Spirit in Sound: New Sacred Music: With Beauty as a Medium, Composers' Works Echo the Beating Heart of God. (Spirituality: Special Section)

By Heffern, Rich | National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Spirit in Sound: New Sacred Music: With Beauty as a Medium, Composers' Works Echo the Beating Heart of God. (Spirituality: Special Section)


Heffern, Rich, National Catholic Reporter


Good heavens, this is gorgeous music," exclaimed a reviewer after a concert featuring a symphony and a flute concerto from contemporary composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Finnish composer Rautavaara and a number of his colleagues in nearby countries are putting together musical works that express religious awe, explore the numinous and continue the ancient traditions of sacred music into the future.

They have chosen beauty for their medium, thereby making a sharp turn from the discordant sounds that have characterized much 20th-century music toward new kinds of melodic and harmonic concoctions that are spiritually nourishing and soul-stirring.

Contemporary classical music composers like Finland's Rautavaara, Arvo Part from Estonia, John Tavener of England, Henryk Gorecki of Poland, Peteris Vasks of Latvia, Sofia Gubaidalina of Russia and Giya Kancheli of the former Soviet republic of Georgia are all unafraid to write music that, in the tradition of sacred music, echoes the beating heart of God.

Their music looks back to the roots of sacred music, combining the past with the present to anticipate the future.

Critics note that the theme and tone of sorrow and suffering often expressed in the musical works of these composers is a tribute in art to the collective passion of the whole world suffered in the last century by millions of victims of war and tyranny.

A compositional style has emerged in the music world, uniting, after a 400-year separation, classical music with contemplative spirituality. This "spiritual" music, including popular works like Gorecki's "Sorrowful Songs" Symphony, Piirt's "Tabula Rasa" and Tavener's "Song for Athene," often resonates even with people who have never listened to classical music.

* Gorecki is the first living classical music composer whose music topped both the world's classical and popular music charts. His Third Symphony has sold over a million copies.

* A hospice worker mentioned the cult status Arvo Piirt's "Tabula Rasa" holds among terminally ill patients. They called it "angel music" and asked to hear it as they died.

* In 1997 the public became aware of John Tavener's music when the achingly lovely "May Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest," from his choral work "Song for Athene" was performed at the funeral of Princess Diana.

With the exception of Tavener, these composers all hail from small Northern European countries around the Baltic Sea and from former republics of the Soviet Union. Gubaidalina is a woman, a rarity in the classical composing field.

Classical music performed live is music we shine our shoes to listen to. We buy tickets because we both want to hear the museum pieces--the Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven--and also take in the new sounds contemporary composers are making. In the late 20th century, serious or "classical" music became intellectual and experimental, sounding ever more discordant, atonal, even gimmicky. Composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Karlheinz Stockhausen influenced even the Beatles, but the sound of their music has been compared to "an explosion in a boiler factory."

Meanwhile composers of "sacred" music since the Enlightenment had tended to merely graft secular music forms, like the fugue, onto religious texts, a purely intellectual, rational approach. In recent years there has been a return not only to sonorous harmony and songful melody but also to a rediscovery of the sacred nature of music itself.

Tavener and Part experienced a spiritual awakening through the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, with Tavener visiting the monks of Mount Athos for theological and aesthetic instruction. Gorecki found renewal in the Catholic church in Poland. Rautavaara incorporates both Lutheran and Orthodox influences together with the folk art, poetry and natural beauty of his native Finland.

Music/Captivating freshness

Their spiritual and theological journeys have led them to create new sacred sounds that can be heard both in concert halls and at home.

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