Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: Southbank's 'Belief and beyond Belief' Series

Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: Southbank's 'Belief and beyond Belief' Series

Article excerpt

A forthcoming 'festival' at the Southbank Centre exposes the secular mindset of Britain's arts establishment, says Damian Thompson

Scriabin once suggested that the audiences for his music should be segregated according to their degree of personal enlightenment, with the 'least spiritually advanced' in the worst seats. Unsurprisingly it didn't happen. But perhaps the Southbank Centre should take up the challenge. For its 2016-17 season, the centre has devised a series of concerts and talks entitled Belief and Beyond Belief . This 'festival', as it grandly styles itself, could have been an exploration of the enormous and neglected influence of faith on the great composers.

Could have been -- but, predictably, won't be. Instead, the Southbank has chosen to subsume religious faith into 'belief', whatever that is, and then tacked on a smug little cliché. Google 'beyond belief' and you'll see what I mean by smug. It's a play on words that delights broadcasters, intellectuals and artists for whom religious faith is essentially a curiosity -- a starting point for their own prognostications (which, until not long ago, assumed that religion was on the way out).

Belief and Beyond Belief reeks of Scriabinesque condescension. But, worse than that, it dodges questions that secularists such as the Southbank Centre's director, Jude Kelly, are in no hurry to ask, let alone answer. Which great composers fervently believed in God even when society no longer required them to? Which of them also submitted to 'organised religion' -- and did this constrain or enhance their genius? If we overlook a composer's faith, because we don't share it, are we missing not just biographical context but something in the music itself?

A potted secular history of composers' religious beliefs runs something like this. Up to and including Bach, they were all Christians because everyone was. The intensity of their faith is mostly unexamined.

Here's a little example. After Monteverdi was widowed, he became a Catholic priest. This is not well known, so I added it to the top of his Wikipedia entry: 'Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi (15 May 1567 (baptised) -- 29 November 1643) was an Italian composer, gambist, singer and Roman Catholic priest.'

Those last three words instantly disappeared: 'not a significant part of his career'. Fortunately someone fought back and it's been reinstated. But the fact that an early-music fanatic couldn't bear to see Fr Monteverdi's priesthood flagged up at the top of his Wiki entry speaks volumes.

Anyway, back to the secularist potted history. Mozart: Catholic -- but later a Freemason, therefore 'enlightened'. And Beethoven threw off the shackles of the Catholic Church along with the fussier aspects of sonata form, preparing the ground for the 'spiritual but not religious' Romantics and then the Modernists, who tossed religion into the wastepaper basket along with the rules of harmony.

This is the 'meta-narrative' (though, to be fair, critics of the stature of Wilfrid Mellers and Harold Schonberg didn't buy into it). Mendelssohn's Jewishness is regarded as important because the Nazis made such a big deal of it; his devout Lutheranism is not. Mahler's conversion to Christianity embarrasses everybody: Catholics, because it was opportunistic, allowing him to take over the Vienna Court Opera; Jews, because he did it in the first place and never renounced his Catholic allegiance; secularists, because Mahler believed in a 'universal resurrection' that was as much religious as it was philosophical.

Belief and Beyond Belief does touch on Mahler's faith, but ever so briefly. In a pre-concert talk, the BBC broadcaster and scholar Stephen Johnson asks: 'Is Mahler's Eighth a confession of faith? What was Wagner's philosophical agenda in Die Walküre and what was Bach to Hindemith and Wagner: embodiment of faith, "Germanness" or both?' The notion that these mighty questions can be addressed in one brief talk, even by a thinker as exhilarating as Johnson, is preposterous. …

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