"And Art Shall Say, `Let There Be Light'": Religious Imagery and the Nineteenth-Century Musical Imagination

By Randall, Annie Janeiro | Bucknell Review, January 2002 | Go to article overview

"And Art Shall Say, `Let There Be Light'": Religious Imagery and the Nineteenth-Century Musical Imagination


Randall, Annie Janeiro, Bucknell Review


IT is quite common to think of certain musical works such as Bach's fugues or Beethoven's symphonies as though they were sacred texts in which the "Commandments" of music are wondrously revealed anew at each performance. Composers of these sacred texts are accorded godlike or demigod status and are worshiped in the form of idealized marble busts or depicted as residing in a pantheon of the gods. The activities of their interpreters and explicators (conductors, instrumentalists, singers, theorists, historians) parallel those of the clergy and biblical scholars; musical study and performance are, in many ways, conceived as exercises in exegesis.

As in religion, music too has its fundamentalists: those whose interpretations claim to be based on the musical text alone or for whom the only valid version of a work is one proven to have come directly from the composer's own hand. Music historians and theorists are entrusted with preserving the holy texts and sacred objects for the study, use, and worship of future aspirants. Even the bodies of composers are exhumed; hair samples are snipped and fetishized in much the same way as saints' hair and clothing are made into holy relics. (1)

Musicians perform the sacred texts in ritual fashion, wearing black, as do religious orders, and subject themselves to grueling hours of disciplined music practice, comparable to the hours spent by religious acolytes kneeling in prayer or spent in careful scriptural study. (2) And like acolytes, aspiring musicians are led by a class of learned practitioners who hold the status of priests: the greater the skill and learning of our musical priests, the more likely he or she will ascend the hierarchy and be held in even greater esteem as a high priest or priestess, a master teacher or virtuoso performer of national or international repute. All members of the hierarchy are dedicated to revealing musical works to audiences whose reverential demeanor parallels that of congregations participating in a religious service. Music conservatories function as monasteries and convents, while in grandly conceived concert halls the central mystery of musical creation is reenacted with each performance of a sacred text.

This cryptoreligious sensibility is so embedded in the Western European art music tradition, so taken for granted, that it is rarely questioned even though it has much to do with the way we learn music, what music we are taught or not taught, how we perform music, and even what we listen to, how we listen to it, and what we derive from it. "Classical" music, cloaked in the garb of religion, claims for itself a privileged place among other cultural practices: it seems fair to ask why, when, and to what end religious imagery began to be used (and continues to be used) to describe acts of secular musical performance, composition, and appreciation. The mid-nineteenth century religion-saturated writings of Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and Carl Zelter were not the first or only ones to conceive musical practices in such terms, yet they are among the most influential because of the wide and lasting dissemination of their views.

Without question, Wagner's prose writings and operas offer not only the richest source of material on the topic of music and religion in the midnineteenth century but the most frequent and brazen use of religious language to describe his own work. In his operas, his "Art-works of the Future," Wagner's stated goal is to unite the "trinity" of music, dance, and poetry. In 1849, he wrote, "that each of the three partners, unlinked from the united chain and bereft thus of her own life and motion, can only carry on an artificially inbreathed and borrowed life;--not giving forth her sacred ordinances, as in their trinity." (3) In Wagner's operas, the composer reconstitutes the trinity, thus restoring its power to spiritually transform the listener.

Wagner's concept of the Artwork of the Future subsumes his formulation of the "Religion of the Future" and locates it as the historical heir to what he calls "Hellenic Religion. …

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