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The music of Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener is the music of a new civilization. These composers have gone against the prevailing grain of the twentieth twcentury for the sake of a greater love…

The attempted suicide of Western classical music has failed. The patient is recovering, no thanks to the efforts of music’s Dr. Kevorkian, Arnold Schoenberg, whose cure, the imposition of a totalitarian atonality, was worse than the disease—the supposed exhaustion of the tonal resources of music. Schoenberg’s vaunted mission to “emancipate dissonance” by denying that tonality exists in Nature led to the successive losses of tonality, melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Music went out of the realm of Nature and into abstract, ideological systems. Thus we were given a secondhand or ersatz reality in music that operated according to its own self-invented and independent rules divorced from the very nature of sound. Not surprisingly, these systems, including Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method of mandatory atonality, broke down. The systematic fragmentation of music was the logical working out of the premise that music is not governed by mathematical relationships and laws that inhere in the structure of a hierarchical and ordered universe but is wholly constructed by man and therefore essentially without limits or definition.

Sound familiar? All the symptoms of the twentieth century’s spiritual sickness are present, including the major one diagnosed by Eric Voegelin as a “loss of reality.” By the 1950s, Schoeberg’s doctrines were so entrenched in the academy, the concert hall, and the awards system, that any composer who chose to write tonal music was consigned to oblivion by the musical establishment. One such composer, Robert Muczynski, referred to this period as the “long-term tyranny which has brought contemporary music to its current state of constipation and paralysis.”

The tyranny is now gone and tonality is back. But the restoration of reality has not taken place all at once. What began emerging from under the rubble of twelve-tone music back in the 1960s was minimalism. In it, tonality returned with a vengeance but was, at first, more like a patient from a trauma ward gradually recovering consciousness. The traumatized patient slowly comes out of a coma, only gradually recovering motor skills, coordination, movement, and coherent speech. The musical movement known as minimalism is the sometimes painfully slow rediscovery of the basic vocabulary of music: rhythm, melody, and harmony. During this convalescence, such minimalists as American composer John Adams have spoken of the crisis through which they passed in explicitly spiritual terms. He said, “I learned in college that tonality died, somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died. And, I believed it.” His recovery involved a shock: “When you make a dogmatic decision like that early in your life, it takes some kind of powerful experience to undo it.” That experience, for Mr. Adams and others, has proven to be a spiritual, and sometimes religious, one. In fact, the early excitement over minimalism has been eclipsed by the attention now being paid to the new spirituality in music, sometimes referred to as “mystical minimalism.”

If you have heard of the “new spirituality” in music, it is most likely on account of one of these three somewhat unlikely composers who have met with astonishing success over the past several decades: the late Henryk Górecki from Poland, Arvo Pärt from Estonia, and the late John Tavener from England. Though their styles are very unlike, they do share some striking similarities: They, like John Adams, all once composed under the spell of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method and were considered in the avant-garde; all subsequently renounced it (as Arvo Pärt said, “The sterile democracy between the notes has killed in us every lively feeling”); and all are, or were, devout Christians, two of them having converted to the Russian Orthodox faith, the other having adhered to his Catholic faith throughout his life.

Anyone who has tracked the self-destruction of music over the past half century has to be astonished at the outpouring of such explicitly religious music and at its enormously popular reception. Can the recovery of music be, at least partially, a product of faith, in fact of Christian faith? A short time ago, such a question would have produced snickers in the concert hall, howls in the academy, and guffaws among the critics. In fact, it still might. In a New York Times review, a critic condescended to call the works of the three composers nothing but “Feel-Good Mysticism.” However, the possibility gains some plausibility when one looks back at the source of the problem in Schoenberg himself and to a mysterious episode that brought what he thought would be his greatest achievement to a creative halt.

Though one of the greatest compositional talents of the twentieth century, Schoenberg fell silent before he could finish the opera Moses und Aron. It is not as if he ran out of time. The first two acts were finished in the early 1930s. Before he died in 1951 at the age of seventy-six, he had close to twenty years to write the third and final act. He tried four different times to no avail. His failure is particularly ironic because Schoenberg saw himself as the musical Moses of the twentieth century. Moses und Aron was to be the tablets on which he wrote the new commandments of music. He was saving music with his new system of serialism. But, like the Moses he portrays at the end of the second act, he despaired of ever being able to explain his salvific mission to his people. As Moses falls to the ground, he exclaims: “O word, thou word that I lack.”

Schoenberg wandered in and out of his Jewish faith, with a side trip through Lutheranism. He saw no need to be scripturally faithful in his libretto for the opera, so it is all the more curious that he was stymied by what he called “some almost incomprehensible contradictions in the Bible.” More specifically, he said, “It is difficult to get over the divergence between ‘and thou shalt smite the rock’ and ‘speak ye unto the rock.…’ It does go on haunting me.” Schoenberg was troubled by the question: Why was Moses, when leading the Jews through the Sinai, punished for striking the rock a second time? The first time Moses struck the rock, water poured forth. The second time, God said to Moses, “Speak to the rock.” But Moses impetuously struck it instead. For that, he was banned from ever entering the Promised Land. Why? That unanswered question left Schoenberg with an unfinished opera.

As it turned out, Schoenberg was not the Moses of music. He led his followers into, rather than out of, the desert. However, the silence into which Schoenberg fell before the end of Moses und Aron has now been filled. And the music filling it is written by Christian composers who have found the answer to the question that so tortured him. The answer is in the New Testament. The rock could not be struck a second time because, as St. Paul tells us, “The rock was Christ,” and Christ can be struck down only once, “once and for all,” a sole act sufficient for the salvation of mankind.

Arvo Pärt completely believes, and Górecki and Tavener believed, in the salvific act of Christ, centered their lives upon it, and expressed it in their music. They also shared a preliminary disposition necessary for the reception of this belief. During a trip to Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s, Górecki was asked to comment on the phenomenal success of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the Nonesuch recording of which sold more than 800,000 copies. Górecki responded, “Let’s be quiet.” Perhaps that is the most urgent message of all three composers, “Be quiet.” Or perhaps more biblically, “Be still.” This stillness is not the empty silence at the end of the second act of Moses und Aron. It is a full, gestational silence that allows one, like Moses, to hear the remaining words: “And know that I am God.”

This profound sense of silence permeates the works of the three composers. Some of their compositions emerge from the very edge of audibility and remain barely above it, conveying the impression that there is something in the silence that is now being revealed before once again slipping out of range. The deep underlying silence slowly surfaces and lets itself be heard. For those precious moments, one hears what the silence has to say. When not used in this way, a grammar of silence is nonetheless employed that punctuates even the more extrovert and vociferous works. Moments of silence stand like sentinels, guarding the inner stillness against the violence of sounds that have not come out of the silence.

Another shared feature of the music of these composers is its sense of stasis. Every critic has noted this feature and some complain about it: “Nothing happens!” Górecki, Mr. Pärt, and Tavener do not employ the traditional Western means of musical development. They have found the sonata principle of development that has driven music since the eighteenth century, and which gives music so much of its sense of forward motion, extraneous for their purpose. Their purpose is contemplation, specifically the contemplation of religious truths. Their music is hieratic. As such, it aims for the intersection of time and timelessness, at which point the transcendent becomes perceptible. As Arvo Pärt states, “That is my goal. Time and timelessness are connected.” This sense of stasis is conveyed through the use of silence; consistently slow tempos (that make any temporary quickening particularly dramatic); the use of repetition and through the intensification this repetition implies; and a simplicity of means that includes medieval plainsong and organum. (As Arvo Pärt says, “It is enough when a single note is beautifully played.”)

Repetition can be used as an adornment or a means of meditation, as it was in medieval and Renaissance music. Some of the hymns to Mary that endlessly repeat her name are a form of musical caress. They create a musical cradle in which to hold her name. With these composers, repetition of musical phrases, words, or both is also used as a means of recovery. The repeated invocation is all the more insistent when there is a sense of loss and devastation. In his Beatus Vir, Górecki cries out un-consolingly, almost angrily: “Domine!” Where is God in the midst of the horror? The almost grating insistence with which “Domine” is repeated moves from a sense of despair to one of assertion and then finally to consolation and release. The repetition is exorcistic.

Because of the predominance of these characteristics in the work of Górecki, Mr. Pärt, and Tavener, and their hearkening back to earlier periods of music, they are accused of being reactionary, if not archaic. However, their work is not a form of cultural nostalgia. Their change in technique is not an attempt at a new or an old means of expression. Their technique changed because they have something profound to express. As Thomas Merton once remarked, the perfection of twelfth-century Cistercian architecture was reached not because the Cistercians were looking for new techniques, but because they were looking for God. Górecki, Mr. Pärt, and Tavener are looking for God, and they have found a musical epiphany in the pursuit.

Aside from these shared traits, Górecki, Mr. Pärt, and Tavener are quite unlike in the sounds they create. Curiously, Arvo Pärt, the Russian Orthodox Estonian composer, uses Western Latin idioms from the Roman Catholic Church, while Western English composer, Tavener, uses the exotic Russian Orthodox idioms hailing from Byzantium. Górecki, the Pole, stayed right where he was, in the middle, using earlier modes of Western liturgical music but staying fairly mainstream. He sounds the least exotic of the three.

Górecki (1933-2010) was also the toughest of the three composers and the most modern in his musical vocabulary, though he was considered a conservative reactionary by his erstwhile colleagues in the European avant-garde. (He said that leading modernist Pierre Boulez was “unbelievably angry” about his music.) Though at times harsh for expressive purposes, Górecki’s music is never hysterical, like so much modern music that reflects the horror of the twentieth century without the perspective of faith. He could look at suffering unblinkingly because Christianity does not reject or deny suffering but subsumes it under the Cross. At the heart of the most grief-stricken moments of his work, there is a confidence that can come only from deep belief. When asked where he got his courage to resist Communist pressure, Górecki said, “God gave me a backbone—it’s twisted now, but still sturdy.… How good a Catholic I am I do not know; God will judge that, and I will find out after I die. But faith for me is everything. If I did not have that kind of support, I could not have passed the obstacles in my life.”

Górecki did not shrink from facing the nightmare through which his country and the twentieth century have gone. Poland was trampled by both the destructive ideologies of our time, Nazism and Communism. The moving consolation his works offer comes after real and harrowing grief. (Can someone really refer to this as “Feel-Good Mysticism?”) One can recover from a loss only if one grieves over it, and, yes, expresses anger over it as well. The anger is heard in Beatus Vir, as mentioned above. This piece is dedicated to the late Pope John Paul II, who commissioned it when he was still the cardinal archbishop of Kraków. One of the most extraordinary expressions of grief is Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 for soprano and orchestra: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It is a huge, arching, heartbreaking lament, written in 1976. Its three texts are on the theme of grieving motherhood. The first movement, based on Mary’s lament at the Cross, is a slow-moving extended canon for strings that unfolds in a moving, impassioned crescendo over the course of nearly half an hour. The central text is a prayer to Mary inscribed by an eighteen-year-old girl on the wall of her cell in the basement of Gestapo headquarters in Zakopane, Poland, September 1944. It includes the admonition: “No, Mother, do not weep.” Though Górecki drew on Polish folk song, the appeal of this deeply affecting musical requiem can be felt by anyone for whom these themes resonate. This one work gathers up the whole tragedy of Poland in the twentieth century and places it before Mary, standing at the Cross.

Another piece written with the same basic architectural structure as the first part of Symphony No. 3 is Miserere. Górecki wrote it as a protest over the bludgeoning of members of Solidarity by the militia in 1981, shortly before the declaration of martial law. But, in this work, unlike in Beatus Vir, one cannot hear the protest. Its text is: “Domine Deus noster, Miserere nobis.” The Lord’s name is at first gently, then with growing strength, and finally expectantly invoked for nearly half an hour. The words “Miserere nobis” are not heard until the final three minutes. Rather than a crescendo, they are presented, to moving effect, diminuendo. Mercy arrives with tender gentleness. Miserere is a beautiful work of affirmation and consolation.

Though writing in a thoroughly accessible idiom, Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is not an “easy listen.” His work emerges from deep spiritual discipline and experience, and demands (and gives) as much in return. One will not be washed away in sonorous wafts of highly emotional music—there is no effortless epiphany here. Mr. Pärt is the most formally austere of the three, but is also the one with the most ontological sense—he presents a note as if it were being heard for the first time. Even more than the other two, his work is steeped in silence. When he abandoned the modernism of his earlier work, he retreated to a Russian Orthodox monastery for several years of silence. When he emerged, he began writing music of extraordinary purity and simplicity, using medieval and Renaissance techniques. Mr. Pärt’s music comes out of the fullness of silence. “How can one fill the time with notes worthy of the preceding silence?” he asks. During a rehearsal of his composition The Beatitudes, Mr. Pärt told the conductor, “The silence must be longer. This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.” The puzzled conductor asked Mr. Pärt, “Exactly how many beats? What do you do during the silence?” Mr. Pärt responded, “You don’t do anything. You wait. God does it.”

The closer to the source of silence out of which it comes, the closer his music is to being frightening—or awesome, in the original sense of the word—and heartbreakingly beautiful. Mr. Pärt appropriately chose the Gospel of John, the most metaphysical of the Gospels, for the text of his Passio. “In the beginning,” begins St. John. This feel for ontology, for creation close to its source in the Creator, permeates Mr. Pärt’s music. It can be heard in instrumental works such as Fratres and Tabula Rasa, or in striking choral compositions, such as the exquisite Stabat Mater and the Miserere.

Mr. Pärt’s Stabat Mater from 1985 brings us back to the piercing purity of the thirteenth-century text and to the liturgical roots of the work. Composed for a trio of voices and a trio of violin, viola, and cello, this twenty-four-minute opus, employing medieval and Renaissance techniques, is startlingly simple, intensely concentrated, and devotional. Like all of Mr. Pärt’s work, it grows out of a respect for silence—in this case, the silence at the foot of the Cross. What sort of music would one make from the foot of the Cross? His answer is both harrowing and profoundly moving. This is not an exercise in musical archaism, but a living testament to faith. It is music to listen to on your knees.

More of Mr. Pärt’s mesmerizing musical asceticism comes from Harmonia Mundi with its release of De ProfundisMagnificat, and a number of other works covering a span of nearly twenty years (1977-1996). If you are living life in the fast lane, listening to Mr. Pärt will be like hitting a brick wall. Everything suddenly stops and becomes very simple. Anyone puzzled by the starkness and seeming severity of his work should know that for Mr. Pärt the Word is the priceless jewel that his music sets. It is to the jewel he is calling attention, not its setting, and the necessary precondition for hearing the Word is silence.

This is the reason for Mr. Pärt’s profound respect for silence and its fullness as the Word emerges from it. Mr. Pärt’s is music for meditation; it is the sound of prayer. Some might call this a fetish for archaic; others, a witness to perdurability of true faith. The choral works on this compact disk may not be the ideal introduction to Mr. Pärt (for that go to Tabula rasa or Arbos compact disks), but those who know his music will want to have these beautiful performances by Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices.

There are two common responses to Mr. Pärt’s Passio: (1) It is boring, ersatz medieval and Renaissance music; why is someone going back to the triad in this day and age? (2) It is a profoundly moving setting of the Passion according to the Gospel of John. Certainly, Passio is very different from Mr. Pärt’s Stabat Mater, which it is otherwise most like. In Stabat Mater, the instrumental music, like a chorus, reacts to the words, dramatizes them and provides a purgation. Mr. Pärt foregoes this approach in Passio, which is distinctly not dramatic and far more austere. The austerity does not translate into barrenness, but into an intense expression of purity. There is very little in the way of specific dramatic response to this most dramatic Latin text as it literally moves to the crux of Christianity. For example, when the mob in the garden answers Christ’s question, “Whom seek ye?” The chorus does not shout his name, but sings it in a most gentle, reverential way. Passio clearly is meant as a meditation on the Passion. As such, the words carry more weight. Indeed, one must read this Passion in order to listen to it. It was fashionable not long ago to write vocal music that treated syllables of words independently, oblivious to their meaning. Now the word has returned—or one should say, the Word. With his music, Mr. Pärt intends to direct us through the words to the Word. What sustains a work like this? What impels a man like Mr. Pärt to write it? Clearly, the answer is faith, for there is no ego in this work. The temptation to focus on the music alone does not present itself. Indeed, if the words mean nothing to you, so will the music.

However, within the austere means that Mr. Pärt has chosen, there are many very moving moments. A simply held note on veritate (truth) can be electrifying within the spare musical context, as can also Christ’s exclamation: Sitio (I thirst). In the ECM recording of Passio that Mr. Pärt authorized, he seems to have anticipated response (1) above, and did not provide any indexing for the curious to search for “high points;” you will either give up in the beginning or listen to and experience the full seventy minutes. It’s all or nothing. Sort of like religion. Newcomers to Mr. Pärt are advised to begin their explorations with earlier releases of his music: First try Tabula rasa, then move on to Arbos and the Miserere, and finally come to Passio. It is worth the journey.

John Tavener (1944-2013) once wrote in the spirit of Schoenberg “some severely serial pieces.” Later he eschewed such convolutedness and said, “Complexity is the language of evil.” His simplicity, though, has an almost theatrical aspect to it. It is more flamboyant, almost voluptuous compared to Mr. Pärt, whom Tavener called “the only composer friend” he had. Because of his embrace of Russian Orthodoxy and its oriental musical idioms, his music sounds the most exotic and unfamiliar of the three. But his purpose is as clear. “In everything I do,” he stated, “I aspire to the sacred.…Music is a form of prayer, a mystery.” He wished to express “the importance of immaterial realism, or transcendent beauty.” His goal was to recover “one simple memory” from which all art derives: “The constant memory of the Paradise from which we have fallen leads to the Paradise which was promised to the repentant thief.” As he said elsewhere, “The gentleness of our sleepy recollections promises something else; that which was once perceived ‘as in a glass, darkly’ we shall see ‘face to face.’”

Tavener’s music also often begins at the very edge of audibility, rising reverentially from the silence out of which it flows. He called his compositions musical icons. Like icons, they are instilled with a sense of sacred mystery, inner stillness, and timelessness. He often employed the unfamiliar cadences of Orthodox chant with its melismatic arabesques, floating above long drones. Though ethereal, his music conveys a sensuousness absent in Górecki and Mr. Pärt. His orchestral writing, even when confined to strings only, as in The Protecting Veil, can be very rich. He dramatically portrays visionary moments of epiphany with climaxes that are physical in their impact. The titles of his compositions convey the range of subject matter: The Last Sleep of the VirginThe Repentant ThiefIkon of LightWe Shall See Him as He IsMary of EgyptCanticle of the Mother of GodResurrection; and The Protecting Veil, which commemorates the Virgin’s appearance in early tenth-century Constantinople, where, during a Saracen invasion, she drew her protecting veil over the Christians. This latter piece met with enormous success in England.

Devotion shines forth in Tavener’s compositions such as Thunder Entered Her, whose short text by St. Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-373) begins, “Thunder entered her / And made no sound.” Tavener’s The Lament of the Mother of God is a striking piece. The ritualized grief of this haunting work is expressed by a soprano voice, representing Mary, and an unaccompanied choir. The beautiful soprano voice floats above wordless drone of the chorus and ascends step-wise over the span of an octave with the beginning of each stanza, which each time repeats the opening line: “Woe is me, my child.” The text of the second stanza reads, “I wish to take my son down from the wood and to hold him in my arms, as once I held him when he was a little child. But alas there is none to give him to me.” This is a very affecting work—the Pietà in sound.

Tavener was able to have his Funeral Canticle performed at his father’s funeral. This twenty-four-minute piece appears with four shorter works on a Tavener Harmonia Mundi release, entitled Eternity’s Sunrise, performed by the Choir and Orchestra of the Academy of Ancient Music and various soloists, led by director Paul Goodwin. Tavener had complete confidence in beauty and simplicity. The melismatic vocal lines in Eternity’s Sunrise, a setting of a short poem by William Blake, and Song of the Angel, in which the soprano sings only one word, “Alleluia,” are soaringly beautiful. They are sung seraphically by soprano Patricia Rozari. Eternity’s Sunrise, written to mark the Academy’s twenty-fifth anniversary, was Tavener’s first work for period instruments, but it does not have a period sound. Tavener’s Funeral Canticle employs a gently rocking motion in the music that slowly ascends and descends the scale, as if it were cradling one to sleep. It is touching but restrained; it does not call attention to itself. This is ceremonial music, meditative and mesmeric. The text from the Orthodox funeral service conveys the real substance: man’s frailty, the hope for salvation, and God’s surpassing goodness. As in almost all of Tavener’s works, the constant refrain is “Alleluia.”

Tavener’s Akathist of Thanksgiving for chorus and orchestra was composed for the celebration of the millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988. An akathist is a hymn of thanksgiving or supplication used on special occasions. The text of Tavener’s work was written in the late 1940s by Archpriest Gregory Petrov shortly before his death in a Siberian prison camp. His inspiration came from the dying words of St. John Chrysostom: “Glory to God for everything.” So, shortly before his own death, this priest, surrounded by misery and death, wrote,

I have often seen your glory
Reflected on faces of the dead!
With what unearthly beauty and with what joy they shone,
How spiritual, their features immaterial,
It was a triumph of gladness achieved, of peace;
In silence they called to you.
At the hour of my end illumine my soul also, As it cries: Alleluia, alleluia.

It is undoubtedly surprising to a modern, secular sensibility that the texts for these consoling, spiritual compositions should come not only from Scripture and liturgy, but from the twentieth century’s death camps, both Nazi and Soviet. The late Pope John Paul II was not surprised. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he said of the multitude of martyrs in the twentieth century, “They have completed in their death as martyrs the redemptive sufferings of Christ and, at the same time, they have become the foundation of a new world, a new Europe, and a new civilization.” Twentieth-century martyrdom as the foundation of a new civilization? Can this be so, and, if so, how would such a civilization express itself? Part of the answer is in the music of these three composers. Theirs is the music of this new civilization. Like the martyrs from whom they have drawn their inspiration, they have gone against the prevailing grain of the twentieth century for the sake of a greater love.

“O word, thou word that I lack,” cried Schoenberg’s Moses before falling to his knees silent. Górecki, Mr. Pärt, and Tavener have found the Word that Schoenberg’s Moses lacked, and they have sought new expressive means to communicate it. The new expressive means have turned out to be the old ones, lost for a period of time in the desert, but now rediscovered by these three who know that “the rock was Christ.”

That something like this could emerge from under the rubble of modernity is moving testimony to the human spirit and its enduring thirst for the eternal. Is this too large a claim to make for these three composers? Perhaps. But be still, and listen.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This chapter from Robert R. Reilly’s remarkable book, Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music, is republished here with the gracious permission of the author and the Future Symphony Institute (Summer 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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1 reply to this post
  1. It seems to me that Mr. Reilly’s article, though well intentioned and containing some good insights, is built on some false premises. The Schoenberg atonal school was never the mainstream of classical music in the 20th century. Most music written in the 20th century was tonal in the broad sense of the term. During his lifetime Schoenberg had limited influence, partly because his theories were little known or understood (if any composer could claim to be the central influence of the first half of the century, it was Stravinsky). The serial avant-garde had a brief period of dominance in the decades following World War II and plenty of academic backing, but audiences for the most part never listened to it. Furthermore, the composers Mr. Reilly discusses as part of “a new civilization” are actually of the past. Taverner and Gorecki are both dead. “Mystical Minimalism” had its heyday in the 1970s through the ’90s and is now part of the musical past as much as neoclassicism, serialism, and any other style. In fact Western music has become so fragmented that it seems to me there is no longer any possibility of forming a coherent and viable musical style.

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