My favourite Gilbert & Sullivan operetta is Patience. In Act one, Bunthorne the sham aesthete has a dramatic scena, and in the opening recitative he confesses that he is ‘not fond of uttering platitudes in stained-glass attitudes’. This is a favourite quote of mine in relation to what is regarded as ‘religious’ music. The trouble with ‘sacred’ music (for me the two terms are interchangeable) is that its inspiration can be more down-to-earth than its lofty intentions might suggest.
As well as seeking divine inspiration composers compose in order to pay the rent. Monteverdi’s Vespers is a collection of pieces put together almost as a CV as he was job-hunting. No problem there – he was a genius and the music is wonderful, but there’s a lot out there that is distinctly earth-bound, doing the very thing that Bunthorne despised.
In classical and baroque times the church was a major employer of composers whose job was to provide suitable music for the liturgy. The glorious music of renaissance composers such as Palestrina, Vittoria and so on would not exist without this patronage. But in later times the music was often required to reflect the splendour of the cathedral or the court. I remember being puzzled why a showy baroque Mass didn’t interest me until I realised that it was written more to the glory of the King than to the glory of God. In fact it annoyed me, and not just because I’m a republican.
In our own times there has developed a school of religious composition that choirs and audiences respond to more than I can. There are the ‘holy minimalists’ Pärt and Górecki, the American new-agers Whitacre and Lauridsen, and any number of hangers-on. Hyperion records issued a compilation of the genre entitledDreamland. It’s full of that kind of very slow-moving ‘spiritual’ music that’s fine in very small doses, balm for some, but tedium for me. Good for insomniacs.
As a respectful atheist why should this bother me? Oddly enough because I’m not a signed up member of any religion I may have a more sceptical view, a sharper insincerity-(there is a more pithy word)-detector. It’s just that music that is inspired by true and deep religious conviction has a powerful effect on me, whereas music that utters pieties in stained-glass attitudes just irritates. Anton Bruckner was a devout Roman Catholic throughout his life and his music, orchestral as well as choral, is imbued with his belief. It’s in the DNA of his music. As composer John Gardner characteristically put it, ‘Bruckner knew more about the Old Man Upstairs than ever Bach did’. Discuss! His motets are one of the glories of choral music and as you may imagine I’m eagerly looking forward to singing some of them in the concert on the 12th of November.