SACRED MUSIC – A SANCTUARY!?

Dr. Petr Pokorný - Prague /CZ/

I often wonder why a number of us – including myself, of course – call their music ‘sacred’. What is it that leads many composers and musicians of our time to found festivals and societies devoted to sacred music, and what in fact is it that we are discussing at these, by now traditional, colloquia at Kroměříž? What sets our sacred music apart from the ‘not sacred’; since the distinction is only ever clear when the music is tied to a text? When text is absent, we come up against problems of definition.

Mozart in his time did not need the designation ‘sacred’, though he did – apart from operas, symphonies and sonatas – write pure sacred music, be it for the use of the Catholic Church or the Freemasons. Things were quite different for, say, Dvořák and Suk. They both wrote music, which we can describe as sacred but which, moreover, possesses exceptional spiritual power (Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, Suk’s Asrael…), even though it was not always composed for the use of churches or religious communities. I am convinced that it is all part and parcel of the general development of musical culture in Europe during the recent centuries. The start of a kind of ‘crumbling’ of style can be discerned as early as the middle of the 19th century when operetta and to an extent dance music also (the polkas, gallops and especially the waltzes of the day) went their separate way as an independent genre, being written by its own specialized composers (Offenbach, the Strauss family…). This specialization continued with the entry of jazz onto European soil in the early 20th century. The triumphant progress of jazz cannot be compared with the absorption of inspiration from non-European musical cultures, such as we find in Mozart’s Turkish March or in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. There it really was only a case of peripheral inspiration, of illustration, a way of setting the scene. Jazz, on the other hand, has since the First World War made his home here for good. After World War Two came rock and today there are dozens, maybe hundreds of styles. This is a phenomenon known in German as U-Musik, the worst offshoot of it being the commercial popular music described often as ‘mid-stream’. Against its pressures, vehemently pushed by sponsorship, ‘serious’ music and by now jazz, too, are naturally enough a mere Cinderella.

But of course even serious music has undergone its own development. If Mozart and Haydn were still writing music whose main aim was to entertain (how tricky seems the U-Musik label when viewing the problem from a different angle!), then with Beethoven there came a break. His music is full of humanist ideology, as if its aim was not just to enlighten but also to educate. This provoked a reaction on the part of the romanticists who wanted to replace and did replace the enlightened humanist aim with individual personal experience. From the psychological point of view this brought the person of the composer, his feelings and experiences, to the fore – to the very focus of interest. And the audience identified with these feelings. In truth, they identify with them to this day. It had nothing to do with the fact that a number of composers of that period introduced ideology into their music, mostly the ideology of their time, which by then had long stopped being enlightened or, in fact, humanist. It was an ideology more likely to throw light on narrow group interests by way of national myths, sometimes tinged with a nationalistic hue (Wagner, in our country Smetana). The romanticists’ sacred music, too, spoke rather more of personal experiences, of how they related to God, than of the universal ideas of humanism. Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and Suk’s Asrael are good examples.

The relatively long period of peace in Central Europe at the turn of the 19th century brought unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. Among other things, it made available, for the benefit of culture, resources which neither the earlier nor the later generations could dream of. Fine concert halls were being built, large opera houses, big ensembles of musicians were being founded. Compositions placing unusual demands on them, as well as on soloists and smaller ensembles, were being written. This development was especially typical of the Sezession music in the countries of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy (Mahler’s and Suk’s symphonic works), but in part also of the music of Germany (Richard Strauss).

The economic situation went through a radical change during the First World War. It caused an equally radical style change in music. There was in any case a feeling afoot that romanticism and its ideas have had their day, the war only underlining this perception. It was felt that romanticism had lasted too long and that there was a need to ‘sober up’. The result was a completely new style – neoclassicism. The appellation may have carried a suggestion of a return, plus some signs of playfulness, of formal simplicity (or shall we say clarity), of more moderate demands placed on the performing ‘apparatus’, but it was of course a style that was new. It proclaimed anti-romanticism, be it by returning to the Viennese classicism or – as in the case of Hindemith – further back to the baroque. Neoclassicism in its first phase and its various modifications flooded the whole of Europe, in some countries (including our own country) staying put to this day. After the long decades of its existence it is looking very stale – like a rehash of multiple rehashes.

Beside neoclassicism, however, there was the ‘second Viennese school’ and its Schoenberg dodecaphony. According to Schoenberg, the role of dodecaphony (to quote him freely) was ‘to ensure German music’s primacy in the development of music for the next hundred years.’ In spite of the subsequent crumbling of the style, Schoenberg’s vision was, surprisingly enough, nearly fulfilled. For the period following the Second World War brought in new aesthetics which flowed more from the style of Schoenberg’s pupil, Anton von Webern, than Schoenberg himself, taking the style’s principles to their extreme. The composer now eschewed all expression, armed himself with ruler and graph paper and became, in fact, a music designer. It is interesting that even today one can – especially among German composers – come across the argument that ‘construction’ (design) is the be-all and end-all of composition, and that expression is useless baggage carried over from the past. Post-war aesthetics judged a musical work purely on its ‘progressivity’, nothing else being of any interest. Even today and in our own country we can come face to face with similar arguments for or against a work in our music periodicals – if they concern themselves with new musical compositions at all, of course.

Today there is in the area of new music (and once again I am only thinking of serious music) a rather wide spread of styles. A uniform style is a matter of the distant past. And since the price of a certain grade of common affluence throughout European society is a loss of authenticity of taste, feeling etc., the predominant endeavor is towards entertainment that is noncommittal and mentally undemanding, i.e. towards being entertained. Serious art, however, does not suit, since it asks each listener, viewer, and reader to engage intellectually. And such engagement is challenging, hard, and therefore not comfortable.

Moreover, playing into the hands of such a consumerist approach to art, there are several other things. Just a note in the margin will do for the malign influence of ‘socialist realism’ during the communist years – the would-be art that put many potential listeners off serious music which they never learned to enjoy in their youth, preferring the unofficial groups of the then ‘underground’, jazz and rock discs from the free world, and possibly also historical ‘early’ music. These often were people well versed in the other areas of culture or in the sciences. (This observation goes, for instance, for both of our country’s post-communist Presidents.)

Much more important has been the development of information and recording technology. When recording techniques were in their infancy a century ago, one had to seek music when and where it was being made ‘live’ or make one’s own, playing or singing, be it non-professionally. The present high quality of recording and reproduction techniques has had a heavily dampening influence on amateur music-making and has virtually done away with folklore. Where today can we hear people singing folk songs during and after work? In my childhood, I remember a seamstress used to come to our family, singing Moravian folk songs all day while working hard. And so I, too – a born Prager with part-Jewish roots from southern Bohemia – came to know Moravian folklore for the first time. What we are now being served by the Čechomor group, for instance, would in my books be called at best a plastic replica.

A little observation to illustrate the shift in the situation during the last hundred years – an observation that may go down as a bad joke: If a century ago Andersen’s fairy-tale about a mermaid inspired two great Sezession composers to write large-scale symphonic works (Novák wrote his symphonic poem for large orchestra, Eternal Longing, in 1901, while Zemlinsky his fantasy for orchestra, Die Seejungfrau, in 1903), today our own current pop starlet Aneta Langerová sings her commercial hit The Little Mermaid.

Although money has gradually been embraced as the only recognized value, there are still enough people around who feel bereft – bereft of pristine nature, spiritually rewarding life, beauty. I feel that we who write sacred music, together with those who perform it and promote it, are ones of a kind. We do not all write music of the same style. Far from it. But we do continue to use our music to express, to communicate something to the listener. To write just for money, or on the other hand just for the sake of ingenuity of construction, is perhaps not enough to satisfy ourselves. Sacred music has become a refuge, a sanctuary to us. Does it mean that hidden there is a romantic core? Perhaps. It may seem at times that the style of the music we call sacred, spiritual, lacks pioneering aggression, that – to use the post-war vocabulary – it is not progressive. This could have something to do with our perennial endeavor to find expression, to communicate our feelings and experiences to the listener, offering him a glimpse of the composer’s emotional and intellectual world. Sacred music is sometimes identified with a work’s quiet progress in performance. But that, to my mind, is most definitely NOT its prerequisite, the conditio sine qua non of its existence. /translation by Karel Janovický/

Dr. Petr Pokorný
composer, music critic - Prague /CZ/

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