The Meaning of Salzburg – Kugeln, Kitsch or Kultur?

The Meaning of Salzburg – Kugeln, Kitsch or Kultur?

August 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dobrinka Tabakova (photo: Dobrinka Com)

Dobrinka Tabakova (photo:Dobrinka Com)

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

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

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

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

 

Valentin Silvestrov: ‘For our freedom and yours’

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

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

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

Silvestrov Duh i litera

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

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

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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

The voice of truth shall be heard!

We thank you for your initiative and solidarity,

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

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

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

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

[5] See n.4.

(Translation and notes mine)

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

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

Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov

Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov

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

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

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

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

Sergei Nihoyan (1993-2014)

Sergei Nihoyan (1993-2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valentin Silvestrov (1937 -) Two Epitaphs

Valentin Silvestrov Nostalghia (2001)

Valentin Silvestrov Melodie (2001)

Valentin Silvestrov Hymne (2001)

Valentin Silvestrov Intermezzo

Valentin Silvestrov “Benedictus” (Night)

Valentin Silvestrov “Sanctus” (Morning)

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

Musical ecumenism in Wales (ii)

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

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

Vox Clamantis CD cover

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

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

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

Grave of Joseph Parry (1841-1903)

Grave of Joseph Parry (1841-1903)

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

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

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

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

Gumbel Schönborn

Cardinal Schönborn (right) with Nicky Gumbel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued.

Musical ecumenism in Wales (i)

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

Guardians of beauty (2) – Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev

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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.

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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.

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Pdf scores of some of Metropolitan Hilarion’s works can be downloaded at http://hilarion.ru/en/works/scores . An interview in which he talks about his recent meeting with Pope Benedict XVI can be heard on-line at http://www.news.va/en/news/metropolitan-hilarion-on-evangelisation-and-reconc

For video of a Russian TV broadcast of his St Matthew Passion, see http://blip.tv/jesuit/la-passion-selon-saint-matthieu-par-mgr-hilarion-alfeyev-2405257

NOTES

[1] http://english.ruvr.ru/2009/05/14/258997.html

[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): http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/feb/13/vladimir-martynov

[3] http://www.crisismagazine.com/2012/an-interview-with-metropolitan-hilarion-alfeyev

[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 http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350310?eng=y

In search of vital signs (3) – post-scriptum (Not gaga over Gaga)

(Cntd from ‘vital signs’ 2). I was serious about that last part about Arvo Pärt’s Morning Star vs Bad Romance, actually. Yes, I do have serious reservations about the performance artist Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, a.k.a. the now ubiquitous Lady Gaga, and not merely on purely musical grounds. I am willing to concede that she is in some ways a mesmeric performer with a genuine vocal technique and a vivid creative imagination. I am also willing to take her at her word when this former Catholic schooler describes herself as ‘a very religious woman’; given the prevalence of spiritual vocabulary in songs such as ‘Born this Way’ it is understandable that her work should have provoked a number of broadly favourable theological analyses (for example from Tom Beaudouin and others in the Catholic America magazine, or Dr Pete Philips of the University of Durham, secretary to the Faith and Order committee of the British Methodist Church, who writes:

‘the Church needs to get Gaga, to interpret Gaga, to listen to Gaga, to engage with Gaga and the pantheon of celebrities amongst whom she is the latest shining star.  For if we do not get Gaga, we do not get the world.  If we cannot engage with Gaga, then we cannot engage with the masses, the majority who come nowhere near the church doors week by week by week.  Proverbs was right: Get Wisdom!  But to evangelise contemporary society, we might also want to say: Get Gaga! ‘

It is not difficult to sympathize with the rationale being expressed here, and the desire for a non-judgmental assessment displayed by commentators such as Philips  is particularly understandable in the light of the recent cancellation of the Jakarta leg of her current tour following the threat of violence from conservative Islamic groups. When Germanotta says that ‘there is nothing holy about hatred’, that is of course a sentiment with which most of us would heartily agree.

However, my appreciation for those trying to react to Mother Monster’s provocative antics in a mature and charitable fashion is tempered by my instinct as a parent of pre-teenage children for whom names such as Gaga, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Rihanna are not only already well-known because of their songs (with which they’re better acquainted than with Mozart) but also denote potential role models. Here I have to say that I seriously wonder whether I and my fellow theological reviewers have been surveying the same material.

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Lady Gaga and Stephen Fry

A first set of serious reservations concerns the deliberate and sustained flirtation with occult imagery common to the quartet of artists mentioned above, which fills me with a sense of déjà vu after my research into the 1960s for my series of posts entitled ‘Spirituality in and out of focus’. It is beyond reasonable doubt that the Lady Gaga and the nexus of highly successful musical artists clustered around rapper and founder of Roc Nation Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter have deliberately cultivated the use of occult symbols more usually associated with Heavy Metal and familiar within the iconography of popular music for over 40 years. ‘Baphomet’ goat’s heads, ‘devil’s horns’, 666 hand gestures or the ‘All-Seeing-Eye of Horus’ are omnipresent visual symbols in Lady Gaga’s work which may seem surprising in the context of infectious pop but have been established vocabulary for the likes of Black Sabbath (one of Germanotta’s favourite acts[1]) for over a generation. That we have been here before, albeit accompanied by different music, is transparently obvious to anyone who has done their musicological and sociological homework on the history of rock ‘n roll. Especially as concerns the strange and baleful influence of Aleister Crowley, whose ‘law of Thelema’, “do what thou wilt” is ostentatiously sported by Jay-Z in Gothic print on a T-shirt worn in his trailer to the now infamous video ‘Run This Town’ featuring Rihanna and Kanye West.

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Anyone who does a casual Google search on the subject will discover within a few seconds that the internet is now rife with more or less speculative deconstructions of the occult symbolism of this and similar videos, the most well-known detective work having originated on the very popular website www.vigilantcitizen.com, run by an anonymous Canadian Christian who has evidently done substantial research into modern occultism and additionally claims to have worked as a producer for a number of well-known urban musicians.[2] There is considerable evidence to suggest that the carefully-orchestrated use of esoteric and masonic imagery by Jay-Z (not least in his clothing line ‘Rocawear’) and others is at least in part a war of nerves with ‘Vigilant Citizen’ and others, a game of provocation running something along the lines of ‘you say we’re Illuminati? OK, so that’s who we’ll be’ (the clearest pointer being Jay-Z’s rapping on the song ‘Free Mason’ by Rick Ross where he expressly attempts to counter the internet rumours of his masonic  membership and the ‘Run this Town’ video where the masonic symbolism is so unmistakable as to be caricatural).[3]

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What all this is designed to achieve – and it should be added that the means employed to generate this esoteric web of  symbols are extravagant – is far from clear. Having discounted the idea that the symbols employed by Gaga and company are mere coincidence (readers who have ever encountered individuals who unwittingly wore designer Baphomet headgear or Horus jewellery costing six-figure sums without realizing it are welcome to contact me), two logical possibilities seem to present themselves.

The first, which I will simply bracket out on the grounds that unverifiable speculation is unhelpful, is that something covert really is going on here. The second, which requires no particular leap of faith or conspiracy theories regarding in the power of the Illuminati or other secret societies, is that this is all basically a commercial stunt aimed at stoking controversy and enhancing the artists’ mystique via a glamorously sinister type of branding (as if some of the best-selling musicians on the planet were in need of extra publicity). This only constitutes ‘mind control’ to the same degree as all advertising that knows how to harness the power of image and music.

This having been said, it remains to be explained why video clips such as Bad Romance and Born This Way should be saturated with a self-consciously occult symbolic content in the first place, references that could not possibly be intuited from simply listening to the songs and reading the lyrics. And why did Gaga’s friend Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (Jay-Z’s wife, who appears in the video of Telephone) choose to shock many of her own fans a few years ago by adopting the demonic alter ego ‘Sasha Fierce’, consciously playing with dark imagery through her stage persona – an alter ego which she then claimed to have ‘killed’ as redundant, having integrated Sasha F. into her own personality. What exactly is going on here with this current set of self-styled sorcerer’s apprentices?

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Even if the hypotheses of the conspiracy theorists (who have perhaps only succeeded in making opposition to Lady Gaga, Jay Z and friends look paranoid and faintly ridiculous) turn out to be pure fantasy, the frequently violent, degrading and sexually explicit content of the video material we have been considering is definitely not. In itself, this ought to be sufficient reason for those who consider the Haus of Gaga to be essentially harmless if admittedly flamboyant eccentricity to think again. Even more than the irresponsible flirtation with the occult, the penchant for sexual violence which is a persistent mark of Lady Gaga’s work constitutes my principal reason for saying that her music should carry a more serious health warning than some well-meaning theological commentators might like to make out. Again, this is a combination that we have seen before, as I observed in the case of the Rolling Stones in the period immediately preceding the débâcle of Altamont in December 1969. Which is not an auspicious precedent.

In saying this, I by no means wish to argue that there are no elements of religious sincerity in Lady Gaga’s output; my own sense reading interviews and reports of her exchanges with mentor Deepak Chopra is that Germanotta’s work should be seen in terms of her own struggle with deeply contradictory impulses stemming from her Catholic upbringing on one hand and her subsequent embracing of the lifestyle of the New York avant-garde whose shock value has brought her fame and fortune. The bizarre nature of her act can be viewed as her attempt to bring this internal conflict into the open; as she admitted in her Rolling Stone interview of July 2010, ‘a lot of the work I do is an exorcism for the fans but also for myself’, a remark in keeping with her much-quoted line from the song Judas: ‘Jesus is my virtue and Judas is the demon I cling to.’ As long as this struggle continues, my guess is that the grisly side of Gaga will continue to manifest itself in all its splendour. Which will not necessarily be pretty viewing, especially if (as I suspect) Germanotta is, like Beyoncé, aiming at an ‘integration’ of her shadow side somewhat along Jungian lines rather than overcoming darkness with light.

Everyone has the right to battle with their own personal demons, of course. What concerns me is the collateral damage. And here I would like to make an appeal in all earnestness. If you, like me, are a parent or adult relative of pre-teenage children who read about stars such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Beyoncé in magazines destined for the 10-14 year age group, and who return from school whistling Bad Romance, please do force yourself to watch the official video of BR, ‘Born This Way’ or ‘Just Dance’. If you are still convinced of the singer’s suitability for a junior audience, and if you have a stomach that can take it, do a google video search for ‘Lady Gaga crowd surfing Lollapalooza 2010’. You will not necessarily enjoy what you find, but I urge you to do so anyway out of a sense of adult responsibility.

Afterwards, ask yourself honestly whether the South Korean Media Rating Board’s insistence that the recent Seoul performance of Lady GG’s ‘Born this way ball’ be restricted to over-18s should simply be dismissed as pandering to religious fundamentalism.

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NOTES

[1] As well as being an admirer of Ozzy Osbourne, Lady Gaga is also an avowed student of the film-making of Kenneth Anger, whose occult and pornographic work is referenced in her controversial videos to Alejandro (Anger’s Introduction to the Pleasuredome) and Born this way (Lucifer Rising). This should come as no surprise given Anger’s iconic status within the art-house underground from which Gaga emerged to stardom.

[2] It should be said that ‘Vigilant Citizen’, while not free from speculative excess in its sometimes outlandish interpretations, is one of the more intelligent blogs attempting an exposé of popular culture, as is acknowledged by a balanced article in The Guardian :http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/jul/01/lady-gaga-vigilant-citizen-illuminati

[3] My unwillingness to engage with conspiracy theories in this post should not be taken as a denial of  the existence of occultistic strands of Freemasonry (whose activities are public knowledge and are definitely not a figment of the conspiratorial imagination).  For example, about 200 yards away from the Paris apartment block in which I am writing this post is a bunker-like structure devoid of any outward signs other than a letter-box marked I.M.F. I puzzled over its occupants for over a decade before at last discovering that it is in fact the official location of the ‘Rite Ancien et Primitif de Memphis-Misraïm’ branch of the Institut Maçonnique de France, whose publicly accessible literature details its interest in the fields of alchemy, gnosticism and Egyptian hermeticism for the benefit of possible adherents.

In search of vital signs (2)

Three days prior to the first performance of Roxanna Panufnik’s Love Endureth in Westminster Cathedral I had been in Wales for a concert given by the remarkable 12-voice ensemble Ars Nova Copenhagen under conductor Søren Kinch Hansen at All Saints’ Church, Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan Festival.  Nothing suggested that this would draw a major turnout: All Saints’, though a pleasant enough church, is hardly one of Wales’s most prestigious buildings, and the two commissioned composers with works on the programme (Gavin Bryars and myself) both had problems finding it! Ars Nova may be a Grammy-winning choir, but they are scarcely household names in the UK, and they were performing an evening of music comprised exclusively of works written by living composers. If broadcasting Beethoven 7 over a PA system can prevent loitering, as we discovered thanks to Philip Hensher in the previous post, then this repertoire ought to have provoked a veritable public stampede in the opposite direction.

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All Saints’ Church, Penarth

Except that it didn’t. For some inexplicable reason the church was packed with around 250 listeners – a good proportion of them local residents of this small seaside town just outside Cardiff. And listen they certainly did. The evening began with Three Stages, a joyfully anarchic soundscape of Copenhagen street cries, birdsong and Renaissance melody by Danish composer Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen. As an extraordinary extended exercise in choral acrobatics it had already made my jaw drop when I heard Ars Nova rehearse it in a studio at Welsh National Opera the previous evening, not least because it was very evident that this is a piece that gives the choir immense pleasure (I saw none of your typical ‘Contemporary Music Scowls’ here). But in concert Ars Nova’s output of vocal energy – in an acoustic doing them no favours – was even more remarkable: I was not the only member of the audience pinching myself in order to remember that we were hearing only a dozen rather than forty voices. This was no ‘percentage’ singing in the sense of trying to economize vocally in order to survive the very demanding and exposed 75-minute programme; instead each work from first to last (Australian Anne Boyd’s hypnotic As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams) was performed with equal passion and commitment.

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With Ars Nova Copenhagen. Photo: Susan Scheid

It is not for me to comment on my own Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae – other than to emphasize the conviction and plasticity with which Ars Nova performed it – but I and many others were very touched by Gavin Bryars’ new setting of Psalm 141, commissioned for our SDG Psalms Project. Simple without ever sounding banal, its plaintively flowing chordal writing marked by subtle and well-judged harmonic sideslips, Bryars’ Psalm 141 is deeply expressive while never becoming cloying, and we hope that many choirs will find performing it a richly rewarding experience.

None of what I have just said, however, fully explains the size and enthusiastic engagement of the audience in Penarth; my intuition is that at least three additional factors were at work. One is the fact that the Vale of Glamorgan Festival’s artistic director John Metcalf has over the years quietly succeeded in creating a discreet but very real cult following for what I would term ‘new music with a human touch’ in South Wales. As the Guardian‘s reviewer put it, the festival ‘manages to extend its audience’s aural horizons with an approach that appears benign but is actually quite radical’.

Secondly, although the legendary Welsh choral culture may no longer play the role in local communities that it did in its heyday (I can recall attending church services there as a teenager where the standard of voices was such that you could have recruited congregational members at random for an opera chorus), there is no doubt that the first association of music in Wales remains with choral singing rather than orchestras or solo instruments.

Thirdly, there is what might be termed the ‘Arvo Pärt effect’. Having now observed a number of audiences at concerts where Pärt’s music has been on the programme, I have consistently found that the audience brings a peculiar energy of its own – the expectation not merely of being treated to a performance of artistic excellence, but rather of experiencing something on the level of human communication that goes beyond the purely musical. In the case of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, this may have not a little to do with Pärt’s 75th birthday visit to Wales in 2010 for a festival concert featuring his 4th Symphony (as well as the SDG-sponsored first performance of the orchestral version of his piece In Spe): my guess is that a fair proportion of the Penarth audience would have remembered seeing or indeed meeting the composer in person. Which is not an experience that you forget in a hurry.

Ars Nova Copenhagen, who together with their founder Paul Hillier have worked intensively with Arvo Pärt, performed three pieces (all in English) by him whose brevity was inversely proportional to their impact: the haunting Deer’s Cry (a setting of the prayer known as ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ commissioned by the Louth Contemporary Music Society), O Holy Mother of God and Morning Star. It was the latter which particularly caught my attention; commissioned by Durham University for its 175th anniversary in 2007, Morning Star sets a luminous text found above the tomb of the Venerable Bede in Durham Cathedral, and which was printed on the Penarth concert poster:

“Christ is the morning star, who when the night of this world is past
brings to his saints the promise of the light of life and opens everlasting day.”

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Bede’s tomb in Durham cathedral. Photo: Robin Widdison

In referring to Bede, Morning Star follows the procedure also found elsewhere in Pärt’s recent output of finding a material connection between the location of the commissioner and the heritage of Christian spirituality. Some examples of this are Cecilia, vergine romana – written for the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome , Littlemore Tractus for choir and organ (commissioned by the Vicar of Littlemore for the 2001 bicentenary of John Henry Newman’s birth and setting words from a sermon preached by him in Littlemore) or La Sindone (‘The Shroud’) – composed for the city of Turin in conjunction with the 2006 Winter Olympics). Morning Star is a typically Pärtian combination of the ancient and the post-modern; written with characteristic transparency it manifests the composer’s unique ability to evoke a whole spiritual and emotional world in the space of a few minutes and with a bare minimum of notes. Like so much of Pärt’s music, it is as limpid as Mozart’s Ave verum corpus or a Schubert Moment Musical, and yet it also has something of the spontaneous directness of a Lennon/McCartney single of a type that Western art-music has not tended to generate for a very long time. Ars Nova delivered it with great power but also a complete lack of affectation which left me wondering – is this a modern-day Bach chorale, or the perfect pop song, or both? As we noted in the previous post, Philip Hensher may think that ‘classical’ music will have died a death from incomprehensibility in a century’s time, but not if composers communicate with their listeners like this.

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As a coda I would like to suggest an experiment fit for Pentecost. Participation doesn’t unfortunately come entirely free, but as you’ll see it’s not very expensive either. Ars Nova Copenhagen include Morning Star on their consistently excellent new CD of works by Arvo Pärt entitled Creator Spiritus. I would myself highly recommend getting the album in its entirety as I find it quite mesmeric, but this not strictly necessary for our experiment. Here are the instructions:

1. Go to your favourite mp3 music store and type ‘Pärt Creator Spiritus Copenhagen’ into the search engine

2. Once you’ve been directed to the Harmonia Mundi recording, shell out $0.99 or the equivalent in euros, roubles, Uruguayan pesos etc. for Morning Star

3. Download it to your habitual mobile audio device

4. Activate the ‘loop’ or ‘auto repeat’ option

5. Take a brief look at the text (above)

6. Taking any chewing gum out of your ears and turning off any reality TV shows you may have running in the background first, close your eyes, adjust the volume to a decent level and listen to the piece at least 3 times. Or as long as it takes for the music to get ‘inside’ you, so that you reach the stage of ‘active listening’ where you can anticipate where the piece is headed and breathe together with it. If you feel so inclined, treat Morning Star as a prayer, meditation or mindfulness exercise. If that’s not your thing, then just listen.

7. Leave a comment in the box on this blog.

Am I the only one who thinks that if the 462,077,235 people who have been viewing Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance on YouTube could just make it through steps 1-6 the world might be a different place?

Veni Creator Spiritus …

Kenotic logic: Cynthia Bourgeault and Gavin Bryars

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

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Westminster Cathedral

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

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

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

Which brings me to Gavin Bryars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________________

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


The power and the poet

As I am writing the Russian Federation is about to vote in presidential elections that have had many Western observers wondering in the light of recent pro-democracy protests whether the nation might be on the verge of a ‘Russian Spring’ ushering in a new era of political pluralism. To the disappointment of many, it now seems fairly clear that the white ribbons of the opposition are about to lose out to the red, white and blue of Vladimir Putin, but one of the interesting subplots of a campaign that now lacks suspense is the way in which it has evidently divided the post-Soviet musical elite.

Netrebko-and-Putin-2004-300x200On one hand, much electronic ink has been spilled over the vocal support for the Russian Prime Minister recently offered by Anna Netrebko (which caused something of a cultural furore in Vienna where the diva resides). I will refrain from commenting on Netrebko’s er… extremely candid remarks of admiration for Putin in Newsweek out of a concern not to turn this into a tabloid blog, although any reader concerned about the incursion of trash-TV culture into classical music would find much food for thought in the soprano’s interview. La Netrebko can scarcely be looked to as a source of meaningful political comment, but what is more perplexing is the fact that Vladimir Putin’s YouTube channel has also just posted serious video endorsements from artists of the stature of Valery Gergiev and Yuri Bashmet, with the latter waxing lyrical about a future Putin presidential tenure as being comparable to Stradivarius’s ‘golden period’ in his career as a violin-maker.

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One of the most impressive collaborations between Bashmet and Gergiev is arguably their Deutsche Grammophon release of Styx, a powerful Viola Concerto written by Giya Kancheli in 1999. And it is in considering the Kancheli-Gergiev relationship that the parting of the ways in the musical elite of the former Soviet Union becomes both obvious and poignant, reflecting the tragic dimension of events in the ex-USSR over the last decade or so. A long-term collaborator of Gergiev’s, Kancheli wrote a piece entitled ‘Ouarzon’ specially for the Ossetian maestro’s 50th birthday in 2003, with the following dedication (reproduced in the transcript of a 2008 Radio Free Europe conversation with Kancheli which can be read in an English version here or heard in the original Russian via this link).

“Dear Valery,

“Our creative and personal relationship, which has endured many years, has filled me with hope that the powerful energy you possess will travel the globe and return, like a boomerang, to the symbolic circle Bertolt Brecht called ‘the chalk circle of the Caucasus.’ This piece, which I have dedicated to you, I named an Ossetian word, ‘Ouarzon,’ which means ‘love.’ When I transcribed this word in Latin letters it turned out, to my surprise, that it sounds like ‘war zone.’ Unfortunately, this transcription reflects the reality of events transpiring in the Caucasus . It is commonly known that the difference between love and the creation of a ‘war zone’ is just one poorly thought-out step. The way back, on the other hand, is long and difficult.

“I embrace you,

“Giya Kancheli”

However, in the course of this emotionally-charged interview it rapidly becomes clear that after the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict in South Ossetia the relationship between two of the greatest post-Soviet musicians broke down, the cause of contention being Gergiev’s much-publicized concert in Tskhinvali with his Marinsky Theatre Orchestra in gratitude for the Russian intervention against what he (contrary to Kancheli) regarded as the naked aggression of the Georgian army. Tragically, where Gergiev would speak of the military action of Tbilisi as equivalent to a ‘9/11’ event, Kancheli would use precisely the same metaphor in reverse concerning the occupation of Georgian soil by Russian troops.

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Giya Kancheli has since become associated with the musical opposition to the present Kremlin authorities, particularly in joining his voice to that of Arvo Pärt[1] and Gidon Kremer in support of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, about which I have already written on the pages of this blog. In July 2011, Kancheli’s ‘V & V’ for taped voice and violin was the opening item in the ‘Musica Liberat’ concert on behalf of Russia’s two most famous prisoners given by Kremerata Baltica in Strasbourg , with participating musical heavyweights including Pärt, Evgeny Kissin (in duo with Martha Argerich), Mischa Maisky and the former Lithuanian head of state, composer Vytautas Landsbergis, proceeds being donated to the Podmoskovny orphanage and boarding school in Koralovo founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 1994 and adminstered by his family. The programme, organized in collaboration with Amnesty International, ‘Memorial’ (founded by Andrei Sakharov) and Human Rights Watch, was preceded by a keynote speech by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. On the same day an article by Gidon Kremer highly critical of Putin’s treatment of Khodorkovsky appeared via CNN in which the violinist quoted Pushkin:

‘To answer Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s cynical pronouncement that “a thief must sit in jail,” I would like to offer lines from the great Pushkin:And to the nation long shall I be dear For having with my lyre evoked kind feelings, Exalted freedom in my cruel age And called for mercy toward the downfallen.

A familiar Russian theme — the power and the poet. It was always rare for the two to be found on the same podium.’

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Mischa Maisky

It is perhaps no coincidence to see artistic opposition to the present Russian régime being led by musicians born in those countries who felt the full brunt of Soviet repression – Georgia (Kancheli) and the Baltic States: Estonia (Pärt), Latvia (Kremer, Maisky) and Lithuania (Landsbergis) -, who understand the workings of centralized Muscovite power only too well and who feel the responsibility to sound the alarm at signals of a repeat of authoritarian history in a new capitalist guise. These artists also all live outside Russian jurisdiction (including Evgeny Kissin who is based in Paris) and can therefore speak freely without the fear of government recriminations. An organized musical opposition within Russia itself seems not to exist at the moment, as Alex Ross has recently noted ; certainly its isolated voices lack the means to generate anything comparable to Putin’s list of 499 high-profile campaign ‘trustees’ such Netrebko and Gergiev. The more worrying long-term question for Russian democracy – to which hints of an answer, and not necessarily comforting ones, may be given tomorrow – is not whether such a opposition grouping does exist, but whether it can exist. As Gidon Kremer reminds us, Russian power has a long track record of using the podium for one-men shows.

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NOTE

[1] March 2nd saw the first British airing at the London Institute of Contemporary Art of Cyril Tuschi’s film ‘Khodorkhovsky’ first shown in Berlin in 2011 (almost having been derailed when Tuschi’s final cut was the object of what the director described as a highly ‘professional’ theft on the eve of its first screening), with Arvo Pärt’s Symphony n.4 – dedicated to Khodorkovsky, Lebedev ‘and all imprisoned without rights in Russia’ providing the soundtrack. A video statement by Arvo Pärt concerning the Khodorkovsky case (in Russian) can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6eROXjSOeM&feature=related

Top ten of 2011

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

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