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Monday, 9 February 2015

Spacious spiritual and sacred music

The Story of Music by Howard Goodall is an insightful popular introduction to the history of music. Goodall notes that since the 1990s ‘there has been a dramatic increase in the popularity of reflective, acoustically spacious spiritual and sacred music.’ He cites, as evidence, the rediscovery of the work of Arvo Pärt, Henryk Gorecki’s bestselling Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, and his own Enchanted Voices CD, which spent half a year at no. 1 in the specialist classical charts. He suggests that that outcome ‘would have been inconceivable to classical composers of the 1960s’ and, as a result, argues that ‘the musical past tells us that it doesn’t do to worry too much about what happens next ... Even as we struggle with the existence or abolition of God, we seem to have more music than ever to answer our need for a spiritual dimension.’

While sympathising with his conclusion, Goodall seems to generalise too greatly in relation to reduced interest in spiritual or sacred music at an earlier stage of modernism. In addition to Goodall’s book, I’ve also been reading Jane F. Fulcher’s The Composer as Intellectual and Stephen Schloesser’s Visions of Amen: The Early Life and Music of Olivier Messiaen, both of which highlight the extent to which such works are also a feature of the earlier phases of modernism.

Jean-Luc Barré writes in Jacques and Raïssa Maritain: Beggars for Heaven of how poets, painters and musicians began gravitating around the Maritains, “most of whom they met in the company of Léon Bloy.” There was firstly their discovery of Georges Rouault, “then of Pierre van der Meer de Valcheren, a Dutch novelist who was presented to them in 1911, two days after his own conversion … Then, during the war, they met the young seventeen-year-old composer, Georges Auric, soon a frequent visitor at Versailles …” Neal Oxenhandler has written that what these artists found in Maritain was both "a spiritual leader" and "an aesthetician" who "accorded a large place to the mystery of art with its double nature, its concreteness and its spirituality."

'Maritain and [Igor] Stravinsky first met after a concert on 10 June 1926, at the time that Stravinsky was writing his first work with a religious text, a Pater Noster for four-part chorus. That year, [Jean] Cocteau published his Lettre a Jacques Maritain and Maritain his Reponse a Jean Cocteau; both volumes are dedicated to Stravinsky. By the end of April 1927, Stravinsky had returned to the Orthodox faith that he had abandoned in his youth. He later wrote that "Jacques Maritain may have exercised an influence on me at this time [ 1926]. " Though Stravinsky denied that Maritain played a role in his conversion, his assistant Robert Craft says that Maritain did exert some influence on his return to the Church. In May 1927, Stravinsky's opera oratorio Oedipus Rex, a collaboration with Cocteau, premiered in Paris. (Visions of Amen: The Early Life and Music of Olivier Messiaen by Stephen Schloesser)

Jean Cocteau was a master at bringing people and ideas together ... Cocteau frequently dined on Saturday evening, with six young composers, all recent Conservatory graduates: Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Louis Durey and Germaine Tailleferre. They were often joined by pianists Marcelle Meyer and Juliette Meerovitch, the Russian singer Koubitsky, and painters Marie Laurencin, Irène Lagut and Valentine Gross (not yet married to Jean Hugo), as well as writers Lucien Daudet and Raymond Radiguet. After dinner the Saturday night revellers went to the Foire du Trône or the Médrano Circus to enjoy the mime shows of the Fratellini brothers. The evening would end at Darius Milhaud's or the Gaya Bar, where they listened to Jean Wiéner play "negro music." Cocteau would read his latest poems while Milhaud and Auric, joined by Arthur Rubinstein, played a six-handed version of Milhaud's Le Boeuf sur le toit. This work, composed in 1920 and performed on stage with the famous Fratellini, was to become the Saturday night party piece. It was such a hit that the owner of the renowned Gaya Bar called his new restaurant on the Rue Boissy d'Anglas "Le Boeuf sur le toit." With the help of Jean Wiéner and Clément Doucet, the restaurant became a fashionable meeting-place. The other signature pieces of Les Six were Georges Auric's Adieu New York and Francis Poulenc's Cocarde. (

Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey, loosely bonded by their initial embrace of Jean Cocteau’s antisentimental aesthetic ideas, as well as by their allegiance to composer Erik Satie’s spiritual-musical tutelage, were known as Les Six. (

Milhaud is often perceived as the champion of polytonality. Although he neither invented that harmonic technique and language nor was the first to employ it, he found ingenious ways to make use of its potential. Perhaps because he so clearly understood its possibilities, it became the harmonic vocabulary most commonly associated with his music. In the 1920s, however, Milhaud was considered a revolutionary and an enfant terrible of the music world. Yet his actual approach owed more to the French composer Charles Koechlin than to Satie, and it built upon a particular concept of polytonality derived from Stravinsky’s early ballets. Ultimately Milhaud believed not in revolution, but in the development and extension of tradition. “Every work is not more than a link in a chain,” he postulated, “and new ideas or techniques only add to a complete past, a musical culture, without which no invention has any validity.”

Milhaud’s personal Judaism as well as his family heritage informed a substantial number of his compositions, beginning with his Poèmes Juifs (1916) and followed by several prewar pieces with overt Jewish titles and content. But it was in his later Jewish works that he relied frequently and specifically on the Provençal liturgical tradition that he knew from his youth in Aix-en-Provence. His Judaically related works from the period following his immigration to America include Cain and Abel, for narrator, organ, and orchestra; Candélabre à sept branches; David, an opera written for the Israel Festival; Saul (incidental music); Trois psaumes de David; Cantate de Job; Cantate de psaumes; and—arguably his most significant Judaic work—Service Sacré, an oratorio-like full-length Sabbath morning service (with supplemental settings for Friday evening) for cantor, rabbinical speaker, large chorus, and symphony orchestra, which was commissioned in 1947 and premiered by Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco.

'Auric met the Catholic writer Léon Bloy through Ricardo Viñes, the pianist and fervent Catholic, to whom, [Francis] Poulenc, a pupil of his, was close. Like Viñes, along with other figures such as Paul Valéry and Maurice Ravel, Auric also frequented the politically more mixed salon of Ida and Cipa Godebski. It was then through Bloy, whom Auric (a practising Catholic) admired, that he met the innovative Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain, and thus once more came into contact with "spiritualist" circles. But Auric would not be the only member of Les Six to be drawn to Maritain who ... was close to Action Française and believed in the spiritual force of modern art. Arthur Honegger, although a Protestant, would similarly be attracted to his circle and to the idea of a modern religious art, as he demonstrated in Le roi David.'

‘Honegger's first great success was Le Roi David, an oratorio in 23 scenes composed at the urging of Ernest Ansermet and Igor Stravinsky and first performed in 1921 at the Théâtre du Jorat in Mézières in the Swiss canton of Vaud. Further works in this genre included Cris du monde (1931) and La Danse des Morts (1940), a composition inspired by Paul Claudel. Even such an early work as Roi David demonstrated an important precondition for Honegger's lasting influence - his determination to compose music that in its lucidity appealed to a broad public and to connoisseurs alike ...

Two of Honegger's major dramatic oratorios are the masterpiece Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (1935), set to a text by Paul Claudel, and Nicolas de Flue (1940), a dramatic legend composed on the occasion of the Swiss National Exhibition ... He also composed many choral works, e.g. Cantique de Pâques (1918), Les Mille et Une Nuits (1937) and his last work Une Cantate de Noël (1953) for baritone, mixed-voice choir, organ and orchestra, which shows the composer's growing concern with religion, already evident in his Symphonie Liturgique of 1946.’ (

Poulenc is perhaps best known for his instrumental works, for his adherence to the aesthetics of Neo-classicism, and his place among the Parisian intellectual circles in tJie 1920s and 1930s in which his friend, Jean Cocteau, played a central role. This essentially secular side of Poulenc's creativity was, after the composer's return to Roman Catholicism in 1936, challenged by a need to express a newly-found religious conviction in sacred music. Consequently Poulenc, who had been accustomed to the secular aesthetics of Neo-classicism of Parisian artistic life and the French capital's concert halls, found it necessary to 'rediscover' and assimilate the language of French church music and its history (notably through the filter of the Cecilian Movement, Niedermeyer and the plainchant of Solesmes) in order to create for himself an appropriate 'sacred style’ that could also incorporate those essential elements of his characteristically playful and sensual, 'secular' language. (

Apart from a single early work for unaccompanied choir ("Chanson à boire", 1922), Poulenc began writing choral music in 1936. In that year he produced three works for choir:Sept chansons (settings of verses by Éluard and others), Petites voix (for children's voices), and his religious work Litanies à la vierge noire, for female or children's voices and organ. The Mass in G major (1937) for unaccompanied choir is described by Gouverné as having something of a baroque style, with "vitality and joyful clamour on which his faith is writ large". Poulenc's new-found religious theme continued with Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938–39), but among his most important choral works is the secular cantata Figure humaine (1943). Like the Mass, it is unaccompanied, and to succeed in performance it requires singers of the highest quality.

Poulenc's major works for choir and orchestra are the Stabat Mater (1950), the Gloria (1959–60), and Sept répons des ténébres (1961–62). All these works are based on liturgical texts, originally set to Gregorian chant. In the Gloria, Poulenc's faith expresses itself in an exuberant, joyful way, with intervals of prayerful calm and mystic feeling, and an ending of serene tranquillity. Poulenc wrote to Bernac in 1962, "I have finished Les Ténèbres. I think it is beautiful. With the Gloria and the Stabat Mater, I think I have three good religious works. May they spare me a few days in Purgatory, if I narrowly avoid going to hell." Sept répons des ténèbres, which Poulenc did not live to hear performed, uses a large orchestra, but, in Nichols's view, it displays a new concentration of thought. To the critic Ralph Thibodeau, the work may be considered as Poulenc's own requiem and is "the most avant-garde of his sacred compositions, the most emotionally demanding, and the most interesting musically, comparable only with his magnum opus sacrum, the opera, Dialogues des Carmélites." (

‘Issuing from a humble background in Bordeaux, and devoutly religious, [Henri] Sauguet had been forced by the war to end his (primary) education but later went on to study composition with the Scholiste Joseph Canteloube. Sauguet’s great awakening, however, came when he discovered Satie and Cocteau (through Milhaud), which led to a prompt renunciation of his earlier interests in Debussy, d’Indy, and Wagner. He subsequently studied with Charles Koechlin and, greatly admiring Les Six, became good friends with Darius Milhaud, who then introduced him to Erik Satie’ (The Composer as Intellectual by Jane F. Fulcher). Fulcher also notes the friendship that Sauguet developed, as a devout Catholic, with Poulenc. She also notes that Sauguet enthusiastically praised the group Jeune France and its concerts. ‘Three spiritually minded composers - André Jolivet, Jean Yves Daniel-Lesur and Olivier Messiaen - were founding members of ... La Jeune France, a response to Les Six.’ ( ‘Music, for them ... was to be a transcendent, authentically cosmic, universal art in which the human soul could find its most lyrical or expansive expression.’ ‘Poulenc was ... impressed with their art, and Honegger, who shared certain stylistic proclivities and values, was a supporter of the young Messiaen.’ (The Composer as Intellectual by Jane F. Fulcher)

‘Daniel-Lesur was an organist, like his Conservatoire classmate Messiaen, and a student of Charles Tournemire (among others), long remaining influenced by this “spiritualist” of the previous generation. While serving as Tournemire’s assistant organist at Saint-Clotilde, he was, like Messiaen, appointed to the Schola Cantorum, but a year earlier, in 1935. It was here, as a professor of counter-point, that Daniel-Lesur organised the concerts of the group Spirale, which ... directly preceded Jeune France, and was close to the Scholiste tradition. ’ (The Composer as Intellectual by Jane F. Fulcher)

‘Like Maritain in his writings in Esprit, Jolivet was interested in religion as something that was suprarational, supranational, and supracultural, or inherently cross-cultural. And just as the young nonconformist writer Emmanuel Mounier, Jolivet was deeply interested in the fundamental importance and function of ritual within society. Both Messiaen and Jolivet, then, recalling nonconformist discourse, were seeking to “rehumanize” music by reintegrating it into a larger cosmic conception, making man once again united and meaningful within the “universe.” Music was to be used to find the common link between all religions, cultures, and races, as well as between humanity and the unseen forces acting upon it.’ (The Composer as Intellectual by Jane F. Fulcher)

Messiaen never met Maritain, though by his own account he did read one book (probably Art et Scholastique) by him in 1927. He said it was "a book of high philosophy that seemed very difficult to me," but admitted having benefited from it. Schloesser notes that, 'Maritain's extended argument in Art and Scholasticism made two principal points: first, religion and the avant-garde are eminently compatible as they meet in the artistic and aesthetic arenas; second, there is no particularly "religious" form of art.' As a result, 'Maritain gave a Catholic artist licence to jettison received external forms and set out on an avant-garde path. One thing alone mattered: the eternal formal principle that radiated clarity ... from within and gave unity and meaning to the organic whole.' (Visions of Amen: The Early Life and Music of Olivier Messiaen by Stephen Schloesser)

‘... in addition to orchestral concerts the group held chamber music sessions, which were organised by a group of amateurs and patrons called Les Amis de la Jeune France. These concerts included works not only by members of the group itself but by other composers whom they wished to promote, including Georges Migot and (diplomatically) Jean Français. Migot, like Messiaen, was devoutly religious, and absorbed with philosophy and with medieval music, and similarly fascinated with ritual as well as with the “secret” spiritual power of music.’ (The Composer as Intellectual by Jane F. Fulcher)

Karlheinz Stockhausen premiered his groundbreaking Canticle of the Youths on May 30, 1956 ... in 1952, Stockhausen came to Paris to study with Messiaen, whose Conservatory course in analysis and aesthetics that year concentrated on the subject of rhythm ... Conceived as both a sacred cantata and a sacred ritual, Stockhausen’s landmark piece referred back to Messiaen’s explorations in multiple ways.’ (Visions of Amen: The Early Life and Music of Olivier Messiaen by Stephen Schloesser)

‘Messiaen was aware that in these revolutionary years of the 1960s and 1970s – years during which political theology and liberation theology were in ascendance – some critics reproached him for pursuing “a kind of theologia gloriae [theology of glory] which scarcely has anything to do with the actual situation of today’s human being and his need for redemption.”’ Schloesser contrasts Messiaen’s difference in Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum with the bitterness of Benjamin Britten’s Requiem and Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish in which Bernstein’s narrator recounts the faults of creation, proposes an alternative and ends as cocreator with God of a new world.

‘Generally speaking, Messiaen’s use of traditional religious material in a nonironic way departed from trends of the transatlantic 1960s. To find a close counterpoint, one would need to turn eastward toward Krzysztof Penderecki, the Polish composer writing religious works in a serialist vein behind the Iron Curtain, explicitly defiant repudiations of Soviet ideology and policy: Sabat Mater (1962), Saint Luke Passion (1965), Dies Irae (from the Requiem Mass, 1967), and Utrenja (Morning Prayer, 1969-1971).’ (Visions of Amen: The Early Life and Music of Olivier Messiaen by Stephen Schloesser)


Darius Milhaud - Trois Psaumes de David.

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