Arts feature

Losing their religion

21 July 2016

1:00 PM

21 July 2016

1:00 PM

Scriabin once suggested that the audiences for his music should be segregated according to their degree of personal enlightenment, with the ‘least spiritually advanced’ in the worst seats. Unsurprisingly it didn’t happen. But perhaps the Southbank Centre should take up the challenge. For its 2016–17 season, the centre has devised a series of concerts and talks entitled Belief and Beyond Belief. This ‘festival’, as it grandly styles itself, could have been an exploration of the enormous and neglected influence of faith on the great composers.

Could have been — but, predictably, won’t be. Instead, the Southbank has chosen to subsume religious faith into ‘belief’, whatever that is, and then tacked on a smug little cliché. Google ‘beyond belief’ and you’ll see what I mean by smug. It’s a play on words that delights broadcasters, intellectuals and artists for whom religious faith is essentially a curiosity — a starting point for their own prognostications (which, until not long ago, assumed that religion was on the way out).

Belief and Beyond Belief reeks of Scriabinesque condescension. But, worse than that, it dodges questions that secularists such as the Southbank Centre’s director, Jude Kelly, are in no hurry to ask, let alone answer. Which great composers fervently believed in God even when society no longer required them to? Which of them also submitted to ‘organised religion’ — and did this constrain or enhance their genius? If we overlook a composer’s faith, because we don’t share it, are we missing not just biographical context but something in the music itself?

A potted secular history of composers’ religious beliefs runs something like this. Up to and including Bach, they were all Christians because everyone was. The intensity of their faith is mostly unexamined.

Here’s a little example. After Monteverdi was widowed, he became a Catholic priest. This is not well known, so I added it to the top of his Wikipedia entry: ‘Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi (15 May 1567 (baptised) — 29 November 1643) was an Italian composer, gambist, singer and Roman Catholic priest.’

Those last three words instantly disappeared: ‘not a significant part of his career’. Fortunately someone fought back and it’s been reinstated. But the fact that an early-music fanatic couldn’t bear to see Fr Monteverdi’s priesthood flagged up at the top of his Wiki entry speaks volumes.

Anyway, back to the secularist potted history. Mozart: Catholic — but later a Freemason, therefore ‘enlightened’. And Beethoven threw off the shackles of the Catholic Church along with the fussier aspects of sonata form, preparing the ground for the ‘spiritual but not religious’ Romantics and then the Modernists, who tossed religion into the wastepaper basket along with the rules of harmony.

This is the ‘meta-narrative’ (though, to be fair, critics of the stature of Wilfrid Mellers and Harold Schonberg didn’t buy into it). Mendelssohn’s Jewishness is regarded as important because the Nazis made such a big deal of it; his devout Lutheranism is not. Mahler’s conversion to Christianity embarrasses everybody: Catholics, because it was opportunistic, allowing him to take over the Vienna Court Opera; Jews, because he did it in the first place and never renounced his Catholic allegiance; secularists, because Mahler believed in a ‘universal resurrection’ that was as much religious as it was philosophical.

Belief and Beyond Belief does touch on Mahler’s faith, but ever so briefly. In a pre-concert talk, the BBC broadcaster and scholar Stephen Johnson asks: ‘Is Mahler’s Eighth a confession of faith? What was Wagner’s philosophical agenda in Die Walküre and what was Bach to Hindemith and Wagner: embodiment of faith, “Germanness” or both?’ The notion that these mighty questions can be addressed in one brief talk, even by a thinker as exhilarating as Johnson, is preposterous. (Quick caveat: the Southbank’s awful website is so hard to navigate that there may be events that I’ve missed.)

I’m sorry to keep banging on about the inadequacies of this ‘festival’, but its advertising material tells us so much about the anti-religious mindset of Britain’s arts establishment. The series is built around the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts. It is introduced as follows:

Since the Age of Enlightenment and the subsequent revelations of science and technology, reason has challenged faith. Yet despite rational explanations for so many of religion’s core beliefs, the 21st century looks set to be defined by religion, often in extreme forms.

Actually, reason was challenging faith for 2,000 years before the Enlightenment.

Next comes some prize waffle:

The seemingly innate need in so many people to find meaning for their lives and a sense of where they fit into the universe, with all its mystery and majesty, is a constant in all periods of human history and has produced some of the greatest music and art ever created.

This is straight out of Private Eye’s spoof Book of Custard (‘since the dawn of civilisation, mankind has been fascinated by custard…’). Worse is to follow: ‘From Richard Dawkins to Jeanette Winterson, from Rabindranath Tagore to Primo Levi, we investigate the struggle to define the absolute.’

Yup, Dawkins. Announcing an exploration of faith and music, the first name the Southbank comes up with is that of a religion-hater. And, moreover, one who — now that he sounds like a loony on a bus — has been disowned by bright young secularists. But Jude Kelly seems to think he’s still box-office.

As for the concerts, they look suspiciously like the programmes the LPO was planning to perform anyway, before they had the three-Bs label slapped on them. On 28 January, for example, Jurowski will conduct Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les élémens, a sort of French Four Seasons; Darius Milhaud’s jazz-infused ballet La Création du monde; and John Adams’s minimalist symphony Harmonielehre, inspired by a dream of a supertanker turning into a rocket.

These three works are stronger on special effects than on musical content; but they’re jaunty and clever, even if they’re unlikely to ‘change the very way you listen to music’, as the advertising fatuously suggests. They don’t need a ‘theme’. But they’ve been shoehorned into Belief and Beyond Belief, with another observation worthy of the Book of Custard: ‘Composers through the centuries have been fascinated by scientific discovery.’

On 22 March, Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducts the LPO in Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, which the Catholic composer didn’t live to complete and therefore finishes with the third-movement Adagio.

Now this music really does invite questions about faith. Indeed, the dying composer seems to be questioning God himself: Why is this happening to me? Will you let me live to finish this symphony? What will happen to me after I die? Suddenly the unique Brucknerian serenity is missing.

Belief and Beyond Belief concedes that the Ninth is ‘one of music’s most personal and passionate confessions of faith’, but also refers to its ‘bottomless chasms of doubt’. Really? What I hear in the symphony is not doubt but fear — of dying and of judgement by the work’s dedicatee, dem lieben Gott, ‘dear God’.

Bruckner’s supposedly naive Catholicism is a real problem for music lovers who have moved ‘beyond belief’. They’d rather not have to think about it, but they can handle his Ninth because it’s dark enough to be misrepresented as prefiguring Mahler’s Ninth, whose neurotic anxiety is easier to grasp.

Bruckner isn’t the only victim of this incomprehension. As I suggested earlier, Beethoven is usually dropped into the spiritual-but-not-religious box, because he didn’t go to church. In fact, he was obsessed with God. The slow movement of his string quartet Op. 132 is entitled ‘Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity’. Arguably it’s one of the greatest pieces of religious music ever written, but it’s never described as such. Bizarrely, Beethoven is represented in Belief and Beyond Belief with a performance of Fidelio. This makes no sense at all and adds to the suspicion that the label was added long after the performers were booked.

The choice of Haydn’s Creation makes more sense — unlike the accompanying website notes, which reek of religious illiteracy. ‘Joseph Haydn once said that when he thought of God he could write only cheerful music,’ we’re told. No, he didn’t. He said: ‘As God has given me a cheerful heart, He will forgive me for serving Him cheerfully.’ Not the same thing. Has the author of these notes never heard Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross? They’re not exactly Life of Brian’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.

It’s hard to overestimate the influence of faith, and the loss of faith, on major composers of all eras — but it’s also hard to understand. We could do with some help, frankly. Bach was a truly learned Protestant, but do you need to explore his faith to appreciate his music? (See if you can track down A Mirror to the Human Condition by T.M. Lovell, a dazzling discussion of the theology of the cantatas.)

Similar questions could be asked of 20th- and 21st-century composers, whose religiosity appears to jar with their musical language. What are we to make, for example, of Schoenberg’s rediscovery of Judaism? Stravinsky’s Catholic-friendly Russian Orthodoxy, flavoured by anti-Semitism? The (admittedly short-lived) Catholicism of Stockhausen, presumably influenced by the unwavering piety of his teacher, Messiaen? The ‘holy minimalism’ of modern Eastern European composers?

Don’t expect Belief and Beyond Belief to shed any light on these matters. This is a missed opportunity on an epic scale —though, alas, that’s hardly surprising. Rooting around the Southbank Centre’s website gave me an overview of its entire output. The place seems to have become a museum of 1980s-style ‘creative activism’: Jeremy Corbyn in conversation with Ben Okri, tie-dying workshops, yet another canonisation of Nelson Mandela. This is British artistic secularism at its most ridiculous and uncompromising — not so much beyond belief as beyond parody.

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