Sunday, 12 February 2012

Catholicism and Music

It might reasonably be objected that this topic falls outside the scope of this blog (and outside my area of expertise) but I think an examination of Catholicism's relationship with music in the last hundred years or so can help shed light on its relationship with literature.

If we look at some of the big names in contemporary classical music, it's striking how many of them are religious believers. What's even more striking is how their religious beliefs are absolutely central to their work. Catholics like James MacMillan and Roxanna Panufnik, and Russian Orthodox composers like Sofia Gubaidulina and Arvo Pärt, who was recently appointed a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture, have allowed their faith to shape their work in a way which we hardly ever see in contemporary literature.

Nor are they aberrations in a largely secular profession. A huge number of the most important composers of the 20th Century were Catholics: de Falla, Dupré, Duruflé, Elgar, Gorecki, Messiaen, Poulenc, Schnittke and others besides.

So what conclusions and what parallels can we draw from this? Asking "Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?
", Robert Fay argues that the (temporary) disappearance of the Latin Mass is one of the root causes of what he sees as a Catholic literary decline. It's an interesting argument - though I'm not wholly convinced by his expression of it - and it is certainly true that Catholic composers have never been cut off from the Catholic past in the same way as their literary counterparts. The (Latin) Mass has continued to be fundamentally important to composers of all faiths and none right up to the present day.

It is also true, as organist-composers such as Dupré, Duruflé, and Messiaen reveal, that the Church has continued to be a hugely important patron of the musical arts. But the prevalence of Catholic composers does not stem from patronage alone.

Equally significant, I would argue, has been the determination of Catholic and Orthodox composers to remain at the forefront of the avant-garde. Composers such as Pärt, Gubaidulina, Schnittke, and Messiaen have been at the forefront of the 20th Century's radical musical experiments not despite their religion but because of it.

Olivier Messiaen, the greatest of them all, was a true Catholic artist precisely because he embraced everything from birdsong to Hindu rhythms, from serialism to Gregorian chant, in his music, while grounding it all in the language of mystical love.

And he wasn't alone. Alfred Schnittke, who was also at the forefront of the 20th Century's avant-garde, allowed his Catholic faith to shape his musical work. His powerful Fourth Symphony, for example, is based on the Mysteries of the Rosary.

The musical and theological confidence of these composers stands out in an era of doubt. Rather than allow their beliefs or music to be compartmentalised or sidelined into the musical equivalent of the God Slot, they brought 
the life of the Church into the concert hall. By contrast, it now seems hard to imagine a contemporary novelist publishing the equivalent of Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus (or Pärt's Adam's Lament or MacMillan's Triduum).

So can we draw any conclusions about the way forward for Catholic literature based on the success of Catholic (and Orthodox) composers? I would tentatively suggest the following:
  1. Being Catholic doesn't mean rejecting the avant-garde.
  2. Being avant-garde doesn't mean rejecting the Catholic past. 
  3. Catholic art can and should reach out to non-Catholic audiences.
Undoubtedly there's more to be said but that's quite enough for one post.

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