A constant search for the sacred

Religion plays an integral role in modern music even when it is composed by non-believers

James MacMillan

One of the big surprises in my creative life has been the wider recognition that the spiritual inspirations behind the great composers, past and present, springing from Judaeo-Christian civilisation, should be seriously reassessed. By this, I don’t mean in some reductive, anthropological detachment from the sources which amounts to a de facto denial of the theological and cultural claims of that tradition, or an implied, haughty downgrading of its authenticity. Rather, the reassessment is a recognition of the potency of a culture with Christ very much at its origin and centre, and a joyous sense of wonder at everything that has flowed from it in centuries of music-making.

What brings this recognition and reassessment some urgency is the wider, sometimes reluctant concession that religion has played a huge part in musical modernity from Wagner to the present day. Some of the world’s most important composers were profoundly religious men and women. Not all were necessarily conventional believers and many were not even Christian, but the search for the sacred has been constant and widespread in musical modernity from Stravinsky and Schoenberg through to Pärt and Finnissy and loads in between (Messaien, Poulenc, Britten, Schnittke, Gorecki and even Cage and Stockhausen).

When I speak about this phenomenon some are surprised that Wagner figures so centrally at the beginning of the process. His religious faith was shaky at best, sometimes all over the place between Lutheranism and a late discovery of Buddhism (with a strange Eucharistic detour in Parsifal) and he was sometimes decidedly anti-clerical. But Wagner’s significance in the 20th century’s search for the sacred in its art music was explored controversially and provocatively in Roger Scruton’s 2004 book Death-Devoted Heart — Sex and the Sacred in Tristan and Isolde. He writes: “Even if Wagner the man made no place for religion, however, Wagner the artist was entirely given over to it . . . What we see on the stage and hear in the music are human beings steeped in a religious form of life, surrounded by supernatural powers, and living, as it were, on the threshold of the transcendental.”

In his 1996 book on the composer Michael Tanner describes Tristan and Isolde as one of “the two greatest religious works of art of our culture” (the other being Bach’s St Matthew Passion). So what’s religious about it, then? Was it not Parsifal that has those big Holy Communion scenes? Well, there is a big “eucharistic” scene in Act 1 of Tristan too.

Tristan has been sent from Cornwall by his master, King Marke, to capture Isolde from Ireland into a loveless, arranged marriage. She despises Tristan and he cares nothing for her. An intervention, divinely hatched but delivered by human accident, introduces a love potion to the drama, and through drinking from the chalice the two protagonists are lost to love. They fall in love with each other, but allow themselves to be given over to the power of an all-consuming numinous force. Love devours them, and this is achieved through the mystical sharing of a communion cup. The love is erotic and pagan in its original storytelling, but the wider implications in Wagner’s music drama are hugely cosmic. The original mythology is channelled through Schopenhauer and Freud, and the Christian essence is shrouded and seemingly out of sight. But for Scruton the implications and symbolism are massive. Pessimism, fate and the search for the existential oblivion of the self into the eternal embrace of divine love contain contradictions of Judaeo-Christianity as well as metaphors and signals towards it. This is what fascinates Scruton, whose simultaneous search for sex and the sacred in this masterwork is compelling and disturbing to believer and sceptic alike. For Wagner it is all about the primacy of myth. For him a myth was not merely a fable or a fairy story, and certainly not a religious doctrine, but a vehicle of human knowledge. As Scruton writes:

Myths do not speak of what was but of what is eternally. They are magical-realist summaries of the actual world, in which the moral possibilities are personified and made flesh.

The impact on modern literature, art and music was huge. Its ritualistic, quasi-liturgical symbolism impacted on Strauss, Schoenberg, Mann, Joyce and Eliot. Even Wagner’s detractors and avoiders came under the spell in reaction — Bartok, Stravinsky, Debussy, Pound, Cocteau, Matisse, Rodin, Picasso. We find the same emphasis on “the moment of mystery, the ritualised core of meaning”. Scruton says: “All these artists reveal a renewed interest in the sacred as a dominant human fact,” adding that “the task of resacralising a desacralised world still occupies the attention of serious artists, writers and composers.” Wagner’s colossal presence is still central. The search for the sacred is clearly very much a current concern in contemporary composition. It never went away, and probably never will.

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