Thoughts on a Psalm-Enchanted Evening

by David Wright

It’s unlikely you will turn on the TV one of these nights and see a program about the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. But this book by the noted pragmatist philosopher of Boston, which came out in 1902, shaped the twentieth century’s appreciation of religion in music and art as surely as the writings of Freud shaped the way we read literature.

Looking at a program of American Composers Orchestra that consists of settings of psalms from the Bible, it’s fair to ask: If we live in a “secular age,” as is often said, why do our present-day composers continue to set religious texts, and then offer them for performance not in a church but in a secular setting, a concert hall that you buy tickets to, just like a Broadway theater or Yankee Stadium? Is there a disconnect here?

That’s where William James comes in. At the beginning of the century just past, he and like-minded thinkers showed that this supposed Great Divide-secular science and the Enlightenment on one side and religious belief on the other–was not as sharply drawn as previously thought. The manifest benefits of religious belief and participation were not to be dismissed, especially by a pragmatist philosopher. And perhaps most resonantly for American culture, the “varieties” of paths to that belief were all to be respected.

Ironically, in this centennial year of James’s book, that inclusive principle of religious tolerance is under fire from outside this country’s borders, with terrible consequences for New York City and the nation as a whole.

In times like these, composers have often sought meaning in enduring texts, especially those that are addressed to God. For example, one can’t fully appreciate the hundreds of psalm settings and “sacred symphonies” of the 17th-century master Heinrich Schütz without an awareness of how the Thirty Years War devastated the places he lived and worked for much of his life.

Similarly, in the aftermath of World War II, the English composer Benjamin Britten combined the Latin Mass with war poetry to create his War Requiem, one of the greatest musical works of the twentieth century. When this piece was first performed in 1961–with a massive ensemble that included vocal soloists from England, Germany, and the Soviet Union–the horrors and privations of the war years were a vivid memory to all present, illuminating every bar of the music.

On the other hand, the lifetime of J.S. Bach (1685-1750) is considered a time of relative peace in Europe. And Mozart’s employer, the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, was mostly concerned that his church services be as short as possible. Were these circumstances conducive to the composition of great sacred music?

Of course, we now know that they were, thanks mostly to the imagination and spiritual insight of those composers. The simple Pietistic texts of Bach’s cantatas became profound explorations of spirituality and emotion in his music. Mozart was one of the first composers to model his sacred music on that of earlier eras (especially Bach and Handel), while adding his own fertile invention and lyrical gift.

Thus, whether the cause was war and pestilence or simply the ups and downs of daily life, people in all eras have turned to religion in their search for the meaning of it all. And composers have been there to set the texts to music, elevating the listener’s spirit.

In fact, evidence indicates that the poems in the ancient Book of Psalms–which originated in Hebrew liturgy during the 10th century B.C. and took its present form more than 2,200 years ago–were always meant to be sung to instrumental accompaniment. The very word psalm, with its curious initial consonant, comes from an onomatopoeic Greek word meaning “to pluck with the fingers,” as the strings on a harp. From that time to this, in every country where Christians and Jews worship, and in every era of musical styles, settings of these texts have been central to the liturgy of churches and synagogues.

Still, liturgy is one thing, and the rest of life is something else, isn’t it? We’re often told that, in the times of Bach and Mozart, religion was more a part of everyday life that it is today, when many people think about God only on Sunday morning, if at all. Certainly the letters of those two composers are full of references to their (respectively) Lutheran and Roman Catholic faith. Mozart’s contemporary Joseph Haydn wrote “Laus Deo” (Praise God) on the last page of all his large works–not just the masses, but the symphonies and operas also.

Well, guess what? Many a modern master has done likewise. One thinks immediately of those two twentieth-century giants from Russia, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff, who wrote the word “Alliluya” and other reminders of their Orthodox Christian heritage in their scores. On the personal level, religion never went away, in their case at least.

Perhaps the reason these Russian examples spring to mind is that, in the last decade or two, the strongest religious influences in concert music have come from east of what used to be called the Iron Curtain. Just as, in geology, the land is said to “rebound” when the weight of a glacier is removed from it, so the bred-in-the-bone spirituality of Eastern European artists, long suppressed by Communist ideology, is now on the rise.

From Poland came Henryk Górecki’s meditative Symphony No. 3, and hundreds of thousands of Americans who had never heard of Mr. Górecki before took this CD to No. 1 on the classical charts. The Estonian-born Arvo Pärt holds Western listeners spellbound with what he calls “tintinnabuli,” musical sounds that evoke the devotions of medieval monks. Russia’s Sofia Gubaidulina, a master of all modern composing techniques whose music is sought after in musical capitals worldwide, frequently turns for inspiration to Biblical ideas and stories.

How did listeners in the United States become such eager audiences for spiritual messages from the East? We are not rebounding from government repression-quite the contrary. Religions of all kinds flourish here, protected by the U.S. Constitution. It is, in fact, a point of pride with us. Remembering our history of immigrants seeking religious freedom, we tend to embrace religious faith as an emblem of our utopian national aspirations.

Not for nothing did a work song from a small religious sect, the Shakers, become the central theme of what has been called “America’s national piece,” Appalachian Springby Aaron Copland.

The discovery of Charles Ives’s music in the mid-to-late twentieth century was rooted not just in his Dionysan exuberance, cheekiness, and dissonance, but also in his sense of the New England landscape and people, in which old church hymns mingle with transcendentalist ideas and a pantheistic view of nature.

In the more recent past, the same concertgoers who had turned out to hear Leonard Bernstein’s interpretations of Hebrew texts in works such as the Symphony No. 1(“Jeremiah”) and the Chichester Psalms came back in 1970 for Mass, the “theatre piece for singers, players, and dancers” in which Bernstein sought to weld traditions both old (Roman Catholic liturgy) and new (Broadway musical). Boston’s William James would have appreciated how Bernstein, a native of Lawrence, Mass., grew up to become a composer incapable of having just one religion.

These late giants, restless seekers all, continue to provoke the American composers of religious music today, who draw inspiration from their experiments, while also bringing their own family heritages and philosophical interests to the table.

In fact, many a person has said–not always flatteringly–that going to a concert of classical music is like going to church. The parallels are there: You enter the concert hall through a foyer (narthex). You sit in the auditorium (nave) in orderly rows, maintaining a reverent silence while rituals are performed by people wearing unusual vestments. You respond when appropriate, and not at the wrong time.

On the whole, it sounds like a good place to hear religious music. Some decades back, even Beethoven’s symphonies were called “sermons in tones.”

Today, the music-listening experience has changed quite a bit. You can still go to church or temple, and hear music as part of worship. You can have the traditional concert-hall experience, or listen to the same piece in your living room, at your computer, or on the jogging track. If he were around today, the Boston philosopher William James, who surely put in a few appearances at Symphony Hall himself, might write a book about “the varieties of musical experience.” His pragmatic advice to composers of religious music would probably be this: Where there are ears, there are spirits waiting to be lifted up. Go and find them.

David Wright has contributed program notes to American Composers Orchestra, and now writes about music in Wellesley, Mass.