Published on
24 February 2010

The Musical Search for the Sacred in Modernity

By: James MacMillan


James MacMillan is a composer and conductor, whose music is played all over the world. His work is, in many instances, shaped by his Catholic faith, which has also become the basis for lectures and articles he delivers on the interface between theology and culture. Seminar held on 24 February 2010

Modernity in music is a multi-faceted and complex phenomenon. The much-used word ‘modernism’ is also a catch-all definition which leaves questions still hanging in the air. It is a word, like ‘socialism’ or ‘spirituality’, that can easily be hijacked by partisan voices who then claim ownership of it and thereafter imbue it with their own narrow, specific, pointed, sectarian and self-justifying aura. It has to be said that a particular kind of modernism, specific to certain places, times, ideologies and forceful personalities, has been sublimated into a paradigmatic position in our own time. A European modernism, with its roots in the 2nd Viennese School and developed by a small group of post-war composers in certain towns and cities on mainland Europe, has been given a special place in  official understandings of the development of modern music. A message has gone out that composers, and indeed the musical public, should regard this sanctioned path as, not just the way forward, but the way things are and ought to be. State broadcasters, many sharing the aesthetical and political perspective of the composers themselves and their followers, give the oxygen of life, publicity and dissemination to this view of the musical present and future.

This has been especially the case in Germany and France, which are much more controlled by a centralised and top-down view of what high culture should be. A central, pivotal figure in this development is, of course, Pierre Boulez, composer, conductor and radically scathing polemicist, at least in his younger days. A powerful, driven figure, always manoeuvring politically and pushing boundaries imaginatively, he has never hidden his determination to put his musical biases into operation. An Alpha Male par excellence in the musical world, it has been suggested that his influence on legions of third-rate imitators over the last few generations has been a pernicious one. Mediocre acolytes have been bedazzled by the master’s encyclopaedic panoply of colouristic subtleties and rhythmic intricacies. So much so, that a lot of modern music is obsessed, fetishistically, with surface detail to the detriment, perhaps, of core profundities.

Nevertheless Boulez’s influence on musical culture as a composer, and now as a conductor, has been powerful and meticulously plotted. His choice of repertoire is large and interesting, covering Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg and Messiaen. Others are constantly and steadily added – Wagner, Mahler, and some major contemporary figures such as Berio and Ligeti. But the omissions from this list are also fascinating and revealing. There is no Brahms and hardly any Schumann. He compares the latter unfavourably (justifiably so, perhaps) to Mendelssohn as showing ‘little invention and even little skill’. Explaining his priorities, Boulez says that ‘there are composers who possess this gift of instrumental invention and others who, more or less, lack it… if you compare the symphonies of Brahms with the operas of Wagner solely from the viewpoint of instrumentation… one is not bowled over by his [Brahms’s] instrumental imagination’.

‘Solely from the viewpoint of instrumentation’ is the key here. Brahms’s structural genius in reshaping classical models, his gift for soaring melody and expansive spiritual vision are all subordinated to the ear-tickling skill of instrumental choice. This is understandably French, of course, and Boulez comes from a tradition which has emphasised perfumed delicacies and nuanced subtleties, but it may explain not only his blind spots, but also modernism’s over-indulgence of surfaces instead of the deep heart. Perhaps this justifies Boulez’s disregard of Bruckner, Hindemith and Sibelius and all the Russians from Prokofiev and Shostakovich to Schnittke.

It may also explain the Anglophobic prejudices of many French musicians – there is no Britten or Tippett in Boulez’s repertoire and precious little that has been written since. But there are also significant French omissions – no Poulenc or any of the important contemporary figures who follow a different aesthetic and reject the dogmas of L’Eglise Boulezienne. As far as American music is concerned, no Copland, no Adams, but lots of Elliot Carter.

All conductors are discriminating, of course, and subjective preferences are widespread. But there is a personal agenda at work here. The music that he says opens up ‘new terrain’, the emphasis on colour in Mahler, or rhythmic and melodic fragmentation in Webern, all point in the same direction. All roads of significant musical history lead to Boulez. Significant developments are therefore reinterpreted as self-justifying and self-aggrandising proto-modernism.

Some say that having burnt himself out as a composer by his mid-30s Boulez has dedicated the rest of his life to controlling how the culture will remember 19th- and 20th-century musical history, and how the musical future will be shaped. The latter strategy is monitored from IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics and Music), which has been described as ‘Boulez’s personal Kremlin’ in Paris. In spite of the messianic and prophetic claims of its supporters and acolytes, it seems, to me, not to have made any huge impact on the world of music and, has failed to produce any significant new composer.

His powerful position and influence have determined the nature of the modern music that is programmed and esteemed in Paris, and in France generally. I know many composers in France who, because they were not part of the Boulez world vision, were sidelined. I have made a point of finding out who these people are and, to a degree, championing their music: having some of it played here in the UK, and finding out what happens when you are outcast from a central orthodoxy. Most interesting are Nicolas Bacri, Thierry Eschiaich and Guillaume Connesson, who is probably known to RSNO audiences through the championing of their principal conductor, Stefan Deneuve. Similar groups of composers and enthusiasts have sprung up, underground-style, in Italy and Germany.

In my experience I have observed a very different kind of modern music culture in this country, and, in different ways, in other parts of the ‘Anglosphere’ – the US, Canada and Australia. A plurality of aesthetics and styles is valued in these places. There is no comparable narrowness or megalomania at work. It makes me think that different places experience the challenge of modernity in the Arts in different ways. If one looks at the development of modernity in music from the perspective of the United States, for example, one sees radically alternative trajectories and a completely different range of personalities at the core of modernism’s history; in effect, an entirely other kind of narrative. And who is to say that their narrative is less authentic than the official European one?

Common to both Europe and the New World are Stravinsky and Schoenberg, but their embrace of North American culture in the flight from European hostility is crucial here. Shortly after Schoenberg’s death, his widow found a note in the form of a brief poem written in 1944 when the composer was living in Los Angeles and teaching at UCLA stating:

There is a great man living in this country – a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one’s self and to learn. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives.

Charles Ives was the first great non-European modernist, and it is argued that he owed nothing of his originality to Europe. Although he is much celebrated now in modernist circles, it is as a great eccentric and one-off that the ‘central orthodoxy’ prefers to see him, a bit like Messiaen. But his great experiments in polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatoricism and quarter tones, come from a different place, philosophically and sociologically, from those generated later in France, Germany and Italy. Fundamental to everything in Ives’s imagination were hymn tunes and traditional songs, patriotic songs, the sentimental pop songs of the day, the melodies of Steven Foster, music of the dance halls and American popular culture; in fact everything that the European liberal elites were to come to despise in the coming generations.

And although the European-rooted, Marxist-tinged orthodoxy has its apologists here in the UK too, their agendas working overtime in the prominent reviews they write about modern music, things here are, and have always been, different.

Britain is a prime example of this plurality of aesthetics and style in action. There is no restricting binding ingredient – no false, utopian, extraneous ideology that binds us together in the same way that schools emerged according to a certain political instigation, prompting and inspiration in mainland Europe. This plurality leads to a ‘promiscuous’ disregard for the fundamental precepts of ideological modernism. Some characteristics of the classic avant-garde have been absorbed over the years but many have been easily and lightly discarded.

Why? Could it be, for example, that there is a greater respect for ideology and intellectualism in general on the Continent? Or is it a fetish with ideology, rather than a respect for intellectualism that holds sway there? There is a great conceit in Europe over their much-trumpeted intellectual culture; but actually, it is an intellectual culture that has been hijacked by a now tired and jaded cosmopolitan liberalism, which  has lost its cutting edge in a new world largely unpredicted in the great Marxist, modernist, secular meta-narrative of the last century. The British do tend to be less ideological in our cultural make-up, and tend not to fall for the glitz and glamour of revolutionary causes. In many ways, the saving grace for this country’s musical modernity is the disregard for rules, and an apathy for imposed ideological posturing. The fashionable views of the day, coming from politics and philosophy, have had a limited impact on the way we have shaped our musical culture.

Nevertheless, there is a tendency in British musical criticism to see what happens on the Continent as superior to here. And you will find a lot of disparaging remarks about ‘British provincialism’ running through the comparisons that music critics make between this island – and indeed America as well, the ‘Anglosphere’ if you like – and the citadels of modernism on the Continent. Our own musical accommodation with modernity, from Vaughan Williams to the present day, is caricatured as inferior and reactionary to what happens in places where a more ‘revolutionary’ rigour has been cultivated. You will find an unnatural comparison, an unfair comparison between – as they would see it – an insularity in the UK and US, and the greatest heights of professionalism and intellectual endeavour that shapes the music of Germany, France and Italy. So there is a kind of self-loathing, haughty arrogance in certain aspects of our critical fraternity, which is a problem. It is unrealistic and does not take a broad and objective view of the expanse of recent musical history. I find it interesting, for example, that the ‘underground’ composers in France and Italy, working at cross-purposes to the modernist orthodoxy, look for inspiration to the US, where they see a totally different pantheon of 20th-century composers. To them the preferred narrative of modernism starts with Ives and leads on to Aaron Copland, Carl Ruggles, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Harrv Partch, George Crumb, Terry Riley, and especially Steve Reich and John Adams. But then, Europeans have made a habit of turning enthusiastically towards America as an attractive alternative, after overthrowing their own home-grown dictatorships and repression. Although the music of John Adams is still largely proscribed in Boulez’s home town, and when it does manage to wriggle its way into the public sphere it is subjected to the abuse of organised claques, there is a palpable forbidden excitement about it among the younger generation.

It is the European perspective that prefers to see tonality, for example, as simply something of the past, and to be rejected. That seems an extreme and unrealistic view. It was understandable in a way in that traditional musical values, like all traditional values, were rejected by the new philosophical, political and cultural elites in Europe after the Second World War. There was a feeling, in Eurocentric terms at least, that ‘the old culture’ had come to an end; that European bourgeois culture had failed; that the Christian cement to the Continent’s culture had been exhausted and come undone. And that therefore it was a perfectly respectable position for the young artists to begin with a blank slate – a virgin field, if you like –, to begin with nothing. No rules, no connection, no taint of the past. One sees that in politics, and in philosophy of course, but in music as well, with a deliberate attempt to expunge any form of the taint of tradition, whether it be German symphonism or anything worryingly hierarchical or patriarchal from European history. There were concerted attempts to begin again, with apparently entirely new sounds and new concepts. Exciting in a way, but with worrying unseen implications.

Similar to the visual arts world, where many forms of traditional learning were scrapped and forgotten out of a sort of self-disgust, music, too, entered into its own iconoclastic phase. But the difference between music and some of the other arts is that music needs craftsmanship. It cannot exist without it. So the craftsman in the composer – whether the composer was Boulez, or Stockhausen, or Berio – eventually took over. And that craftsman – the artisan as much as the artist – is what prevailed in the end. It is the craftsmanship and technical vision of the principal players in European modernism that prevailed for future consideration.

Much of the debate in modern music concerns ‘language’. If one embraces tonality, that is seen as a backward-looking gesture by some. Even someone regarded here as streetwise and cutting-edge like Mark-Anthony Turnage will be regarded in certain European spheres as a reactionary composer because of his interaction with popular culture, through jazz especially. (That smacks too much of Americana, and it is de rigueur to flaunt an anti-Americanism in Europe.) But there is also a modality and pastoralism in his work that one can detect in British music over the last century or so; and that is also what the European modernist mind despises: possibly because it is seen as nationalistic, provincial, and backward-looking, with an ideal based in nostalgia. Even the music of Birtwistle is regarded as ‘English pastoralist’ in novelty-obsessed modernist Europe. He and a number of other British composers, including myself, used to be published by Universal Edition of Vienna, which has been closely associated with the growth of modernism from Webern to Boulez. They neglected their London division so much that any performances of their British names in mainland Europe that did actually happen were secured by their London representative, the legendary Bill Colleran. They did not care about their British operation and eventually scuppered it, forcing a number of us to seek a new home at Boosey and Hawkes. We were all far too beguiled by nostalgia apparently, which, if you know the music of Harrison Birtwistle, will make the mind boggle, even although he has acknowledged a deep subliminal debt to Vaughan Williams.

But nostalgia is first on a list of crimes deemed out of bounds for German composers, for example, since the Second World War, because the ‘Nazi’ word can be used to batter anyone who departs from the script, the implications of which are left-wing and radically anti-traditional. I remember attending the famous Darmstadt Summer Festival of New Music in 1980, when any work with a major chord was boo-ed. There was a concerted attempt under way to undermine Wolfgang Rihm, then regarded as the main young German ‘reactionary’ composer by the ascendant revolutionaries at the time. I have been intrigued and delighted to notice that since then, he and other ‘conservative’ German composers like Detlev Glanert (and HK Gruber in Austria) have risen to the fore and gained an international respect, while the Marxist snipers have faded largely into oblivion, as far as the wider musical consciousness is concerned.

And then there is also the question of religion, which has become such a defining battleground in many areas of culture and public life.  The liberal elites who control the commanding heights of culture and criticism have an instinctive anxiety about religion. They thought it should have died out by now. But they have been mugged by history, as that has not happened, and it is unlikely to do so. This is yet another example of how the once powerfully cock-sure analysis of the 68ers has been proved wrong. This is another reason why the prophets of Marxist-inspired modernism are in retreat right across the board. They are perplexed at how the world has gone. Their view has not prevailed, and even in modern music that is the case. Everything, including our understanding of recent history, is up for grabs. As far as the classic modernists are concerned, we live in a period of chaos. They have lost the argument. The case for Modernism has been undermined by the flow and permanence of tradition, and many other things that they did not see either as important or as effective in the making of the modern world.

In the period after the Second World War, what the new Young Turks sought out for themselves was a laboratory culture for music. Because everything was up for grabs, and because everything traditional – traditional music and culture – was tainted and, in their view, finished, they had to go into a ‘laboratory’ to make something new. They valued the resulting obscurantism: because if something was obscure, it was not connecting with those traditional and outmoded understandings of culture that, they would say, the bourgeoisie held dear. But to be honest, it was more than the bourgeoisie they had to worry about – it was the entire world. And therefore their laboratory experiment, in many ways understandable and exciting in its own right, deliberately avoided those aspects of musical communication that were primal, universal aspects of the human condition. They wanted to build a new culture, Khmer Rouge-like, out of the broken shards. This has been the mistake that modernists and Marxists in music and politics have made ever since.

That which began life in the post-war years as a deadly serious challenge to tradition and a Duchampian provocation, is now enshrined in academia and cultural officialdom, with fences up all around. To give an example: I was asked by a New Music festival in Hanover to adjudicate on a composition competition, and I agreed to it. They were all ready to send the scores. But I discovered that the deal usually was that ‘esteemed professors’, when they were asked onto the panel, would have their music played at this Hanover New Music Festival. But then it became clear that none of my music was being played. So when my representatives asked why, their basic explanation was that ‘Our New Music festival does not give a platform to tonal and conservative composers’. Then why have you asked me to adjudicate? I pulled out.

The modernist hierarchy is still so powerful in places like German radio stations, German New Music festivals, and French New Music festivals, that it acts like a politburo. And like all good politburos in recent times they see religion as an enemy to be confronted and defeated. This is why it is often airbrushed from official readings of recent musical history. But there is a huge untold story here which is worth pursuing, and religion can be found in the fault lines of this ongoing discussion.

It all comes back to Wagner. Although he was an unconventional religious thinker, his absolute ideal was a search for the sacred. The philosopher Roger Scruton explores this in Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The impact of this opera in particular not just on modern music, but on other forms of modernity, too, was huge. In the last 100–150 years, there has been a steady line of major composers who were profoundly religious men or women in different ways. Stravinsky, who was as conservative in his theology as he was revolutionary in the music he made, had a great love of the Catholicism he encountered in the West, and of his own Orthodoxy. He wrote Masses, he wrote music for liturgy. He was a believer.

Schoenberg, the great modernist icon, reconverted to a practising Judaism on fleeing Germany in 1933, becoming a mystic in his outlook, obsessed with the philosophical connections between silence and music. (Religious subjects became increasingly important to him in the last few decades of his life.) This is why John Cage decided to study with Schoenberg and then pursued his own religious paths through a discovery of the religions of the Far East. The interesting thing about John Cage, with his aesthetics of silence, noise and music, was that his most notorious or famous piece, 4’33”, which is 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence – a kind of rhetorical gimmick one might say, but a real challenge to the culture in many other ways – was originally entitled ‘Silent Prayer’.

So even someone like Cage, in his counter-cultural way, was fundamentally plugged into this constant search for the sacred. And then there was Messiaen, who was famously Catholic, and everything he wrote was shaped by a theology and a personal faith. It is interesting to observe just how uncomfortable many continental commentators are when having to discuss this absolutely core aspect of his work. Many prefer to see it as an eccentric personal foible, almost irrelevant to the music he made. Others, more hostile, accuse him of propaganda, preachiness and anti-semitism.

And in this country, people like Britten, with his social Anglicanism and troubled spiritual searching, points to a profoundly numinous modernity, a universe away from the cultural denials of Darmstadt and elsewhere. Even with Tippett, who always described himself as an agnostic, one can detect a deep mysticism at the heart of his work. It is fascinating that he chose St. Augustine as one of his major texts for setting. Again there is another untold story here.

Since the Iron Curtain came down, there has been a whole range of composers that we have become aware of in the wake of Shostakovich: Schnittke and Gubaidulina – profoundly religious composers, embracing Catholicism, but also keeping alive an Orthodoxy, and indeed an interest in Islam as well; Arvo Pärt from Estonia; Kanchelli from Georgia; Gorecki from Poland. It is almost as if there is a constant theme going through the development of modern music, that religion is alive and well, and that the search for the sacred has become part of the mainstream of modernity in music. That is a huge challenge to those people who try to rub it out of history and say that it is not important.

I got a fly-on-the-wall report from an academic board which was planning a book on Music in the Twentieth Century. They were going through a list of headings and volumes – music and nationalism, music and gender of course, music and anti-imperialism, etc., etc. Someone suggested music and religion, and it was completely and immediately rejected – there was nothing to write about! There was no place in the discussion of modern music for religion.

The wider discussion here, though, is more about religion of course, and certainly involves more than a straight comparison between the ‘Anglosphere’ and ‘Old Europe’ as George Bush might have put it. The UK has always been Janus-faced in the way it has been able to absorb ideas and influences from Europe and America. This has given us the power to take what is good, and reject what is not, from both. However, we do have the facility to do the opposite, too. But we are in a good position of objectivity and detachment to assess developments and potential in cultural matters. It is widely felt now that the influence of the International Left is on the wane. The ability of this cultural and political movement to mould society according to its classic principles and shape high culture in its own image is fast dissolving. Therefore the primacy of high modernism, one of its most precocious children, will inevitably disintegrate in its European citadels just as it has elsewhere. The unbridled, dumbed-down populism of American free-market culture usually fills these vacuums. It is not a pretty sight or happy outcome. But there are other ways. (I hesitate to use the term ‘Third Way’, as the whole point of the British contribution to modern music is the very proliferation of multiple options.) It has been the case for some time now that British composers have flourished in an open non-dogmatic environment, which is the envy of the new generation of composers in other countries. We have pursued freer routes through the necessary balancing of tradition and modernity. Gradually even in Europe people have woken up to the diverse riches of the British composer from Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle, through the middle generation of Knussen, Casken and Judith Weir, to astonishingly imaginative younger figures like Thomas Ades. This work is played a lot now in places like Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris. From a time that we were regarded as dilettante, eccentric outsiders, the sheer breadth of musical thought here is now attracting fascinated attention. Speaking personally, I can feel nothing but relief and gratitude that I have grown up in so benign an environment.