Magazine article The Spectator

Timeless, Intangible, Spiritual

Magazine article The Spectator

Timeless, Intangible, Spiritual

Article excerpt

Were I ever to be placed in the position of castaway on Desert Island Discs -- an unlikely possibility given the diminished status of serious classical music criticism in the media world at large -- there would be a good chance that my eight selections would be weighted in favour of music broadly definable as 'sacred'. For a start, there would have to be Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers. My will stipulates the singing of 'Duo Seraphim' from that piece at whatever ceremony might accompany the signalling of my expiry. There would certainly be some Bach, probably one of the great Passions but possibly something extraordinary chosen from that vast repository of the extraordinary, the cantatas. There would also have to be a representative from the glorious repertoire of Renaissance polyphony -- Josquin, Taverner, Tallis, Palestrina, or something Spanish. Then maybe a late Haydn Mass, or perhaps Beethoven's Missa Solemnis or C major Mass. How about a Purcell anthem -- 'My beloved spake' would do nicely -- or a Handel Coronation Anthem or four? Or maybe even something from Messiah, still a great work no matter how well known. Oh, yes, I'll definitely have one of those magnificent antiphons that grace the Eton Choirbook. Some coolly ornate plainchant would be good. How many is that?

And yet I am a committed agnostic on the verge of fully fledged atheism. With apologies to my religious-minded and indeed clerical friends, the truth is that the older I get the more certain I become about the absurdity of the whole idea of religion, of a God exhibiting qualities like mercy or vengeance or love who deserves or demands worship. If a singular creative force does exist -- and that, I acknowledge, may well be the case -- I doubt that it has any moral aspect which could justify our labelling it 'God'; nor indeed could such a force be persuaded by individuals' attempts to communicate with it in order to make things better. No, I'm on the side of those who believe that religion is a human construct which comes from our tendency to form what we might call arrogant herds (one's own herd always follows the One True Faith and has the One True Word behind it). To me, this 'God' is a convenient quasi-explanation for something that we cannot possibly, ever, explain. I'm a fully paid-up member of the Richard Dawkins tendency and, so far anyway, I really don't require reassurance that death is only a beginning, not an end. I'll either find that out when the time comes or, more likely in my book, won't.

So what is it, I constantly ask myself, that seems to attract me to sacred music, to sacred art in general? Why, especially at this time of year, do I relish so greedily all those pained Renaissance evocations of Mary at the foot of the Cross, those selfadmonishing psalm texts ('Miserere mei Deus' and the like)? What is it about the ritual of those ornate festive ceremonials, complete with long intoned prayers, bells and the rest, so beautifully recreated in recordings by the likes of Paul McCreesh and Robert King, that absorbs me? Why, when I'm feeling miserable, do I know that I can turn to a late Haydn Mass to transform my mood instantaneously? Why am I so willing to put aside my gut feelings about religion and willingly enter the world of Messiaen's devout, infinitely trusting Catholicism? …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.