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Mythology with Christian essence: Detail of “Tristan and Isolde with the Potion”, 1916, by John William Waterhouse


One of the big surprises in my creative life has been the wider recognition that the spiritual inspirations behind the great composers, past and present, springing from Judaeo-Christian civilisation, should be seriously reassessed. By this, I don’t mean in some reductive, anthropological detachment from the sources which amounts to a de facto denial of the theological and cultural claims of that tradition, or an implied, haughty downgrading of its authenticity. Rather, the reassessment is a recognition of the potency of a culture with Christ very much at its origin and centre, and a joyous sense of wonder at everything that has flowed from it in centuries of music-making.

What brings this recognition and reassessment some urgency is the wider, sometimes reluctant concession that religion has played a huge part in musical modernity from Wagner to the present day. Some of the world’s most important composers were profoundly religious men and women. Not all were necessarily conventional believers and many were not even Christian, but the search for the sacred has been constant and widespread in musical modernity from Stravinsky and Schoenberg through to Pärt and Finnissy and loads in between (Messaien, Poulenc, Britten, Schnittke, Gorecki and even Cage and Stockhausen).

When I speak about this phenomenon some are surprised that Wagner figures so centrally at the beginning of the process. His religious faith was shaky at best, sometimes all over the place between Lutheranism and a late discovery of Buddhism (with a strange Eucharistic detour in Parsifal) and he was sometimes decidedly anti-clerical. But Wagner’s significance in the 20th century’s search for the sacred in its art music was explored controversially and provocatively in Roger Scruton’s 2004 book Death-Devoted Heart — Sex and the Sacred in Tristan and Isolde. He writes: “Even if Wagner the man made no place for religion, however, Wagner the artist was entirely given over to it . . . What we see on the stage and hear in the music are human beings steeped in a religious form of life, surrounded by supernatural powers, and living, as it were, on the threshold of the transcendental.”

In his 1996 book on the composer Michael Tanner describes Tristan and Isolde as one of “the two greatest religious works of art of our culture” (the other being Bach’s St Matthew Passion). So what’s religious about it, then? Was it not Parsifal that has those big Holy Communion scenes? Well, there is a big “eucharistic” scene in Act 1 of Tristan too.
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