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Thread: Composers and religion. . .

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    Senior Member Sid James's Avatar
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    Default Composers and religion. . .

    I thought I'd make a parallel discussion to this thread.

    Composers relationship with religion or faith is not always the same. Just like us, they have different views on faith (or lack of it).

    I'm just aiming for this thread to focus on composers and their faith (or no faith). & also things like the reasons why they composed religious music (or something approximating it - it does not have to be choral).

    Some where deeply religious, Bruckner being a good example. So they wrote this type of music 'from the heart.' Gounod initially trained to be a priest, but changed his mind to be a composer. He wrote as many masses as he did operas (over a dozen, I think). Frank Martin wrote his Mass for Double Choir purely as an offering to God. Its first public performance was long after it was written. It was intended as a private work. Now it is a 20th century classic.

    Some did it just to fulfil commissions and basically earn money. So it was just a job like any other. But it could produce great music. Like the masses Haydn was commissioned to do by the Eszterhazy family, one a year for the name day of the Prince's wife.

    Some for love, I know Schubert composed his first mass (a delightful work) for a soprano to sing with whom he may have been in love. About composing one of the most famous setting of the Ave Maria, Schubert said that he was not particularly religious, but when he composed that piece he was overcome by some sort of deep devotion which was unusual for him.

    Some for people they didn't know. Faure composed his requiem, which is still very popular and used in funeral services today, for a parishioner whom he hardly knew. Faure's father died around the same time, but he denied that he had that in mind when he composed this work.

    Some wrote music as a political statement or a comment on the times they where living. Kodaly wrote his Missa Brevis (Mass in Time of War) during World War II, when he was involved in underground resistance networks, sheltering Jews from deportation to the death camps.

    Some dedicated this type of music to dead friends or colleagues, as Charles Villiers Stanford, who wrote his Requiem for Lord Leighton, a prominent painter of the late 19th century. To do that, Stanford, a staunch Protestant, had to kind of force himself to write a setting of the Latin (Catholic) mass. This is not very well known, but I think a wonderful and inspiring work.

    Some non-Christians have written great sacred music which has become part of the classical tradition now. Jewish composers like Bloch and Milhaud wrote sacred services in Hebrew. Bernstein wrote the Chichester Psalms, also in Hebrew (but written for Chichester Cathedral in the UK). Ligeti, who was of Jewish heritage, wrote two of the seminal post-1945 sacred works - the Requiem and Lux Aeterna. Both where used in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyessy.

    Thomas Beverage has composed a work called the Yizkor Requiem, which fuses Christianity and Judaism. it brings together common things in both religions.

    Non-believers (atheists) have also written works that are maybe relevant here. Delius' Mass of Life is a good example. I wonder if its to fill some void, to provide something in place of religion (but obviously not religion?). I have recently acquired it on cd but have yet to listen to it.

    On the whole I think that religious works are not only about religion, but often about what's going on in the life of the composer at the time. & of course, their overall 'world view,' which is not only about religion, but many other things. Its all connected and often its more about what they're doing than just their beliefs.

    So give us your thoughts about these kinds of issues. Maybe your own examples too, relating to religious type works that you like.
    Last edited by Sid James; Oct-10-2012 at 08:14.
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    I find it interesting that eastern Europe, where religion was suppressed throughout most of the 20th century, has produced some of the most religious post-WW2 composers, such as Pärt, Penderecki, Górecki and Vasks. Perhaps one could further add Gubaidulina and Kancheli, though I'm not as familiar with their work.

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    Senior Member Ramako's Avatar
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    A very interesting and informative post sid, thanks.

    I will add my Haydn two-pence now and say that he was a pretty religious man - and that musicologists now are trying to absorb religious fervor as another fundamental aspect of his aesthetic, in looking to paint a picture of the man beyond the jokes and the Surprise symphony.

    Quote Originally Posted by Sid James View Post
    About composing one of the most famous setting of the Ave Maria, Schubert said that he was not particularly religious, but when he composed that piece he was overcome by some sort of deep devotion which was unusual for him.
    This reminds me of both Haydn and Handel, who said that they felt extremely religious (unusually so) when writing the Creation and Messiah respectively.

    In some composers (Pärt for example) I think their religiosity goes well into their secular oeuvre as well, and shape it sometimes to its very roots.

    Of course many atheists/agnostics have written religious music too. Verdi's Requiem springs to mind - facetiously labelled his greatest opera, I think he gives a very human interpretation of the text. In some sense I think that the composer will always act as interpreter to the text, and so his viewpoint will always heavily influence the music. I remember going to see Verdi's Requiem in concert; the programme notes pointed out the uncertain ending, and linked it to Verdi's own uncertain feelings with regard to religion.

    Then of course there are works which are so programmatic that they essentially espouse the composers beliefs, if not specifically religious then certainly their world-view which is of course linked. Beethoven's 9th is of course in this category, but perhaps a better example are Mahler's symphonies. Here we see many aspects of his personality and his beliefs written into his music, from childhood to tragedy and in his 9th we see his own reaction to death, just like we do in Verdi's Requiem.

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    I would not necessarily suggest that religion is at a point right now where tonality was in the early 20th century. Though one could draw comparisons.

    Not to say that Schoenberg was the Darwin of music.

    But I think after Schoenberg, many composers thought that they couldn't go back to traditional tonality, that tonality was naive the way believing in a good, almighty God was naive (especially after WW2). Tonality became reactionary the way religious conservatives are reactionary.

    Tonality has survived in popular music they way going to church on Christmas and using phrases like "God", "heaven", "angel", "saint", etc. has survived in people's lives.

    The atheist and the believer have swapped placed in most western societies over the last hundred or so years, perhaps similar to the way tonal and atonal composers have. Dvorak pittied Brahms for his non-believe. Today, many might pitty those who have not yet let go of their "religious delusions". Or their tonal ones.
    Last edited by Andreas; Oct-10-2012 at 09:23.

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    Senior Member HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
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    Western classical music essentially was born out of the church. Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Classical - church music and composers were inseparable. They all wrote church music and or took part in church music, and were often trained in church music. Without writing a whole book on this (not that I am expert by any means), professional composers and church composers like JS Bach were very common indeed. Composing hundreds if not over a thousand church cantatas, plus other church music (i.e. music intended for church services that were premiered in a church in front of church goers) were all part of music making to celebrate and glorify their religion. While I am not religious, I certainly "thank" religion for providing great composers their source of indefatigable inspiration.

    I think the one piece that brings both the church's role and the composer together in terms of summing up the then prevailing artistic models, and being the most significant earliest example, plus laying the foundation for all future models in the concert mass setting was JS Bach's Mass in B minor.

    Handel's English oratorios of course, should not be strictly compared with church music, for these were premiered and intended for a theatre for fee paying audiences. These nonetheless played a large part in oratorio settings post Handel.
    Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: "According to my principles, every master has his true and certain value. Praise and criticism cannot change any of that. Only the work itself praises and criticizes the master, and therefore I leave to everyone his own value."

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    The religious bias/orientation in western classical music up to the end of the Baroque period was really a consequence of where suitable musical infrastucture and education lay, and the well as the all important spondulicks, i.e. the Church. Increasingly, starting in Italy, rich patrons from the nascent mercantile and middle classes assumed prominence in this role as time progressed.

    If you look at Bach, independent of the fact that he wrote exclusively for the Glory of his God, the focus of his work always reflected where he happened to be working - one wouldn't/could'nt describe the B.b. Concertos as overtly "religious", but fast forward to Leipzig and its all genuflection and Hail Mary's - well at least the Mass in B Minor (I know he was a devout Lutherin).

    So I think Marx had it pretty correct on this score. I would also suggest that religious music, if it is to be authentic and not merely a reflection of the prevailing historical and economic conditions, should come from the soul and not the heart. And yet, independent of the source its inspiration, all great music has the potential to provide the listener with a "religious" experience. And I say "Amen" to that!
    Last edited by KRoad; Oct-10-2012 at 10:02.

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    Senior Member HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by KRoad View Post
    If you look at Bach, independent of the fact that he wrote exclusively for the Glory of his God, the focus of his work always reflected where he happened to be working - one wouldn't/could'nt describe the B.b. Concertos as overtly "religious"...
    The only concerto from the Brandenburg set of six that was possibly in any way linked to religion would be #3. The significance of the number "3" itself, and the scoring for three violins, three violas and three cellos, (a group of three made up of three each); extremely unusual for its day, to symbolise the Trinity.
    Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: "According to my principles, every master has his true and certain value. Praise and criticism cannot change any of that. Only the work itself praises and criticizes the master, and therefore I leave to everyone his own value."

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    Beethoven didn't attend church ceremonies on his adult life, Beethoven was religious but not on the "original/mainstream ( church+bible way).
    Beethoven Saw god in the world and the world in god.
    He based his own beliefs of god to his own observations about the world.
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    Quote Originally Posted by KRoad View Post
    And yet, independent of the source its inspiration, all great music has the potential to provide the listener with a "religious" experience. And I say "Amen" to that!
    I'm reminded of a quote by Jean Sibelius: "A symphony is not just a composition in the ordinary sense of the word. It is more a confession of faith at different stages of one's life." I don't think you need to subscribe to a particular religious dogma to be able to make a "confession of faith," but you can make such a confession that it resonates with religious people.

    I recall reading that when Brahms wrote sacred music, it was more of a secular statement on his part but within a religious context because he was in a Christian-based society; his quoting the Bible was more of a point of reference to connect with his audience than a source of divine inspiration on his part. (Maybe someone can correct me if I got that wrong.)

    In kind of a reversal of what Brahms did, Roger Davidson recognized his society has become more secular and less dogmatic, so to connect with such an audience on a sacred level, he wrote three masses which he called Missa Universalis, where the only texts included from the traditional mass Ordinary are those which most religious agree on.
    Last edited by Manxfeeder; Oct-10-2012 at 14:27.

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    Senior Member Ukko's Avatar
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    Not exactly what you had in mind...

    Von Bulow had just signed a 'manifesto' which stated: "Bach, Beethoven, Brahms! all others are idiots. Moritz Moszkowski wrote: "Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, and your humble servant Moszkowski. All others are Christians."
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    Thanks are owed to Sid James for starting a quite fascinating thread here, which I'm, following with interest. My main interest at the moment is in Richard Wagner, who was not religious but was strongly influenced by philosophical/metaphysical ideas - particularly from Schopenhauer and Feuerbach. Some of this comes out in his operas. Parsifal is very deep, and deals a lot with the concept of redemption. It also conveys a strong sense of the sacred, I think. Tristan und Isolde has a lot of Schopenhauer in it. The Ring seems to somewhat take the mickey out of the idea of the world being ruled by an omnipotent deity, because Wotan, the head-God, is not an entirely admirable character - and at times even seems reconciled to the proposition that he should resign!

    At the moment I'm in the middle of listening to Tannhauser. Can't properly comment on it yet because I've not got to the end, but it's obviously dealing with some religious themes.

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    Tannhäuser ends with a miracle of God and a thunderous praise chorus, and yet at the time of its composition Wagner was a total atheist with some leftist/socialist leanings. Proves all the more that one should separate the art from the artist.
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    Senior Member Lisztian's Avatar
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    Liszt was a deeply religious man and it shows in his great choral works like the Missa Solennis and the oratorio Christus. In fact, Michael Saffle believes that works like these (and others) show a religious conviction unequalled by any other 19th century composer. His religious works both came 'from the heart,' and also from his goal to redefine church music.
    Last edited by Lisztian; Oct-10-2012 at 16:52.

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    On a related note: This from the Self-Help section of a mail-order catalog.

    << Start Your Own Religion
    Guide to learning how to make your home a spiritual sanctuary, steer your own course, develop a personal mythology, form your own occult, connect to mythic origins, and more. 239 pages. >>

    Is this dissimilar from Scriabin's program? I think not.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Lisztian View Post
    Liszt was a deeply religious man and it shows in his great choral works like the Missa Solennis and the oratorio Christus. In fact, Michael Saffle believes that works like these (and others) show a religious conviction unequalled by any other 19th century composer. His religious works both came 'from the heart,' and also from his goal to redefine church music.
    Interesting! Do you have a particular article or book you can direct me to? I think Christus is a great work. His Variations on Weinen, Klagen was one of the pieces that got me through a dark time a while ago.

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