Musical ecumenism in Wales (ii)

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

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

Vox Clamantis CD cover

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

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

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

Grave of Joseph Parry (1841-1903)

Grave of Joseph Parry (1841-1903)

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


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

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

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

Gumbel Schönborn

Cardinal Schönborn (right) with Nicky Gumbel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued.


Into the mystic – Einojuhani Rautavaara

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Valamo/Valaam monastery (photo: Jussihuotari)

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

[5] Quoted at

[6] ‘Conveying the inexpressible’.

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

[8] ‘Conveying the Inexpressible’.

[9] Ibid..

[10] Interview with David Allenby.

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

“It is like an egg, nothing can be changed about it. Music or any work of art creates itself, and when you are involved in it, you cannot avoid believing in a kind of universal metaphysical will.”

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

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

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

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

[16] Ibid..

Shrouded in mystery: La Sindone

Today is Holy Saturday, perhaps the strangest day in the Christian calendar. Its description as the ‘day when we cannot see’ which I heard on my first visit to the Taizé Community 25 Easters ago still resonates with me; whereas consideration of Good Friday, for all its uniqueness, remains anchored in history, Holy Saturday is a complete blank, a ‘time out of time’. Faced by the silence of the tomb of the Son of God, the refusal of the Gospels to speak at this point is surely more eloquent than words. And yet to hurry through this day in our eagerness to reach Easter Sunday would be overly hasty. Of all times in the course of the Triduum Paschale, Holy Saturday is the one that perhaps most closely mirrors our present human experience, poised somewhat uneasily between Cross and Resurrection.

The mystery of this unsettling moment between Christ’s burial and the Easter Vigil finds itself reflected in the paucity of musical treatments of this profoundly silent hiatus. One piece that does however come to mind for this day is Arvo Pärt’s extraordinary orchestral evocation of the Turin Shroud entitled La Sindone, composed for the celebrations connected with the Turin Winter Olympics of February 2006 (and subsequently recorded in a revised version on the In Principio CD (ECM New Series 2050)). One of Pärt’s most grippingly intense scores, the work begins with a huge sonorous outpouring of pain evoking the Crucifixion, with a gradual and inexorable descent of massive string chords in something akin to a musical Pietà. This gives way to an extended and startlingly original section in which the orchestra, as if numb with grief, stammers broken snatches of melody, interspersed with distant drumbeats and tense silences. What opens us here is an almost cosmic sense of staring into ‘a deep and dazzling darkness’, to quote Henry Vaughan’s celebrated phrase (conveyed by the orchestral space between the highest register of the violins and the lowest notes of the double basses and cinematic washes of tuned percussion). The music slowly coalesces into a fabric of interweaving lines of a sombre, elegaic grandeur before fading into the blackness. Then with a powerful timpani roll and sudden orchestral upthrust the Resurrection breaks through with eruptive force, with a searing ascending trumpet line that seems endowed with an eschatological intensity, reminiscent of Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg’s famous statement that ‘if Jesus has been raised, then the end of the world has begun'[1]. And yet the work does not conclude triumphantly, but rather with a hushed and mysterious E minor-major chord that seems to epitomize the ambiguity of Holy Saturday.

Turin Cathedral

Although Pärt visited Turin Cathedral in 2005 prior to the composition of the work, he did not himself see the Shroud. What impressed him was rather the quality of the silence in the edifice:

‘I made a tabula rasa within myself […] I heard a silence so absolute that it was deafening, as if there was a ‘rumble’ of eternity in the background. If we stop and multiply this silence by a hundred we would still be far from the silence in which the chapel of the Shroud is immersed. I watched and learned from the faces of the people around me absorbed in prayer. And I asked myself: how can I put into music this “inner” silence, a silence which can inspire prayer? Thus La Sindone was born.'[2]

Describing his work on the piece as a ‘spiritual pilgrimage’ from the starting-point of his own human poverty, Pärt affirmed in a press conference his belief that the Shroud genuinely bears the imprint of the face of Christ; however, when asked whether he wished to see it during his lifetime, he replied with an enigmatic smile ‘I would like to, maybe in the future […] but perhaps it will not be necessary.’[3] His point is surely well-made; La Sindone is all about spiritual vision, which is why its impact is not dependent on what one may or may not think about the historical authenticity of the controversial cloth in Turin Cathedral. It is rather a meditation on the mystery of the incarnation, the human visage of God, the pain of our world which calls us to bow our hearts in silence, and the miracle of Resurrection in the indestructible power of the Spirit. I find myself reminded of some words I read recently by the brilliant American Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart in his reflections in the wake of the Indonesian tsunami in December 2004 entitled The Doors of the Sea; in the face of the seemingly impenetrable mystery of evil and suffering, we can only find an answer in the promise offered by the shroud found in the empty tomb (whether it eventually made its way to Northern Italy or not):

‘there is in all the things of the earth a hidden glory waiting to be revealed, more radiant than a million suns, more beautiful than the most generous imagination or most ardent desire can now conceive.'[4]



[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology: Volume 1. trans. George H. Kehm (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), 67.

[2] “Ho fatto tabula rasa dentro me stesso […]  Ho ascoltato un silenzio talmente assoluto che era assordante, come se di sottofondo ci fosse ‘un rumore’ di eternità. Se noi in questo momento tacessimo e moltiplicassimo per 100 volte questo silenzio saremmo ancora lontani dal silenzio in cui si è immersi nella cappella della Sindone. Guardavo e imparavo dai volti della gente intorno a me raccolta in preghiera. E mi chiedevo: come posso mettere in musica questo silenzio ‘interiore’, un silenzio che può ispirare la preghiera? Così è nata “La Sindone”. Quoted in Mario Lomunno, ‘La “Sindone” di Arvo Pärt, la musica nasce dal silenzio’, La Voce del Popolo, April 26, 2009, re-printed on-line at . Translation mine. La Sindone was originally entitled La tela traslata (‘The transferred cloth’), a reference to the Shroud’s supposed journey from Jerusalem to Italy via Aleppo, Constantinople, Cyprus and Paris among other places, arriving in Turin in 1578. 

[3] ‘Alla gentile signora preoccupata di sapere se chiederà al cardinale Poletto di poter vedere la Sindone dal vivo, risponde con l’accenno di un sorriso enigmatico. «Mi piacerebbe, magari in futuro; non questa volta, visto che domani sono già di partenza». Poi, dopo una pausa di lunghi istanti, aggiunge: «Ma forse non sarà necessario», e ti fa percepire che lui alla Sindone si è già avvicinato con l’anima‘ (Giorgio Gervasioni, ‘Musica di Arvo Pärt dedicata alla Sindone’ in Il nostro tempo, February 26, 2006, available on-line at ). Translation mine.

[4] David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 102.

Pictures from the first performance of La Sindone can be seen at


The Passion according to Sofia

In the third part of this series on Sofia Gubaidulina we will be taking a closer look at her St John Passion, the work that she herself regards as her opus summum (together with its companion pîece St John Easter), and on which I already touched in the post ‘Expressing the Inexpressible’ when discussing the Passion 2000 project launched by Helmuth Rilling and the Stuttgart Bach Academy.

There can be no doubting the centrality of the Cross in Gubaidulina’s output; it is apparent that for her it constitutes more than a symbol recalling the death of the historical Jesus, being rather a disclosure of the fundamental nature of reality linking life and death, heaven and earth. At the heart of her theology of the Cross is kenosis, the notion of self-emptying, which can be related to what Gerald McBurney and Dominic Gill have termed her ‘Poor Music’, Gubaidulina’s habit of composing with what might appear the most meagre material, ‘the way she generates enormous energy and concentration using the frailest wisps of sound, breath-like sighs and moans, scraps of Russian Orthodox chant, gigantic but extremely simple unisons, shudders and tremblings like the merest moments of tension from a film score, the simplest common chords.[1] This approach is philosophically very similar to the ‘voluntary poverty’ of Arvo Pärt’s radically stripped-down tintinnabuli works or Silvestrov’s ‘voluntary disarmament'[2] in pieces such as as his Silent Songs; with all three figures, despite the stylistic differences between them, there seems to be a shared appreciation that truth and authentic personhood in art as in life can only be attained by dying to self.

This is apparent in the work that first brought Gubaidulina to attention in the West, the remarkable violin concerto Offertorium, written for Gidon Kremer; her comments on the genesis of the piece indicate the way in which hearing Kremer’s violin playing immediately suggested to her that artistic ‘self-sacrifice’, an ek-static giving of oneself entirely to the music, acts as a pointer to the self-giving character of God:

“In this union of the tip of the finger and the resonating string lies the total surrender of the self to the one. And I began to understand that Kremer’s theme is sacrifice – the musician’s sacrifice of himself in self-surrender to the tone.”[3]

This connection between artistic self-forgetting and Divine kenosis can be found in the writings of the Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), an author whose influence on Gubaidulina would merit an extended post in itself. For Berdyaev, ‘in his creative work the artist forgets about himself, about his own personality, and renounces hmself.'[4] He asserts that although creative activity may appear individualistic, and certainly does assert the priority of the creative ‘subject’ over the ‘object’, at another level it consists in going outside oneself:

‘it strikes at the root of the egocentric, for it is eminently a movement of self-transcendence, reaching out to that which is higher than oneself. Creative experience is not characterized by absorption in one’s own perfection or imperfection: it makes for the transfiguration of man and of the world; it foreshadows a new Heaven and a new Earth which are to be prepared at once by God and man.'[5]

In Offertorium this theme of self-sacrifice is played out on a number of inter-connected levels, as the composer comments: “The sacrificial offering of Christ’s crucifixion … God’s offering as He created the world [6] … The offering of the artist, the performing violinist … The composer’s offering”.[7] Musically this is embodied by Gubaidulina’s use of the ‘royal theme’ from Bach’s Musikalische Opfer, which ‘sacrifices itself’ during the composition as notes are successively taken away from its beginning and end during a series of variations, until only a single note is left (“you cannot be reborn until you have died”[8]).In the final lyrical Chorale, which Gubaidulina terms ‘Transfiguration’, the theme is recomposed, but in retrograde form, (“the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”[9]) as a symbolization of the life of the Resurrection in which there is both continuity with earthly existence and a profound discontinuity such that “nobody can recognize it”[10].

Gubaidulina’s St John Passion represents the consummation of this line of kenotic musical and theological thought as set out in In Croce, Offertorium and her powerful and disturbing Seven Words of Christ on the Cross for Cello, Bayan and Strings of 1982. The Cross symbolizes the intersection of the two dimensions of existence – ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’, the meeting of human history and an invisible, eternal divine realm. Textually this is reflected in the Passion in the interweaving of the narrative of John’s Gospel with passages from the Book of Revelation. Gubaidulina had already made such a connection in Offertorium, whose second section is devoted to images of the Cross and the Last Judgment, but in the case of the St John Passion and St John Easter the reference is no longer simply episodic, forming the governing structural principle of the piece as a whole:

‘John’s visions run vertically, as if time progresses in another direction. So I portray the gospel story as a horizontal timeline, and John’s revelations as vertical. I imagine that these two timelines create a cross'[11]

The composer claimed that this combination of the vertical and horizontal has precedents in visual art, having been been inspired by Giotto’s frescoes, including both Passion scenes and a depiction of the final judgment, in the Capella degli Scrovegni in Padua, which she saw in 1997:

“All I had to do in music was what had been done often and long before me in architecture and fresco painting. In my own work I have also tried to join those two texts in such a way that the two accounts, while always retaining their identity, cross each other – events on earth that take place in time (the Passion) and events in heaven that unfold out of time (the Apocalypse)”[12]

These dimensions are united by the Word who is God (John 1:1), whose death transforms the kingdom of the world into the kingdom of Christ (Revelation 11:15, quoted in section 9, ‘A Woman Clothed with the Sun’) and makes possible the outpouring of the Spirit (as the bass soloist narrates the piercing of Jesus’s side with a spear in section 10, ‘Entombment’,  resulting in the flow of blood and water, the choir sings ‘He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’ (John 1:33)). This emphasis on the coming of the Spirit as the one who effects the transfiguration of the world is of course a particular focus of Eastern Orthodox theology, which has always tended to view the Cross and the Incarnation more generally in ontological terms rather than ‘forensically’ as a mechanism for the forgiveness of sins.[13] What is primarily at stake here is the defeating of death and overcoming the barrier between the creator and what is created, so that the creation can be filled with the Divine life.

The in-breaking of the ‘vertical’ dimension of eternity into time implies a drastic revision of the relationship between past, present and future, as Gubaidulina seems to suggest by her superimposition of passages from the Apocalypse and from the Passion narrative. Indeed, she sees the goal of the act of composing as the awakening of the listener to a different sense of time which remains dormant in daily life:

“In my opinion, the most important aim of a work of art is the transformation of time […] “Mankind has this other time – the time of the lingering of the soul in the spiritual realm – within himself. But this can be suppressed through our everyday experience of time.”[14]

Comments by Gubaidulina explaining her vision of the Eucharist perhaps provide a clue to the ‘liturgical’ manner in which she perceives this ‘hour of the soul’ (employing the title of her setting of a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva); in contrast to views of the Eucharist as simply remembrance of Christ’s sacrificial act, her understanding is more dynamic:

‘in the Orthodox Church the believer, in enacting the epiklesis, invokes the Holy Spirit to come and to transform in actuality the bread and the wine into Christ’s blood and body. […] And at the moment when the bread is broken, he actually experiences Christ’s death as if it were his own death, in order then to undergo true resurrection, the transformation of his human essence’ [15]

What we have in the simultaneity of Cross and Judgment in the Passion is effectively a Eucharistic conception of time writ large; as the pre-eminent Greek theologian John Zizioulas memorably puts it, working like Gubaidulina from the perspective of John’s Gospel:

‘What we experience in the divine Eucharist is the end times making itself present to us now […] the penetration of the future into time. The Eucharist is entirely live, an d utterly new; there is no element of the past about it. The Eucharist is the incarnation live, the crucifixion live, the resurrection live, the ascension live, the Lord’s coming again and the day of judgment, live. […] ‘Now is the judgment of the world’ (John 12:31). This ‘now’ of the Fourth Gospel refers to the Eucharist, in which all these events represent themselves immediately to us, without any gaps of history between them'[16]

Giotto, Crucifixion, Capella degli Scovegni, Padua

Giotto, Universal Judgment


It is undoubtedly the primacy of the theme of judgment which is the most intentionally troubling aspect of Gubaidulina’s Passion setting. Although, in accordance with Eastern Christian tradition, she emphasizes that the Cross can only be understood in the light of the Resurrection (significantly sketching St John Easter before embarking on the Passion), she makes no attempt to mitigate a general atmosphere of metaphysical dread, which is heightened by the passages from the Book of Revelation. Between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the piece, Gubaidulina somewhat cryptically remarks,’ runs the double helix of advocacy and accusal'[17]. Fathoming what she means by this is not straightforward, but it would seem that her theological intention is to communicate that God in Christ (as implied by her emphasis of the Logos-God unity stated in John 1:1) is somehow – incomprehensibly from a human point of view – simultaneously the world’s judge and advocate, since it is humanity’s accuser, the Devil, who is ‘thrown down’ (as Gubaidulina has the soprano sing in the ninth section entitled ‘A Woman Clothed with the Sun’), conquered by the blood of the Lamb.

Here we are confronted by a disturbing ambiguity in the composer’s thought; on one level, her quotation of the words ‘for the devil has come down to you with great wrath’ (Rev. 12) might be taken as an indication that the terrifying violence of sections of the St John Passion such as the opening of the seven seals in the sixth movement is not divine in origin. On the other hand, it is clear from the work’s climactic eleventh movement, ‘The Seven Bowls of Wrath’, that Gubaidulina also wants to emphasize the future outpouring of God’s anger against humanity. This ending, in which visceral dramatic impact and a sense of (dark) mystery prevail against a sense of false closure or premature reconciliation, is as surprising as it is unnerving:

‘I sensed that the narration of Jesus’s earthly life path must in no case be allowed to end with a “solution of the dramatic conflict;” after such a dramatic process, there could only be one thing – a sign from the Day of Judgement. This meant an extreme dissonance, a kind of cry or scream. And following this final scream, only one thing was possible – silence. There is no continuation and there can be no continuation: “It is finished.”[18]

It is evident that Gubaidulina’s use of the Book of Revelation at this point derives from her apocalyptic view of the contemporary world as much as from a reading of the Passion narrative itself. Although I have tried to suggest a Christological rationale for her importing of the words of the Johannine apocalypse, the impression left by her St John Passion is not that she is interpreting the visions of Patmos as simply a fully-realized symbolization of Christ’s suffering. Instead Gubaidulina is prophetically insistent that herein lies the fate of the world. Defending her decision to conclude with the ‘Seven Bowls of Wrath’ in an interview in 2001, Gubaidulina explained that she regarded the oratorio’s finale as a personal ‘answer to Ivan Karamazov’ (presumably meaning his famous rejection of the idea that a ‘higher harmony’ in a future existence could somehow justify the suffering of the innocent in this one). For her it is evident that ‘man should have to experience divine wrath for having chosen evil instead of good’ and that the message of John about the primacy of the will of the Father is crucial in our times when the world is ‘on the verge of extinction'[19]

The apparent bleakness of the message of this work, like that of other post-Soviet choral masterpieces such as Arvo Pärt’s Kanon Pokojanen or Alfred Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance, is no doubt unfashionable. The fact that Gubaidulina’s Passion setting has so far received very little by way of critical reaction to her theology seems to me to be indicative of a certain unwillingness to face up to its challenging content; indeed it might be argued that it has been best understood by those critics who have taken offence to it, rather than by those who have paid lip service to its purely aesthetic qualities while evading the thorny moral and spiritual issues it raises. I would certainly like to know whether I am not the only one to feel that substantial works of contemporary art such as Gubaidulina’s are seeking and merit a deeper level of substantive discussion than they tend to receive at the hands of critical opinion which largely views music in terms of the realization of career rather than as the expression of a higher imperative. In listening to Gubaidulina’s St John Passion it seems obvious that we have exceeded the boundaries of mere aesthetics. We are rather confronted by the scream of Golgotha which we would rather avoid, but which we must face in our lives if we are to progress beyond religious sentimentality to genuine faith.

There is no doubt that composing from a perspective of post-Easter hope without neutralizing the horror of Good Friday represents an extremely difficult task with which all modern composers from Penderecki to James MacMillan have had to wrestle. In a candid and as far as I can see untranslated Russian interview from November 2000, Gubaidulina expressed her reservations about the other three Passion 2000 works commissioned by the Stuttgart Bachakademie in terms of their approach to the problem:

‘The first one [Wolfgang Rihm] doubts, a second amuses himself [Osvaldo Golijov], a third wants to re-invent everything anew [Tan Dun]. And to all, except for me, it seems that the reaction to the crucifixion of Christ should be one of rejoicing and well-being. There you have it – the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. From my standpoint that’s frightening.'[20]

What is frightening to Gubaidulina is the sense of false security (which she finds expressed in Rihm’s Deus Passus) contained in the idea that Christ’s suffering in our place has annulled the reality of approaching Divine Judgment; her St John Passion is a deliberate attempt to dispel what she sees as such false consciousness.

Whether Gubaidulina has overstated the case in her Passion in her concern to emphasize the contemporary relevance of the theme of divine judgment is a matter for debate. Maybe I am simply being squeamish, but at times it is difficult not to feel that the terror is so unremitting in the work that even the entirety of the St John Easter is unable to counterbalance it, despite the ecstasy of its peroration ‘I saw a New Heaven and a New Earth’. This is perhaps partly a question of harmonic/melodic idiom, in that the relative weight accorded to chromatic and diatonic passages is skewed so heavily in favour of the former that Gubaidulina’s music never attains the harmonious clarity of, say Arvo Pärt [21].  This is not merely a technical issue, however, as it seems to stem from Gubaidulina’s overriding theological concept. In her ‘double helix’ running between heaven and earth, ‘accusal’ of humanity seems to take aural precedence over ‘advocacy’ for humanity. Although the concept of the Logos as uniting the human and divine certainly provides the overarching textual framework to the piece, it is hard to avoid the impression of at least a residual polarity between the human realm and an inscrutable, vengeful divinity which is only nominally reconciled by the God-Man Jesus Christ. There are hints of this in other places in Gubaidulina’s output; for example, in the work In Croce written back in 1979, Gubaidulina had conceived the organ part, in contrast to the warm humanity of the ‘cello, in terms of ‘a mighty spirit that sometimes descends to earth to vent its wrath'[22]. Something similar can be felt in her Seven Words or in the furious organ clusters in the finale to the St John Passion, and the thematic concept begs some worrying questions. Is this ‘mighty spirit’ divine or diabolical? If it is indeed God the Father who is being symbolized by the organ,  is there some threatening kind of commingling of light and darkness in Gubaidulina’s musical (if not theological) concept of the Godhead?

Questions such as these make listening to Gubaidulina’s St John Passion a fascinating but deeply disturbing experience. Nonetheless, whatever one may think of Gubaidulina’s verdict on her peers and her own apocalyptic reading of the Gospel narrative, her point regarding the need to take in the full measure of the crucifixion without spiritual complacency is well-taken.  The central message of her gripping work is surely a valid and urgent one; the joy of Easter Sunday cannot be be authentically experienced if we are not prepared first of all to look seriously at our world – and at ourselves – with a sobering measure of fear and trembling.



[1] McBurney writes of the striking “poverty” of the surface of Gubaidulina’s music, the way she generates enormous energy and concentration using the frailest wisps of sound, breath-like sighs and moans, scraps of Russian Orthodox chant, gigantic but extremely simple unisons, shudders and tremblings like the merest moments of tension from a film score, the simplest common chords. Gerald McBurney, ‘It pays to be poor’, The Guardian, August 12, 2005, available on-line at

[2] See David Fanning’s review for the International Record Review reprinted at

[3] Valentina Kholopova and Enzo Restagno, Sofia Gubaidulina: Zhizn’ piamiati [A life in memory] (Moscow: research monograph, 1996), 79-80, quoted in Michael Kurtz, Sofia Gubaidulina: a Biography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 149.

[4] Quoted in E.J. Tinsley, ‘Kenosis’ in Gordon S. Wakefield, ed. The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 238.

[5] Nikolai Berdyaev, Dream and Reality, 210, quoted in Carnegie Samuel Calian,The significance of eschatology in the thoughts of Nicolas Berdyaev (Leiden: Brill, 1965), 63n.

[6] The theological idea that the Divine act of creation itself should be seen kenotically, particularly developed in a Western context in the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Jürgen Moltmann (whose Trinity and the Kingdom of God draws significantly on Berdyaev), has become a key concept for many thinkers involved in the faith-science dialogue such as John Polkinghorne.

[7] Quoted in Kurtz, Sofia Gubaidulina, 149.

[8] Ibid., 150.

[9] Ibid..

[10] Vera Lukomsky and Sofia Gubaidulina, “My Desire Is Always to Rebel, to Swim against the Stream” in Perspectives of New Music, Vol 36/1 (Winter, 1998), 5-41:27.

[11] CD booklet to Hänssler Classic 98289 (September 2007), 64.

[12] International Bach Academy Stuttgart Passion 2000 brochure, quoted in Kurtz, 249. Again, there is a correspondence between Gubaidulina’s compilation of her libretto and the prophetic, eschatological dimension that Berdyaev sees in genuine creativity, ‘an upward flight towards a different world’, which in some way ‘signifies an ek-stasis, a breaking through to eternity.’ In opposition to what Berdyaev calls ‘symbolic’ creativity (‘to take symbols for reality is one of the chief temptations of human life’) which restricts itself to the realm of phenomena, he boldly posits the existence of ‘realistic’ creativity, which ‘would, in fact, bring about a transfiguration and the end of this world, and the emergence of a new heaven and a new earth.’ Artistic activity in this finite world inevitably falls back into the first type, but is fired by this ‘realistic’ creativity capable of genuine transformation of the cosmos, of which it provides us with a glimpse.  ‘The creative act, alike in its power and impotence, is eschatological – a prefiguration of the end of the world.’ (Dream and Reality, 209). See Carnegie Samuel Calian, The significance of eschatology in the thoughts of Nicolas Berdyaev, 57-67 and Kurtz, Sofia Guabidulina, 105.

[13] It should be stressed that although Gubaidulina does at times criticize Western theological categories, her aim with the Passion was to go beyond the East-West divide (it is significant that she should, like Arvo Pärt, have found particular inspiration in Italian sacred art):

“The chasm between the two systems of faith saddens me deeply. The early Christians did not have such a chasm in mind. Jesus lives in our hearts, not in dogmatic systems. That’s why I decided to write a work that transcends divisions over dogma” (quoted in Kurtz, 250).

[14] Quoted in Sikorski – Magazine 01/10, published on-line at

[15] Quoted in Kurtz, 250.

[16] John D. Zizioulas, ed. Douglas Knight, Lectures in Christian Dogmatics (London: Continuum, 2008), 155.

[17] CD booklet to Hänssler Classic 98289, 64.


[19] ‘По существу это мой ответ Ивану Карамазову. Человек должен пережить гнев Божий за то, что он выбирает зло вместо добра. Он должен это пережить. Вот моя концепция. […] Но эта версия для меня дорога – закончить именно гневом Божиим. Особенно сейчас, в этом веке это настолько актуально. Именно в тексте Иоанна, который настаивает на том, что самое главное – это воля Отца, заключена судьба всего мира, который сейчас на грани исчезновения. Мне кажется, что именно это Евангелие и Апокалипсис сейчас наиболее актуальны…’ (Interview for Deutsche Welle, 20.10.2001),,340677,00.html

[20] ‘Один сомневается, другой играет, третий хочет осмыслить все по-новому, и всем им, кроме меня, кажется, что реакцией на распятие Христа должны быть веселье и благополучие. Вот это — конец ХХ и начало XXI века. С моей точки зрения, это страшно.’ (Газета “Коммерсантъ”, №207 (2092), 03.11.2000, reprinted online at It should be said that elsewhere in the interview Gubaidulina does however acknowledge Rihm’s seriousness of purpose. Her assertion that he treats Christ’s suffering as finished business would seem difficult to uphold in the face of Rihm’s use of Paul Celan’s Tenebrae to conclude his Deus Passus, an ending which in its way is just as disconcerting as the ‘Seven Bowls’ in Gubaidulina’s work.

[21] To some extent the two composers can be said to represent two constrasting strands of Eastern Orthodox thought – Gubaidulina being closer to the religious philosophy of Berdyaev and the ‘sophiology’ of Soloviev and Bulgakov, Pärt to the ‘neo-patristic’ school and the monasticism of Mt Athos.

[22] Quoted in ‘The Fire and the Rose’, Louth Contemporary Music Society/Drogheda Arts Festival programme booklet, May 1, 2010, available on-line at




Sermonizing rant or visionary spirituality? Sofia Gubaidulina and Maria Yudina

In my last post, I concluded with some remarks about Sofia Gubaidulina’s In Croce; as we move through Lent towards Holy Week I have made it one of my personal projects to wrestle a little with her unique and disturbing Passion music, given that Gubaidulina is both one of the most important figures working today and one of the most enigmatic. While she has been the recipient of countless prestigious awards since coming to international prominence in the 1980s, her work – like that of the Russian avant-garde more generally – can still provoke a great sense of critical bemusement, if not outright hostility. The reaction of the British Guardian newspaper’s reviewer Tim Ashley after the 2007 BBC composer weekend devoted to Gubaidulina typifies this ambivalence:

‘Deeply religious, Gubaidulina has been likened to Dostoevsky in her ability to illuminate extremes of despair and elation, though such states also seemingly constitute her sole mode of perception and expression. The overall effect is wearing: you feel you’ve been in contact with sermonising rant rather than visionary spirituality.’ [1]

The extremism of much Soviet and post-Soviet music is certainly something to which it is hard to remain indifferent, but whether or not one sympathizes with it intuitively, it is clear that it cannot be understood in isolation from some appreciation of the historical context. Reading Michael Kurtz’s extremely thorough biography of Gubaidulina, I was struck (just as I had been by Solomon Volkov’s Shostakovich and Stalin, a book which guided my research as I was writing my orchestral piece Pursued by Bronze Horsemen for the Shostakovich centenary in 1906) by the truly shocking radicalism of the whole Soviet project, whose aim was nothing less than the generation of a new and supposedly ‘higher’ species of human being, homo sovieticus. Western aesthetic criteria are effectively powerless to evaluate the cultural production of this closed universe where all values were systematically re-defined, and all notions of ‘normalcy’ rendered meaningless.

Maria Yudina, 1922

I find it particularly intriguing that a key rôle in Sofia Gubaidulina’s spiritual development was played by the legendary pianist Maria Yudina (1899-1970). One of the greatest performers of the twentieth century, Yudina was a woman of extraordinary cultural breadth, associated with figures such as the Orthodox philosopher and theologian Pavel Florensky or the poets Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak. Always appearing in a long black dress resembling a nun’s habit, frequently adorned with a large pectoral cross, she has however also been viewed as the embodiment of the Russian cultural archetype of the yurodivy or ‘Holy Fool’.  Solomon Volkov’s recollection of her is typical:

‘Yudina was a personality given to exaltations. Many people, including Shostakovich, who had the greatest respect for her musical talents, found her behavior affected and pretentious. But I always believed Yudina’s extravagant gestures manifested the same fierce temperament that surged in her performances. She violated one convention after another. She never married, wore sneakers even in winter, and could spend weeks sleeping in the bathtub.'[2]

Yudina’s repertoire, somewhat like that of that other great pianistic eccentric Glenn Gould,[3] eschewed the staple diet of Chopin and Rachmaninov beloved of Russian audiences, concentrating on Bach, the Viennese classics and modern works (by composers such as Prokofiev, Hindemith, Krenek, with Yudina’s tastes even extending to Boulez, Nono and Stockhausen). Her metaphysical approach can be judged from her writings on music such as her liner notes to a recording of Brahms’s Intermezzi released in the late 1960s, whose exalted style the reader may either find inspired or ridiculous. Yudina’s allusions on the genre of the ‘elegy’ are encyclopaedic, ranging from the 8th century theologian John the Damascene, through Botticelli, Dürer and Holbein, Novalis, Pushkin and Lermontov to Mahler, Shostakovich, Akhmatova and Pasternak. Her comments on the E flat minor Intermezzo Op. 118 n. 6 are characteristic:

‘Its theme is a passage from the medieval “Dies irae” (“Day of wrath”). We hear the despair of soul and human fate about the destiny of the passing life in the variety of rhythmic shifts, in movements of the center of gravity, in the pile-up of foreign harmonies. The wrongs of the sinful past tear the soul and heart apart. However, the torn soul, its broken pieces, or rather its sawdust, is picked up by the calming gigantic wings of archangels in the enormous arches of chords through the whole keyboard, in the unthinkable range of swift modulations. The fragments of nearly late repentance are collected in the treasury of Forgiveness in the minor, in the depression of the minor, in the pianissimo at the very end of the “Universal Drama.'[4]

It is extraordinary that Yudina survived at all in the atheistic climate of the Soviet Union; although she was evicted from several prominent teaching positions on account of her religious views, and banned from playing outside the USSR, she bizarrely seems to have been Stalin’s favourite pianist. According to Solomon Volkov,[5] this fact is only comprehensible in the light of the Russian tradition of a symbiotic relationship between power and the yurodivy (as exemplified in Boris Godunov), a relationship resembling that of Ahab and Elijah or Herod and John the Baptist. In an environment of paranoïa where rules of social conduct are governed by the desire to appease an arbitrary and malevolent dictator, the only person who is allowed to speak the truth is the wild-eyed (and therefore untouchable) prophet, whom the despot simultaneously despises, admires and even fears. Being a mystic with a direct access to God, the yurodivy has a right to judge the Tsar and call him to repentance. Volkov’s claim that Stalin was well aware of this tradition seems quite plausible; he was after all not only a former seminarian but also highly superstitious.

This peculiar dynamic is exemplified by the most famous of the many legends surrounding Maria Yudina. Dating from the time of the Second World War, one whose authenticity is sometimes disputed but which was widely circulated among the Russian intelligentsia. Stalin apparently once heard a broadcast performance of Yudina playing Mozart’s A major Concerto n.23 (KV 488) and ordered a copy of the (non-existent) recording from the radio station. Terrified at the prospect of what might happen in the event of being unable to fulfil the Supreme Leader’s request, they spent the whole night assembling an orchestra and three petrified conductors, opening the pressing factory specially in order to make a single-issue recording with Yudina. On receipt of the disc, so the story goes, Stalin sent the sum of 20000 roubles to the pianist – at a time when the fees of leading artists such as David Oistrakh were generally in the order of 200 roubles. In return, Yudina sent a letter of thanks saying to Stalin that she would donate the money to her parish church and “pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country”[6] . Amazingly no action was taken against Yudina; indeed it was rumoured that her Mozart recording was found on the gramophone next to Stalin’s deathbed.

Sofia Gubaidulina, herself something of a yurodivaïa by natural temperament,[7] seems to have encountered Maria Yudina for the first time as a teenager in 1951 at an all-Beethoven recital given by the pianist in Gubaidulina’s home town of Kazan. According to Michael Kurtz, what stuck in her memory was not merely her playing but her (dangerous) pre-concert gesture of making the sign of the cross. Thirteen years later Gubaidulina began to visit an ailing Yudina in hospital in Moscow (where she was a parishioner at the church of one of the most well-known modern Russian martyrs, Father Aleksandr Men); the two women developed an intense friendship, with Yudina writing in 1968:

‘What is so captivating in Gubaidulina is her extraordinary purity in everything, her faith in her creative path, in people, in the beauty and truth of the world; she is absolutely full of honest and guileless intentions, evaluations, projects, deeds, words, and works. So, if I live I’ll soon perform one of her remarkable works composed quite recently.'[8]

Maria Yudina died before being able to realize this wish, but it was at the pianist’s suggestion shortly before her death in 1970 that the young composer decided to be baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church. A consideration of the musical fruit of that decision will be the subject of the next instalment of this post.

Yudina with Igor Stravinsky, 1962





[2] Solomon Volkov, St Petersburg: a Cultural History (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1995), 368.

[3] Yudina heard Gould perform Webern’s Op. 27 variations in 1957 on his visit to Moscow and subsequently added the work to her own repertoire.

[4] Темой его является фрагмент средневековой секвенции «Dies irae» (День гнева).
Во множестве ритмических модификаций, в перестановках центра тяжести, в перемещениях интонаций, в нагромождении чужеродных гармоний – мы слышим подобие отчаяния души и человеческой судьбы об участи своей утрачиваемой жизни. Неправильное, неправедное былое терзает память и сердце. Но этими огромными дугами аккордов через всю клавиатуру, в немыслимом диапазоне стремительных модуляций, – истерзанная личность, вернее, ее обломки, даже опилки, – подбираются примиряющими гигантскими крылами Архангелов. В миноре, в тоске минора, в pianissimo под самый конец «Вселенской драмы» собираются осколки едва не запоздавшего раскаяния в необозримую сокровищницу Всепрощения.’

English translation Lenya Ryzhik (

[5] See Solomon Volkov, Chostakovitch et Staline (Paris: Editions du Rocher, 2004), 45-54. I reference the French edition as this is the only one presently available to me.

[6] Quoted in Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard College, 1984), 107.

[7] An extended set of reminiscences by Sir Simon Rattle in Michael Kurtz’s monograph colourfully convey this side of the composer’s personality: ”When I got to know Sofia, I spoke no German and she no English […] I always had the impression that whatever she said in German sounded somehow crazy – even though I didn’t understand it. When I began to understand German a little better, I noticed that indeed it was crazy…She is a really crazy woman, of course in a completely positive way, like my first view of a Russian icon with Judy Garland’s hairdo.” (quoted in Michael Kurtz, Sofia Gubaidulina: a biography, translated Christoph K. Lohmann (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007), 228).

[8] Ibid., 87. Another composer whose penchant for the absurd has sometimes been assimilated to the yurodivy tradition is Alfred Schnittke (see Edward Rothstein’s 1994 New York Times review of Schnittke’s Seventh Symphony, reprinted on-line at

Темой его является фрагмент средневековой секвенции «Dies irae» (День гнева).

Во множестве ритмических модификаций, в перестановках центра тяжести, в перемещениях интонаций, в нагромождении чужеродных гармоний – мы слышим подобие отчаяния души и человеческой судьбы об участи своей утрачиваемой жизни. Неправильное, неправедное былое терзает память и сердце. Но этими огромными дугами аккордов через всю клавиатуру, в немыслимом диапазоне стремительных модуляций, – истерзанная личность, вернее, ее обломки, даже опилки, – подбираются примиряющими гигантскими крылами Архангелов. В миноре, в тоске минора, в pianissimo под самый конец «Вселенской драмы» собираются осколки едва не запоздавшего раскаяния в необозримую сокровищницу Всепрощения.

‘Celtic Orthodoxy’ – ancient or modern? (iii)

Beyond dualism

Having advanced the idea in the first two parts of this post that there is a common spiritual heritage linking the Celtic nations and Eastern Christianity, I would like to offer a few thoughts suggesting some reasons why this should be emerging (and I use the term in full awareness of the contemporary resonance of the word) at this particular juncture in history. What is it in this spirituality that is proving so appealing at the present time, not least to faith communities in other parts of the world?

All I can do in this present instalment is to sketch an answer to this question; aware that I am doing nothing more than scratching the surface, I would like to take a look at the frequent appearance of both Celtic and Eastern themes in the work of a number of Christian contemporary authors convinced that the Church will only be able to remain relevant for contemporary society if it can move beyond the pathologies of the Western culture of late modernity. As the Franciscan Richard Rohr (for my money one of the most compelling current writers on spirituality, in the lineage of Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen) has pointed out at length,[1] the modern mindset has increasingly tended over the course of the last few centuries to operate in ‘either-or’ categories giving rise to a whole range of largely unhelpful dualisms. These are not difficult to identify: examples would be the West’s typical severance of the head from the heart, the mind from the body, or human beings from the natural world. Using theological categories, one might add the tendency to pit grace against nature, contemplation against social action or Christ against culture. This dualistic mindset of modernity, of  which technology is the expression par excellence (as we have hopefully seen in my recent posts on the thought of Jacques Ellul) is wedded to the idea of knowledge as a form of domination, whereby the sovereign, individual subject manipulates, masters, controls an inert, passive object whose only interest is as something – and by sinister, though logical extension, someone – to be used.

Fr. Richard Rohr (left) with Rita Brock and N.T. Wright. Photo Becky Garrison

This type of thinking has of course produced some impressive results: the whole modern scientific project, founded on the power of rational analysis and empirical research, would be unthinkable without it. I have not met too many people who are not prepared to recognize the benefits of flush toilets or cures for smallpox, and you would not be reading these lines or consulting the webite of Fr. Rohr’s Centre for Action and Contemplation if it were not for semiconductors, fibre-optic cables and the like. There has however been a huge price. On one level this should by now have become glaringly obvious in terms of minor matters such the current ecological crisis, huge economic injustice on a planetary scale, and the development of weaponry capable of annihilating life on earth, but I would argue with Rohr and many others that modernity’s love affair with dualism has also had psychological and relational  consequences for human beings which are no less serious for being intangible. What we have lost, and urgently need to re-acquire, is a vision of Being as Communion (to use the title of John Zizioulas’s ground-breaking study of the 1980s on human personhood). In the dualist scheme of things there is no room for any kind of communion between subject and object, or between Descartes’ res cogitans and res extensa, no sense that both participate in a bigger picture, in a Great Chain of Being that unites them. What you essentially have is a recipe for conflict between opposites: thesis and antithesis, but without the possibility of reconciliation at a higher level of complexity where contradictions become ‘a single reality seen from different angles’, to use a wonderfully telling phrase of Olivier Messiaen (like Rohr a non-dualist and spiritual descendant of St Francis). When communion disappears, the alternative is only too apparent, as a visit to any sprawling urban conurbation will confirm – instead of communities, we are left with mere agglomerations of disconnected human beings herded into proximity with one another but not united by any shared values . People feeling no link to the Transcendent, alienated from their environment, from each other and indeed from their own selves.

An alternative seed?

It is hard not to deny that Western Christianity has often been complicit in this atomization of society; after all, what could be a more tragically faithful mirror of dualistic ‘us-and-them’ thinking than a religion divided into 33000 denominations (and counting). It is therefore not suprising that some of the most perceptive observers of the current state of Christianity are looking around for alternative models of what we mean by the word ‘Church’. This is particularly true of authors who are anxious not to fall into the temptation of  tearing up the rule-book and starting again by jettisoning tradition entirely (as this would be tantamount to replicating the dualistic logic of exclusion), but who rather seek to relativize post-Reformation doctrinal wrangling by appealing in an ecumenical spirit to an older and more authentic tradition of the undivided Church – the legacy of First Millenium Christianity. Writers such as Huston Smith (The Soul of Christianity), Phyllis Tickle (The Great Emergence) or Harvey Cox (The Future of Faith) are figures – all interestingly over 70 – who come to mind here in their attempts to seek renewal of their own Western traditions (Methodist, Episcopal and Baptist respectively) through openness to other Christian faith streams. They can perhaps be described as ‘post-modern’ in their view of religious language as an essentially inadequate human approximation to spiritual, mystical realities, but it would be unfair to see this as a capitulation to a thorough-going relativism, as they argue on solid historical grounds that this apophatic approach to doctrine has not only always characterized the Eastern Church but was also the default position of the first 1200 years of Western Church history. Their vision for the future of Christian faith retrieves ancient spiritual practices as part of a forward-looking critique of modernity which does not simply seek to react to it allergically, but instead challenges the very dualistic framework within which modernity insists that all discussion be conducted. Both Celtic and Eastern Christian spirituality strike these thinkers as deeply attractive because of an essentially holistic character which is confirmed by more specialist studies. As Brendan Lehane remarks in his Early Celtic Christianity, there is a sense in which the history of the Celtic Church in the early centuries as the outpost of the Christian East at Europe’s western edge is rich with contemporary potential. It can be seen as an ‘alternative seed’ whose time is yet to come, combining profound devotion and an openness to the life of the mind with a deep environmental awareness (which the missionaries already encountered and valued as part of the indigenous culture of the Celtic world):

‘Christians of all persuasions have always loved the saints of the Celtic Church and the traditions of sanctity, learning and stewardship for which they stood ; and the Celtic or, as it is also called, the British Church has always represented an ideal for those who have known of it, and not simply as a Golden Age of innocence and purity which, in the words of Nora Chadwick, has “never been surpassed and perhaps been equalled only by the ascetics of the eastern deserts,” but also, and more importantly, as an alternative seed, “a light from the west,” perhaps obscure and even alien, but nevertheless powerful and true with the kind of reality we seem to need today. “If the British Church had survived,” wrote H.J. Massingham, “it is possible that the fissure between Christianity and nature, widening through the centuries, would not have cracked the unity of western man’s attitude to the universe.” This combination of saintliness and ecology is but one aspect of the heritage. The other is made up of the sacred and secular traditions of learning, science, poetry and art, which were seen as the essential concomitants, the frame and the vehicle, whereby God’s purpose for the cosmos, its transfiguration, might be aided and fulfilled.'[2]

This constitutes a broad and inspiring vision that contrasts vividly with the narrowness and exclusivity of so much that passes for organized religion. In this conception there is no rigid polar opposition between immanence and transcendence; the Creator and the creation are certainly distinguished but not alienated from one another. The Word of God is not emphasized at the expense of the Spirit, nor the Oneness of God to the detriment of the three persons of the Trinity. Much contemporary theology has now come to a realization of the contribution of the Eastern Cappadocian Fathers in developing a ‘social’, relational Trinitarian vision (in tension with Augustine’s psychological analogy between the Trinity and the individual human mind with its knowledge of itself and love of itself) in which the difference of the Divine persons is as fundamental as their unity. A similar balance can be found in the famous opening  of St Patrick’s ‘Breastplate’:

I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the
Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession
of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.

Saint Patrick: contemporary icon by Maria Manley

A minority report

Another factor linking these contemporary writers is a deep-seated desire to break with what might be termed ‘Imperial Theology’, epitomized more than anything else by the ‘conversion’ of Constantine and the subsequent establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. [4] This is where the flourishing of Celtic Christianity, in its independence from Rome and centralizing bureaucratic power provides tantalizing food for thought in terms of showing the missional potential of an anti-imperial spirituality and ecclesiology. This is put succinctly by Brian McLaren in terms that could have come straight from Ellul’s Subversion of Christianity (1984) or the ideas already set out by Jürgen Moltmann in The Church in the Power of the Spirit in 1975:

‘What we have called Christianity for 1,500 years in the West turns out to be a Greco-Roman version of Christianity. There’s been a lot of talk already about the Greek influence on Christianity. But I think we’ve underestimated the Roman captivity of Christianity from those early centuries when Greco-Roman philosophy was becoming the tool of Roman domination of the empire.
The problem is that this process led to a connection between Christianity and systems of power and domination throughout Christianity that sure look antithetical to the way of Jesus.
We’ve mentioned the Celts. Well, the early Celtic Christians represented this minority report on the way of being Christian that wasn’t Roman –- and it flowered in one era, but was domesticated again by the Romans.
You can make a pretty strong case that St. Francis himself represented a re-flowering of the non-Roman, Celtic approach to faith. And I’m sure this is a speculative idea as I’m describing it here –- but I think that Francis represented an alternative idea much like what the Celtic missionaries spread through Europe.'[4 ]

A similar thought is expressed by Graydon Snyder in Irish Jesus – Roman Jesus, emphasizing that what is at stake is not merely the possibility of distancing ourselves from a shameful and violent past in which Christianity has all too often made unforced sacrifices to the idols of worldly power. This is also a quest for paradigms shaping the current engagement of the Church with the world:

‘Why is Christianity, as Westerners know it, Roman rather than Irish? Is Roman Christianity the best and only way to convey the Jesus tradition to other cultures? […] These questions are nearly impossible to answer, yet they are critically important to a Christian world seeking new life and new forms.’[5]

What role can a recuperation of Eastern Orthodox tradition play in this attempt to construct an alternative, de-imperialized Christian narrative? It might at first sight hardly seem credible to appeal to Byzantium as ‘anti-Roman’ given that even today the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch bears the official title ‘Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome’; what could be more theocratic and imperial than the magnificence on the Bosphorus celebrated by Yeats in his yearning for the Age of Justinian? However, authors such as Diana Butler Bass (in her eloquent People’s History of Christianity) are quick to point to the East’s critical theological voices, whether that of St John Chrysostom, whose tenet that ‘the desire to rule is the mother of all heresies’ led him into conflict with the empress Eudoxia,[6] or of the Desert Fathers intent on preserving true spirituality against its compromise with imperial power. As I argued in part ii) of this post, it was this ascetic strain of Eastern Christian thought and practice, rooted in radical poverty – another ‘minority report’ of sorts -, which  seems to have found its way to the Celtic lands, not collusion with Empire.[7]

At this point it scarcely matters whether the current Western retrieval of Celtic and Orthodox spirituality (as well as that of other ‘counter-narratives’ to the conflation of secular and spiritual authority such as those of the intinerant medieval orders, or later the Anabaptists and Quakers) is historically accurate. The present appropriation of an ancient heritage is not the expression of a desire to ressuscitate a lost past in all its minutiae but rather a search for inspiration, sifting history for elements suitable for integration within a dynamic and flexible model for future development. After all, the authority of any spiritual tradition does not lie in its antiquity alone, as much as in the authenticity of lived experience it conveys and in its generative power for the present.

This mention of the generative power of the past brings us back to the starting-point of this series of posts: contemporary art. The East-West musical conversation currently in progress at the edges of Europe may refer to seemingly archaic sources, but the resulting output is without doubt on the cutting-edge of artistic praxis. Here we are confronted with a strange paradox; compared with the settings of texts going back to the roots of Judeo-Christian tradition by Pärt, Silvestrov, Tavener or others, the products of the high modernism of the post-war era (the heyday of integral serialism and musique concrète) now appear as dated as 1960s high-rise blocks. It is in the art of creative memory, not in acts of cultural iconoclasm and violent rupture with the past that true radicalism may perhaps best be found.

For those artists wishing to do something genuinely new at a time when many are proclaiming that everything has already been tried, the lesson would seem to be this – you might do worse than to scour history for what has been forgotten.


[1] A podcast featuring a fascinating introduction by Richard Rohr to the subject of ‘non-dual thinking’ and its relationship to Christian mystical tradition can be downloaded here from . Also highly recommended is audio of Fr. Rohr’s recent Fuller Seminary lecture on Emerging Christianity and the contemplative tradition.
[2] Brendan Lehane, Early Celtic Christianity (London : Continuum, 2005), 9-10.
[3] This last point is perhaps not as speculative as McLaren – whose friendship with Richard Rohr ought not to surprise us – makes out here. Not only have many commentators noticed the similarity in lifestyle and ‘creation spirituality’ between the Franciscans and the Celtic monks, but George Hunter III, Distinguished Professor of World Mission at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of the influential book The Celtic Way of Evangelism, has claimed that Francis’s love for the animal world was kindled at the monastery of Bobbio, a foundation of St Columba (see ‘How the Irish spread the Gospel’ at Indeed, the following verse of Patrick’s ‘Breastplate’ could easily have been penned in Assisi rather than Ireland:

I arise today, through the strength of Heaven:
light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendour of Fire,
speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea,
stability of Earth, firmness of Rock.

[4] The thesis of a ‘Constantinian Fall of the Church’ is of course not a new one, and can be traced back to the Anabaptists in the sixteenth century. While Luther and Calvin held a similar view of church history, they dated the fall to the papal assumption of temporal power (by Boniface III and Gregory the Great respectively), whereas the Anabaptists laid the blame squarely at the feet of Constantine, as is clear from an Anabaptist tract published in Augsburg in 1530: ‘There was not among the Christians of old at the time of the apostles until the Emperor Constantine any temporal power or sword’
(quoted in William Roscoe Estep, The Anabaptist Story, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 243).
[5] Graydon Snyder, Irish Jesus – Roman Jesus: the Formation of Early Irish Christianity (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 1-2.
[6] While it is clear that Eastern Orthodoxy has its own historical demons with which to deal, such as the dark side of pan-Slavic nationalism, whose destructive potential was made painfully obvious during the conflicts in the ex-Yugoslavia of the 1990s, many have also found inspiration in the witness of twentieth-century Orthodox Christians in terms of their underground resistance to Communism. The practice of Friday evening prayer around the Cross incorporated by Roger Schütz into the worship of the Taizé Community was for example a direct result of the Taizé brothers’ clandestine contact with Christians in Moscow – a telling example of the implicit socio-political dimension of contemplation.
[7] See Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 67-70.

‘Celtic Orthodoxy’ – ancient or modern? (ii)

Round tower of Glendalough, Ireland (photo: Ticketautomat)

In the first part of this post I put forward the idea that there is a deep-seated commonality between Celtic and Eastern Christianity which we are rediscovering at the present time (not least through sacred art) for reasons that merit more serious investigation that they have hitherto received. Undeterred by skeptics who say that this is merely a modern myth put about by New Agers and inveterate dreamers with a vague grudge against institutionalized forms of the Western Church, in this instalment I will try to test the hypothesis that this is not just a modern phenomenon but one which has an actual basis in history.

The first striking thing to point out is that there is good evidence to suggest that the Celtic lands were in contact with Christians from the Eastern part of the Roman Empire very early in the story of the Church. Writing in the first decade or so of the third century Tertullian of Carthage intriguingly comments – a reference which will soon afterwards be corroborated by Origen [1] – on the existence of ‘places among the Britons unapproached by the Romans (‘Britannorum inaccessa Romanis loca’) but subdued to Christ (‘Christo vera subdita’)’. This is highly suggestive, as it constitutes the first indication that the evangelization of the British Isles was not synonymous with assimilation to the civilization of the Roman Empire, which would be one explanation for the fact that Christianity in the early centuries of the Celtic Church developed somewhat independently from the rest of the Latin West. So the question naturally arises – if the remoter parts of the British Isles were not exposed to Christianity by way of contact with Rome, by what route did the Gospel travel to these outlying north-western regions of Europe?

This is where distinguishing myth and conjecture from history becomes decidedly difficult. It is of course hard to take seriously the fanciful notion that it was Joseph of Arimathea himself who brought the Gospel directly from Palestine, passing via Glastonbury and the Isle of Avalon; this is clearly the stuff of Grail legends (in some versions of which Joseph actually travelled to Britain with the boy Jesus for the purposes of extracting tin from the mines of Cornwall [2]). What is remarkable about such stories, however, is that they appear to have been in circulation, and therefore part of the popular consciousness, at a relatively early date. Writing in the sixth century, the historian Gildas contended – an account not contradicted by Eusebius -, that ‘these islands received the beams of light … in the latter part of the reign of Tiberius Caesar [i.e. prior to 37 C.E.], in whose time this religion was propagated without impediment or death’. [3]

Some scholars, attempting to reconstruct the journey of Christianity to Britain and Ireland, have more plausibly pointed to the fact that St Paul’s letter to the Galatians may well have been addressed to Celtic tribes (the word galatoi being etymologically related to ‘Celt’) living near present-day Ankara and speaking a version of Gaulish. These tribes would, it is argued, have been in contact with the Gauls of Southern France, who would then have travelled to Britain by the end of the second century. Given the pivotal rôle of Gaul as a conduit for Eastern Christian thought into Western Europe (via figures such as St Irenaeus of Lyons and later St John Cassian) and its geographical proximity to Britain, this hypothesis is far from fanciful. If correct, it would establish a material link between Celtic Christianity and the spiritual traditions and practices of the East which appears to be borne out by remarkable parallels in Christian art and architecture between Ireland and the world of the Desert Fathers in Egypt and Syria.

Beehive huts, Skellig Michael (Co. Kerry)

Syrian Beehive structures, Jazira

Perhaps the most obvious hallmark of Celtic Christian culture is its emphasis (unique in a Western European context) on monasticism in line with the Eastern ascetic tradition. One only needs to compare the characteristic Irish round towers or ‘beehive’ hermit’s cells in ancient monastic sites such as Glendalough or Skellig Michael with similar structures in Egypt and Syria to be struck by the resemblences. It is equally worthy of note that a number of Irish place-names bear the designation ‘Disert’ or Desert, with seven Coptic monks being buried at one of them (Disert Ulidh in Ulster). These are mentioned in a litany attributed to the ninth century saint Oengus, while the oldest extant Irish Missal (Stowe) mentions Egyptian anchorites of the fourth century. The role that these monks may or may not have played in the evangelization of Ireland is contested, but the correspondence between early Celtic and Coptic Christianity seems to  be attested by the cumulative weight of other evidence such as the similarity of Irish and Coptic letters, Crosses and tau-shaped bishops’ croziers quite unlike those of Western Europe.

One of the most notable confirmations of the thesis of Coptic-Celtic contact came in 2006 with the discovery in an Irish peat bog (by the driver of a mechanical digger) of the Fadden More Psalter, an illuminated manuscript from the eighth century which astonishingly had been bound using Egyptian methods and materials. A National Museum of Ireland press release commented:

Fragments of papyrus were dramatically discovered in the lining of the Egyptian-style leather binding. This potentially represents the first tangible connection between early Irish Christianity and the Middle Eastern Coptic Church. It is a finding that asks many questions and has confounded some of the accepted theories about the history of early Christianity in Ireland. [4]

Seen in the light of such evidence, the remarkable resemblence of present-day Gaelic Psalmody to the liturgy of Coptic monasteries on which I commented in the first part of this post would therefore appear to be more than mere coincidence.

Coptic and Celtic Crosses

So much for the archeology. What of the spiritual heritage common to Celtic and Eastern Christianity? The recent Global Dictionary of Christianity offers a useful summary of the shared elements:

‘Celtic Christian beliefs emerged from the blending of Celtic indigenous faith with the Desert Tradition of the ancient Coptic Church […] The pneumatological richness of Eastern Orthodox theology led Celtic Christians towards a theology that is both trinitarian and sacramental. […] Union with God was the fundamental way Celtic believers understood the gift of salvation in Christ. Humans were created for relationship with God, and Christ’s coming as the second Adam was the way in which fractured God-human relationships could experience reconciliation. Christ was both the reconciliation of humanity and the soul friend, or anamchara. […] With the Celtic belief that creation hosts the divine, Celts developed life-affirming holistic approaches to faith.’

The question that really interests me is why this commonality should be surfacing right now. What is driving people to explore these parallelisms? Here the conclusion of the Global Dictionary article maybe provides a clue:

‘With their approach to spirituality Celtic Christians were able to unite what is often seen in contemporary life as mutually exclusive.‘ [5]

There are signs that an increasing number of Christians of various denominations are looking to integrate elements of Celtic and Eastern Orthodox tradition into their own spiritual practice because they are seen to offer an antidote to the dualistic categories that have increasingly come to dominate Western modern thought (mind vs body, grace vs nature …) and whose negative impact upon our world is becoming more and more obvious, particularly with regard to our relationship to the natural environment. Basically, these ancient traditions have something authentic and precious that we have lost and badly need to recover – via what is frequently called ressourcement or a ‘return to the sources’ [6] –  if we are to resolve present-day problems. It is to this search, both in art and theology –  that part III of this post will turn.


[1] Origen (c.185-254) speaks of the presence in Britain of a church ‘at the very end of the world’ (‘quae mundi limites tenent’). See Charles Thomas, ‘Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500’ (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 43.
[2] This legend seems to have been behind the otherwise inexplicable line from Blake’s celebrated ‘Jerusalem’: ‘And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green?’ (see Christopher Bamford, William Parker Marsh, Celtic Christianity : ecology and holiness (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1982), 11).
[3] Ibid., 13.
[4] Reprinted at
[5] William A. Dyrness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen (eds), Global Dictionary of Theology: A Resource for the Worldwide Church, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008) 144.
[6] See the post ‘Back to the Future’ on this blog.

‘Celtic Orthodoxy’: ancient or modern? (i)

One of the most remarkable phenomena in the area of the sacred arts that I have been observing over the course of the last few weeks and months is the emergence of which I can only describe as an East-West creative and spiritual ‘pincer movement’ (when seen from my vantage-point here in Paris). It seems that hardly a day goes by when I am not contacted personally by someone from the Eastern or Western extremities of Europe (the ex-Soviet Union and what can be called the ‘Celtic fringe’ of Ireland, Scotland and Wales) telling me about their pioneering initiatives in the field of sacred music. This is enough in itself to be somewhat uncanny, but what is perhaps most intriguing to me is the compelling evidence that these two groups – geographically distant from one another but interestingly close psychologically, have recently been working together in remarkable ways.

I already had an inkling of this during my two visits to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in Wales in 2009 and 2010; while I have already written about SDG’s collaboration in helping sponsor the festival’s Arvo Pärt retrospective last September, several other significant composers from Eastern Europe have also featured prominently in this Welsh event (Peteris Vasks, Giya Kancheli, Galina Grigorjeva, Helena Tulve…) where blurring the boundary between the sacred and the secular can be regarded as a distinctive tenet of artistic programming. [2]

However, striking further evidence of what I was sensing was provided by two CDs which I received last week, produced by the Louth Contemporary Music Society ( in Ireland, entitled ‘A Place Between’ and ‘Path’. I had actually come across the first of these during the research for my post on ‘Valentin Silvestrov’s New Sacrality’, when I heard an excerpt from ‘A Place Between’ (Silvestrov’s hauntingly limpid Ikon of 1982) played by the Callino String Quartet; a few days later the full CD arrived in my letterbox. Established in 2006 by Eamonn Quinn and his wife Gemma Murray, it turns out the LCMS has been doing ground-breaking work in bringing some of the leading composers of today to the small town of Dundalk in Ireland; although they hail from various regions of the globe and differing faith/philosophical traditions, Louth’s artistic programming seems to draw out elements of common spiritual ground uniting them in many ways.

While LCMS’s artistic partners are geographically diverse (Terry Riley, Philip Glass, John Tavener and Tan Dun have all been featured), it is clear that explicitly Christian music from the former Soviet Union has acquired a place of honour, with Alexander Knaifel, Valentin Silvestrov and Sofia Gubaidulina all having been personal visitors. Arvo Pärt, whose The Deer’s Cry was a response to a Louth commission on the text of St Patrick’s famous ‘Breastplate’, travelled to Dundalk in 2008,  also attending the RTE Living Music Festival in Dublin (the great historic centre of Celtic Christianity) where he was the focus of six concerts curated by that leading light of musical spirituality illuminating the ‘Celtic fringe’ over the last two decades, James MacMillan.

Four Evangelists, Book of Kells [3]

The two Louth CDs have little to do with notions of art as ‘entertainment’ or the display of virtuosity, primarily being invitations to meditation in which the notes are only ever as important as the silence from which they emerge and into which they fade. If ‘A Place Between’ focuses on the established figures of spiritual minimalism (Gorecki’s ‘Good Night’ providing the longest selection, standing alongside pieces by Pärt, Silvestrov, Tavener and John Cage), ‘Path’ explores lesser-known but extremely fertile Eastern European territory, with contributions by two composers born in Tashkent (Dimitri Yanov-Yanovsky and Polina Medyulyanova), the Georgian Zurab Nadareshvili’s powerful String Quartet n.1, and an arresting work for violin and electronics by the Serb Aleksandra Vrebalov.

Two questions naturally comes to my mind regarding this meeting of East and West is whether something deeper than the coincidental encounter of passing musical fashions might be going on here. Firstly, could it just be that there is an objective historical basis in this sense of identity shared between the Christian spirituality of the Celtic lands and that of Eastern Christianity? And why is this spiritual and artistic commonality emerging right now?

In this regard I found myself being taken back in my mind to the 2009 Reversèd Thunder Psalms conference at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, where I received a musical electrochoc when hearing contemporary Gaelic psalmody from the Hebridean islands for the first time. If you’re unfamiliar with this particular genre (and my guess is that at least 99.678% of those reading this blog probably are), then click here . This sound, with its incredible richness of quasi-improvised melodic inflection, is completely unlike anything in the Western classical tradition; close your eyes and you can easily imagine something like this in the middle East or perhaps a Coptic monastery, until you turn on the accompanying video and find yourself, seemingly incomprehensibly, in an all-white Scottish Free Church on the Isle of Lewis.[2] Faced with this musicological data, I began to ask myself whether this might not be a case of vestigial Christian tradition, dating back to a time of cross-fertilization between the Christian East and the far West of Europe, which had somehow survived in these outlying islands thanks to sheer isolation from other trends.

Blanket bog and lochan, Isle of Lewis. Photo: Robert Bone

In the 1920s Yeats already intuited an affinity between the Celtic lands and the (idealized) world of the Orthodox East in his two famous – and at times famously obscure – poems in praise of ‘the holy city of Byzantium’:

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall.
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

(Sailing to Byzantium in The Tower (1928))

William Butler Yeats, 1933

The extent to which Yeats perceived a common heritage linking Ireland and the capital of Eastern Christianity can be judged from a paragraph which he wrote for a radio broadcast (subsequently cancelled) on BBC Belfast (8 Sept 1931):

‘Now I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to take his soul, and some of my thought upon that subject I have put into a poem called ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. When Irishmen were illuminating the Books of Kells and making the jewelled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilisation and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolise the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city’ [4]

At this point I would like to emphasize before continuing that I am fully aware that the Celtic world has probably been the object of more romanticizing mythologization than any other part of Western Europe. Yeats’s notion of a ‘Celtic Twilight’ realm of vision and imagination left untouched by the onward march of time, preserving the true European spiritual heritage, is just as easy to dismiss as a latter-day construct as his idealized view of Byzantine culture [4]. Nor is the attempt to reconstruct a mythical Celtic world restricted to Ireland;  the revival of Welsh ‘Druidic’ culture in the bardic circles of modern Eisteddfodau is more or less on the same level. As with similar phenomena elsewhere (some while ago I commented on the nineteenth-century restoration of Gregorian chant in France as an example), the intentional reconstruction of a distant historical past is not primarily a question of archaeological accuracy. Historical research is never undertaken in a vacuum – whether we acknowledge it or not, it seems obvious that what we seek to find in the past is the object of our current longings. In dreaming of a lost Golden Age, it seems obvious that cultures consciously or unconsciously try to fill aching voids that cannot be satisfied by contemporary reality. Acts of selective historical retrieval are primarily significant for the critique they offer of the present. The Celtic Revival of the early twentieth century can be regarded as an act of protest in the face of a rationalizing, mechanized modern world;  much the same can doubtless be said concerning the current resurgence of interest in Celtic culture.

In this revival there are of course substantial elements of back-projection and wish-fulfillment; what is definitely not fantasy, however, is the ancient connection between Celtic Christianity and the Christian East, as we will hopefully see in the next instalment of this post.


[1] Intriguingly, some American conference delegates pointed out the similarity between Gaelic Psalmody and the worship of Appalachian congregations in North America (such as the ‘line singing’ of Kentucky Primitive Baptists – judge for yourself here ), which has been accounted for in terms of the presence of Irish/Scottish missionaries in the eighteenth century.
[2] At the Vale of Glamorgan Festival there is a further interesting cross-connection with Asian-Pacific spirituality in terms of a long-standing link with the Sydney-born composer Ross Edwards (1943-) who terms his works ‘musical contemplation objects’ without however claiming allegiance to any specific religious tradition.
[3] Source: Wikimedia Commons. The Book of Kells is thought to have originated in the scriptorium of the Iona Monastery founded c. 561 off the Scottish west coast. It was brought by Columban monks to Ireland in 806 following a Viking raid on Iona; work on the Book was completed at the new monastery in Kells, County Meath. It is now held in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.
[4] Quoted in Alexander Norman Jeffares, A new commentary on the poems of W.B. Yeats (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1984), 213). A few months later Yeats commented to his publisher Frederick MacMillan that ‘there was great Byzantine influence upon Ireland […] in two Irish private collections there are wooden crucifixes entirely Byzantine in type and great beauty, and these crucifixes continued to be made in North Connaught and perhaps elsewhere till about 80 years ago’ (quoted in Robert Fitzroy Foster, W.B. Yeats: The arch-poet, 1915-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 326.

Adam’s continued lament – a point of conversion?

As we enter 2011, there can be little doubt that the need for genuine progress in Christian-Islamic relations is going to be as pressing an issue as it was in 2010. This was made painfully obvious in Egypt only a few days ago with the devastating attack on the Two Saints Coptic Church in Alexandria as the faithful were seeing  in the New Year in worship. Searching for signs of hope at what is a particularly bleak time for Christians (as well as many Muslims and Jews) in the Middle East, I find myself asking whether sacred art can possibly have anything to offer in terms of glimpses of much-needed reconciliation between faith traditions. I am not so naïve as to believe that art will deter fundamentalists of all religious stripes from treading the path of violence, but I am naïve enough to persist in the conviction that inter-faith artistic collaboration can make a limited yet nonetheless significant symbolic impact in situations of conflict by pointing to another, more harmonious reality.

In this regard, one piece that I am particularly hoping to hear in 2011 is Arvo Pärt’s new work Adam’s Lament, which was premièred at the Istanbul International Music Festival last summer, and of which I have heard a few tantalizing clips via an Estonian TV broadcast which can be accessed at (if your Estonian is as non-existent as mine, be patient – at least half of the 25-minute documentary is in English, including Pärt’s interaction with the orchestra). If there are any French-language readers out there you may have already seen some references to Adam’s Lament in the text of the pre-concert talk I gave at the Châtelet in Paris in November prior to the first French performance of Pärt’s Symphony n.4, but if not, I would like to emphasize that the significance of this work lies not only in the music but Pärt’s concern for inter-faith dialogue and reconciliation.

Back in 1997 in an interview for the Berliner Zeitung, Pärt expressed his interest in Islamic music and the roots it shares with plainchant:

‘The song of the muezzin leaves me completely speechless. I absolutely want to understand this music. It gives me a glimpse of what ought to come, a mixture of all these phenomena from Gregorian to Islamic music. It is not their ethnicity which they have in common, but their religious coloration.’ [1]

Pärt’s first step in the direction of this musical meeting of East and West was the short but strikingly original piece Orient & Occident (which featured on the Châtelet programme). This uses the Credo as its textual basis, indicating that the composer’s prime concern in the piece was to use ‘ecumenical’ material common to the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity, but Orient & Occident is characterized musically by the prominent use of glissandi and melodic arabesques suggesting broader horizons not limited to the Christendom.

Cathedral of Peace

Adam’s Lament continues this trajectory, responding to a joint commission from festivals in Tallinn and the symbolically-charged city (particularly for an Eastern Orthodox Christian such as Pärt) of Istanbul, European Cultural Capitals for 2011 and 2010 respectively.  The location for the first performance could not have been more densely laden with history – the Hagia Eirene (‘Holy Peace’) Cathedral in Istanbul. The Hagia Eriene, whose founding is sometimes attributed to Constantine, was considered the most important church in Constantinople until the completion of its larger and more famous sister church the Hagia Sophia in 537;  destroyed three times, its present form dates from the 8th century when it was rebuilt after an earthquake. Unlike the Hagia Sophia, it was not converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. It did however stand next to the barracks of the Janissaries in the outer courtyard of the Topkapi, served as an arsenal and was transformed into a museum in the nineteenth century; for 38 years it has been one of the main venues of the Istanbul Music Festival.

Hagia Eirene Cathedral, Constantinople/Istanbul

Adam, father of all mankind

It is evident that Pärt’s idea in choosing the theme of Adam, the common father of humanity, was to find a theme around which Christians and Muslims could unite in this city at the interface of Europe and Asia where the two religious communities have shared an at times extremely painful and rancorous history. This was emblematized in the performing forces, Estonia’s Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Vox Clamantis vocal ensemble under conductor Tonu Kaljuste joining Istanbul’s Borusan Philharmonic Orchestra. Pärt’s text (sung in Russian) is drawn from the writings of Saint Silouan of Mount Athos, whose disciple Archimandrite Sophrony Pärt knew personally, considering him a spiritual mentor:

‘Adam, father of all mankind, in paradise knew the sweetness of the love of God; and so when for his sin he was driven forth from the garden of Eden, and was widowed of the love of God, he suffered grievously and lamented with a mighty moan. And the whole desert rang with his lamentations. His soul was racked as he thought: ‘I have grieved my beloved Lord.’
He sorrowed less after paradise and the beauty thereof – he sorrowed that he was bereft of the love of God, which insatiably, at every instant, draws the soul to Him…’ [2]

Like much of Pärt’s music, Adam’s Lament is marked by a tone of lamentation (in the Estonian TV documentary, you can see Tonu Kaljuste pointing out parallels with Bach’s St Matthew Passion for the benefit of the orchestra). Commenting at a press conference on Adam as a universal figure, the composer remarked that ‘his name carries our human history and at the same represents each one of us. He marked the tragedy of mankind: by committing a sin, he lost the love of God. And he is still suffering.'[3] Pärt’s ecumenical vision is compassionate, but not sentimental about our common human condition; if we are all united by the fact of being created in the Divine Image, we are also united in our sinfulness and need of grace.

As we had lunch together with the management of the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris the day before the concert at the Châtelet, I had the chance to question Pärt about the first performance of Adam’s Lament. He told me with some emotion that the most special moment for him came during a rehearsal when the sound of his music mingled with the call of the muezzin to prayer entering the Cathedral from outside. It was clear that this constituted the fulfillment of his wish of 1997 as well as being a potent symbol of the reconciliation that he considers so important.

Patriarch Bartholomew with President Barack Obama, Istanbul 2009

The Patriarch and the Ahtiname

Pärt also mentioned that he had been received by His All Holiness Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, a figure who has for some time been one of my personal heroes for his genuine heart for reconciliation between the Christian churches, pioneering work in emphasizing the spiritual importance of ecological issues and commitment to constructive dialogue between world faiths. Perhaps more than any recent religious leader I can think of – except perhaps Brother Roger of Taizé – the self-effacing  Patriarch has been a living example of how a deeply contemplative spirituality is not opposed to vigorous social engagement but rather grounds it in God’s own being (Bartholomew quotes the daring dictum of the nineteenth-century Russian Nicholas Fedorov that ‘the dogma of the Trinity is our social program’). During his twenty years as Patriarch he has consistently issued strongly-worded and unambiguous statements on the imperative of religious tolerance grounded in the belief that ‘all human beings – regardless of religion, race, national origin, color, creed, or gender – are living icons of God’.[4] In 1995 he for example asserted that

”there has never been a greater need for spiritual leaders to engage themselves in the affairs of this world. We must take a visible place on the stage, especially because too many crimes today are taking place in the name of faith […] religious extremists and terrorists may be the most false prophets of all, for not only do they commit horrible crimes against humanity – they do so in the name of a lie’ [5]

While watching a recent CBS 60 minutes broadcast focusing on Patriarch Bartholomew (and particularly on the difficulties of the dwindling Orthodox community in Turkey and its often problematic relations with the authorities in Ankara), I was very struck by a sequence in which CBS correspondent Bob Simon visited the famous St Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt Sinai. He had been sent by the Patriarch to look at the extraordinary library of what is the oldest functioning monastery in the world, but not, as I had imagined, in order to be shown its peerless collection of ancient Christian manuscripts and icons. Instead, Patriarch Bartholomew wanted him to see an equally remarkable document written by Mohammed (pbuh) known as the Ahtiname, personally granting the rights of the monastery, sealed with a representation of his own hand.

Mohammed's Letter of Protection

The text (which can be found at the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies site ) of this charter is well worth pondering:

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them.

If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

I hardly need to emphasize the tragic irony in the dichotomy between this original document and events such as the  attack against the Coptic Church in Alexandria and all other violations of the spirit in which which Muhammed’s (pbuh) Letter of Protection is written.  What we must deal with is not so much an Islamic problem as a human one; it seems that we are still not free of the sin not only of Adam, but also of Cain.  As Saint Silouan expresses it in his poem:

‘Adam knew great grief when he was banished from paradise,
but when he saw his son Abel slain by Cain his brother,
Adam’s grief was even heavier.
His soul was heavy, and he lamented and thought:
‘Peoples and nations will descend from me, and multiply,
and suffering will be their lot, and they will live in enmity
and seek to slay one another.’
And his sorrow stretched wide as the sea …’ [6]

Arvo Pärt receives lifetime achievement award from Abdullah Gül

A point of conversion?

Perhaps not surprisingly, some reviewers of Adam’s Lament have been made to feel uncomfortable by the heaviness conveyed by Pärt’s work. And yet there is a profound message of hope here in the circumstances of the piece’s first performance and the sight of Abdullah Gül, president of a country where Muslims constitute 99% of the population, making a lifetime award to the leading Christian composer of our time. For Pärt, Adam is not only the father of humanity, but also – and perhaps more importantly, a ‘point of conversion’. [7] It seems evident that he is not here using the word ‘conversion’ to refer to a change of creedal allegiance, but rather to genuine repentance of the heart in response to the convicting voice of the Holy Spirit working through the human conscience.

In this context it is perhaps worth recalling another landmark event held in the Hagia Eirene, one of which Pärt and Patriarch Bartholomew must surely have been acutely aware on the day of the first performance of Adam’s Lament:  the Second Ecumenical Council of 381, whose work, in addition to that of the Council of Nicaea in 325, provided the creed still recited today by millions of Christians worldwide. The particular contribution of the Second Council was in the area of the theology of the Holy Spirit, including the powerful affirmation that the Spirit is ‘the Lord, the giver of life’.[8] Despite all appearances to the contrary, for those who truly believe in and are committed to sharing the work of the Paraclete today to bring about reconciliation where it appears impossible, human enmity can never be the final word over and against the life given by the Spirit. For, as Saint Silouan writes, ‘God is love insaturable. Love impossible to describe.’ [9]

BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters on January 15 will feature Arvo Pärt in conversation with Tom Service in Tallinn (see


[1] Interview with Klaus Goerg Koch et Michael Monninger, ‘Klangwelten der Langsamkeit und Stille’, Berliner Zeitung, March 1/2, 1997.
[2] Excerpt. Source:
[3] Quoted at
[4] “Ecumenical Patriarch Issues Statement for U.N. Conference,” The Orthodox Observer, July-August, 2001.
[5] Speech to the Istanbul Ministry ‘Fundamentalism and Faith in the New Millenium: a View from the Crossroads between East and West’, October 25, 1995.
[6] In Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), Saint Silouan the Athionite (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 449.
[7] “I had one criterion while composing this piece, which was for it to appeal to Turkish culture. There is something that ties us all together. And in my mind, it was the father of all mankind, Adam himself. I abstractly define Adam as a point of conversion.” (Time Out Istanbul in English, available on-line at
[8] Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athionite, 450.
[9] For a densely technical but typically penetrating study of the development of the theology of the Holy Spirit in the Second Ecumenical Council, see John Zizioulas, ‘Pneumatology and the Importance of the Person’ in Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: Continuum, 2006), 178-204. Often considered the most brilliant Orthodox theologian of modern times, Zizioulas (Metropolitan John of Pergamon) is also one of Patriarch Bartholomew’s principal collaborators in environmental initiatives and in the field of ecumenical dialogue.

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them.

If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

Music and Transfiguration

Anton Bruckner, 1894

One of the pieces of music which has most haunted me in the classical repertoire over the years is Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. Particularly the third movement with its extraordinary ecstatic tutti outburst shortly after the opening. I thought of it again today, as August 6th is the Feast of the Transfiguration: I have always associated that incredible and wholly unprepared blaze of light with the Gospel narrative of the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. I see this as the most eschatological moment in nineteenth-century music, as if Anton Bruckner, who termed the Adagio of his Ninth Symphony his ‘farewell to life’ was suddenly granted a glimpse of Christ in the glory of his Resurrection, a foretaste of the life of the world to come given ahead of time. One conductor who seized this dimension of Bruckner’s symphonism with special acuity (whatever you may think of him in other repertoire) was Sergiu Celibidache, who made a penetrating comment on the composer in the film Celibidache’s Garden:

”For him, time is different from what it is for other composers. For a normal person, time is what comes after the beginning. Bruckner’s time is what comes after the end. The apotheoses of all his finales, the hope of another world, the hope of being saved, of being once more baptised in light – all this exists nowhere else’

the Alpine snowfields of La Meije - the inspiration for Messiaen's 'La Transfiguration'

A second composer who also seems to experience time differently from the rest of us was Olivier Messiaen (who curiously had no interest whatever in Bruckner’s music), who regarded the Transfiguration as the most significant moment in the history of our planet. His monumental oratorio of the 1960s La Transfiguration constitutes one of the high points of his output and his synthesis of music and theology.  This incredible work is too rich and complex a subject to be tackled in this post, but anyone out there undaunted by the French language and a fairly heavy dose of theology and philosophy can take a look at

Icon of the Transfiguration Theophanes the Greek, 15th century

The Feast of the Transfiguration has traditionally been highly important for Eastern Christianity, which has always viewed redemption in terms of the transfiguration of the whole cosmos under the Lordship of Christ. However, there has also been something of a re-discovery of late of the notion of transfiguration in Western theology. A striking example is provided by the great German Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg in his description of experiences as a teenager which led him to Christian faith. The most significant of these (occurring perhaps not coincidentally after a music lesson) linked Epiphany and Transfiguration:

‘The single most important experience occurred in early January 1945, when I was 16 years old. On a lonely two-hour walk home from my piano lesson, seeing an otherwise ordinary sunset, I was suddenly flooded by light and absorbed in a sea of light which, although it did not extinguish the humble awareness of my finite existence, overflowed the barriers that normally separate us from the surrounding world. Several months earlier I had narrowly escaped an American bombardment at Berlin; a few weeks later my family would have to leave our East German home because of the Russian offensive. I did not know at the time that January 6 was the day of Epiphany, nor did I realize that in that moment Jesus Christ had claimed my life as a witness to the transfiguration of this world in the illuminating power and judgment of his glory. But there began a period of craving to understand the meaning of life, and since philosophy did not seem to offer the ultimate answers to such a quest, I finally decided to probe the Christian tradition more seriously than I had considered worthwhile before.’ (‘God’s Presence in History’ in Christian Century, March 11, 1981)

This same theme of Transfiguration can be found in words written by Pannenberg fifty years later which musicians and other artists of faith would do well to meditate, and not only on August 6th. Some, indeed many of us have been privileged, like the first disciples, or Bruckner, Messiaen and Pannenberg, to experience a fragmentary anticipation of the coming glory of God through artistic beauty, human relationships and Christian community; would that our lives would transfigure the reality around us, however minutely, for the healing of a world in pain:

‘The comprehensive vision of a transformation of all things in the light of God’s glory can serve, among other things, as a clue to the specific character of art in the context of a Christian culture. It is the transfiguration of present reality, a transfiguration that includes the element of judgment as well as glorification. in the greatest works of Christian artists in the history of Christian culture such a transfiguration of present reality was achieved and thus intimations were present of the Christian eschatological hope’ (Wolfhart Pannenberg, ‘The Task of Christian Eschatology’ in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (eds), The Last Things: Biblical & Theological Perspectives on Eschatology, pp. 11-12.