e-mail us


Spirit in sound: new sacred music


Good heavens, this is gorgeous music,” exclaimed a reviewer after a concert featuring a symphony and a flute concerto from contemporary composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Finnish composer Rautavaara and a number of his colleagues in nearby countries are putting together musical works that express religious awe, explore the numinous and continue the ancient traditions of sacred music into the future.

They have chosen beauty for their medium, thereby making a sharp turn from the discordant sounds that have characterized much 20th-century music toward new kinds of melodic and harmonic concoctions that are spiritually nourishing and soul-stirring.

Contemporary classical music composers like Finland’s Rautavaara, Arvo Pärt from Estonia, John Tavener of England, Henryk Górecki of Poland, Peteris Vasks of Latvia, Sofia Gubaidalina of Russia and Giya Kancheli of the former Soviet republic of Georgia are all unafraid to write music that, in the tradition of sacred music, echoes the beating heart of God.

Their music looks back to the roots of sacred music, combining the past with the present to anticipate the future.

Critics note that the theme and tone of sorrow and suffering often expressed in the musical works of these composers is a tribute in art to the collective passion of the whole world suffered in the last century by millions of victims of war and tyranny.

A compositional style has emerged in the music world, uniting, after a 400-year separation, classical music with contemplative spirituality. This “spiritual” music, including popular works like Górecki’s “Sorrowful Songs” Symphony, Pärt’s “Tabula Rasa” and Tavener’s “Song for Athene,” often resonates even with people who have never listened to classical music.

  • Górecki is the first living classical music composer whose music topped both the world’s classical and popular music charts. His Third Symphony has sold over a million copies.
  • A hospice worker mentioned the cult status Arvo Pärt’s “Tabula Rasa” holds among terminally ill patients. They called it “angel music” and asked to hear it as they died.
  • In 1997 the public became aware of John Tavener’s music when the achingly lovely “May Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest,” from his choral work “Song for Athene” was performed at the funeral of Princess Diana.

With the exception of Tavener, these composers all hail from small Northern European countries around the Baltic Sea and from former republics of the Soviet Union. Gubaidalina is a woman, a rarity in the classical composing field.

Classical music performed live is music we shine our shoes to listen to. We buy tickets because we both want to hear the museum pieces -- the Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven -- and also take in the new sounds contemporary composers are making. In the late 20th century, serious or “classical” music became intellectual and experimental, sounding ever more discordant, atonal, even gimmicky. Composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Karlheinz Stockhausen influenced even the Beatles, but the sound of their music has been compared to “an explosion in a boiler factory.”

Meanwhile composers of “sacred” music since the Enlightenment had tended to merely graft secular music forms, like the fugue, onto religious texts, a purely intellectual, rational approach. In recent years there has been a return not only to sonorous harmony and songful melody but also to a rediscovery of the sacred nature of music itself.

Tavener and Pärt experienced a spiritual awakening through the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, with Tavener visiting the monks of Mount Athos for theological and aesthetic instruction. Górecki found renewal in the Catholic church in Poland. Rautavaara incorporates both Lutheran and Orthodox influences together with the folk art, poetry and natural beauty of his native Finland.

Their spiritual and theological journeys have led them to create new sacred sounds that can be heard both in concert halls and at home. Conductors speak of choral performers coming to them and expressing in different ways that it’s a great honor to be able to sing this music.

In search of a new sacred sound, these composers have turned to pre-Enlightenment musical forms, going all the way back to the very beginnings of music, in Gregorian and Byzantine plainchant, medieval polyphony and the sacred music of non-European lands. This music, “though inspired by ancient sounds, has a captivating freshness that strikes a resonant chord in audiences weary of the harsh dissonance of much contemporary classical music,” wrote musicologist Martha Ainsworth. “They breathe new life into a beleaguered art form, as for Ezekiel God breathed life into dry bones.”

Somber shades

Public attention to this turn toward the spiritual began with Henryk Górecki. His Third Symphony, known as the “Sorrowful Songs” symphony, scored for soprano and orchestra, had a long run at the top of the music charts in the United States and Britain in the mid 1990s.

The 69-year-old composer claims he was nourished by the folk music of his home region, the city of Katowice near the Tatra mountains of Poland. Katowice sits not far from the town of Oswiecim, which the Germans called Auschwitz.

Much of Górecki’s popular Third Symphony is tinted with somber shades, sorrowful and slow. It relentlessly builds to several shattering climaxes. The sense of religious awe in both the music’s gentle hush and its heart-rending cruxes is palpable and powerfully moving.

The text for the first movement is a 15th-century Polish monastic prayer known as the “Lamentation of the Holy Cross” in which Jesus’ mother begs her dying Son to speak to her from the cross. The second movement’s text is a prayer found scratched on a Gestapo prison wall in 1944 by Polish teenager Helen Wanda Blazusiakowna:

Mother, no, do not cry
Most chaste Queen of heaven
Help me always. Hail Mary.

The music that accompanies the doomed girl’s prayer is gently lyrical, making the sung prayer even more poignant and heart-piercing.

This symphony is not dramatically operatic but rather deeply human. Written in 1976, it was used on the soundtrack in a 1987 French film. The music eclipsed the forgotten film as it caught the ear of a whole new generation of listeners.

In the 1960s, Górecki was among the small group of the most avant-garde composers of the time, writing the kind of dry, academic music that got funding from foundations. He studied for a time with the influential Catholic composer and organist Oliver Messiaen in Paris. In the 1970s, Górecki turned from modernism to study medieval church music, combining in his compositions early techniques of sacred music with his fascination with the sounds a large modern orchestra can make.

Górecki is a devout Catholic and supporter of Pope John Paul II. He opposed Poland’s former communist rulers. Górecki claims he experienced a spiritual reawakening through the Polish Catholic church. One of his major works, “Beatus Vir,” is dedicated to the pope, who was present at its premiere performance.

“With its glow of calm harmonies and clustered sonorities, his music taps elemental musical forces,” said musicologist Maria Harley. “Górecki reaches into archetypes. His music has a relevance to the mood of today, its anxieties, sorrows and hopes.”

Górecki himself doesn’t give interviews, though he once quoted the pope to the press: “Artists know that what they do is only a distant echo of God’s word.”

Bright sadness

Arvo Pärt was born in 1935 in Estonia, a country with cultural traditions rooted in an ancestrally religious past while being part of a secular state as a Soviet republic. Pärt began his career by composing symphonies in the Western tradition, music influenced strongly by Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. He experimented with musical trends like serialism, then for a time wrote music patterned after Bach, finally finding his true identity after investigating Russian Orthodox church music, medieval music and the mathematical polyphony of Renaissance composers such as Ockeghem and Machaut. Thereafter Pärt began to compose music that is, in musicologist Wilfrid Mellers’ phrase, “extraordinarily simple and simply extraordinary.”

His most popular works -- “Fratres,” “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten,” “Festina Lente,” “Tabula Rasa” -- are austere, mysterious and hauntingly beautiful, evoking feelings that deepen with each careful listen. The vocal pieces are overtly ecclesiastical. The instrumental works “seek the eternal silence at the heart of sound,” according to Mellers.

Pärt pioneered a musical technique called “tintinnabulation” (from the Latin word for “little bells”), in which a single triad, the most basic chord, predominates in one or more voices. In a four-voice context, it is likely that two of the voices will sound only notes of a single triad, while the other two voices move in a stepwise fashion. This triad is the tonal center of a musical piece. The effect of this spare use of notes is to evoke the pealing of bells, with the bells’ complex but richly sonorous mass of overtones and swells, a sound that is simultaneously static and in flux. The overtones are called “God’s music,” because they come from the physics of sound itself.

“The complex and many-faceted only confuse me,” wrote Pärt describing his musical idiom, “and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises, and everything that is unimportant falls away.”

One critic characterized Pärt’s music as permeated with a “bright sadness.” Another said that his best works remind one of the passionate tranquility of a Russian icon. “Pärt’s music issues from the spirit of Lent,” wrote Hermann Connen. “It comes to us unaffected by the plethora of styles, techniques and values offered in luxurious array by the music industry. … His music enfolds the manifest sufferings of mankind in the declining years of the last century which through great upheavals have been reduced to an inhuman common denominator.”

Typical of these new “spiritual” composers, Pärt rejected values associated with contemporary classical music. His style has been called “holy minimalism.”

“This minimalist style is to music what contemplative practices are to prayer,” said Martha Ainsworth. Contemplative practice involves listening in receptive silence, using a mantra or scriptural phrase as a tool to keep one coming back to a center. In traditional classical music, themes and ideas are developed and move forward to a conclusion. “Pärt’s music is more like contemplative prayer,” said Ainsworth. “It is meditative, repetitive, filled with silences, using simple combinations of notes. The effect is a feeling of being suspended in time.”

Pärt limits his tonal and rhythmic materials to the bare minimum. When the musicians who first premiered his most famous work first saw the score of “Tabula Rasa” in 1976, they cried out: “Where’s the music?” Pärt employs techniques such as slow tempi, use of silence, long rhythmic values, textural contrasts, stepwise melodic motion, and repetitive patterns, out of which comes music that is at once austere and sensuous, without any extravagant use of the orchestra.

Brian Morton and Pamela Collins, editors of Contemporary Composers, write that Pärt’s music “seems to be hardly of our time. Yet there can be little doubt that the revelation of his music has been one of the most important factors in the development of a new sensibility in recent music.”

Sacred music is thus reborn in the religious sensibility of a man from a small country until recently under the thumb of an antireligious superpower, well off the beaten path of world culture.

Conductor Paul Hillier who has worked with the composer told NCR: “Pärt uses the simplest of means -- a simple note, a triad, words -- and with them creates an intense, vibrant music that stands apart from the world and beckons us to an inner quietness and an inner exaltation.”

Icons in sound

British composer John Tavener was knighted in 2000 for his contributions to music. His career had taken off in 1968 when his music began to be recorded on the Beatles’ Apple label. In 1977 Tavener joined the Greek Orthodox church. Mother Thekla, the abbess of a Greek monastery, has been his spiritual guide, and has contributed texts for his work.

Major works of the 1980s and 1990s include “Orthodox Vigil Service,” “The Protecting Veil,” and “Akathist of Thanksgiving,” which was given a standing ovation in Westminster Abbey at its premier in 1988. Tavener was born in 1944. Describing himself as a deeply spiritual person, he believes that music is prayer. He is also known to love fast cars and good French restaurants.

Tavener claims that the wellspring of his creativity is his belief in the divine. Besides the influence of the Orthodox church, Tavener includes Indian and Iranian Sufi music, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and many others. One of his recent works employs Eastern musical instruments like the kaval, Tibetan temple bowls and a ram’s horn trumpet.

In talking about a recent work, “The Protecting Veil,” Tavener outlines his strategy in composing religious works:

I wished to make a lyrical icon in sound, rather than in wood, using the music of the cello rather than a brush. The work is highly stylized, geometrically formed and meditative in character. I have tried to capture some of the almost cosmic power of the Mother of God.

Tavener feels the religious artist is swimming against the tide of world culture: “We are living in an age that does not believe that sound is capable of putting us in touch with higher levels of reality. So I am out on a limb.”

“If only the church were the wise master it once was! How I would like to have lived in the glorious days of Byzantine Greece! I would have been part of the society of icon painters and writers and thus much more anonymous.”

He also sees a messianic role for sacred music: “Music can soften men’s hearts. I feel that any future has to do with religions uniting -- and that music can do that.”

Finland’s Einojuhan Rautavaara has been named by many music critics as the best composer of serious music alive today. His music is ravishingly beautiful, they say, yet stalwart and grounded in mainstream musical traditions. He calls himself a mystic. His most famous composition is a concerto for orchestra and arctic birds. Many of his works concern the spiritual phenomenon he calls “angels.” His Eighth Symphony was released first only on the Internet.

Music critic Brian Blackwell called Rautavaara “the greatest composer alive today. His harmonic language is basically tonal, but highly original -- in particular, his penchant for extraordinary harmonic sequences that seem to spiral endlessly is very distinctive. He likes luscious orchestrations, and his grasp of large-scale symphonic structures is second to none.”

Rautavaara said he is fascinated with pure sound. His organ work, “Annunciations,” explores every aspect of that instrument, including turning off the blower while still playing, while his “Cantus Arcticus” (“Concerto for Birds and Orchestra”) incorporates the eldritch cries of Arctic birds that the composer himself recorded at the Bay of Liminka in northern Finland. He has even included a synthesizer in his Sixth Symphony.

His musical experiments are always in service of intelligent music and sonorous beauty.

Forgetting to breathe

“In ‘Vigilia,’ he has composed a setting for the Orthodox Vigil and Matins services that exploits vocal effects I’m not sure I’m capable of describing,” wrote music critic Wes Phillips. “The women’s choir chants the ‘Hymn to the Mother of God’ in a suspiring whisper over a male drone on the tonic. High above it all, a soprano soloist sings the chanted words. It’s so beautiful and complex and, somehow, simple at the same time, I find myself forgetting to breathe.”

Born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1928, Rautavaara studied music in his homeland at the Sibelius Academy, then for a time at the Juilliard School in the United States, where he studied with American composers Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions. Like Pärt and Górecki, he wrote avant-garde compositions, gradually abandoning those and moving toward his own unique style. The composer claims that it was the music itself “that wrenched itself free” and liberated him from “the serial straitjacket and quasi-scientific thinking of modern music toward organic music-making.”

He was written many operas, including one based on the art and life of Vincent van Gogh. He is currently writing an opera based on the life of Grigori Rasputin, the monk who helped foment a revolution in the large country on Finland’s doorstep.

Rautavaara treasures his heritage as a Finn, claiming that “this is a country with dramatic destinies, situated between the East and West, between tundra and Europe, between the Lutheran and Orthodox faiths. It is full of symbols, ancient metaphors, revered archetypes.”

Among his most popular works are several compositions with angelic titles: “Angels and Visitations,” “Angel of Light (Seventh Symphony),” “Angel of Dusk.” Rautavaara claims that the angels he has in mind in these works are not the sentimental guardian angels depicted on holy cards but rather the beings the poet Rainer Maria Rilke referred to in his Duino Elegies:

Beauty’s nothing but the beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear, and why we adore it so is because it serenely disdains to destroy us. Each single angel is terrible.

Behind the religious and poetic symbol, Rautavaara feels there “exist different levels of knowledge, different truths, those that can be explained rationally and those that cannot be defined in words. Music is a language in which one can tell such truths ecstatically but without recourse to words. If one wishes to find words for them, one might speak of ‘angels.’ ”

Having just turned 70 in 1997, Rautavaara wrote the choral fantasy “On the Last Frontier.” It’s a meditation on approaching death that uses as text the last lines of an enigmatic novella written by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” featuring the final apparition of a vast human-like figure of snowy whiteness. About the work, Rautavaara said: “I knew I would soon be myself on that ‘Last Frontier.’ ‘Frontier’ means a borderland, the edge of an as yet unexplored area. I hope my own borderlands will be long and broad, full of interesting creatures and wonders, secrets still to be unraveled -- and composed.” (An interview with Rautavaara appears on Page 30.)

Ellen Kushner, host of the National Public Radio program “Sound and Spirit,” has featured the new sacred music of these composers on her program. She told NCR: “This music is popular, I think, because it’s just plain beautiful. And this new ‘spiritual’ music is not being listened to in concert halls. It’s playing in our cars and at home. That makes it a very personal experience, very intimate.

“Nobody understands how music works. It’s magic,” Kushner continued. “That’s what makes it so powerful. Also, a great artist puts himself or herself, her beliefs and passions, into the work. There is a spirit there you can’t help but be moved by because it’s the spirit of their spiritual journeys. Their music mirrors their inner lives, the inner lives of all of us.”

Healing music

Paul Hillier, music director of the Hilliard Ensemble and professor of music at the University of Indiana, has worked with Arvo Pärt and with Pärt’s music for many years. He told NCR: “For a long time the kind of music that was composed just did not attract many. Now we have composers writing in a way that many more people can find a way into. The whole modern music scene is an extremely interesting one. Pärt in particular has tapped into a fertile source of music that is healing in character.”

Einojuhani Rautavaara composed a choral piece based on the creation myth taken from his country’s folk epic, the Kalevala. “There is something delightfully Finnish,” he said, “in the fact that out of all the myriad creation myths this version does not require the machinations of gods or men, but natural phenomena, passive nature spirits, and an animal -- namely a small diving duck called the ‘goldeneye.’ ”

Describing the music he wrote to express the world’s birth out of the waters, he said: “With an abrupt modulation, the land heaves up out of the sea. This needs no push from a giant orchestra,” just a soprano soloist singing a simple melody, the cry of the little goldeneye who authors all that is.

Rautavaara concludes: “Music best expresses big things in a quiet way. If you wish to surrender to the music, as if to a lover, then experience the message whole, not as a narrative description, but as the creation of the world itself.”

He suggests that because human creativity shares in the nature of God’s own fertile womb, art has transformative power -- and surely music is the most mysterious and potent of the arts. These composers and the musicians who play their work often use riddles to describe their efforts. Górecki, asked to comment on the phenomenal success of his Third Symphony, responded: “Let’s be quiet.”

Conductor Paul Hillier said: “How we live depends on our relationship with death; how we make music depends on our relationship with silence.”

“Stories abound of people who weep inexplicably upon hearing the music of these ‘spiritual’ composers,” said Martha Ainsworth, “for whom its poignant beauty and simplicity touches a deep inner reservoir of joy and sorrow.”

The simplest description of how this new sacred music works so well to move us mirrors modern science’s explanation of our universe’s source and fate. Out of a fecund and mysterious silence come plain tones that beckon to the heart, stir the soul and then return to brooding, pregnant silence.

By tapping into reservoirs of mythic and religious exploration, both new and old, and dipping out of the deep well of tears flowing from the vast human experience of grief and heartbreak caused by war and tyranny, these composers are bringing to us a genuinely spiritual music experience.

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor. His e-mail address is rheffern@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002