Classical music and Christianity

The subject of this article is the relationship between classical music and Christianity – a tricky subject, since many people in the cultural field believe that it is difficult to find a cultural product that is more ‘outdated’ and ‘narrow-minded’ and ‘supremacist’ than Christianity as an organized religion. Also, there is a consensus that the farther away religion is from the concert hall, the better, in spite of the rituals in both concert halls and churches which are so alike. With church music – Bach cantatas, passions, Mozart masses and the like – the connection is clear and does not warrant any exploration, but secular music should be pure and unencumbered by associations with the context from which art music liberated itself long ago. So, I will tread carefully in this minefield of conflicting opinions, and will say right away that the Christian religion is much more than a religious nomination, organization, or a world view defined by circumscribed axioma’s and orthodoxies; it has played a prominent role in shaping Western civilization, and was to a great extent the cradle of modern society and its values, and its art.

It is not so that religions create religious people, but the other way around: from time immemorial people have been religious by nature, and therefore they create religions, in an attempt to find the most appropriate expression of their religious ideas and experiences. Christianity, like all the great world religions, is an expression in terms of symbols, narratives and metaphors of the normal human religious instinct, an expression born from universal experience of the human condition. In every serious religion, the imprint of some metaphysical reality is felt and embedded in rituals and works of art, which try to explain the meaning of life and the world: a spiritual reality recognized by people whose religious instinct is still intact and not as yet crushed by too negative experiences, or suppressed by a one-sided rational intellect. For an entirely rational mind, this suggested ‘metaphysical, spiritual reality’ is pure nonsense and a superstitious projection, since the scientific world view which has developed over the last 200 years has proven to make the world in which we live understandable in material terms. But scientific research of matter itself has revealed its properties to be not so material, after all, and while science covers the territory of physical reality in terms of objective presence, it does not deal with meaning, since meaning is a psychological category and not a material one. Here is the link with music, which is also not material, but consists of more or less referential patterns of vibrations in the air, which produce meaning and the experience of presence in the listening process. As there are different musical cultures in the world, but all based upon a natural, material property of sound waves and their proportional relationships as demonstrated in the harmonic series, there are different religious world views which are all based, under the surface of appearances, upon the natural intimations of the human being. The differences in the forms of religion are accents, which lift some particular value from the whole of life experiences and throw a specific light upon them, colouring them with a particular value and interpretation. This is related to how people experience life, on a deep level, in different times and different places and cultures.

For instance, in Eastern religions, the individual human being is in the first place part of something bigger: the community, local tradition, nature; Christianity has its focus upon the individual and his relationship with the Divine which is foremost a personal and highly individual relationship. Both ideas don’t exclude each other but are complementary; in the West, individuality is experienced much stronger than in the East. Every religion refers to a metaphysical reality which we cannot know and understand for sure and completely, which means that we have to understand the religious symbols as powerful indications of a presence which, in itself, will remain elusive, and in cases where the outer forms contradict each other, we should examine them and assess them according to our own insights, intelligence and life experience: formulated religious ideas are man-made and not direct revelations of the Divine – they can be inspired by the Divine but not necessarily so.

But: what is the reality of the Divine? Apparently, it is not a clear material presence in the physical world. It may be in this world, but cannot be of this world. The only indication we have of a possibility of presence outside our world, is personal experience of something that does not appear to belong to the normal world of causality and matter, and which is mostly an experience of interior intuition. Given the fact that we cannot know what we do not know, and that science continues to reveal more and more almost unbelievable properties of the world, and given the nature of our consciousness which is never explained by science, not even the most advanced neuroscience – up till now – and the fact that our consciousness is entirely immaterial and capable of creating things out of nothing, the most rational attitude seems to be to live as if the Divine exists, and to accept the concrete possibility of immaterial existence – as our own consciousness is already a strong indication of such possibility.

And here we have the link with music: there is good music, and bad music, and merely mediocre music, but the great works of classical music we experience as ‘being inspired’. Inspired, by what? The notion merely describes a direct experience which cannot be further analysed; the difference between the music of Bach and some average baroque composer of superficial concerti grossi is obvious in the experience, but the element which makes the Bach work better can not be ‘proven’, not even by pointing-out the greater complexity in Bach since he also wrote great music with a striking simplicity. Maybe an appropriate description of inspiration would be: an inspired musical work conveys an immaterial, emotionally-charged and -perceived presence which touch us on a deep psychological, emotional layer, a layer which is very close to the religious instinct. The psychological properties of an inspired work can be described as follows: there is unity, expression, logic but also freedom, there is something like a ‘voice’ which seems to speak directly to the listener, and in the same time, the ‘thing’ that is ‘spoken’ is irrational, unfathomable, but in the same time it is experienced as clear. With many works, there is built a ‘wall’ of explanatory or referential signs around this central experience, like titles which refer to the outside world like ‘Pastoral’ or ‘Eroica’, or – with so-called ‘program music’ – references to literature or some compelling narrative. In opera, music is, of course, united with plot and situation, and in songs the music is related to a poetic text which is ‘communicated’ by the music; although in these examples the music appears to be clearly expressing what is said in the text, the music can as easily be used to express some other text with comparable effectiveness, or ‘say’ something that is not in the text. Music is both clear in its experience and highly unclear in the sense of being non-conceptual; it forms the heart of opera and song, and yet it is also independent of the text to which it is wedded. This distinction between the centre of musical experience which is unfathomable but very real in terms of experience, and the stuff around it, can be compared with religion: the referential elements help both the listener and the believer to get to the centre of the experience, where the inspirational presence can be absorbed.

Classical music, as a genre, is often believed to possess a spiritual element. But of which music do we then think? With church music, the link with religion is obvious, but the rest? Beethoven symphonies, Brahms and Mahler symphonies? And what about Debussy, who is believed to have been a ‘pagan sensualist’? The question to which extent there is, or was, a connection between the Christian religion and the nature of classical art music, is important if we would want to preserve classical music as an inherent, identity-building element of our civilization, since this very civilization rests upon ages of a Christianity-dominated culture on all levels. Can classical music as such be preserved without any connection with religion, if religion itself is already eroding so much? What is the spiritual nature sometimes be hinted at in connection with classical music?

It could be concluded that ‘Spirituality’ is the intimation of a metaphysical world, a wave-length of a reality which can only be intuited and intimately experienced but never demonstrated, as you can electricity or mathematics. Anthropology has shown that the religious instinct is an inherent element of the human species’ survival strategy, both in terms of explaining incomprehensible natural phenomenae and of community-building forces. Religion is a normal part of every culture in every time, with the exception of – as far as we know – the Piraha tribe in the Amazon jungle, who don’t believe in Gods and have no idea of spirituality, do not believe in an afterlife and have no awareness of past or future: they live exclusively in the present. (Daniel Everett: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Profile Books / Pantheon 2008.) So, it may be that the religious instinct is something that only develops later in the evolution of the human being – we don’t have any concrete evidence about religious practices from the earliest periods of the species. But we do know that the birth of early civilizations is strongly related to religion, so much so that the two are indistinguishable, and art – including music – was an integral part of such civilizations. We can safely conclude that art was born from religion, and is fed from the same source: the human instinctive awareness of a metaphysical presence. The question of how ‘real’ this presence is, is moot, because it is the reality of human experience, albeit in many different forms. Yes, it is a subjective experience, but it cannot be concluded that therefore it cannot be real. In the same sense art, and art music, is real, not only in its varied forms but in its essence, its intimate experience. Real art touches the soul and makes us aware of something very real in our inner being. In this function, art is the true daughter of religion.

The classical tradition in Western music was born with the early liturgical music of the Christian church: the Gregorian chant, or plainsong, consisting of thousands of monophonic, rhythmically free melodic lines to which liturgical texts were set. I quote from ‘A History of Music and Musical Style’ by Homer Ulrich and Paul Pisk: ‘Few products of artistic activity have had more influence upon the course of Western civilization than the liturgical music of the early Christian church. It served as a source of cultural stability during the chaotic centuries that saw the death of one great historical epoch and the birth of another. […] This liturgical music began by bending Roman patricians and northern barbarians alike to its mystical purposes. It continued for over a thousand years to illuminate the sacred texts and carry their meanings deep into the hearts of all who heard them. In spite of having been composed in a highly sophisticated idiom, in spite of running counter to the musical impulses of the people it sought to enthrall, it eventually conquered all its opponents and became the fundamental artistic expression of the entire Christian world.’ (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1963; p.26.) We hear in this description something of the sublime authoritarianism which has characterized Christianity for quite a long time, and we should see this in the perspective of a world which had fallen apart and where a highly developed civilization had fallen back to almost prehistoric levels, a world in great need of meaning, value, and unity to prevent dissenting voices to grow into violence and disruption.

Around the year 600 AD, plainchant was organized and codified by pope Gregory I, hence the name ‘Gregorian chant’. It offered an immense repertory which was used in the following ages by composers who experimented with simultaneity, which from the 11th century onwards gradually led to the rich polyphony of late Gothic and Renaissance church music. This simultaneity distinguished European traditional music from the traditions of other cultures, where simultaneity went no farther than the combination of different layers of metrically-structured textures, a casually piling-up of different combinations, but not with the precise relationships between one single note to other single notes. This European polyphony created something like a ‘space’ within the music with precisely calculated proportions, comparable with the way the churches were built, which also were designed with carefully interrelated spaces and proportions. Like the way in which the medieval cathedrals were supposed to create in their interior an impression of the heavenly city, i.e. the perfect place of spiritual reality, the polyphonic music of those times was intended to create comparable impressions in the listening experience: polyphony created a ‘virtual inner space’ through tonal relationships. As the Christian liturgical music was codified into a harmonic unity, polyphony symbolized harmony and unity where different and independent melodic lines worked together to create a total that was bigger than the separate elements, as if it reflected the different peoples all over Europe who nonetheless were united under one, single and sublime vision of the world. The basis of this music: Gregorian chant, being so rich in melodic variety and suppleness, provided a vital source of musical supply for ages of music, stimulating a receptivity towards the Divine and appealing to the better selves of the faithful, thus exercizing a civilizing, aspirational influence.

But of course such harmonic balance could not be sustained for ever. Secular influences enriched the art form and began to undermine the religious domination of music. The entire history of serious art music in Europe can be seen as a gradual exploration of the tonal field – of the manyfold possibilities offered by tonal relationships – and the territory of expressive possibilities that this tonal field began to inspire. The essence from music’s birth and gestation period however, remained (in general) intact, expressed in terms of beauty, which was supposed to be an expression of the Divine and thus a sacred presence; the aspirational and noble character of serious art music, and its beauty, and the requirement that its works express something special and extraordinary, even sublime, is an inheritance of its mother: the Christian church of medieval times. A comparable trajectory can be seen in the development of painting, where the appeal to man’s perceptivity of beauty and of things above the ordinary, was always a perfectly normal characteristic, also where painting became independent from religious subjects. When secular art music developed from liturgic music, and was also fertilized by secular entertainment music, the idea that art music – ‘high culture music’ we would call that today – should be noble, beautiful, appealing to the best in man, remained dominating until the 20th century. Where secular music, like opera, took place in a thoroughly wordly context, its nobility and harmonious structures reflected the tastes and requirements of the court culture which was for ages the trend-setting force in music; since in the ancien régime the king was supposed to reign by the ‘grace of God’, this beauty and nobility were indirect references to divine privilege, thus again the religious element was preserved in the music, knowingly or unconsciously, legitimizing the king’s rule. When art music liberated itself from servitude to church, court and nobility at the end of the 18th century with the development of Enlightenment ideas, this essence of beauty and nobility continued to be a normal ingredient of art music’s language which was, except a couple of examples in the 19th century (Berlioz, Wagner) but in general till the 20th century, simply a noble, beautiful language, also when lighthearted or folky.

When in the 19th century public music life began to develop as part of bourgeois culture, under the influence of romanticism the religious impulse began to play-up again but outside organized religion: it became a concern of poets and philosophers, and among artists the idea circulated that organized religion was getting ‘outdated’ and ‘stiffled’, and that for that reason the essence of religion – the inner connection with the Divine – had to be ‘rescued’ from forms and rituals which had become ‘meaningless’. This essence should from now onwards be located in art, which would then become something like an ‘art religion’, taking-over the role of the churches. Kunstreligion (art religion) has been an established term since German philosopher Schleiermacher’s Speeches on Religion (1799). However, the origin of the concept is not to be found in the theology of Schleiermacher but rather in its cultural-philosophical sources, which likens aesthetic beauty to the numinous, which is another term for the felt presence of the Divine. Of course such ideas could only be possible if the religious essence had already been there in the art forms themselves, and music, with its immaterial character, was a natural ‘vessel’ for a ‘religion of art’. Richard Wagner considered his operas (‘music dramas’) as an alternative to organized religion and he hoped that his theatre in Bayreuth would become some sort of ‘holy shrine’ of a new religion of which he would be the founder and the prophet. His last music drama ‘Parsifal’ was especially composed with this idea in mind, and the work is full of religious references both in the plot and in the noble, numinous music. (Ironically, Bayreuth indeed became a shrine but of something quite the opposite of religion.) The numinous character of much of Wagner’s music was and still is recognized by many listeners as something of a ‘religious’ nature, and hence the fundamentalist touch of so many ‘Wagnerians’ in the 2nd half of the 19th century (up till WW II); it can be shown that much of the numinous traits of Wagner’s music can already be found in the music of Beethoven, which exercised (as it still does) a comparable fascination on music audiences.

In the 20th century, under the influence of scientific ideas and the erosion of civilization in an increasingly technological world, it was time for the darkness of the human heart and the absence of the Divine to be expressed: expressionism, war trauma, materialism, scientism, atonalism, all led to the ‘disappearance of the soul’ from classical music as a contemporary art form – but the repertoire as existing thus far, with the soul being locked-up in what became a museum culture, went on being performed, and intensily loved by audiences generation after generation who did not mind that the music became increasingly ‘old’ with the passing of time. The central performance culture of classical music became one of the rare islands where people could still be reminded of what it means to be human and have their aspirational and spiritual drives stirred and touched. And what we see now is a rising tide of populism which want to remove classical music from its ‘privileged’ status, and which is entirely ignorant of the experience of interior narrative which is still, with great efforts and dedication, and supported by an extensive educational system and an academic world, cultivated and celebrated in our concert halls.

Recapitulating, by way of conclusion: classical music as a high art genre carried, right from the beginning, an important religious element at its centre, and although the meaning and position of this element changed over time, this element remained at the heart of the art form. The genre as we know it today, is the prodigious child of medieval, Christian religion, and – which is mostly the case with offspring – it always showed traits of its descendence, also when rebelling against its forebears. Apart from its obvious liturgical forms, classical music is not ‘a Christian art form’ but in its quasi-secular forms it shares important characteristics with religion and especially, because the art form is Western, with the Christian religion. In other words: there is an inherent Christian element in classical music, also in its obviously secular and pertinently non-religious forms; it is connected with the heart of the Christian religion with a couple of characteristic links.

Which are these links?

1) Suffering. Christianity teaches that suffering offers a trajectory from misery to getting in contact with the Divine and getting purified in the process which includes the possibility of redemption through sacrifice. In music, the cultivation of contrast between the positive and the negative forces (for instance, relationships between consonance and dissonance) provides not only interest but also dramatic rhetoric and varied narrative with which the listener can identify. The intensifying of dissonance/consonance contrasts can intensify the expression of ‘suffering’, till – for the audience – the hearing process becomes ‘suffering’ itself; early 20C expressionism made extensive use of this tool.

2) Individuality. In Christianity, the believer is not in the first place a member of a group but an individual with his/her special, unique personality, the Christian community is a community of individuals united in their spirituality, not a collective where the individual counts for nothing. The church is the organization of a community of individuals, each with his/her inviolable dignity. The bond between God and the human being is a very personal one, as symbolically expressed in Christ’s relationship with ‘the Father’. Christ himself regularly spoke about the intimacy of man’s relationship with God, as in his advice that it was as good ‘to go into your private room and pray’ as going to the temple. This type of relationship with the Divine is not found, at least not to the same degree, in other religions which mostly underline the importance of the collective. For the Christian however, the relationship with God is a very personal one. In music, this individuality is expressed in the many different and increasingly personal interpretations of a living tradition and the cultivation of individual, subjective life experience of the composer to be shared with and recognized by the audience, and presented as personal commentary on a universally-shared human condition.

3) The idea of rebirth. Christianity teaches that one can be reborn through surrender to the ‘living faith’, i.e. believing in Christ and the message of redemption he brought for all humanity: a rebirth through being forgiven for one’s sins and hence being freed from the burden of guilt, and begin a new life. This is a very dynamic psychological concept, quite different from the static view of man in eastern religions. It is also an insightful understanding of human psychology and the workings of the subconscious with its suppressed, dark intimations. It claims that an individual can grow, develop, have drastic life changes and the capacity of creating a new personality. Rebirth includes the concept of redemption, which offers an emotional drive on the trajectory through the perils of life towards something better, with or without the help of Divine grace. In music, the idea that things can be created anew, was an important drive of development of the musical language into many directions which would have been impossible if there were not some utopian paradise at the horizon; as we know, the same drive was also fed by the inquisitive spirit of the ancient Greeks. In the course of the 19th and 20th century, this utopian drive became the main cause of the loosening of the ties with the art form’s soul and turned into an end in itself.

4) Aspiration. More so than in other religions, Christianity appealed to the best in man and tried to stimulate the individual believer to become a better human being, a more ethical, caring, responsible, knowing and loving one, someone capable of insight and altruistic sacrifice. This side of Christianity was a very important factor in civilizing the barbarian invaders of the Roman empire in the Dark Ages and in preserving what could be salvaged of the former civilization, knowing that the better achievements of a highly-developed culture were a source of development and learning. Compared with the Islamic invaders of Egypt in AD 642 who burned down the famous library of Alexandria, this has to be considered an enlightened attitude. Later on, as we know, the Christian church fell into comparable destructive bigotry in her condemnation and suppression of texts and ideas which she thought incompatible with her doctrines.

5) Ritual. The organization of a congregation of a faithful community,  celebrating a common spiritual experience in a specialized architectural space, served by a priesthood of professionals entrusted with the interpretations of canonical texts, shows striking similarities with the rituals and division of tasks in the concert halls of our own time. The resistance of people against the ‘stiff rituals’ surrounding classical music concerts can, apart from the usual populist irritation, also be explained by an inner resistance against the claims of an ‘all-knowing’ priesthood, invoking feelings of exclusion and inferiority instead of grateful involvement – an altogether immature reaction against the authority of some real, superior presence – not of the ‘priests’ but of what they convey.

With religious music, the link with Christianity is obvious and does not need elucidation. But in classical non-religious music, the psychological / expressive dimension represents the numinous element stemming from its religious origins, the dimension which is immediately recognizable by listeners whose perceptive framework is developed enough to experience it. The ‘holistic nature of human perception’ *), which is hard-wired in our biology and psychology as resulting from millions of years of evolution, connects us with the life experiences of people who lived in past ages and thus makes it possible to experience universal values and aspirational impulses as lifted from their temporal context, and the opportunity of getting in touch with the roots of our Western civilization which lie deep in its Christian origins. The best music of the classical tradition reflects something real and profound and meaningful of the human condition, and reminds us of that part of our personality – which in former times was called ‘the soul’ – which is immaterial, and which therefore can be trusted to be immortal, – this is what the Christian religion always taught and still teaches. The awareness of this immaterial, inner essence was carried from religious liturgy into its music and, later-on, into secular music, and it is this essence that may garantee the art form’s survival as long as there are people seeking meaning and value during the journey from coast to coast which is our life.

*) See Steven W. Semes’ essay ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ on: www.futuresymphony.org/author/stevie/