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Alex Ross Throws Light on 20th-C. Sacred Music


“Messiaen is the greatest religious composer since Bach,” The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross told the audience at a recent lecture held at Trinity Church in Boston on April 17. But, he demonstrated that there were, and still are, many more 20th-century composers with decidedly spiritual messages. The 20-odd musical examples Ross chose (played from his computer) were riveting, if not frustrating in their necessary brevity.

This large body of sacred composition, Ross contends, has a great deal of surface diversity. “But underneath, there is the common urge to present sounds as ‘other-worldly,’ with sacred connotations,” Ross stressed, “and the ability to unsettle us is why the compositions endure.”

Implicit in his comments was the notion that 20th-century dissonance is unsettling to many audiences. As music historians are wont to do these days, he stressed that modern dissonant music began with compositions listeners are comfortable with — without suspecting that they contain the germs that continued to develop into the 20th century: such composers as Wagner, and earlier, Liszt, who were the precursors of the Modernist impulse. Ross, in an example of a section of Parsifal, Act 3, called it “beyond Romanticism, with hazy dissonances, opening the door to 20th-century’s thrilling ambiguity, and quoted Arthur Symons: “It [Parsifal] is the unsatisfied idea of a kind of flesh of the spirit,” which had such an influence on Debussy in Pelléas and Melisande, and even on Satie, who used six-note chords, stacked in fourths and tritones. In these compositions, the non-tonal harmonies became “a vision of absolute ‘otherness.’”

Schoenberg’s Die Jakobsleiter (Jacob’s Ladder) starts with a six-note base, adding six other pitches cumulatively. A similar hexachord is used in his Moses und Aron, “representing the unrepresentable — a gaping-hole feeling.”

Stravinsky came from a culture (Russia) with a strong mystical urge, which spread throughout Europe at the time, Ross noted. The Rite of Spring is really an “adoration” of the earth — its true title, “Holy Spring”  — with a key moment reminiscent of a culture when the eldest villager is brought to the center of the village to kiss the earth.  And Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is one of his most imposing compositions, Ross said, illustrating it with “Laudate Dominum” from the end of Psalm 150, and the hushed coda, which could be described, in words borrowed from Satie’s Le Fils des étoiles, as “white, immobile, pale, hieratic.”

Asked during the question-and-answer period why he had not focused on music written for church services, Ross retorted, “I am interested in the more surprising.” Such compositions meant or commissioned for services, he explained, fall into a narrower stylistic compass, and would not encourage a composer’s “wild speculation.”

To the astonishment of many in the audience, Ross places John Cage among the spiritualist composers of the 20th century. Is his famous composition, 4’33” (a composition of complete silence from instruments) a satire? Is it philosophical? or is it a silent prayer?, Ross asked. Cage was known to have read many varied religious texts and was especially drawn to Buddhism, and this is reflected in his music, and in his famous quote, “Music is edifying, for from time to time it sets the soul in operation.” Ross illustrated this with Cage’s Ryoanji, named after one of the most famous of Japan’s temple gardens, one noted for contemplation. (Seemingly simple, the garden, achingly aesthetically tranquil, is powerfully inducive to contemplation.)

Morton Feldman led a “quiet protest against self-important noise”; his Rothko Chapel, like the artist on whose work the composition is based, opened “contemplative spaces.” Stockhausen was a “wild man,” a Catholic into astrology; Ligeti was Jewish, but wrote Lux Aeterna, with its great number of vocal subdivisions signifying supplicants; Ross’s similar example was the Kyrie from Ligeti’s Requiem. And there are Penderecki, Pärt, Tavener, Glass, Reich,…

Ross ended his lecture, “of course, with Messiaen,” a composer who did not “shy away from the darkness of dissonance, in order to instill in us the fear of God. His music is eerie to religious ends. ..” He makes a major triad sound different, giving it a “sense of awe.”  Ross quoted the Messiaen St Francis of Assisi libretto:  “God dazzles us by an excess of truth; music carries us to God in default of truth.”

Music demands our attention, Ross intimated. Just to be a comforting background for us to wind down is not so valid. Sometimes we need to step back, as with the music of Russian contemporary composer Gubaidulina, and “contemplate it from a distance.”

Responding to the idea of composers being influenced by music from precursors, Ross opined, “If a composer has a personality, all [earlier influences] fall away. Britten, he noted, “imprinted himself.”

W. H. Auden, Ross told the rapt audience, once said he had never seen God, but once or twice, he had heard him. Immaterial, evidently at least to Ross, and ultimately by the audience, is in what situations Auden heard this voice.

Alex Ross supplied the Intelligencer with the complete list of excerpts he presented:
Frank Martin, Agnus Dei from Mass for Double Choir
Janáček, Agnece Bozij from Glagolitic Mass
Salvatore Martirano, Agnus Dei from Mass
Britten, Agnus Dei from War Requiem
Bernstein Agnus Dei from Mass
Wagner, Prelude to Act III of Parsifal
Satie, Le Fils des étoiles
Schoenberg, beginning of Die Jakobsleiter
Schoenberg, beginning of Moses und Aron
Stravinsky, Adoration of the Earth from The Rite of Spring
Stravinsky, Psalm 150 from Symphony of Psalms
Cage, Ryoanji
Feldman, Rothko Chapel
Stockhausen, Gesang der Jünglinge
Ligeti, Requiem
Penderecki, Utrenja II: The Resurrection of Chris
Ustvolskaya, Composition II, “Dies Irae”
Pärt, Credo
Pärt, Da Pacem Domine
Messiaen, from Act II of Saint François d’Assise
Messiaen, Zion Park from Des Canyons aux étoiles

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  1. *Thanks for this report….wish I could have been there..still don’t see/hear Mr. Ross unearthing anything that’s not pretty much allready on the Hit List..I agree wholeheartedly with his appraisal of Messiaen.My theory around why Messiaen is so underperformed is because his most ecstatic stuff..inspired by the season of Eastertide..(April-June).arrives at a time on the performing calendar(near the end of season) when most ensembles are winding down and less inclined to deal with the formidable challenges of his writing….I do find that his omission of Gubaidalina and more recently the Scottish composer James MacMillan to be regrettable..but I suppose an 80 minute talk only permits so many references..

    Comment by Steve brown — April 21, 2012 at 2:15 pm

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