Mother Teresa come be my light

As Brian Kolodiejchuk, director of the Mother Teresa Center and postulator for her beatification, writes in the introduction to the landmark publication Come Be My Light, Mother Teresa’s at times terrifying spiritual dryness is only comprehensible in the light of Tradition as

‘a sharing in the Passion of Christ on the Cross – with a particular emphasis on the thirst of Jesus as the mystery of His longing for the love and salvation of every human person. Eventually she recognized her mysterious suffering as an imprint of Christ’s Passion on her soul. She was living the mystery of Calvary – the Calvary of Jesus and the Calvary of the poor.’ (ibid., 3-4)

In this interpretation of thirst through the prism of the fifth of Christ’s Seven Last Words, there is a further link between St John of the Cross, Mother Teresa and Frère Roger of Taizé, who was especially fond of Jacques Berthier’s haunting musical setting of a Spanish text of Luis Rosales (1910-1992), De noche iremos, inspired by John of the Cross’s famous ‘Song of the soul which rests in the knowledge of God through faith’ (Cantar del alma que se huelga de conocer a Dios por fe). De noche iremos concludes with the enigmatic line ‘thirst is our only light’ (sólo la sed nos alumbra): it might be said that Mother Teresa’s life was a perfect illustration of this principle, in that the burning thirst for God, experienced in the dereliction of His absence, in a paradoxical sense became the driving force for her mission.

Here it is crucial to place Mother Teresa’s aridity in a broader context: Come Be My Light reveals that her years of inner darkness only ensued after intense purported mystical experiences in the 1940s as a Loreto nun. Evidence of these is presented in the book in the form of dialogue with Christ of a type familiar to students of Christian mysticism down through the centuries running from figures such as St Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373) or Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) through to more modern examples such as the Polish nun Helena Faustyna Kowalska (1905-1938), Hungarian mother and factory worker Elizabeth Kindelmann (1913-1985) or French nurse, actress and playwright Gabrielle Bossis (1874-1950). Reading such material can be a somewhat disconcerting exercise for those who are shocked at the very notion of such dialogues, whose image of Jesus is edulcorated or sentimental, or who are offended by the unfashionable notion that Christ can make sacrificial demands of those wishing to follow him, yet robust conversations such as the following are absolutely typical of Christian mystical literature. Writing to Archbishop Ferdinand Perier of Calcutta in 1947, this is how Mother Teresa reconstructs one of her supposed dialogues with Jesus during prayer and Communion:

“Wilt thou refuse? When there was a question of thy soul I did not think of Myself but gave Myself freely for thee on the Cross and now what about thee? Wilt thou refuse? I want Indian nuns victims of My love, who would be Mary and Martha, who would be so very united to Me as to radiate My love on souls. I want free nuns covered with My poverty of the Cross. – I want obedient nuns covered with My obedience on the Cross. I want full of love nuns covered with My Charity of the Cross. – Wilt thou refuse to do this for Me?”

 My own Jesus – what You ask it is beyond me – I can hardly understand half of the things You want – I am unworthy – I am sinful – I am weak. – Go Jesus and find a more worthy soul, a more generous one.

” You have become My Spouse for My love – you have come to India for Me. The thirst you had for souls brought you so far. – Are you afraid now to take one more step for your Spouse – for Me – for souls? Is your generosity grown cold? Am I a second to you? You did not die for souls – that is why you don’t care what happens to them. – Your heart was never drowned in sorrow as was My Mother’s. – We both gave our all for souls – and you? You are afraid, that you will lose your vocation – you will become a secular – you will be wanting in perseverance. No – your vocation is to love and suffer and save souls and by taking the step you will fulfill My Heart’s desire for you.” (ibid., 96-97)

What are we to make of such exchanges? Psychologists (as well as many contemporary theologians for whom this kind of bridal language and references to God’s desire for ‘victims of My love’ sit uneasily with ‘modern’ images of God) might of course be tempted to dismiss such dialogues as nothing more than interior monologues, the projection of internal conflicts – or repressed sexuality – in the language of an inherited religious vocabulary. The evidence of Mother Teresa’s unwavering lifelong response to what she perceived as God’s specific call to found what would become the Missionaries of Charity however suggests that such reductive interpretations, while undoubtedly fashionable in certain circles, are a little too convenient to do justice to the power of this material. And for many a reader, rational linguistic analysis can only take us so far when confronted by words such as those in italics. From the standpoint of faith, this is ultimately a Voice that you either recognize (cf. John 10:27) or don’t… but one which, once you do recognize it, you ignore at your peril…

With this comment on the limits of human language and interpretation, it seems appropriate to turn instead to music for two short tributes to St Teresa of Calcutta. Firstly, this miniature masterpiece of vocal imagination entitled A Drop in the Ocean by my friend Eriks Esenvalds (1977 – ) which I heard for the first time being sung to mesmerizing effect by the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge under Stephen Layton in 2011 while the highly talented young Latvian composer was in residence at the College. Written in 2006 and now a staple work for many choirs throughout the world interested in challenging but attractive contemporary repertoire, Esenvalds’ setting (here sung by the Latvian State Choir) combines the Our Father, a prayer of St Francis Assisi and some often-quoted words of Mother Teresa that have been a consolation to many on the point of succumbing to ‘compassion fatigue’ faced by the ills of the world:

‘My work is nothing but a drop in the ocean, but if I did not put that drop, the ocean would be one drop the less.’

The second tribute is the present author’s, a piece entitled Breathe in me (2013) setting a prayer to the Holy Spirit that I encountered through the Kolkata saint’s writings. Despite being frequently attributed to her, the words are actually those of St Augustine of Hippo, yet they remain intimately associated with Mother Teresa as she prayed them daily:

‘Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy. Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy’  (quoted in Mother Teresa, A Call to Mercy: Hearts to Love, Hands to Serve , edited and with a preface and an introduction by Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC (New York: Image, 2016), 187).


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.


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.


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.


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.’


Musical prayer service April 5

In line with my previous post, and in the light of ongoing events in Russia and the Ukraine, a musical prayer service for peace, reconciliation and Christian unity will be held at the American Church in Paris,  65 quai d’Orsay, 75007 PARIS (métro: Invalides, RER: Pont de l’Alma, bus 63) at 3 p.m. this Saturday, April 5th. I will be introducing and playing piano music by Valentin Silvestrov; the event is also intended to raise awareness of the ecumenical efforts of the Urbi et Orbi Foundation focused on Eastern Europe, seeking to ‘”build bridges” between divided Christians, especially between Catholics and the Orthodox, through conferences, concerts, exhibitions, and common works of charity.’ For further details concerning the work of Urbi et Orbi, see insidethevatican.com/urbi-et-orbi.

Maidan memorial cross ground

David’s revenge (iii) With a sling and a stone

As I said in the previous section of this post, this is the point at which we change registers from art to economics. What prevents this from being a total non-sequitur is that the thoughts in this concluding part of our reflections on the theme of King David are largely based on a presentation that I gave three weeks ago on the subject of the worldwide economic situation and its implications for artists. Those interested can find it here in French or in an English version in which the artistic question is less developed than the theological dimension.

Let me say at the outset that I make no claim to any particular financial expertise;  I am primarily observing current economic debates as a theologian who is inevitably reliant on the technical analyses of others and conversations with better-informed friends with specialist knowledge of the field. In the course of the last few months it has however become clear even to someone whose knowledge of economic concepts is as sketchy as mine that all is not well in the house of international banking, to put it mildly. Whereas a few years ago critique of contemporary banking practices may have been largely confined to finance professionals, the ‘Occupy’ movement and readers of alternative media websites, a series of high-profile public investigations/prosecutions by bodies responsible for regulating the financial sector should by now have alerted the general public to patterns of chronic systemic malpractice and market manipulation involving the ‘too big to fail’ banks. Given the ongoing international sovereign debt crisis, chaos and currency collapse in a number of emerging economies, talk of debt ceilings in America and elsewhere,  together with nervous speculation over the imminent ‘tapering’ of the US Federal Reserve’s ‘quantitative easing’ stimulus package (reduced yesterday to ‘only’ $75 billion per month), an increasing number of commentators are predicting stormy waters ahead economically in 2014.

All this, you may say, is of course nothing new. Economic crises come and go cyclically, after all. I would nonetheless like to argue that there is indeed something unusual and new about the financial watershed that we seem to be approaching with alarming rapidity. I am not merely speaking of the possibility that, if a number of well-known commentators are to be believed, the dénouement of the present crisis may well be a the global financial ‘reset’ as in 1944 with the installation of the Bretton Woods exchange system or in 1971 with its termination. What haunts me is something different as I listen to an increasing number of critical analysts and investors speaking through sites such as http://www.kingworldnews.com who are asking searching questions of the current economic system and finding it badly wanting. For some reason, as if out of nowhere, these secular analysts have lately begun to couch their calls for a wholesale reform of global financial institutions in Biblical language of judgment. Scriptural metaphors are being appropriated in order to describe what they see as the grim endgame to the industrialized nations’ love affair with debt, as our increasingly desperate attempts to finance our unaffordable lifestyle over several decades finally reap a bitter harvest of insolvency. Furthermore, for anyone prepared to countenance the admittedly controversial idea that prophecy in the Biblical sense did not terminate with the end of the age of the Apostles, what makes the warnings of these secular financial commentators doubly uncanny is their strange convergence with those of voices within the Churches across the denominational spectrum who have also been saying that the ‘writing is on the wall’. The phenomenon that I find to be one which is genuinely new (in the modern age, that is) and which requires some explanation is the current fusion of the economic and the prophetic, whether on the part of religious believers who sense a theological resonance in economics or economists who feel the need to resort to religious vocabulary to illustrate their financial concepts.

Rembrandt, 'Belshazzar's Feast'

Rembrandt, ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’

There are of course examples of critics of the present system who make an overt attempt to couple economic and theological readings of contemporary events. Of these, it should be acknowledged that some such as Steve Quayle, ‘V’ the Guerrilla Economist’ or ‘Brotherjohnf’ basically appeal to an ‘alternative’ popular audience looking for sensationalist rhetoric, but there are also less incendiary commentators whose references are somewhat more sophisticated. One such is the author of the intriguing ‘Jesse’s Café Américain’ blog which mixes COMEX gold statistics and complex graphs with quotes from Charles Péguy, Léon Bloy and Rembrandt’s unforgettable depiction of Belshazzar’s Feast overlaid with the words ‘stand and deliver’. Less directly theological but no less moralizing are the conclusions of perhaps the most eminent contemporary economic Jeremiah, former US Budget Director David Stockman, author of the New York times bestseller The Great Deformation: the Corruption of Capitalism in America , whose background as a former Harvard Divinity School student is not lost on his detractors and supporters alike.

What is surprising, however, is that voices who you would not normally expect to be waxing theological at all appear to have joined this party. They somehow seem to have intuited that what lies ahead when – rather than if – the whole leveraged economic system inevitably crumbles under its own weight is not merely an event in chronological time but a kairos moment. One in which Western civilization will be confronted not only with a technical hitch but with the truth about ourselves. We for example have veteran ‘Dow Theory’ financial newsletter author Richard Russell quoting Emmet Fox’s ‘Golden Key’ about solving seemingly intractable problems by thinking about the character of God, or the inimitably acerbic Trends Research Institute forecaster Gerald Celente predicting a ‘New Altruism’ in ‘response to waning resources, want, and an over-commodified culture’ and a coming ‘Great Awakening 2.0’. In some cases, however, the metaphors are more specifically Biblical, with MSN Money contributor Bill Fleckenstein of Fleckenstein Capital talking of a ‘coming to Jesus moment’ awaiting America when it is eventually forced to confront its mountain of national debt, or Prof. James Petras of http://www.globalresearch.ca calling for a ‘Samson solution’ to pull down the ‘Temple of Mammon’. 

GATA logoDraw your own conclusions from all of this, but I for one find myself led back to where I began – King David. A few months ago, an article appeared on the website of the Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee (GATA) entitled ‘with a sling and a stone’ comparing the struggle against the hegemony of the international banking cartel to the struggle of David and Goliath. For a number of years now, GATA has been in the vanguard of the fight against corruption in the financial sector, waging a consistent campaign with the regulators in order to unmask the manipulation of the precious metals markets, not least thanks to the detailed and damning information supplied by insiders such as London whistleblower Andrew Maguire. Following the revelations of the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal implicating major banking institutions, the manipulation by major financial institutions of the price of gold and silver is now in the public spotlight as the focus of anti-corruption investigations, the allegation being that for several years now there has been massive suppression of the price of precious metals through naked short selling in order (among other things) to maintain confidence in the US dollar and the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve.

Why, you may ask, is this so significant ethically? The answer would seem to lie in the underlying shared conviction of many whose analysis of the ills of the global financial system focuses on the West’s move away from ‘sound money’ based on an underlying physical commodity of some sort to a ‘fiat’ paper currency system supported by nothing except investor confidence. Put very simply, gold and silver are the nemesis of the fiat bankers because, unlike dollars, euros, yen, treasury bonds or the myriad of largely incomprehensible financial instruments that make up the $1 quadrillion derivatives market, they cannot be printed at will. Precious metals’ continued existence as a store of monetary value therefore poses a philosophical threat to those who like Paul Krugman (provoking the ire of Boston University’s Prof. Laurence Kotlikoff whose ‘Inform Act’ petition for greater institutional transparency with regard to public information about debt has now been signed by 1000 economists) think that the world’s debt problems can be solved by simply minting a $1 trillion platinum coin to pay off a debtor nation’s’ creditors. Which logically would mean that possessing a printing press can replace work as a means of wealth creation.

Until now those seeking to call a spade a spade in critiquing the ‘too big to fail banks’ and the money-printing policies of the world’s leading financial institutions have found themselves in a distinct minority. But it seems that they may at last be gaining traction, and it would seem from the foregoing brief survey that many of them clearly feel that they are on the side of the angels – whether or not they take that expression literally. The conclusion of the GATA article is one which, like the finale of Honegger’s Le Roi David and distant echoes of Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus back in 1979, has been ringing in my mind’s ear in the latter part of this year:

‘At least the lesson of history is that the bad guys fail because they always go too far. Yes, far enough to cause terrible suffering and sometimes even great horror, but not far enough to wipe out humanity or every decent human instinct — at least not yet.

Of course the bad guys still have enormous power and will do anything to preserve it, and their opposition remains only lightly armed, but these days even 1st Samuel may worry them a little:

And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slung it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.’

David and Goliath (Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel)

David and Goliath (Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel)

David’s revenge (ii) Honegger in Bercy

The cavernous Palais Omnisports Paris-Bercy is a place that I primarily associate either with Lady Gaga and Rihanna or with indoor tennis, but at the end of September it hosted the French Protestants en Fête Festival, subtitled Paris d’espérance (a bit of wordplay which could be loosely translated ‘betting on hope’). On Sunday September 29th an estimated 12-15,000 (including Catholic Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, as there was an ecumenical dimension to the Paris-wide festival, whose venues included the Institut Catholique) attended a televised worship service  with singing led by a thousand-member choir and instrumental ensemble directed by my good friend John Featherstone. Prior to this was a Saturday evening marathon entertainment event featuring everything from headliner Camerounian saxophonist/singer Manu Djibango and manouche jazz guitar to Gospel and theatre sketches; my part in the proceedings was that I had been entrusted with kicking off the evening by directing a ‘classical’ set with forces drawn from the CRESCENDO professional Christian musicians’ network.


I put ‘classical’ in inverted commas as we found ourselves performing in a rock concert atmosphere complete with giant screens, dry ice, cameramen a matter of inches from the players and a live audience of around 7000, a setting which had its challenges but also a peculiar thrill to it. On the program were works by Mendelssohn, two of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge given a memorable performance by the formidable Bertrand Grunenwald, my own Breathe in me (on a prayer to the Holy Spirit by St Augustine that I discovered in an adaptation by Mother Teresa of Calcutta), plus three movements from Honegger’s Roi David.

Théâtre du Jorat, Mézières, 1921

Théâtre du Jorat, Mézières, 1921

Honegger’s ‘Symphonic Psalm’ on the life of King David  is without doubt Francophone Protestantism’s greatest contribution to modern musical literature. It has to be conceded that the composer’s neo-classical aesthetic is not to all tastes, and that the recitation accompanying the piece has not aged as well as the score itself, yet the work is a real feat of musico-poetic imagination, particularly when you consider the highly problematic practical circumstances under which it was written. If Le Roi David is now best-known as an oratorio with full orchestra, it was originally composed for a Biblical drama by Swiss poet René Morax for the Théâtre du Jorat in Mezières near Lausanne, where Honegger had the delicate task of writing for 100 amateur voices accompanied by an instrumental ensemble of only 17 players (including a solitary double bass). It was this original 1921 instrumentation that we used at Bercy, and the score just goes to prove the maxim that necessity really is the mother of invention, with the composer following the no-nonsense advice of Igor Stravinsky, who had advocated him for the project: ‘It’s very simple … Do as if you wanted this ensemble, and compose for a hundred singers and seventeen instrumentalists’. Le Roi David is remarkable for the way in which Honegger is able to squeeze every last drop of colour and texture from the forces available to him with masterly economy (not least by the imaginative use of keyboard sonorities and muted brass). In particular, the extended Danse devant l’arche and the work’s finale La Mort de David, with which we concluded our set at Bercy, have to count among the great moments of the modern choral/orchestral repertoire. In the finale, first the soprano soloist (the excellent Diana Higbee) and then the chorus take us beyond the Davidic timeframe with a promise that is both Messianic and eschatological, its note of ultimate hope being all the more noteworthy in having been written in the wake of the carnage of World War I:

Dieu te dit: un jour viendra
où une fleur fleurira
de ta souche reverdie,
et son parfum remplira
tous les peuples d’ici-bas
du souffle de la vie.

God tells you: a day will come
when a flower will blossom
from your stem grown green once more
and its perfume will fill
all the peoples here below
with the breath of life

Arthur Honegger, 1921

Arthur Honegger, 1921

Besides this one-of-a-kind event in Bercy (of which a commemorative DVD has just appeared) and my memories of Kodaly’s Psalmus Hungaricus there are two additional reasons why the Biblical figure of King David has very much in my mind of late. The first, of course, is the present season of Advent – just yesterday in our liturgical readings we heard David and ‘Uriah’s wife’ (a.k.a. Bathsheba) mentioned in the genealogy of Joseph that opens Matthew’s Gospel. The second, however, may surprise you as the third part of this post takes a sudden lurch away from music to an urgent subject which has not yet been featured on this blog but may well do so in the future with a certain frequency given the current turn of international events – global finance.

David’s revenge (i) Psalmus Hungaricus

In my previous post I indulged in some reminiscences about my first exposure to the world of professional music as a teenage chorister in London, talking about Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which I sang in 1980. Today I would like to go back a year in thinking about a Biblical figure who has been uppermost in my mind recently for reasons both musical and non-musical: King David, the hero of the present three-part post. On July 24, 1979 I took part in a performance at the BBC Proms under Sir Charles Mackerras of the Psalmus Hungaricus Op.13 of Zoltán Kodály , a piece that I still regard as one of the twentieth century’s most underrated choral masterworks. Written to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Buda and Pest and given its first performance in the same concert as Bartók’s Dance Suite, this setting of Psalm 55 is one of imposing emotional range, encompassing moments both of hushed meditation and rugged, declamatory ferocity in its trajectory leading from a cry of affliction and betrayal to contrite expectation and final vindication. That it is not better-known outside Hungary can surely only be attributed to linguistic factors (in 1979 we sang in English) and the difficulty of the cruelly taxing solo tenor part. Its climaxes may strike some listeners as bombastic, but there are also introspective passages of a haunting, evocative beauty, notably the clarinet and violin solos of the Psalm’s central section in which Kodaly displays a similar flair for delicate orchestral colour as that found in Hary Janos or his unjustly neglected Peacock Variations. Above all, what continues to stand out for me when listening again to the Psalmus Hungaricus is the unusually dramatic, almost operatic intensity of its portrayal of King David. This is a thorougly un-sanitized Psalmist who shines through not only as a sublime liturgical poet but the passionate creature of flesh and blood that we find in the Biblical record, capable of giving expression to even the most visceral of human feelings.

Zoltán Kodály, 1930

Zoltán Kodály, 1930

The première of Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus took place on November 19, 1923. Just two weeks later, another Davidic masterpiece, Le Roi David by Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) received its first performance in the oratorio form which would make the composer’s international reputation. This piece now leads me to fast forward from 1979 to 2013 and a concert which was certainly one of the most unusual concerts with which I have ever been involved.

Britten’s titanic tears

Last week Benjamin Britten would have been one hundred years old, and quite rightly there have been a plethora of events internationally involving many of my friends and colleagues in honour of the anniversary. Although I have not been involved personally in the centenary celebrations, I guess I owe the composer of the War Requiem a blog post at the very least, as his works played a decisive role in my decision to become a professional musician. In 1980, four years after his death, I and a dozen teenage schoolfriends in Trinity School Boys’ Choir under its founder David Squibb (1935-2010) spent several months singing in two productions of Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, first at the Royal Academy of Music in London and then in residence at the mythical location of Snape Maltings, home to the Aldeburgh Festival. This was my first experience of opera, and it could scarcely have been a more absorbing, magical introduction to its multiple dimensions. In terms of becoming acquainted with the world of professional music and theatre, I look back on it as a truly formative time whose impact on my thinking as a composer and performer I can still feel today.

Snape Maltings

Snape Maltings concert hall (photo Jon Hopkins)

The part played by the boys’ chorus in the Aldeburgh production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was considerable not only in terms of singing but also movement, which in Christopher Renshaw’s staging meant spending many hours rehearsing on a somewhat intimidating triangular metal gantry which I got to know intimately as it slid back and forwards on rails onstage. In my mind’s eye I can still see the metal bar to which I clung ape-like during the opening bars (featuring Britten’s memorable double bass glissandi evoking a donkey’s braying) ready to spring into action for the first chorus ‘Over hill over dale’. If these acrobatics certainly provoked a stirring of my thirteen year-old blood, the most delicate moment however came in the third act, with a dance sequence (for which we were given instruction by a coach from the Ballet Rambert) which we had to perform seated near the top of the gantry, which I would perhaps have experienced as less vertiginous had I been allowed to wear my glasses on stage but which I found worryingly tall.

Various incidents remain in my mind from my time in Suffolk, including a variety of typical adolescent pranks (such as the choir drenching each other and their chorus master mercilessly in a water battle in kayaks on a mini-lake near Lowestoft, or a friend’s failed(!) attempt to wake me by blowing a trumpet full volume in my ear while I was asleep). This was a time when I was probably more concerned at my inability to sight-read the piano introduction to Rudy from Supertramp’s Crime of the Century – an album whose lasting influence on me probably shows up somewhere in my own works if you look hard enough –  than to memorize my part in the opera. What stays in my memory above all, however,  is the general atmosphere of Aldeburgh, the East Anglian landscape and the backdrop of the North Sea, in which I recall taking one brief freezing dip and which Britten evoked so unforgettably in the  Four Sea Interludes to Peter Grimes. During the production we were housed in a large house in Leiston, where I stayed in a room from which I could see the impressively grey mass of water extending unbroken to Friesland, Schleswig-Holstein and Scandinavia.  As I looked out in the evenings, scouring the horizon in search of the lights of passing ships, the view did not fail to catch my imagination just as it had once caught Britten’s (and other artists fascinated by this brooding seascape such as the nineteenth-century German writer Theodor Storm, who penned his haunting Schimmelreiter on its Eastern banks in Husum, ‘die graue Stadt am Meer’ – ‘the grey town by the sea’ – an epithet which could equally well describe Aldeburgh). There is a peculiar poetic quality to Northern European skies which is hard to capture in the space of a few words but which has left an indelible stamp on innumerable pieces of music, at least as I hear them, from the storm in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades or the existential loneliness of Sibelius’s tone-poems to the strangely hovering flute arabesques of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony or, changing genre slightly, a host of ECM jazz releases by Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Arild Andersen and others.

Given the Athenian setting of Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is obviously not one of Britten’s quintessentially East Anglian or maritime works, but its writing shares with them a powerfully evocative, often dream-like quality. I can still recall the sense of enchantment that I experienced when walking alone beneath the stage at the opening of Act III just before our entrance in order to listen to the orchestral prelude. Listening to this brief passage for strings again today, I am no less struck by its interiority and economy of line now than I was as a teenager. Britten was undoubtedly one of the twentieth-century’s greatest masters of ‘diatonic dissonance’ in terms of his control of the melodic/harmonic tension that can be generated by simply allowing tonal or modal lines to sound against one another or to float eerily over foreign pedal notes, even in the sparest of textures (think of the hypnotic meditation ‘Look, through the port comes the moonlight astray’ sung by the title character of Billy Budd prior to his execution). It is no secret to anyone familiar with his biography that Britten, who was able to convey a sense of malevolence as few other composers (The Rape of LucretiaThe Turn of the Screw…), was at times a tortured individual, yet there is also a great purity in his diatonic music, a yearning for lost innocence that was among the qualities that inspired Arvo Pärt to write his Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten on the latter’s death in 1976:

Why did the date of Benjamin Britten’s death – December 4, 1976 – touch such a chord in me? During this time I was obviously at the point where I could recognise the magnitude of such a loss. Inexplicable feelings of guilt, more than that even, arose in me. I had just discovered Britten for myself. Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music – I had had the impression of the same kind of purity in the ballads of Guillaume de Machaut. And besides, for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally – and now it would not come to that.'[1]

I too never met Benjamin Britten, although Sir Peter Pears did sign my programme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream backstage in Aldeburgh in 1980. A year later my voice had broken and I would not sing in the War Requiem alongside my classmates (although I did play the piano part in a performance at Snape Maltings many years later); my time singing Britten’s music as a boy treble was over. Yet my admiration for the composer has remained unchanged ever since, and writing from my continental European vantage-point it now seems clearer than ever that he alone of British musicians of the mid twentieth-century generated a compositional corpus endowed with sufficient universality to speak to international audiences in locations far removed from Britten’s own cultural hinterland.

Benjamin Britten 1968

Benjamin Britten, 1968

The War Requiem in particular has lost nothing of its relevance half a century after its first performance; like Shostakovich, Britten here is a chronicler of history who both recalls and warns. Like the perennial liturgical text and Wilfred Owen’s poetry which it sets, Britten’s music continues to speak in a world which is no less battle-scarred than it was at the time of the Requiem‘s première in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. A performance of the Offertorium remains a chilling experience; the logic of humanity’s terrible refusal to sacrifice the ‘Ram of Pride’ rather than ‘half the seed of Europe, one by one’ in 1914-1918 is tragically very much still with us. Both for this reason and in its inherent musico-poetic structure, the War Requiem remains in some sense an open-ended work (not unlike Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis),  whose unresolved tension eludes easy closure and prevents us from forgetting what in this world’s history has remained unreconciled.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at the end of the baritone solo ‘After the blast of lightning from the East’ following the Sanctus, concluding with Owen’s troubled words:

And when I hearken to the Earth, she saith:
“My fiery heart shrinks, aching. It is death.
Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,
Nor my titanic tears, the sea, be dried.”

Listening to the War Requiem as I write and thinking of Aldeburgh as I remember it three decades ago, it is that brooding grey expanse of titanic tears which comes before my mind’s eye.

Let us sleep now…

[1] Quoted in Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 101.

Le Roi des Instruments – Trocadéro 4.0 in Lyon

The question of whether progress is a valid concept in music is one over which much ink has been spilled by musical theorists and philosophers. On the level of expression and content the answer ought to be obvious: musical composition cannot be said to ‘advance’ in Hegelian fashion if that is taken as implying that later composers de facto write better music than earlier ones because of the cumulative acquisition of scientific knowledge during the intervening years. There are admittedly some domains of musical science in which to talk of advances in knowledge is legitimate (orchestration, for example, which is in some ways the most ‘technological’ of musical parameters, or investigations into the nature of timbre). But this does not make Strauss ‘superior’ to Mozart, Dutilleux to Dufay or Boulez to Bach simply because their scores are more complex, the notation more refined; to judge in such a fashion is to make a category mistake. The masterworks of the past have a perennial greatness to them which, like that of poetry, has little or nothing to do with their contribution to a supposed onward march of progress but everything to do with the perfect correspondence they demonstrate between artistic aims and the means employed.

A similar situation might be said to apply when it comes to building musical instruments. It cannot be disputed that we have never known more about the science of instrumental construction (including the techniques of past centuries) nor had access to such accurate tools of calibration as are available to us through precision engineering and computer modelling. There is no doubt that this scientific baggage is extremely useful,  yet when it comes to questions of tonal beauty rather than mechnical efficiency the technology is of secondary importance in comparison to the physical properties of the natural materials involved. As anyone who has been overwhelmed by the sound of a Stradivarius, vintage Bechstein grand piano or the collective vocal chords  (untouched by any machine) of a great choir will tell you. 

The world of organ-building is a good illustration of the benefits and limitations of instrumental progress. Technological advancement certainly has its plus points, and can on occasion act as a catalyst for musical inspiration. I guess that only a few diehard advocates of an extreme form of historically-informed performance would like to go back to the days of hand-pumped instruments (presumably with candlelit music desks), and it has to be said that just as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Ravel’s Daphnis are unthinkable without the rise of the modern orchestra, so organ works such as Olivier Messiaen’s Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité or Jean-Louis Florentz’s Debout sur le Soleil have technological innovation as their condition of possibility (e.g. the advent of modern consoles equipped with playing aids allowing for rapid changes of colour).

Moreover, although it may be heresy to say so in some circles, the truth is that computer sampling has now made surprisingly (and perhaps worryingly, depending on your point of view) realistic and low-maintenance electronic instruments available to churches and concert halls at a mere fraction of the cost of the pipe organs they simulate. At the same time, concerning these sampled sounds, it needs to be emphasized that the best aural results are arguably obtained when the sampled material is that of old pipework (or pipes newly constructed using old methods). Contemporary algorithms may be impressive in terms of their power of calculation and processing speed, but essentially they are simply building on what has stood the test of time.

Palais du Trocadéro (photo: collections Roger-Viollet)

Palais du Trocadéro (photo: collections Roger-Viollet)

It is this relationship with the past which constitutes one of the most astonishing things about the organ as an instrument whether physical or digital: the act of musical performance on an organ whose sounding material may be three or four centuries old blurs the boundary between past and present as the pipes (metal or virtual) of bygone eras make today’s air vibrate in real-time. This translation of the past into present aural reality  is particularly successful when modern technology has returned old instruments to their former glory, as was demonstrated last week with a series of concerts in the Auditorium de Lyon celebrating the restoration of one of France’s most legendary organs, constructed by the great builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll for the 5000-seat Palais du Trocadéro for the Exposition Universelle of 1878. Over the years, whether at the Trocadéro or the Palais de Chaillot where it was transferred in 1939 (with modifications by Victor and Fernand Gonzalez), this instrument has been intimately associated with some of the French organ’s finest moments: the first public performances of Widor’s Sixth Symphony and Franck’s Trois Pièces in the inaugural 1878 season, Marcel Dupré’s Chemin de la Croix in 1932, Messiaen’s Les Corps Glorieux (partially in 1941, complete in 1945) and the orchestral version of Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem in 1947.

Moved to the Auditorium de Lyon in 1977 after the transformation of the Palais de Chaillot into the Théatre National de Chaillot, by the 1990s the organ was already deemed in serious need of restoration. Its reinauguration this month after extensive work carried out by Michel Gaillard of the prestigious Bernard Aubertin firm of organbuilders sees the instrument – Trocadéro 4.0 – essentially restored to the combined colour palette of Cavaillé-Coll and V.&F. Gonzalez with the elimination of certain dubious changes brought about in 1977.[1]

Organ, Auditorium de Lyon (photo: Claire Delamarche)

Organ, Auditorium de Lyon (photo: Claire Delamarche)

How does the restored organ sound? Unfortunately I was not able to attend in person, but on the evidence of the broadcast of this Tuesday’s concert with the Orchestre National de Lyon under Leonard Slatkin on http://www.medici.tv – a fantastic free streaming website which I wholeheartedly recommend – the results are pretty impressive. The limitations of any pipe organ in a dryish concert hall acoustic are obvious when trying  to convey the expressive content of music conceived for a resonant church, but the legendary 6,500-pipe instrument of the Auditorium more than makes up for it in terms of the power, brilliance and variety of its tonal resources.

Vincent Warnier Duruflé coverThe choice of Vincent Warnier as soloist for the evening, playing works by Saint-Saëns (his intriguing, if at times puzzling Cyprès et Lauriers, premièred at the Trocadéro in 1920 when the composer was 85) and Poulenc (Organ Concerto) could hardly have been more appropriate. As organiste titulaire of the church of St-Etienne du Mont in Paris (a post which he shares with Thierry Escaich, the Orchestre de Lyon’s resident composer from 2007 to 2010), he represents the musical inheritance of his predecessor Maurice Duruflé. The latter not only played the first performance of the Poulenc Concerto but assisted the composer – who had never written for the organ – with its registration as well as making an electrifying recording of the work with Georges Prêtre in St-Etienne du Mont in 1961. Vincent Warnier is a player of compelling physical and intellectual energy, as was evident not only in the Poulenc but also in an electric improvised encore on material from the concerto (start time 40:45). Watching him in action with Maestro Slatkin is also a particular pleasure for me personally as the two of us were both prizewinners at the international organ competition held in the legendary setting of Chartres Cathedral back in September 1992 (he for interpretation, I for improvisation) at the outset of his career. An event which brings back memories of evenings spent talking about everything and anything with Vincent over pizza while waiting for the final to arrive of a competition which in those days lasted a psychologically gruelling three weeks.

This was time of which I have two enduring recollections. One is having to re-heel my mouldy old organ shoes, which I still wear from time to time, after almost falling off the bench while trying [sic] to play a particularly tricky pedal passage in Messiaen’s L’Ascension during the semi-final. The second is attempting – not wholly successfully – to maintain my concentration in the cathedral organ loft during the final despite seeing another finalist (resident clown of the competition Mikael Wahlin, now one of Scandinavia’s finest concert organists) dressed in his nightgown, bottle of champagne in hand, letting off steam in an adjoining room full, somewhat surrealistically, of headless medieval statues.

Rose window, Chartres Cathedral

Rose window, Chartres Cathedral

Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto is to this date more or less the only work for organ and orchestra since Handel to have attained a lasting place in the concert repertoire. Its unique status is due in part to the undoubted paucity of concertos for organ by composers of international stature, but I would like to think that there are also deeper reasons for its continued success. Completed in 1938 but substantially finished by 1936, the tightly-organized 23 minutes of Poulenc’s Organ Concerto grip the audience attention right from the declamatory opening bars’ evocation of Bach’s G minor Fantasia BWV 542 by means of dramatic, abrupt contrasts which never allow interest to flag during the seven brief interlinked movements. The work can certainly be labelled as neo-classical, yet this is not the flippant neo-classicism of many of Poulenc’s early works but something altogether more austere. This is a ‘Poulenc on his way to the cloister’, nodding in the direction of the 15th century, as he put it in a letter to Claude Rostand; the Concerto combines moments of unresolved harmonic anguish and rhythmically trenchant orchestral writing with passages of tender expressive yearning, culminating in the elegiaic viola solo just before the concerto’s final peroration. The composer thought of the piece as related to his sacred music (its echoes can be heard in his post-war operatic masterpiece, Dialogues des Carmélites), and the kinship is obvious with his Litanies à la Vierge Noire composed in the wake of his conversion at Rocamadour in 1936.

Francis Poulenc with Wanda Landowska

Francis Poulenc with Wanda Landowska

If the Poulenc Concerto remains a ‘one-of-a-kind’ work, the adventurous integration by a major international orchestra and conductor of the organ into their symphonic programming raises some interesting questions about the future of the organ in the concert arena.[2] Surely there has to be space in the schedules of all those symphony halls on both sides of the Atlantic in which expensive and underused ranks of pipes form a backdrop to the orchestra for more concertos with organ which, like Poulenc’s, might in some way form a ‘para-liturgical’ repertoire in the same way as Messiaen’s works for piano and orchestra? And if so, can space be found in the schedules of the world’s great living composers to write them, perhaps with the help of a modern-day Duruflé to help those unfamiliar with the organ to unlock the technical secrets of le Roi des Instruments?

Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986)

Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986)

[1] Gonzalez is a much-maligned name in the history of the organ in France; while his neo-classical aesthetic may be contested, the retention of his modifications of the 1930s to the Trocadéro organ is an acknowledgement of Gonzalez’s considerable historical importance.

[2] For a thought-provoking reflection on this subject, see The Economist’s recent blog article entitled ‘King of Instruments, back on stage‘.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man?

Model offered to Pope Leo XIII in 1888 of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll's projected organ for St Peter's Basilica

Model offered to Pope Leo XIII in 1888 of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll’s projected organ for St Peter’s Basilica

OK, so the performing style of the Sistine Chapel Choir might not have been to everyone’s liking (judging by the Facebook comments I saw, some people had the impression they were hearing the Bayreuth chorus singing Parsifal). And whenever I hear the music for large-scale liturgical celebrations at the Vatican, I cannot help regretting that the plans of the great 19th-century French organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll to construct an instrument truly worthy of St Peter’s Basilica never came to fruition. But these musician’s pet peeves aside, there can be little doubt that with yesterday’s inauguration of Pope Francis we were witnessing history in the making.

As has been pointed out by many commentators, Cardinal Bergoglio’s choice of Papal name could not be more resonant. ‘Francis’ carries a unique spiritual cachet that commands immediate attention both inside and outside Roman Catholicism, to such an extent that the choice of the Italian saint’s name by any Cardinal designated for the Petrine office has widely been regarded as off-limits. When my own personal hero Olivier Messiaen decided to write his opera St François d’Assise (a project to which he devoted eight years of his life and a scarcely believable quantity of ink), he did so after first having wanted to write a piece on the life of Christ. Judging that his conscience would not allow him to put God the Son on stage, he opted for Francis out of the belief that he was the figure in Christian history who most clearly mirrored Jesus’s life. That is an opinion which is surely widely shared – for many, the word ‘Francis’ is a synonym for a call to Gospel poverty. For efforts towards reconciliation and peace with Islam. For a responsible theology of Creation and care for the environment. For a call to rebuild the Church.[1]

Only time will tell whether Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Papacy will live up to the huge expectations created by his momentous choice, but for the moment it is remarkable to see how expressions of support for his election have been coming from some surprising quarters. A recent article in Christianity Today (a magazine catering for a constituency not historically known as favourable to things Roman) entitled ‘Argentine Evangelicals Say Bergoglio as Pope Francis is ‘Answer to Our Prayers’ is a case in point. This comes as especially heartening given that it is no secret that relations between the Catholic Church and Protestants (particularly non-denominational groups) have been strained in recent years in Latin America.

Grotto of Saint Francis, La Verna (photo: Geobia)

Grotto of Saint Francis, La Verna (photo: Geobia)

For musicians, Francis of Assisi is a figure with a special pedigree. I have already mentioned Messiaen, but he is far from being the only composer to have felt an affinity with Franciscan spirituality, a tradition which dates back at least as far as Franz Liszt (although my own compositional catalogue contains no overt references to the saint as yet, I was deeply impacted by my two visits to La Verna, the site of Francis’s reception of the stigmata, where I had the privilege of giving recitals at organ festivals in 1993 and 2004).

Gubaidulina Canticle coverAmong living composers Sofia Gubaidulina, on whose ‘kenotic music’ I have commented elsewhere on this blog, is perhaps the most eminent musical devotee of Il Poverello, having written a large-scale Canticle of the Sun for cello, choir, percussion and celesta dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovitch. Further back in time, another well-known French example is Francis Poulenc, composer of Quatre Petites Prières de Saint François d’Assise, while Messiaen’s own interest in the saint was almost certainly influenced by that of fellow organist Charles Tournemire (1870-1939), an unjustly-neglected figure (to whom I will be returning in future posts) whose importance for the history of French twentieth-century has arguably been considerably under-estimated. Tournemire’s prolific output not only includes the massive liturgical cycle for organ (51 offices totalling 14 hours in playing time!) L’Orgue Mystique , but also eight symphonies – of which the monumental Sixth and Seventh on their own ought to be enough to secure the composer’s place in history, and several oratorios including an Il Poverello di Assisi.

Charles Tournemire, who in later life joined a lay Franciscan order, was not only a composer but a man of immense literary culture and encyclopedic interests. Interestingly,  like many French Catholic intellectuals in the early decades of the last century, he was an avid reader of the writing of the radical pamphleteer and famous pauper Léon Bloy (1846-1917) (whom Tournemire considered a prophet), who was quoted by Pope Francis during his first homily on the day after his election. The new Pontiff’s improvised words have since gone viral on the internet as a possible indication of things to come from the new occupant of the Throne of Peter:

‘We can walk as much we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a compassionate NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not walk, one stalls. When one does not built on solid rocks, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses, it is without consistency. When one does not profess Jesus Christ – I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy – “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.’[2]

Léon Bloy, 1887

Léon Bloy, 1887

For those who know anything about Bloy’s life and writings, the new Pope’s quotation of him right at the outset of his Papacy is startling. Not least because Bloy’s reading of history and world events was indelibly stamped by his commitment to the importance of the apparitions of Jesus’s Mother to two French peasant children in the Alpine countryside at La Salette in 1846. For much academic theology today which either ignores such phenomena altogether or sees them as mere superstition, it may seem incongruous that one of France’s foremost writers should have based his life’s work on an uncomprisingly mystical view of reality. This was however clearly not a contradiction for many leading French intellectuals of the early twentieth-century including the playwright Paul Claudel, novelist Georges Bernanos, scholar of Islam Louis Massignon and Bloy’s godson, philosopher Jacques Maritain, all of whom regarded La Salette as being of prime importance.

La Salette

La Salette

There are signs emerging that Pope Francis may well have something in common with Léon Bloy and his intellectual progeny in terms of an openness to Christian mysticism; details have begun to surface from official Vatican sources, reported by eminent ‘Vaticanista’ Robert Moynihan, about Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s personal faith journey which stress the importance of a mystical experience at the age of 17 for his life’s vocation. Furthermore,  Pope Francis has in the recent past not been afraid to associate himself with figures linked to the alleged Marian apparitions in Medjugorje currently under investigation by a Vatican commission headed by Cardinal Ruini. The notion that Cardinal Bergoglio may have shown hospitality to the Medjugorje visionaries (similar to that demonstrated by Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna) may be irritating to some, but it appears to have a basis in documented events during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

To know of this mystically Marian dimension of Pope Francis’s spirituality while also seeing that he has also had relations of unusual institutional warmth with Anglicans and is a personal friend of the famous Protestant evangelist Luis Palau strongly suggests that we are living at a historical juncture when boundaries previously thought impermeable may be breaking down. Which, at a moment in history when the universal Church has both been under attack from aggressive secularization and undermined by internal scandal, ought to be extremely good news. It is also a time at which the potentially explosive idea that God may well be communicating with us not only through ancient Scripture but through contemporary prophetic witness (and the insights of near-death experience reports, many linked to experience of religious conversion) seems to be making a comeback, of which Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election to the Papacy may well turn out to be a part.[3]

‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’ ?

The views expressed on ‘Da stand das Meer’ represent the author’s private opinions, not necessarily those of any institution with which he is associated.


[1] A good example of the appeal of Francis of Assisi across denominational lines is the acclaimed novel Chasing Francis by Anglican Ian Morgan Cron, which includes testimonials from figures as different as Rowan Williams, Tony Campolo and Richard Rohr.

[2] http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-francis-1st-homily-full-text

[3] The sales figures for books relating near-death experiences suggest that this is something of a social phenomenon. A prime example is Proof of Heaven by former Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon Eben Alexander III, who was featured in Newsweek magazine in October 2012 and who recently appeared at an NDE conference in Marseille. The latest addition to the debate about mystical perception of the ‘supernatural’ is the challenging autobiography of the Greek Orthodox author Vassula Rydén, currently in the US on a book tour, entitled Heaven is Real but So is Hell , of which you can read my review here.

Kenotic logic: Cynthia Bourgeault and Gavin Bryars

As those of you who come to this blog via our front page www.sdgmusic.org probably already know, next week is going to be an intense one for SOLI DEO GLORIA, with three of our newly-commissioned works being sung for the first time. In addition they will all be coming to life on British soil, which curiously represents fresh territory in terms of SDG’s activity in the area of New Music. On Thursday May 10th the Grammy-nominated Danish vocal ensemble Ars Nova Copenhagen be giving the first performances of pieces by living legend Gavin Bryars (Psalm 141) and myself (the choral cycle Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae) at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in Wales, while three days later the choir of Westminster Catholic Cathedral in London will be singing a fascinating new English/Hebrew setting of Psalm 135/136 by Roxanna Panufnik during Sunday Vespers.


Westminster Cathedral

I will certainly be reporting back on what should be an exciting few days, but before I head off in the direction of the Eurotunnel some equally serious business is afoot here in Paris on Monday, when I will have the privilege of conducting a radio interview on Fréquence Protestante with Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, one of the most compelling contemporary writers and presenters working in the area of contemplative Christian spirituality. An Episcopal priest who spends much of the year at the Trappist hermitage on Eagle Island, Maine, Rev. Bourgeault is currently in France and will be speaking at the American Church in Paris on May 10. I had already known her work for some time through some captivating audio-visual footage of her presentations on Centering Prayer; What I did not realize, however, until I began to do some a little exploration in preparation for Monday’s interview, is that Cynthia Bourgeault is also a trained musicologist of impeccable pedigree, having studied here in France with none other than Nadia Boulanger. Not only that, but she also has a keen interest in New Music, having collaborated with the Aspen composer Ray Vincent Adams in creating a musical Passion setting to which she contributed the libretto .

Those interested in exploring Cynthia’s work will find a rich variety of resources on her web page, including a moving tribute to one of our mutual spiritual heroes, Brother Roger of Taizé and a thought-provoking series of ‘observations and reflections on the Future of Church’ (written in dialogue with Christopher Page); the issues on which she touches with great creativity are so wide-ranging that I feel a little daunted by the task of restricting our broadcast conversation on Monday to a mere 25 minutes!  There is a well-nigh infinite range of topics we could discuss, but I suppose that if I had to focus on one key question it would be this – what is the significance of the re-discovery of the contemplative tradition not only for the Church but for our contemporary Western civilization, and why is this re-discovery happening at the present time? It is certainly a remarkable phenomenon that over the last few decades, an increasing number of people (including myself) have been drawn to the notion that the spiritual way forward for the West lies at least partially in ressourcement, a retrieval of ‘the sources’ of ancient Judeo-Christian spirituality (in which, as Thomas Merton and others such as Huston Smith and Harvey Cox have pointed out for a long time, many points of contact are to be found with the world’s other great wisdom traditions). Lest there be any misunderstanding here,  I am not speaking about some archaizing, anti-scientific retreat into dogmatic religious certainties in the face of the perceived godlessness of late modernity. It may surprise some who associate monasticism with a quaint nostalgia for a distant bygone era to discover that Cynthia Bourgeault’s work is peppered with allusions to quantum physics and contemporary neuroscience. Such references are doubtless bound to raise the blood pressure of proponents of a reductionistic scientism such as the polemical blogger PZ Myers, whose current undignified spat with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard (co-author of The Spiritual Brain)  over at www.salon.com is indicative of a skeptical mindset for which any rapprochement between science and spirituality is anathema. The parallels which Cynthia draws however definitely resonate with folks such as myself who view the idea of a remorseless struggle between science and faith as a socio-historical construct rather than a logical necessity, and who are convinced that we are currently witnessing the gradual emergence of new non-materialistic paradigms within science (pioneered by figures such as Beauregard) which will be far more amenable to dialogue with the world’s great faith traditions than is widely believed.


Although Cynthia Bourgeault’s writing and speaking on Centering Prayer is intimately linked to spiritual practice, it would be a mistake to think that her prime concern is the propagation of a set of meditative techniques; I would prefer to see her work more broadly in terms of passionate advocacy of the importance for our society of recovering a contemplative attitude towards reality.  This stance, founded on an awareness of the inter-connectedness of creation’s participation in transcendental goodness, beauty and truth, is antithetical to the logic of domination that has marked so much of Western rationalistic thought since the Enlightenment, supremely expressed in the apotheosis of technology (Jacques Ellul’s système technique, a dualistic scheme in which an all-powerful human subject triumphs over lifeless matter). Such exclusionary binary thinking is marked by an inherent violence whose consequences for human community and the planet more generally are becoming ever more apparent. This, one might say, is the manifestation of the egoistic, aggressive chimp in all of us whom we so often fail to humanize (one of Cynthia Bourgeault’s choice expressions borrowed from Buddhist terminology is ‘monkey mind’) . A central contention of eminent modern contemplatives such as Cynthia Bourgeault and Richard Rohr is that this mentality – the source of many of our individual and social tensions – needs to be overcome by ‘non-dual’, holistic thought and living.  To the extent that this transition can only come about by a renunciation of the ego’s desire to dominate others and the world, it requires a kenotic stance of self-emptying spoken of in many religious traditions, but for Christians supremely exhibited in the  life of the Rabbi of Nazareth whose path Henri Nouwen famously called the ‘way of downward mobility’.

Which brings me to Gavin Bryars.

I sometimes ask myself what would be my top five pieces of sacred ‘classical’ music of the last fifty years. My truly indispensable Desert Island Discs (only one per composer allowed here). Olivier Messiaen would have to be onboard, although I’d be hard pressed to choose between La Transfiguration, Des Canyons aux Etoiles and St François d’Assise. At least one of Arvo Pärt’s masterpieces would surely also have to be in there (I’m spoilt for choice here – Como una cierva?, La Sindone? Perhaps Kanon Pokajanen, or maybe Tabula Rasa despite its lack of an overtly ‘sacred title’?). Steve Reich’s Tehillim would probably make it into the top five from the Jewish side, and I would be strongly inclined to take some Gorecki with me (Symphony n.2 or 3? Beatus Vir? Lerchenmusik?). Alfred Schnittke’s Choir Concerto, Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium and Jean-Louis Florentz’s haunting Laudes for organ would all be strong contenders for inclusion. But one piece I cannot imagine not taking with me to any Desert Island would be Jesus’ blood never failed me yet by Gavin Bryars. Or, to be more precise, by Gavin Bryars and the unidentified ‘tramp’ whose singing is immortalized in this unique, unforgettable piece.

Gavin-Bryars-Jesus-blood-1993-300x295On Bryars’ website you can find the now legendary story of how Jesus’ blood never failed me yet came into being as the composer was toying with some discarded tape from a documentary film about the London homeless made with his friend Alan Power in 1971. Making a tape loop out of a religious song sung by one of the film’s interviewees – not an alcoholic, it should be noted in passing – , Bryars took the reel for copying to the Fine Arts Department at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University) where he was working. There he noticed something quite unexpected:

‘The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping. I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man’s singing.’

This extraordinary reaction, with which almost anyone who has heard Jesus’ blood will surely empathize, persuaded Bryars to write ‘a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp’s nobility and simple faith’, the result being ‘an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism’.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to give a verbal description of the impact of the tramp’s song (‘Jesus’ blood never failed me yet … this one thing I know, for he loves me so’) on the listener, but if any piece of music merits the word ‘kenotic’, it is surely has to be this one. Here I am not merely talking of the tramp’s material poverty; for those of a religious persuasion, the combination of simplicity and brokenness to be found in his singing encapsulates the pure faith of the ‘poor in spirit’, while even many who do not share the tramp’s belief still find themselves overwhelmed by the sound of the elderly man’s voice as somehow epitomizing the human condition. Moreover, Jesus’ blood is also ‘kenotic’ from the viewpoint of the composer (who, intriguingly, was at the time primarily interested in Zen Buddhism, having become disillusioned as a student with the Congregationalist faith in which he had been raised[1]); the artistic success of the work derives in large measure from Bryars’ own receptivity to his objet trouvé and sensitivity to the inflections of the voice, which the piece follows sympathetically without ever seeking to manipulate, simply allowing it to be itself. This kind of artistic renunciation, the refusal to view composition as an act of imposition of the will on the musical material, sometimes termed spiritual minimalism – which Arvo Pärt, Henryk Gorecki and Valentin Silvestrov also all remarkably discovered independently of one another in the early 1970s – would seem to be the very stuff of contemplative, non-dual thinking. It might in addition be said that this music also requires a ‘kenotic’ attitude from the listener, who needs to let go of the intellectual gratification associated with strongly directional musical form and expectations of ‘development’; appreciating a piece such as Jesus’ blood does not so much require analysis as surrender.

I am perhaps not alone when I say that there are days in which I feel incapable of listening to any music other than Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, either in its original 1975 version or the extended treatment of 1993 featuring Tom Waits. Interestingly, the closest approximation I know to it is the repetitive prayer music written by the French organist Jacques Berthier for the Taizé Community (a subject on which Cynthia Bourgeault offers some thoughtful insights in her book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind–A New Perspective on Christ and His Message), which at times bears a very strong aural resemblence to a tape loop. I vividly recall being part of a choir singing the refrain Spiritus Jesu Christi, Spiritus caritatis for a full 25 minutes at the Taizé European meeting in Wroclaw, Poland in 1989 – the same length as the 1975 recording of Jesus’ blood never failed me yet. Structured in a strangely similar manner to Gavin Bryars’ work and often communicating the same sense of timelessness, the music of Taizé is shot through, like the singing of the nameless elderly London tramp, with the spirit of the First Beatitude, as it is put in the words of one of Berthier’s most disarmingly simple canons:

Confiance du coeur, source de richesse. Jésus, donne-nous un coeur de pauvre

[Trust of the heart, source of riches. Jesus, give us poverty of heart]


Brother Roger of Taizé (1915-2005). Photo: Sabine Leutenegger

Peter Bannister and Rev. Scott Herr in conversation with Cynthia Bourgeault on Fréquence Protestante: ACP Today with Cynthia Bourgeault (click for audio: interview begins at 7:00)

Details of her presentation at the American Church in Paris can be found at http://www.acparis.org/thurber-thursdays/438-the-rev-dr-cynthia-bourgeault-speaks-at-thurber-thursday-and-the-annual-spring-retreat-for-adults

Further information about the Ars Nova Copenhagen concert featuring Gavin Bryars’ new setting of Psalm 141 and Peter Bannister’s Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae can be found at http://valeofglamorganfestival.org.uk/concerts/ars-nova-copenhagen/


[1] A fascinating interview with Gavin Bryars discussing his Church upbringing and ongoing relationship with Christian spirituality (as well as Zen) can be found at http://www.gavinbryars.com/work/writing/occasional-writings/choral-music-re-questions