Music fills a void

Why does sacred music remain popular at a time when the Church, its historical home, does not?

Anyone can be awed by sacred music’s echoes beneath medieval vaulting (Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Two of the classical albums’ top 10 featured sacred music last month. Classic FM says sacred music is “enduringly popular” and “a core part” of the music it offers its 5.2 million listeners. The number of amateur choirs in Britain continues to rise, their programmes dominated by Mozart’s or Fauré’s Requiems and Handel’s Messiah. Yet the British Social Attitudes Survey reports that the proportion of us who identify as belonging to the Church of England plummeted from 31 per cent in 2002 to 14 per cent in 2017, while those saying they had “no religion” rose from 41 to 52 per cent.

Why does sacred music remain popular at a time when its historical home does not? Look more closely and this apparent revival embraces new as well as old, and little of it is traditionally Anglican. (Mozart and Fauré wrote in a Catholic context and Messiah was written for the concert hall.) From the 1990s on, works of Pärt, Tavener and Górecki marked out by a “new simplicity” or “holy minimalism” found rapid popularity; here in Britain, Roxanna Panufnik and James MacMillan have also built up a wealth of challenging but accessible sacred choral works that have found ready performers and listeners.

The appeal of this music is obvious: believer and non-believer alike can inhale the stillness of sacred music. Anyone can be awed by its echoes beneath the medieval vaulting of a cathedral, far away from the noise and clamour outside. While commercial pop music showcases iterations of romantic love, sacred music can delve into grief, betrayal, the longing for meaning and salvation.

MacMillan, no stranger to these pages, argues that the renewed popularity of sacred music points to a “spiritual void” and has called music the “handmaiden of faith”. Yet some listeners enjoy sacred music for decades without shifting in their beliefs, considering an uplifting phrase in religious music no different from one in a symphony, or its beauty explained by the Church historically being able to afford the best composers.

Somewhere between these poles I see sacred music as a pastoral priest. It offers itself to all who listen and sidesteps minefields of theological difference to get to the heart of spiritual or emotional need. Ironically, while parishes have sought to make themselves and their teaching accessible, a renewed popularity of cathedrals, and even of Latin, suggests some people prefer peace and quiet, and not a lecture. Our tastes have become more eclectic. Radio playlists and our own music collections jumble up genres, and streaming services such as Spotify are normalising this. The idle listener who clicks on Spotify’s “Classical Noir” playlist discovers Tavener, Pärt and Mozart’s Requiem alongside Ravel and Sibelius; the stressed student who clicks on “Chilled Classical” encounters Rutter’s Pie Jesu and Allegri’s Miserere

Today sacred music is consumed on the listener’s terms. Either this marks the consumerisation of the church’s legacy — or its liberation.  

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