Sacred music can heal our broken culture

on Thursday, 22 November 2012. Posted in Archive

Composer James MacMillan will suggest in an address to mark the launch of The Academy of Sacred Music.

In a forthcoming address in St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Glasgow, Catholic composer James MacMillan will emphasize that sacred music (and those who practice it) hold the key to healing our broken culture.

Commenting on the launch of the Academy of Sacred Music (of which he is Patron) - a charity that aims to restore sacred music, and its associated values, to the heart of our culture - Mr. MacMillan will say that: “If modernism has also brought in its wake a desecration of the human spirit, we must penetrate the mists of contemporary banality to restore the idea of the sacred, in which our true and fullest freedom resides. Without it our lives will become meaningless. I believe it is God’s divine spark which kindles the musical imagination now, as it has always done, and reminds us, in an increasingly dehumanised world, of what it means to be human.”

“...[I]n spite of the wilful amnesia of some and the aggressive manoeuvring of others, the religious artist will continue to be an essential part of human flourishing in our brave new world.”

In this context, The Academy of Sacred Music is one of the “...true guardian(s) of beauty in the world”, he will state, paraphrasing Pope Paul VI’s 1965 Message to Artists, an antidote to a broken society in which “(t)he lives of countless individuals (have been) left damaged by a lack of exposure to listening and awareness of music.”  “Art itself...”, he will conclude, is “...the bridge which will heal the wound of division created in our current culture wars.

The formal Launch of The Academy of Sacred Music will take place in St Andrew’s Cathedral, at 7.30p.m., on the 23rd November, followed by a reception in the Cathedral Foyer.  All welcome.

The full text of James MacMillan’s Address is shown below.

“On October 11th in Rome, Pope Benedict presided at a Mass to open the Year of Faith. This also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the 2nd Vatican Council. During the Mass His Holiness presented again to the Church "The Messages to the People of God", which on December 8th 1965, Pope Paul VI had addressed, at the conclusion of the Council, to various categories of people; to rulers, to people of thought and science, to artists, to women, to workers, to the poor, sick and suffering, and to the youth.

At the end of Mass in St Peter's Square Pope Benedict presented copies of these messages to representatives of each category. I was invited to receive the message on behalf of the artists of the world. I was honoured and humbled to have received this invitation.

Pope Paul’s words still echo today. To the artists he said “if you are friends of genuine art, you are our friends. The Church has long since joined in alliance with you. You have built and adorned her temples, celebrated her dogmas, enriched her liturgy. The Church needs you and turns to you. Do not allow an alliance as fruitful as this to be broken. Do not close your mind to the Holy Spirit. This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Remember that you are guardians of beauty in the world.”

I have long been aware of Pope Paul's message to artists. It was the first of a series of moving communications from Rome to the world of culture.  This, and Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists show that the Church does not discriminate. These are messages to all artists, not just Christian ones.  They remind us that the Church's historic mission is the same as Christ's - to the whole of mankind.

Art can be a window on to the mind of God. Through this window we can encounter beauty and divine truth. Artists can be peculiarly susceptible to the breath of the Holy Spirit which can then inspire their work. As a Christian artist I have always felt overwhelmed that the Church has recognised this truth, and continues to do so.  I am excited that the on-going dialogue between the  Church and creative people is continuing and that I might be able to play a part in it.

Like many artists, Christian or not, I have been inspired by the 1999 Letter to Artists from John Paul II. The subtitle of the Letter fascinates me. It is written: “To all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world”. It is this openheartedness and generosity of spirit that points to art itself as the bridge which will heal the wound of division created in our current culture wars.

In paragraph 10 the late Pope says this: “Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”

There are, perhaps, many secular artists who will simply shrug this off as meaningless and irrelevant. And there are some forms of art in modern times where the connections with the numinous are clearly more difficult to discern than with others. But in the case of music there seems to be a veritable umbilical link with the sacred. Through the centuries, musicians have proved themselves to be midwives of faith, bringing their gifts to the historic challenge of inspiring the faithful in worship. And even beyond the Church there is a curiosity about the special, and possibly metaphysical nature in the power of music.

In his book, Music and The Mind, the psychiatrist Anthony Storr makes some bold claims about what great music can bring to our experience. He suggests that our feelings and emotions are given structure, fluency and order when exposed to the abstract constructs of music. Music, as the deep mathematics of creation and cosmos, connects our over-stimulated lives in the modern world with an archetypal sense of order in nature. Music, when it speaks directly and profoundly to the human psyche, can provide a transformative sense to human life in all its corporeal, intellectual and spiritual parameters.

Deep in our culture we have traditions which have felt the truth of this. From Pythagorus and Plato to T.S. Eliot, there have been thinkers who knew that a life without an active listening and awareness of serious music is a life diminished. The lives of countless individuals left damaged by a lack of exposure to listening and awareness of music leads to a damaged society. We see this all around us, every day.

And yet, even in our “post-religious” secular society, occasionally even the most agnostic and sceptically inclined music-lovers will lapse into spiritual terminology to account for the impact of music on their lives. Many people will still refer to music as the most spiritual of the arts. One hears of lives being transformed by music, of moods and perspectives being altered, of attitudes shifting and renewed meaning and purposefulness taking root in lives touched by music.

The serious, open and active form of listening (necessary for classical music, for example) could be said to be analogous to contemplation, meditation and even prayer in the way it demands our time. The complex, large-scale forms of serious music unfold their narratives in time with an authority that cannot be hurried. Something of the essence of ourselves is sacrificed to music. Whether we are performers, composers or listeners, we are required to give something up, something of our precious time.

Music gives us a glimpse of something beyond the horizons of materialism, or our contemporary values. What is music, after all? You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, you can’t eat it, but its palpable presence always makes itself felt; not just in a physical way, but in ways that reach down into the crevices of the soul.

What is music? Is it simply the notes on the page? If so, how can we equate those strange, black static symbols with the vivid, and sometimes convulsive emotions provoked when the resulting sounds enter our ears, our brains, our bodies and into our deepest, secret selves?

Here are three more clues. The musicologist, Julian Johnson, in his book “Who Needs Classical Music?” suggests that “neither the word ‘intellectual’ or ‘spiritual’ captures music’s essential activity; the projection of that definitively human awareness of being more than the sum of our parts”.

To which the Scottish Jesuit, John McDade, would add that; “Music may be the closest human analogue to the mystery of the direct and effective communication of grace.” This suggests that music is a phenomenon connected to the work of God in the way it touches something deep in our souls and releases a divine force.

Thirdly, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in a sermon he preached some years ago at the Three Choirs Festival, summed it all up in the following way: “To listen seriously to music”, he said, “and to perform it are among our most potent ways of learning what it is to live with and before God, learning a service that is a perfect freedom...In this ‘obedience’ of listening and following, we are stretched and deepened, physically challenged as performers, imaginatively as listeners. The time we have renounced, given up, is given back to us as a time in which we have become more human, more real, even when we can’t say what we have learned, only that we have changed.”

Serious music presents a living challenge to the dead-hand of things as they are. The boundless vision of composers through the ages points to the realisation of ourselves as something greater than we are. This is why lovers of music refer to it as the most spiritual of the arts.

Major modernist figures of the last 100 years were, in different ways, profoundly religious men and women. Stravinsky was as conservative in his religion as he was revolutionary in his musical imagination, with a deep love of his Orthodox roots as well as the Catholicism he encountered in the West. Schoenberg was a mystic who reconverted to practising Judaism after the Holocaust and pondered deeply on the spiritual connections between music and silence. This is probably the reason John Cage chose to study with him. (Silent Prayer was Cage’s original title for 4’33.) Messiaen was famously Catholic and every note of his unique contribution to music was shaped by a deep religious conviction and liturgical practice.

The list of composers in recent times radiating a high degree of religious resonance is substantial, covering a whole generation of post-Shostakovich modernists from behind the old Iron Curtain – Gorecki, Paert, Kanchelli, Silvestrov, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Ustvolskaya.  And, in this country, after Benjamin Britten have come Jonathon Harvey, John Tavener and many others. Far from being a spent force, religion has proved to be a vibrant, animating principle in modern music and continues to promise much for the future. It could even be said that any discussion of modernity’s mainstream in music would be incomplete without a serious reflection on the spiritual values, belief and practice at work in composers’ minds.

This truth is a great encouragement to a composer like me who has drawn inspiration from the deep reservoirs of Christian liturgy and theology. I have used that liturgical insight in works like my recent St John Passion and the Seven Last Words from the Cross. But it has also been a significant motivation in purely instrumental works like Veni, Veni Emmanuel, a percussion concerto which charts a kind of journey from Advent to Easter, and in my 3rd Piano Concerto, which seeks to revive the practice of musical reflections on the Rosary.

Many people in the West think that it is strange and undesirable to seek to make and shape art according to religious belief and practice. But art can have many strange origins, so why should liturgical experience, for example, not be a catalyst for further artistic exploration and creativity?

Many prefer to regard a Christian intention and inclination as a dubious business. How, then, must we now view the artistic heritages of Europe, deeply rooted as they are in Christian belief and tradition? Are the profoundly religious sensibilities of Josquin, Palestrina, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Bruckner all now merely to be appraised through the dusty detachment of the museum? Can we only see their work through the prism of modern or post-modern aesthetics, where the original “extra-musical” motivations are dismissed as the inevitably primitive instincts of a redundant sensibility?

There is another way to see the tradition and practice of shaping art according to religious belief, and that is to see a living culture still in evolution and growth. When we come to analyse the steady and constant search for the sacred in modernity, and especially in the music of the last 100 years or so, we can see that faith has not withered. In music, more than the other arts, there has been a constant stream of composers who were, or still are, religious.

In different ways, we can see a unity that is core to the widespread search for sanctity in the work of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Messiaen, Cage, Britten, Poulenc, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Ustvolskaya, Penderecki, Gorecki, Paert, Kanchelli, Tavener and many others. Seen from this perspective, we can see the religious principle as being part of the essence of musical modernity. The search for a spiritual paradigm seems entirely natural, part of a continuum in musical history.

To the militant atheist, who seeks to dominate the heights of command and control of European culture all this may seem undesirable. But in the wider context of the past, and various prevailing modern trends, it is hardly strange. Yet, in spite of the wilful amnesia of some and the aggressive manoeuvring of others, the religious artist will continue to be an essential part of human flourishing in our brave new world.

Some might even say that the bravest, most radical and most counter-cultural position a creative person can take today is in the celebration of a timeless spirituality. The re-sacralising of our world has been made manifest through the unsung, subliminal and sub-conscious project of musical modernity. If modernism has also brought in its wake a desecration of the human spirit, we must penetrate the mists of contemporary banality to restore the idea of the sacred, in which our true and fullest freedom resides. Without it our lives will become meaningless I believe it is God’s divine spark which kindles the musical imagination now, as it has always done, and reminds us, in an increasingly dehumanised world, of what it means to be human.

As a living Christian composer I am proud and excited to be associated with this fantastic new venture, The Academy of Sacred Music, being launched tonight. This is a wonderful development in liturgical music in Glasgow and it connects our sacred treasury of music with a deep theological and pastoral understanding of our sacred rituals and art, rooted, as they are, in a philosophy of love.

The initiative and leadership of the AOSM involves some of the most committed and idealistic people I know, and maintains an endearing ecumenical bearing. It will be exciting to see how it develops in the years ahead, but so far they have established a first rate young choir which took part expertly in the recent performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, hosted by AGAP and Archbishop Conti.

In recalling the words of Pope Paul VI I quoted at the beginning, it is clear that the AOSM is indeed a friend of genuine art and a friend of the Church. Here among us are true guardians of beauty in the world.”

Academy of Sacred Music (AOSM) is a registered Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (SC042852)