Our attachment to old (sacred?) faithfuls

Our attachment to old (sacred?) faithfuls

As artists, the world is our oyster. We can do anything, experiment with microtones, polytonality, multiphonics and manipulate sound to any extreme with electronics. The same can be said of structure – recent works of mine have experimented with semi-structured concepts and cycles, and there are countless forms of structure being implemented throughout the musical world. Yet so often we find ourselves returning to the old faithfuls – and in the world of musical structures in particular. The sonata, the symphony, the concerto. Why?

This question takes on another form when we examine traditional choral works. These – in the Western classical world – tend to revolve around specific texts – most notably, those of the Christian Requiem and the Mass. The use of these texts originates deep in history, in forms such as plainchant. Later, church composers- those paid by the church (such as Bach) would set the religious texts in countless forms, for use in religious services. However, slowly they evolved into non-liturgical settings, such as the settings by Berlioz and Vivaldi, which arguably are suited more to a performance scenario due to their complexity. The texts have now been set by countless composers, in both liturgical and non-liturgical settings, and continue to be set today. However, does the trend of treating these texts as non-liturgical, and as part of the musical canon while somewhat ignoring the religious side create problems? Could it be said that they lose some of their original Christian meaning, or that their use alienates non-believers from an entire collection of music, both old and new?

Although these are both potential issues, I think they are unfounded. Of course, poor settings of the text could produce either or both of the above issues, but the majority of composers are sensitive to their meaning, both to non-religious and religious people. Britten’s powerful War Requiem is one more modern example of the texts, realised in a non-liturgical setting, but an incredibly moving one. The poetry of Wilfred Owen is used in between the requiem texts, creating an incredibly strong effect for both believers and non-believers. Alongside this, Britten is rarely described as a Christian, but was exposed to the texts during his musical education and Christian upbringing; showing that one doesn’t have to be considered a strong believer in any one faith to create powerful yet respectful music with religious language.

Furthermore, it is evident that using the texts of one faith doesn’t necessarily alienate those of another. Naturally, it depends on the audience, but the majority have the ability to appreciate music regardless of its affiliations. Berstein’s Chichester Psalms is an interesting example, featuring Christian texts (and commissioned by Chichester Cathedral) and the traditional Jewish language of Hebrew, as well as being described as one of his most Jewish works.

Why has the issue of religion, and use of religious texts been on my mind? I have mentioned this in a few tweets and entries before, but I have begun writing a requiem – and somewhat by accident. Why the requiem texts? Well, for one, after having sung a couple of beautiful requiems in my time, and having listened to several more, I always thought I’d like to set the texts at some stage. Then, when I was driving home from some teaching one day, the melody for part of the Introit just came to me- along with the text. After that it just kept on mutating and developing, until it reached the point of no compositional return – the point at which I have to write the piece!

I suppose asking “Why do you want to write a Requiem?” could have the word ‘Requiem’ interchanged with symphony, concerto, sonata, or any other traditional, historical ‘type’ of music. As composers we are influenced by all the music we are exposed to, and my love of a couple of requiems has obviously cemented the text in my head (alongside memorisation of them for performance purposes when in choirs a couple of years ago!). It’s therefore natural that, if a composer admires the symphonies of one particular composer, they will subconsciously (and maybe even consciously) be drawn towards writing in that particular form. This explains the sudden appearance of requiem texts in my head, alongside the forms I used in some of my first pieces (sonatas, and theme and variations in a similar style to that of Mozart’s).

However, I am highly aware of the multi-faith world around us. I took religious studies and philosophy at A level, where I was exposed to the thinkings of many religions. I currently live and work in East London, which is incredibly culturally diverse, and I have always been interested in the links which unify religions. The differences, and conflicts, between various individuals (and sometimes extremists) in various religions are often highlighted, but few make light of the similarities between us all. Therefore, while structuring my requiem around some of the fundamental texts, I am also using texts from other sources –some with no religious references whatsoever, other with hints towards other religious views. The views of Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism – amongst others – will be represented within the work.

Music developed alongside religion in its early days; therefore, it is difficult to separate it from religious links – I still think of the name “devil’s chord” when hearing diminished 7th chords! Similarly, music developed with set, fixed structures – and although these slowly mutated, developed and others joined them over time. It’s not surprising, therefore, that they still play a fundamental part in our thinking as composers. As long as we respect the meaning and symbolism behind any texts, musical concepts and structures that we use, we are only doing what all those who have done before us have done: taking the music of the past, and, by making it their own, transform it into the music of the future.

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