Salus populi romani

It’s raining in Rome. The peculiarly melancholic quality of Italian rain (caught unforgettably in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Nostalghia) is something which I have experienced on at least two previous damp visits to the Peninsula. The first was when I played a recital in the Pollini Auditorium in Padova and then spent a murkily atmospheric weekend with friends in a half-submerged Venice. The other was a trip to play at the ‘Marzorganistico’ festival in Noale, an occasion of which I have two principal memories; the first was being taken by my hosts to a restaurant after my first rehearsal and trying not to laugh when they admonished the chef in all seriousness that I needed an ‘intense meal’. The second was a watery car journey back to the airport marked by some fairly laconic conversation along the lines of ‘E bella l’Italia’[several seconds’ silence] ‘anche quando c’è la pioggia’ [nodding of heads: one of the joys of Italian is the unparalleled opportunities it offers even those of limited vocabulary such as myself to express a great deal by means of intonation and gestures].

The 'salus populi romani' icon, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Cappella Paolina, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

By way of preparation for tonight’s ‘concert for peace’ at the Auditorium Conciliazione I decided to follow an intriguing trail laid by concert co-organizer Robert Moynihan in his biography of Pope Francis, Pray with me (written in the two weeks after his election, which is no mean a literary feat). One of the first surprises of what is turning out to be a Papacy based on the principle of ‘expect the unexpected’ was the Pope’s visit to the Cappella Paolina in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on the morning after he first appeared on the balcony in front of the cheering crowds. He went there to pray before the icon known as Salus populi romani (‘Safeguard of the Roman people’); I had been to the Basilica on a previous visit to the Italian capital a few years ago, but had somehow missed the icon, so I decided to go and investigate. What particularly interested me was its alleged paleo-Christian roots – like those of the Basilica itself, which are evident in its fifth-century architectural layout despite the ornate decoration of later periods -, of which I would not necessarily have been aware had I not read Pray with me. 

Basically, legend has it that the icon of Christ and his mother was painted by none other than St Luke on the top of a table made by Jesus himself, one of the handful of personal belongings that Mary took with her when going to live with the Beloved Disciple after Jesus’s Ascension. Not only this, but as Luke was painting she related the narrative that we have as Luke’s Gospel record of Jesus’s birth. Now this is of course an extraordinary claim, and one downplayed by the official description in the Basilica itself (the scholarly consensus dates the icon to the sixth or seventh century). But whatever the icon’s actual provenance, it is historically certain that the idea was already established relatively early in Christian history of Luke the painter, entrusted by the apostolic community with doing the documentary work of a photographer today – albeit working with a radically different concept of visual ‘realism’ – in preserving the earliest traditions about Jesus and the events of his life.

Think what you may about all this. For my part, the story is one that fires my imagination, not least because of the questions that this ancient narrative poses to modern New Testament scholarship. Contrary to scriptural interpretations built on principles of ‘form’ and ‘redaction’ criticism which basically see the Gospels as layered embellishments upon a foundation that is difficult if not impossible to establish, the evidence of tradition is that the Church as it evolved in continuity with the Apostolic and post-Apostolic eras clearly took a very different position from modern scholars. For Christians of the first millenium, that the Gospels were eyewitness testimony was beyond dispute.

Bauckham Eyewitnesses cover

To stress the rootedness of the Gospels in historical events may be unfashionable thing in many academic theological circles today, but it is currently making something of a comeback in the Anglo-Saxon world. This is due not least to the ground-breaking work of Richard Bauckham, whose recent Jesus and the Eyewitnesses sets out the case (which I personally find compelling) that the literary techniques employed in the Fourth Gospel, when compared to other sources of the period, hint at its origins in testimony of those who actually encountered Jesus and his disciples. If this is true for the Gospel of John – leaving aside the vexed question of just which John or Johannine community may be the Gospel’s primary author – then surely the question also arises for Luke, especially given the explicit claim at the outset of the Gospel:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilledamong us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that Luke, being a physician, was a man of science acquainted with interfacing with the world of events, phenomena (a major focus of the Acts of the Apostles, a work which is if anything harder for the form critics to deconstruct than the Gospels, given that the gap between the events related and their literary narration is smaller), not just texts. Somehow I imagine him today doing dissection duty in the medical academy rather than doing seminars on literary theory. So the notion that the infancy narratives in his Gospel are essentially the editor’s free improvisation on apocryphal traditions seems hard to square with the methodology set out in his words to Theophilus. This is not to say that there is no theological program at work here, of course, but acknowledging this is quite different from saying that this theological program generated the material of the Gospels irrespective of the reality of the events in question.

In relation to Luke’s infancy narratives, the question of their origin is essentially one of deductive logic. Given that they were almost certainly written down at a time when two of the protagonists of the events concerning the Holy Family (Jesus and Joseph) were no longer on earth, who could the source have been for the account of, say, the Annunciation? Unless you wish to indulge in some complex intellectual gymnastics to explain away Luke’s claim that his ‘orderly account’ is grounded in ‘testimony of handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word’, that leaves only one possibility: Jesus’s mother. As the great French Mariologist René Laurentin points out, writing 30 years ago very much against the historico-critical tide, this does not at all mean that the Gospels are not also the product of the Christian community’s reflection – we are not dealing with ‘nothing but the facts’, as a basic principle of hermeneutics is that there is no such thing as uninterpreted data. It is nonetheless reflection on lived experience, the two components existing in a ‘both-and’, not an ‘either-or’ relationship, as indeed Luke’s Gospel tells us itself if we read attentively – Laurentin’s contention is that what we have is the ponderings of Mary’s heart on the remarkable doings of God:

‘Is acknowledging the fundamental role of realistic reference to the Christ of history to devalue the role of the Holy Spirit?’ in guiding the interpretation of the believing community, Laurentin asks? ‘Not at all. It is this community which has become conscious of Christ, expressing him in its prayer and in the Eucharist. It is within this community and for this community that the Gospels were written, that their authors informed themselves, that they sought to understand this event – as brief as it is disturbing – and to make it understood. Mary pondered in her heart (Luke 2,19 and 51) what she had experienced concretely.’[1]

René Laurentin

René Laurentin

So did Luke write down what he heard from the Mother of God Incarnate while painting on the table made by Jesus? I have no idea, just as I have no idea what historical relationship the icon in Santa Maria Maggiore bears to the events of the first century C.E. But could there have been such a conversation, and such a table? I don’t see any convincing arguments to the contrary.

'Salus populi romani'

‘Salus populi romani’

The rain continued unabated as I came out of the Basilica and made my way back across Rome, pausing only to ask a Swiss Guard by St Peter’s for a ticket to Pope Francis’s General Audience tomorrow. Now that the extraordinary images of the Pope embracing a man suffering from terrible facial disfigurement at last week’s G.A. have gone viral on the internet, I’m anticipating a large crowd in the square in the morning. I’ll be packing my umbrella. Salus populi romani.

[1] René Laurentin, ‘Vérité des Evangiles de l’Enfance’ in Nouvelle Revue Théologique, 1984, 691-710:697. Translation and emphasis mine.


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.


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.


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:

More information on the music of John Metcalf can be found at

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 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


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 (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, with the archbishop speaking about his collaboration with the film director at A trailer for ‘The Conductor’ can be viewed on-line at

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.


[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.

New Devotion in Amsterdam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Bruckner 9 – to finish or not to finish?

Inasmuch as musicology is capable of generating major events, last month definitely saw one of the most significant of recent years – the publication by Musikproduktion Höflich (Munich) of the ‘Conclusive Revised Edition’ [CRE] of the reconstructed Finale to Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony , the product of nearly 30 years of painstaking research by scholars Nicola Samale, John A. Phillips, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs and Giuseppe Mazzuca. The CRE is dedicated to Sir Simon Rattle, who performed the Ninth in its four-movement version with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the Berlin Philharmonie and Carnegie Hall in February 2012, with a live recording subsequently being released on EMI Classics in May. Its fascinating introduction, including an extensive prefatory essay by Benjamin Gunnar-Cohrs and several pages of score, can be downloaded here.

Rattle-Bruckner-9-coverMusical history is of course tantalizingly littered with ‘unfinished’ works which might be said to constitute something of a genre in themselves. Bach’s Kunst der Fuge, Mozart’s Requiem, Mahler’s 10th or Scriabin’s Mysterium have all become the stuff of legend, exercises in advanced metaphysics inviting endless speculation as to the reasons for their incompleteness and more general meditations on the question of human mortality and its relationship to Eternity. In the case of overtly religious works there is additionally something deeply haunting about the idea – whether well-founded or not in individual cases – of composers who have peered round some metaphysical corner, obtaining a visionary glimpse of the beyond which they are only partially able – or allowed – to ‘bring back’ to the rest of us. It is almost as if they have encountered an ‘apophatic’ frontier where human discourse, whether verbal or musical, is doomed to fail, as in the final line of Schoenberg’s unfinished Moses und Aron, “Oh Wort, du Wort, das mir fehlt”. There is a sense in which the higher the spiritual aspirations of the work, the less it can be finished, for the reason that its subject-matter is the Infinite.

In few pieces is this more palpable than Bruckner’s Ninth, dedicated expressly as it is to ‘dear God’ (“dem lieben Gott”). On reaching the shocking and shattering dissonance of the final climax to the third movement (followed by a long silence, rather than a resolution), the listener has the impression that we have indeed reached a point beyond which it is impossible to go. There is undoubtedly a singular poignancy in the fact that the composer did not live to complete the work, suggesting instead that his Te Deum be used as its fourth movement, a solution which has never been felt to be fully satisfactory given the abrupt change of key (C major) and the lack of common thematic material between the two pieces.

However, as pointed out by Cohrs (whose findings I am summarizing in most of what follows), the idea that the Ninth Symphony should be considered as a three-movement work ending with the Adagio as the composer’s ‘Farewell to Life’, beyond which lie only a few rough jottings of mediocre quality notated by an increasingly senile Bruckner, essentially flies in the face of the facts. It was Ferdinand Löwe, who directed the first performance of the Ninth in 1903, who effectively put into circulation the idea that the Bruckner’s poor health in his final years meant that all the composer had left were incoherent sketches for the Finale. A startlingly different picture has emerged through the research of the Samale-Phillips-Mazzuca-Cohrs musicological quartet , and of other scholars starting with Alfred Orel, who produced admittedly flawed and incomplete transcriptions of many of the Finale’s manuscripts in the 1930s.  Bruckner had already spent a year working on the Finale before the onset of mental degenerescence in his last months, and had effectively generated a complete sketch of the movement that John A. Phillips (whose work on the Finale formed a doctoral dissertation at the University of Adelaide (2002)) has termed an ’emergent autograph score’.[1] Indeed, there might well be no discussion whatever as to the existence of an essentially complete four-movement Ninth had the room in which Bruckner died not been raided shortly after his death before the executors of his estate could protect his manuscript, leading to the loss of critical bifolios from the material for the work’s Finale.

Although Bruckner’s work on the Symphony, which had begun in 1887, was effectively halted by his pneumonia of July 1896, the ’emergent autograph’ at the time of his death on October 11 that year seems to have contained no fewer than 600 bars of music. The opening Exposition (over 200 bars) had been completed in full score, with the contributing scholars able to identify all but 96 bars of the CRE’s total of 653 from the remaining extant bifolios and continuity drafts. Of these 96 bars – passages whose duration could be accurately identified on the basis of the general architecture of Bruckner’s sketches[2] – 83 could be filled by repetition/transposition of material from elsewhere, leaving a mere 13 to be written speculatively on the basis of an intimate acquaintance with Brucknerian style. It is this almost total freedom from the recourse to free composition which makes the CRE a document to be viewed with extreme seriousness in terms of its proximity to Bruckner’s intentions and style. To drive his point home, Cohrs makes a telling comparison between the scholarly reconstruction of the Finale of the Ninth with Franz Xaver Süssmayr’s completion of Mozart‘s Requiem (for which W.A.M. only left 83 bars of full score), a version still virtually universally performed. Whereas Süssmayr contributed 189 out of the Requiem’s 866 bars (22%) and orchestrated 783 of them, there is a mere 3% of extraneous material in the 2012 reconstruction of the Finale to Bruckner’s Ninth. It is certainly possible, indeed likely, that Bruckner composed music for the movement on the missing manuscript pages which is not included in the CRE, but the edition contains remarkably little that has no proven link with the composer.

Simon Rattle is certainly not the first conductor to have taken up the challenge of bringing the Finale of the Ninth to life. Shortly after Ricordi published Samale’s and Mazzuca’s first attempt at a proper scholarly reconstruction in 1985, it was recorded by Eliahu Inbal and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, with a subsequent performing version from 1992, created with additional scholarship from Phillips and Cohrs, receiving some 40 performances by 17 orchestras. A major boost to the cause of the revisionists came in 1999-2002 when Nikolaus Harnoncourt performed and recorded  the ‘Documentation of the Finale Fragment’, first with the Wiener Symphoniker, then the Wiener Philharmoniker (CD on RCA/BMG Classics). In 2003 Samale and Cohrs began a further revision, premièred by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding in Nov 2007.

Harnoncourt-Bruckner-9-300x300Given that this persistent advocacy over a quarter of a century has not yet won over the broader musical public to the notion of Bruckner’s Ninth as a viable four-movement symphony, the obvious question is whether the idea will gain ever widespread approval. This is not a purely musical issue, as Cohrs makes plain in what is perhaps the most interesting part (at east for non-musicologists) of his essay. Given the demonstrable quantity of authentically Brucknerian material in the Finale – of which the tumultuous, driving Exposition alone is sufficient to alter our view of the symphony fundamentally – it would seem that critical resistance to it has an emotional rather than a rational basis. What would appear to be at stake is the view that there is an untouchable and immutable Canon of Western Music, within which Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony has Three Movements. This, Cohrs argues along with others involved in performing the reconstructed Finale such as conductor Robert Bachmann (whom he quotes in extenso), is philosophically incoherent. Firstly, none of the Ninth’s movements can be considered ‘finished’ in the strict sense given that Bruckner was not unable to complete his habitual final compositional phase which he termed Nuancieren (the adjusting of tempi, dynamics, articulation marks and other details). This argument may not be persuasive to those who see a difference in kind, not just degree, between the Finale and the movements preceeding it. More weighty is Cohrs’ second contention, that it is overwhelmingly clear that Bruckner intended four movements, and that his considerable work on the Finale was for public purposes (some of its completed bifolios are marked ‘ready’ (fertig)) – hence his somewhat desperate insistence on performing the Te Deum in the absence of the symphonic Finale, rather than suggesting that the three completed movements could be taken as a faithful reflection of his entire compositional project.

Alongside those who may object on principle to the completion of the work, there are also those whose reticence towards a four-movement Bruckner Ninth is grounded in a perceived difference in artistic quality between the Finale and the rest of the work. Here the publication of the Conclusive Revised Version may just constitute a breakthrough in comparison to previous reconstructions. Its outstanding achievement, and the one which may ultimately give more credibility to the work of the revisionists, is that thanks to intense research on the Coda they have at last been able to provide the Finale with the convincing apotheosis for which it would seem to cry out theologically, and whose absence in all revisions until now had effectively been the Achilles heel of the whole musicological project. In an interesting exchange several years ago between Cohrs and Riccardo Chailly, who then viewed the material for the Finale as only offering ‘a kind of sketchy, scholastic, almost rhetoric piece’ unworthy of comparison with the remainder of the symphony, Cohrs had argued, less than convincingly, that it is our expectations (and perhaps their theological underpinnings) which are at fault in such evaluations:

I understand if people feel disappointed that Bruckner did not compose a solemn, Super-Te-Deum-like ’crowning cathedral’, but just the opposite: a toccata-like, musical expression of death with all the anger and radicalism of age he was able to achieve, almost minimalistic and ascetic in its style. However: Would we argue so much about the musical quality if it would be not ’THE Finale of Bruckner’s Ninth’, but, say, a ’Toccata infernale’, composed by a Franz Liszt shortly before his death?[3]

This picture of a ‘modernist’ composer anxious to deconstruct religious certainty might be convincing in the case of late Mahler, but sounds suspiciously like special pleading in the case of Bruckner, given that he was prepared to conclude his symphony with the expression of rock-like faith that is the Te Deum.  That Cohrs seems not to have been fully persuaded by his own argument is borne out by the fact that, subsequent to his riposte to Chailly,  he and the other contributing scholars felt that their Coda (which inevitably determines the overall trajectory not only of the Finale but the symphony as a whole) was unsatisfactory. Here forensic musicology found itself confronted by a peculiar challenge; on one hand, any peroration would inevitably have to be constructed using a modicum of conjecture, as there is no final double bar in any of the extant material. On the other hand, both the sketches and credible secondary sources give extensive clues as to how Bruckner might have proceeded. Of the latter, the most important are the memoirs of Bruckner’s doctor Richard Heller, to whom the composer more than once played the conclusion of the Finale on the piano, speaking of his wish to round off the symphony with ‘a song of praise to the dear Lord’ by re-introducing the ‘Allelujah of the second movement'[4]. This is problematic, as it is hard to identify such a passage in the Ninth Symphony’s largely macabre Scherzo; however, the editors of the Conclusive Revised Edition found an ingenious and in my view credible solution by turning to the Third movement, on the grounds that there is no evidence prior to the last months of Bruckner’s life to suggest that the placing of the Scherzo before the Adagio was definitive . Furthermore, his pupil Joseph Schalk, in making the piano reduction (completed by Löwe after Schalk’s death in 1900) from a manuscript source that may no longer be extant or may subsequently have been altered, explicitly placed the work’s Adagio second.


Monument to Anton Bruckner, Ansfelden (photo: Dergreg)

If it is accepted that Heller may have been referring to a Halleluja in the Adagio as the basis for the Coda of the Finale, then the most likely candidate for this passage, Cohrs argues, would appear to be a rising trumpet motif in bar 5 which also appears in the composers Te Deum and in the orchestral upthrust introducing the opening Halleluja in his Psalm 150. It is this which appears (transposed) above the final tonic pedalpoint of the CRE 2012 Finale (d-D-F#-A-d-e-f#) to great effect. Whether Bruckner would himself have adopted this solution is of course impossible to determine, as the CRE outworking remains a hypothesis rather than a strict logical deduction, but the result in the Rattle/Berlin Phil. recording is aurally thrilling as well as being both stylistically appropriate and motivically coherent.

Whether this is sufficient to overcome the obvious objection to the element of guesswork in the reconstructed Finale, however exhaustive the musicological forensics involved, is ultimately a matter of one’s philosophical convictions. If it is deemed that only music which can be declared definitively ‘finished’ can do justice to a Great Composer, then naturally any such reconstruction will be ruled out of court at the outset, regardless of any amount of philological argumentation. On the other hand, it can be contended that Bruckner’s manuscripts for the Finale of the Ninth are so substantial that completing the extant torso is actually an obligation, in that it constitutes the only way in which the music that Bruckner did finish can be heard sequentially as part of a coherent whole. The alternative, an ‘as is’ presentation of the fragments in a workshop context, may have musicological purity on its side, but offers the listener no inkling of how Bruckner’s overall design might have unfolded in time. It is this architecture which emerges in stunning clarity from the Rattle/Berlin Phil. recording of the 2012 revision, surely vindicating Hans Ferdinand Redlich’s judgement in 1949 that ‘every single bar is carried forward by the overwhelming momentum of an imagination nothing short of Michelangelesque. The astonishing originality of the architectural plan deserves special praise in its own right.'[5]

Where supporters of the reconstruction of Bruckner’s Finale essentially differ from its detractors is in their view of the value of ‘work in progress’. Here Cohrs quotes some highly pertinent questions raised by Robert Bachmann, who takes the view that all music, by the very fact that it requires translation into sound, is constantly in gestation because the world is not static but in a state of dynamic flux:

What then is perfected in Bruckner’s Ninth? We have the task every time anew at least to make this work sound, and to master it on the ground of performing practice, not even to mention the spiritual ability to let Bruckner’s music appear as an emanation of the divine presence. […] Even the finished work per se, where the composer says with a double barline ‘This is the work as I have considered it to be’, is only the beginning. There starts the search within the work. What shall constitute it, and where is its deeper truth? And so there is no ‘Vollendung’ [completion]. It would be impossible to achieve. In the best case, we are always close to achieving it, but next time failure may be even closer again. If there is any myth at all, it would be the ‘Myth of the Perfected’ and not that of the ‘Unperfected’. The world is permanently in a state of gestation, and we don’t know where it comes from and where it goes to. We are ‘in a flow’ ourselves all the time; our life, the whole world is part of an incredible energetic dynamic. The music reminds us constantly that this inextinguishable force is there. It is the miracle of music-making that we can evoke this experience again and again. The concept of ‘Vollendung’ has no room here.[6]

Bachmann’s point about the ‘Myth of the Perfected’ is surely well-taken. To it I would only add that his reference to Bruckner’s music as ‘an emanation of the divine presence’ itself implies the impossibility of its completion; whatever the state of the musicology, Bruckner’s Ninth will always be ‘unfinished’ to the extent that it evokes a Transcendent Infinite that can never be grasped fully this side of Eternity. To the extent that the grandeur of Bruckner’s composition derives from its search for the ever-receding horizon of the Absolute, the Grail-hunting musicologists attempting to reconstruct his final work are not ultimately in such a different predicament from the composer himself; their quest for Truth and Beauty is ultimately the same as his. The project of completing Bruckner’s Ninth has something of what that other great Catholic composer Olivier Messiaen memorably termed  ‘the charm of impossibilities’ – a charm which surely lends this most mysterious of works its unending fascination.

However, despite the apparent finality of the words ‘Conclusive Revised Edition’ that suggest that musicological research has nowreached its limits, the intriguing possibility does remain that there could be a further twist in this extraordinary tale to the extent that Bruckner’s Ninth has to be considered ‘lost’ as much as ‘unfinished’. It cannot be ruled out that the missing bifolios of the manuscript may still re-surface (in 1999 Nikolaus Harnoncourt made a public appeal for Viennese collectors to scour their archives). An 1895 sketch page appeared as recently as 2003, and Cohrs’ introduction to the 2012 edition furthermore contains a surprisingly direct and pointed statement: ‘serious rumours about an Austrian autograph collector remain, who is said to own several of the hitherto unknown score bifolios, but selfishly keeps them under lock and key'[7]

To which I can only say that if the individual concerned happens to be reading these lines, the SOLI DEO GLORIA office – and a host of Brucknerians around the world – is waiting for your call.


Sir Simon Rattle’s introduction to his 2012 EMI recording of Bruckner’s Ninth can be viewed at

An extensive essay by Aart van der Wal (2006), including a useful summary of the history of research into the Finale of the Ninth, an interview with Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs and images of Bruckner’s manuscript, can be read online at . Van der Wal’s essay also includes an interesting comparative evaluation of the Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca project with the rival endeavor of American musicologist William Carragan, who produced a completion of the Ninth between 1979 and 1983, premièred by Moshe Atzmon in Carnegie Hall in 1984 and subsequently recorded by the Oslo Philharmonic under Yoav Talmi (Chandos CD 7051-2).



[1] There are two prime pieces of evidence for this: the renumbering of the manuscript bifolios dated June 14, 1896 (which according to Bruckner’s compositional practice would probably have occurred after the draft completion) and a report by Franz Bayer in the Steyrer Zeitung on May 10, 1896 referring to the Finale as ‘wohl vollständig skizziert’ (‘probably fully sketched’). See Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, The Conclusive Revised Edition 2012 – an Introduction (Munich: Musikproduktion Höflich, 2012), 6.

[2] It should be pointed out that in this respect a knowledge of Bruckner’s working methods is critical for an understanding of the scholarly procedure followed in the reconstructive work. Bruckner habitually worked out the proportions of his music (structural divisions down to the level of individual phrase-lengths) before notating any details.


[4] Quoted Cohrs, The Conclusive Revised Edition 2012, 41.

[5] Ibid., 9.

[6] Ibid., 7-8.

[7] Ibid., 13-14.

Guardians of beauty (2) – Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev


Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk

Our last post took us to Rome and the part played by composer and SDG advisory board member in the launch of the ‘Year of Faith’ celebrated on October 11th in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the Synod on the New Evangelisation.  If James MacMillan is arguably the best-known Catholic musician in the English-speaking world, it may come as a surprise to learn that he is not the only composer of sacred music to be playing an active role in the proceedings in Rome at the moment. One of the most striking features of the Synod is its ecumenical focus; I have already commented on the typically thought-provoking speech offered to the Synod by Archbishop Rowan Williams last week. This week it was the turn of the Eastern Orthodox Church, with an address being given by the Moscow Patriarchate’s head of the department for External Church Relations (read: ‘foreign minister’), Metropolitan Hilarion [Alfeyev] of Volokolamsk. Who at the age of 46 is not only one of the youngest churchmen involved in top-level ecumenical dialogue, but is also a prolific composer.

I would like to emphasize that we are not merely talking about ‘occasional’ works here, even if, given his heavy ecclesial responsibilities, much of Metropolitan Hilarion’s writing apparently happens in airport lounges during his displomatic trips. His catalogue contains a number of major compositions which are gaining increasing international exposure, including a two-hour St Matthew Passion (recorded by Vladimir Fedosseyev), a 75-minute Christmas Oratorio (premièred at the National Shrine in Washington DC) as well as a Divine Liturgy and All-Night Vigil. All these were written in recent years; having received his early training at the Moscow Gnesin School and Conservatory while still contemplating a musical career, Hilarion Alfeyev subsequently abandoned composition when he took monastic vows at the age of 20, only returning to composition in 2006.[1]  Next month the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will give the first performance of his latest choral symphony, Song of Ascent .

Metropolitan Hilarion is also a highly articulate and at times provocative speaker about music and its relation to faith, as you can judge by reading the text of a stimulating lecture he gave at the Catholic University of America in 2011. Although his own work is steeped in his own Orthodox liturgical tradition, pride of place in his musical thinking nonetheless goes to J.S. Bach not only as a compositional ‘colossus’ but also as the ultimate ecumenical composer:

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.

As is perhaps to be expected given his own philosophical and theological training in a tradition known for its trenchant critique of many aspects of Western society, Metropolitan Hilarion’s narrative of art-music after Bach is somewhat negative. Despite his love of the Germanic symphonic repertoire and the achievements of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, he like many Eastern Orthodox views the development of Western culture in terms of increasing individualism and secularization, leading to the evacuation of the sacred in the twentieth century[2]:

During the epochs of Impressionism and the Avant-garde, interest in anything to do with religion seems to have faded altogether. Avant-garde composers renounced the final elements that linked music to faith – the elements of harmony and of beauty as fundamental for musical creativity. Cacophony and disharmony became the constructive fabric with which musical works were built.

With John Cage’s 4:33 we reach the dénouement of this narrative:

The appearance of this work in 1952 bore witness to the fact that the musical Avant-garde had completely exhausted itself – as if it had nothing more to say. Cage’s silence has little in common with the spiritual silence that burgeons from the depths of religious experience: his was simply a soundlessness which testified to the complete spiritual collapse of the musical Avant-garde.

One may of course agree or disagree with this interpretation of the significance of John Cage. The fact that his influence can be detected in ‘spiritual minimalist’ works such as the large-scale Organ and Silence of Tom Johnson (1939 – ) or Valentin Silvestrov’s Hymn 2001 suggests that there may be more common ground between Cage and ‘spiritual silence’ than one might at first suspect. However, Metropolitan Hilarion’s reading of history is certainly not wanting for clarity. Intriguingly, the major exception to his predominantly jaundiced take on modern music is a composer who wrote no overtly ‘sacred music’ whatsoever:

It is my personal view that, in the history of twentieth-century music, there is only one composer who, in terms of talent and depth of inspired searching, comes close to Bach, and that is Shostakovich.

Bach’s music is dedicated to God and permeated by an ecclesiastical spirit. Shostakovich, on the other hand, lived at a different time and in a country where God and the Church were never spoken about openly. Yet at the same time all of his creative work reveals him to have been a believer. While he did not write church music and apparently did not attend Church services, his music nonetheless confirms that he felt deeply the disastrous nature of human existence without God and that he experienced profoundly the tragedy of modern society – a godless society – which had renounced its roots. This yearning for the Absolute, this longing for God, this thirst for truth prevails in all of his works – in his symphonies, quartets, preludes and fugues.

Shostakovich was someone who could not be broken by repression or condemnation by the powers that be. He always served the Truth. I believe that, like Dostoevsky, he was a great spiritual and moral example, whose voice, like that of a prophet, cried out in the wilderness. This voice, however, evoked and continues to evoke a response in the hearts of millions of people.

This retrospective ‘baptism’ of Shostakovich is certainly a bold move on Metropolitan Hilarion’s part, given that his statement that ‘all of his creative work reveals him to have been a believer’ is the last thing that most readers would say on reading the composer’s statements (albeit allowing for a little ‘editorial help’ from Solomon Volkov) in Testimony. However, it is undeniably striking that Shostakovich has haunted many composers of explicitly Christian works – myself included -, of whom Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina and James MacMillan are perhaps the most obvious examples. Indeed, it might not be going too far to say that they have related to a certain intuited spiritual potential in Shostakovich’s music in much the same way as Messiaen related to Debussy’s Pelléas, or Bruckner and Franck to Wagner.


On the subject of contemporary music, Hilarion Alfeyev- who himself writes in an unashamedly tonal/modal idiom, but in a manner which should not simply be dismissed as derivative – is nothing if not outspoken. As one might predict, he feels an affinity with the work of Arvo Pärt, John Taverner and Henryk Górecki (echoes of whose Symphony n.3 can be heard in Hilarion’s St Matthew Passion). Less expected, however, is his advocacy of Karl Jenkins’ Requiem as a ‘real masterpiece of contemporary music’,[3] or his enthusiasm for Andrew Lloyd Webber:

There are compositions in popular music imbued with high spiritual content and are written skillfully (for instance, the famous rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar). No doubt, this composition is not in keeping with church criteria, but the author did not purport to present the canonical image of Christ. He achieved his objective outstandingly well by telling the story of Christ’s Passion in a language understandable to the youth and through the medium of contemporary music. I appreciate this music more emphatically than I do the works of many avant-garde composers, since the latter sometimes eschew melody, harmony, and inner content.

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk is clearly a man of strong musical as well as theological convictions. Somewhat reminiscent in his directness of the great Russian Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), a prime contributor to the work of the World Council of Churches in its early years, his constructive engagement with ecumenism cannot be taken as implying any kind of easy-going relativism. Archbishop Hilarion rather operates from the premise that genuine dialogue also needs to make space for robust exchange (or even confrontation) if it is to be meaningful.[4] His views on theology and aesthetics may not be to all tastes, but one thing seems certain – given that he is still only in his mid-40s, this is a name of which we are likely to hear much more in the future, both as a churchman and composer. Watch this space.


Pdf scores of some of Metropolitan Hilarion’s works can be downloaded at . An interview in which he talks about his recent meeting with Pope Benedict XVI can be heard on-line at

For video of a Russian TV broadcast of his St Matthew Passion, see



[2] Metropolitan Hilarion’s musical historiography is not dissimilar to those of his composition teacher, the cult figure Vladimir Martynov (1946-), as can be seen from an interview with one of Martynov’s chief advocates in the West, conductor Vladimir Jurowski (who brought Martynov’s controversially polystilistic Dante opera Vita Nuova to London in 2009):


[4] While this approach to Church diplomacy on the part of the Moscow Patriarchate may seem abrasive to some, it cannot be denied that it has yielded genuine fruit on terrain where the avoidance of painful historical issues is impossible, most notably in the form of a recent joint declaration by the Moscow Patriarch and the President of Polish Catholic Bishops which has been hailed as a breakthrough document in terms of reconciliation between the two nations. An English translation of this declaration can be found at

Guardians of beauty – James MacMillan in Rome


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

[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