What really unites Europe

The work of the Continent’s great composers is rooted in a culture long predating the age of revolution

James MacMillan

Bach to basics: James MacMillan with the Oregon Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra (

I arrived in Eugene for the Oregon Bach Festival on June 24 last year, the day after the Brexit referendum, to a bit of an unexpected storm. The festival had commissioned a big piece from me for choir, orchestra and soloists. It was written well before the political campaigning started and had nothing to do with it. It is called A European Requiem. I had to bat off difficult and awkward questions all week about Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, David Cameron, etc. My attempt at an explanation may have worked for some and not for others. It went a bit like this:

Karol Wojtyla, Saint John Paul II, one of the greatest Europeans of recent times, called for a “Europe of the spirit” so that the continent could be a true “common home” filled with the joy of life. He was ignored and disdained, of course, by our political elites, who have a very different concept of what Europe should be. Music is the most spiritual of the arts, and musicians were  Europe’s first internationalists and advocates of that common good, as our art is a universal language. As a British composer I hope to continue contributing to how Europe shapes its future, even when the EU now seems part of our past. The spiritual, moral and artistic patrimony that makes Europe “Europe” will outlive any transient political twists and turns.

There were a couple of works from the past which provoked and inspired me to write A European Requiem, neither of them requiems. Their contexts go right back to a time when Europe saw an ideological struggle between different forms of European values, a struggle which has continued through the centuries and may be nearing its endgame in our times.

Enlightenment values cannot be disentangled from the iron fist of progressive politics. They were hand-in-glove from the start and evident in the revolutionary violence and terror of the French Revolution — a terror which attempted to replace God with Revolutionary Man, emptying the churches of the images of Jesus and his loving mother, and replacing them with the gods and goddesses of the future. It didn’t take long for “new, improved Man” to unleash the violence inherent in the new creed across Europe, and this was to happen time and time again in the centuries ahead.

Even men and women of goodwill could and can still be seduced by its propaganda. Beethoven was to learn through observing the new creed in action all over Europe that peace is not cheap and can only come at a high price. In his Missa Solemnis it is the Lamb of God who overcomes the terrors of contemporary war and Revolution. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis — Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. In many musical settings of this Mass text the composer will attempt to invoke solace and peace. But in the Missa Solemnis the world breaks in — the ontology of violence which seeks to overthrow the Kingdom of Heaven, the ideology of ever-improving human society, whether we want it or not, invades this sacred text, attempting to sweep the loving God aside, to take control imperially, and to become the new Spirit of the Age. In this tread of military drums and trumpets the usurper is Revolution and all the violent  clamour that sought to bring the merciful Lamb of God to its knees and lead it to the slaughterhouse. The voices respond anxiously, fearfully — dona nobis pacem — but the defiance is there: the counter-ontology is announced and God’s mercy is expressed in Beethoven’s transformation of the sounds of violence into the mercy of God. This is a signal from musical history that every time the Lamb of God is led to the next slaughterhouse, whether it be in pogrom, gulag, concentration camp or the constant redefining of human worth and nature, there is a way of responding—a way of remembering who we are and that we are loved by a merciful God.

Another artistic milestone in the  struggle for what makes Europe “Europe” was Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmélites (1956). Based on a true story from the beginnings of modern revolutionary violence — of 16 Carmelite nuns guillotined in the French Revolution — it was a statement of defiance against the secular terror of that time which is immortalised in popular political culture in France and elsewhere, and in the secular orthodoxies of the modern world. For a culture that was meant to have put these things behind it, Dialogue des Carmélites is probably the most successful modern French opera. In the opera’s final scene the only text one hears set to music is a Latin hymn to Our Lady — Salve Regina — Hail Queen, Mother of all Mercies — and this is at the core of Paris, the first capital of secularism and anti-clericalism.

The Requiems of the 19th century tended to emphasise a particular side to the text. Brahms focused on the humanistic side, for example; Fauré on the promise of consolation and peace; Verdi on the dramatic elements; and so on. There may be a pessimistic emphasis in mine, but reading The Uses of Pessimism by Roger Scruton we can see that the tragedies and disasters of the history of the European continent have been the consequences of a false optimism and the fallacies that derive from it. He shows that the true legacy of European civilisation is not the false idealisms that have almost destroyed it (Nazism, fascism and communism) but the culture of forgiveness and mercy introduced to Europe by first-century martyrs. Might our culture require renewed defence from a bogus utopianism showing no sign of disappearing, whether from the self-hating, elitist Left or the incoming Islamofascist Right?

There may indeed be a case that European civilisation now requires a Requiem, and maybe that which made Europe “Europe” in its fullest spiritual sense can be reborn.

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