CLASSICAL MUSIC AND SPIRITUALITY: A Brief Journey
By Ignacio Martínez-Ybor
I would like to think that Man sang before he could speak. Such ancestral ordering establishes the primacy of expression over the utilitarianism of speech and language. This hypothetical construct creates a duality between the initially instinctive reaction to the newly grasped world: a shout, a scream, the wonder to that primitive self upon hearing its own sustained tone when it happens, perhaps how it can vary in pitch, volume how it can change in color as the mouth opens and closes and to search for its meaning in its early brain. To the maker of these songs they may lack meaning yet they are wilfull, natural outbursts that express something, probably unknown to the primitive singer: perhaps a shout is associated with joy, a wail with grief, a walk along a beach with exuberance, a sound-language of sorts. There is a trinity of singer, accompanist (the sea), and the self-as-audience. Man alone, with Music and no Words.
The term is better considered teleologically, a dynamic subject given content by the individual zeitgeist from which it emanates, as if in a Christian religious mode it is a reach towards the divine, or if in a Buddhist setting, a quest for blowing out the self. Perhaps it best be defined by its common denominator, the shedding of the self for a greater state, or the higher manifestation of the self. Analytically, for the most part, it thus presupposes a hieratical text or ritual antecedent which creates the base from which the arguably purifying journey will emerge. Music may create its own score as it materializes. When musical expression and the will to transcend a literary text unite, material immediacy is relinquished and spirituality is achieved. For the sake of argument, this is a workable point of departure.
In the Beginning….
Though musical notation goes back to Sumeria (Iraq) c.1600 BCE, it did not become significant for us until the Church began notating plainchant in the early Middle Ages, thereby attempting ritualistic homogeneity and aiding the proselitation of the Christian creed. With the work of Guido d’Arezzo c. 1000, came the roots of modern staff notation and music as a formalized art, in the Western world, became fact. The Church became its font. Thus, not only the ordinary of the mass, but poems such as Te Deum, O Magnum Misterium, Ave Maria or Stabat Mater, some texts taken from plainchant sung at services like Christmas matins, became objects to be set to music, time and time again. Many were hymns of praise, others, such as those for Holy Week services became reflective of human frailty reminding believers of Christ’s very human sufferings for the sins of mankind. As early as the the first three centuries of the second Christian millennium, the attempt to reach beyond the tyranny of text incorporating music beyond plainchant became present: Leonin (1150-1210), Perotin (1160- 1230), the great nun Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), Alfonso el Sabio (1221-1284), the great anonymous manuscripts, the great compilations such as Le Manuscrit du Saint Sépulcre de Jérusalem, the Codex Huelgas, l’École de Notre Dame, etc. demonstrate a desire to transcend to 21st century ears, with all the intervening hearing, may sound naïve and plain, notwithstanding the dramatic force of the compositions. But to those accustomed at the time to the then much planer plainchant, provided transport beyond accustomed levels. From these beginnings, music, moving beyond practical liturgical applications became a means of devotion by themselves.
Perhaps no greater influence at this later, 16th century time was that great Spanish intellectual and artistic awakening during the reign of Felipe II, El Siglo de Oro. Undoubtedly the arts excercised synergy with each other, and the transcendent aspirations of the ascetic figures in an El Greco (1541-1614) canvas could find its counterpart in the music of the Spanish composers of the period, Juan de Castro (1540-1600), Cristóbal de Morales (1500-1553), Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599), Sebastián de Vivanco (1551-1622), Alonso Lobo (1555-1617) among others, but most notably the musical genius of the Siglo, Tomás Luís de Victoria (1548-1611) . One can conjure the believer, in his corner of the Church hearing the pleas arising from the chorus with text dating from 1230: “O Vos Omnes qui transit per viam, attendite et videte: si est dolor similis sicut dolor meum.” Immensely painful words, full of sorrow and loneliness indeed, read in Holy Thursday services, deeply felt, but never more powerfully communicating the intensity of emotion than in the score by the monk Tomás Luís de Victoria. There music and words elevate the attentive soul to a level of transcendence where the pain and suffering are felt and become one with the believer, such is the force of harmony and melody, a synergy text alone cannot accomplish. That, one can call, a new realm, “spirituality,” based on real immediate feeling but transcending it into a new realm, founded in belief, devoid of theology, but one with the intensity of divine sacrifice, pain, betrayal, sorrow and yet forgiveness for sin.
A legend exists that around Victoria’s time, the Church became concerned with the power or “distraction” of music and the Council of Trent (1545-1563) considered banning polyphony from Church services. It took Palestrina’s composition of the Missa Papae Marcellus with its “heavenly” polyphony to dissuade drastic action by the Council. Certainly the Missa Papae Marcellus is beautiful and rich in its polyphony, but there is no record of the Trentine Council considering anything musical at all, though it probably listened to much, and Palestrina’s Mass was composed a full decade prior to the Council.
The Era of the Troubadour
It would be erroneous to assume that Western musical art developed only as a product of Christian devotion. A robust musical culture grew alongside it, secular in nature, centered in the touring troubadour and, love and war compositions by composers of the era. Composers of the “popular”genre were active mostly in France, the Netherlands, and Germany and many, like Josquin Desprez (1440-1521) and Johannes Ockeghem (1410-1497) straddled the secular with the religious forms. Bawdy and satiric texts found their way into music such as the Carmina Burana found at Benediktbeurn in Bavaria which centuries later was to serve Carl Orff as textual source for his Carmina Burana in the 1930’s. Another important source was the Carmina Cantabrigensa, which found its way to Cambridge from the time of the Norman Conquests! These are beyond our scope, but the “popular tradition” shall become important when this journey seeking the confluence of music and spirituality reaches the 21st century, so it is important to note that songs of the people were written (even if only textually) and performed alongside the great works of the Middle Ages, the Reformation and the Rennaissance.
The Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Rennaissance
The genius of one man overshadowed what preceded him and to a large extent what followed: Johann Sebastian Bach (1585-1750) . As a devout Protestant and, coming from a long-established family of musicians, his career was shaped mostly by his service to the church, though he tried time and again to secure a position in some princely household, better to provide for his large family. It is impossible to write accurately about music for music is meant to be heard, not read about. Thus is the greatness of Bach. His music, in compiling what preceded it, in displaying every form that was available to a specific set, with tones, melodies, poliphonies, solos, harmonies, that not only adumbrated text but, in the cantatas and the Easter Passions, burned from within truly, engaging mind and heart to in union never known.
“Spirituality”, whatever it is, needs to be flexible. For one may not deny the “sublime” or the “heavenly” at prior generations because their art may be austere or its musical language dully limited. Yet the supremacy of protestant Bach reigns looking forward and looking back.
Taken as given his genius, his virtuosity and his musical knowledge, critical to Bach’s art (without denigrating those of Monteverdi (1567–1643); Gesualdo (1566 –1613); Cavalli (1602 –1676); Händel (1685-1759); Vivaldi (1678 –1741); Couperin (1668–1733); Charpentier(1643–1704); etc., was the use of the vernacular. The Cantatas, a different one for every Sunday of the liturgical year, consisted, more or less, short numbers on some meditative subject, divided as recitativo(introduction) and aria(the main statement). This core of the cantata is supplemented by an opening chorus, (an introduction to the subject matter,) and concluded by a chorale, probably a tune and lyric already known by the attendees and in which they could opt to join. All of this was in the vernacular. The audience understood the grief, the joy, whatever message and at some point joined in the singing.
With Bach occurs a split. For who can deny the bliss, the heavenliness of the cello Suite#2 in d-minor, or of so many other purely secular works, without hieratic attachments. Music begins to acquire identity on its own. Opera had been born earlier with Jacopo Peri’s “Dafne” (1597) thus creating another powerful form. Ecstasy, like Bernini’s St. Teresa, is the aim of music: the fusion of drama, music, and plastic arts in opera; the sublime in the great works of religious provenance; and the exaltation of an art in its own form, perhaps the purest ecstasy, absolute music, music on its own. Are there three variants of “spirituality”?
Perhaps we further refine our workable definition and strip it of textual context: text acceptable but not required. Whichever way, spirituality is the reach for the highest-self. And thus we enter the great wave of evolution and innovation of the nineteenth, twenty and what glimmers for the twenty-first centuries. The trajectory is a radical and swift one. The changes in music are structural, harmonic, melodic and formal, from classicism to romanticism, to modernism to our contemporary world. The changes of spirituality in music are deep, for where it was always rooted in some form of religiosity it now transcends encompassing an undefined view of the self at its most exalted state, perhaps acknowledging an even more transcendental higher power or the self itself as such higher power, an undefined state beyond the immediate scientific reality of being, uncontextualized by rite or creed.
The great works of Joseph Haydn: The Creation, the Missa in Tempore Belli, the Pauken Messe; Beethoven’s sublime Missa Solemnis; Verdi’s sacred opera: his Requiem; but then such secular yet somewhat mystic works like R. Schumann’s Das Paradis und die Peri, and his Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (mostly Part II); the mystical “Parsifal” by Richard Wagner. But not only the choral behemoths….. the higher-self soars with Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies and the Pastoral, his final sonatas and string quartets, Schumann’s conclusion to his Fantasy in C, his first Bünte Blätter, his piano quartet; the works of Scriabin, the 5th, 7th, and 8th symphonies of Bruckner, and all four of Brahms, etc.
Is there a new kind of spirituality in the revolutionary unsettled tonalities and eroticism of Tristan und Isolde? Even where one expects it, the perspective of meditative music changes at the end of the Romantic era: Brahms sublime Eine Deutches Requiem is a piece for the living : “Blessed be they who mourn, for they shall be consoled” “For all flesh is as grass, and the glory of man like flowers. The grass withers and the flower falls.” Humanity becomes central and is mourned. The song is of acceptance of our human ending, perhaps a rejoicing in what has been and now is born. Thus two great works of farewell: Mahler’s Abschied movement in Das Lied von der Erde (1909); and R. Strauss’ Four Last Songs (1948). This is music that transports the listener to the inevitable eventual, the spirituality is of mourning life itself not of entering a paradise, as beautiful though the music may be.
Concurrently other aspects of the human spirit are being explored in purely instrumental ways, for who cannot say Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht does not transcend a sordid tale through forgiveness in sublime harmonies that lift the self to heights and understandings previously ignored?
The horrors of the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish fratricidal intermezzo, the Second World War, Hiroshima: a full century of humanity debasing itself to the lowest level in recorded history is the backdrop to further evolution of music, whether abandoning tonality or returning to it in new associations, novel, complex forms. In the West, no more fervent cry than the voiceless Quartet Pour la Fin du Temps by the Catholic Olivier Messiaen. Composed in German captivity, it captures in contemporary idiom the marriage of despair with hope. Spirituality loses escapism and becomes knowing of the world: how can it ignore the death and destruction surrounding the war prisoner camp where it was composed. Messiaen’s faith if anything is strengthened and shines in works like Vingt Regards Sur l’Enfant Jesus, Vision de l’Amen, Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum and his monumental opera Ste. Francissse d’Assisse, as well as his works for organ, but not only those: the spirituality emanates from secular works such as the Turangalîla Symphony, From the Canyons to the Stars, Chronochromie, that celebration of nature based on meticulously logged bird-song, Les Catalogue des Oiseux. An austere faith is demonstrated in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, his Variations on the Chorale Von Himmel Hoch looks back in contemporary tones, as his Monumentum Pro Gesualdo, and Canticum Sacrum all making thoughts rise in challenging tones of modernity. Thus we see spirituality manifested again, in many instances, with textual garb and hieratical associations, yet in language speaking of today and raising the spirit beyond any given creed, notwithstanding Messiaen’s fervent Catholicism.
Globalization is not a contemporary phenomenon. The wars of the twentieth century more than anything brought with brutal force the singularity of the human family, even as it strove to slaughter itself. The revolution in technology, most particularly with the development of the transistor brought the world ever closer. Thus music from regions previously ignored began to enter and influence the Western canon in a serious fashion, particularly from the East, beyond purely entertainment exotic factor Cuban and Latin American rhythms had provided. The broad dissemination of popular music incorporating international elements created a new paradigm for what could be considered spirituality in music. Eventually the Beatles revolution with its later sitar sound and under the influence of cannabis, created a new, more accessible form with which to reach what many considered the higher self, thus spirituality, mostly achieved through the influence of Beatle George Harrison (1943-2001). Some artists’ journeys went so far as to transform their western identity into an eastern persona taking their art with them, such as Cat Stevens (1948) becoming Yusuf Islam. Indeed, his search for spirituality led him to abandon music altogether for twenty eight years: his higher self was found in silence and good- works. Eventually, though retaining his converted identity, Yusuf/Cat returned to music, with the lyricism that had made early Cat Stevens famous, but perhaps a new depth to lyrics. Others explored. Concept albums, aiming at a climax which could reach a higher self, such as Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”(1973) attempted much, yet the format of the popular hit proved impossible to abandon and this potential search for spirituality vanished, as popular music abandoned melody and harmony an concentrated on rhythm, debasing itself into forms of declaimed phenomena, rap, far away from anything structurally musical. No spirituality has evolved from “popular” music.
But the formal language of classical music did not languish, even as it became secularized. Old texts, perhaps no longer used in liturgy nonetheless provided inspiration for contemporary composers in their search to transcend the ordinary: Arvo Pärt (1935) set a Magnificat, and set to transfigure the musical landscape with works like The Beautitudes, Caecilia Vergine Romana, and Adam’s Lament; John Taverner (1944-2013) , eventually converted to the Greek Orthodox Church, and his music reflected the musical language of that rite: The Lyturgy of St. John Chrisostom (previously set by both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff), The Protecting Veil, The Beautiful Names, Song for Athene, all aspiring to transcend the ordinary with the iconic intensity of the Eastern rite.
The search for the sublime became a scream of anguish with Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” which was followed by a more conventional but no less fierce St. Luke’s Passion, once again reverting to sacred texts.
The terrible events of the twentieth century provided ample matter for the aspera to reach the stars. Thus Michael Tippett’s secular oratorio “A Child of Our Time.” The oratorio, inspired by the capture of Herschel Grynspan by the Nazis, a 17 year old Polish Jew who in 1938 murdered the German diplomat Ernst von Rath, in vengeance for much, was imprisoned by the French, and later kidnapped by the Nazis never to be seen again. Von Rath’s murder brought on Krystallnacht and intensified Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany. Tippet’s work does not narrate the events, but uses the incident and its aftermath as basepoint to compose of man’s inhumanity to man, everywhere and in all times, thus the oratorio is sprinkled with quotations from American negro spirituals. It concludes with “Deep River.”
Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1908) provides us a quote, pertinent to “A Child in Our Time” which is apt conclusion to this brief exploration of the search for spirituality in music as it has evolved through time: “A Child of Our Time” is a Passion; not of a god-man, but of a man whose god has left the light of the heavens for the dark of the collective unconscious.”
Author’s Note: Music is meant to be heard, not read about. It is in that spirit that I have written this brief piece. I have tried to identify trends, named composers and their compositions in the hope that the reader will be inclined to explore the pieces and see if my remarks have been fairly accurate in placing and articulating characteristics pertinent to their quest for spirituality. My words are not expected to move much: it is the music that remains important.