Lajos Huszár / Hungary / – composer, music writer

Problems of religious music in the XX-XXI. Century

Problematika religiozní hudby v XX-XXI. století


Lajos Huszár / Hungary / – composer, music writer


I. Change in  the role of the Church

It was in the Middle Ages, when the Christian Church  reached the  greatest power, influence, importance. The medieval religious spirit  reacted the rulers, the aristocracy, the scientists, the artists and even the peasants.  The signs of profane thinking and doubt appeared seldom and  only in certain places in Europe. From the XI. century  it is possible to discover the tendencies of profane thinking in literature and music. The proportion of the three most important social classes  - the clergy, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie  - gradually began to change. While the role of the church and the aristocracy decreased, the importance and number of the middle classes increased.

Which are the factors that gradually weakened  the power of the church?

  • secular literature, secular music:  the poetry of the troubadours, trouveres (1000-1300), the German Minnesang (1150-1400), the works of Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio (XIV. century)
  • secular thoughts int he philosophy (from the XIII. c.)
  • the reformation (John Wyclif, Jan Hus, Martin Luther, Johannes Calvinus)
  • the industrial revolution, the development of the natural sciences, new possibilities of traffic,  geographic discoverings
  • the Enlightment (XVII-XVIII.c.)
  • the French Revolution and its antireligious measures (1800)
  • the revolutions of the XIX.c. , the increasing role of the working class
  • the separation of the church from the state
  • the antireligious policy of the XX.c. dictatorships


II. Church music, religious music in the XX-XXI.c.

Which sorts of music are used in the last century?

1.  The traditional chants of the masses and services:

     - the decreasing use of the Gregorian chant

    -  religious songs are always used  in a large round, the most important among them  is the German Evangelical Choral.

2. The importance and quantity of composed music  in the liturgical practice is near to zero. Among the great composers it was only Stravinsky who wrote pieces of liturgical aim, three works for mixed  choir, and the Mass of 1948. The church emloyes musicians, organists, conductors, sometimes even composers, but these last ones are not commensurable with the great church music masters of the XV-XVI. centuries, like Josquin, Palestrina, Lassus and many others. 

3. The organ music was flourishing  in the XVII-XVIII.c., mainly in the Protestant Germany.  In the romantic age, organ pieces by Liszt and Mendelssohn are important, and also César Franck’s compositions  (with Franck began a whole group of French organist-composers, like Widor, Vierne, Dupré, Duruflé, Alain).   Among the XX.c. organ works are important those of Reger and Messiaen.

4. In the last century there were composed a lot of vocal pieces of religious inspiration, but they are not of liturgical aim: oratorios, cantatas,  choir works. These works are performed mostly in concert halls.

5. Folk music, pop music appeared first time in America and Africa. In Europe the beginning of  the church pop-music, beat-masses, guitar-messes was in the 60-s, on both catholic and protestant side. It is an other question, whether this music is worthy to  the sublimity of God and the church ceremonies.   For church use  there are also  the so called  Folk masses.  They are composed in a very simple, often folkloristic style,  so that the whole public can sing it.


III. Religious music in the second half of the XX. century, and today.

Olivier Messiaen’s life and oeuvre spans nearly over the whole XX. century:  he wrote his first works in the 20-s, and he continued to work  until his death in 1992. Most part of his works shows  Chistian-Catholic inspiration. Like professional organist, he perfectly knew his instrument, the organ pieces fill his whole life. These pieces bear in nearly every case programatic titles, which relate to episodes from Jesus’ life, to St.John’s Revelations, or  to other elements of Christian mysticism. Les corps glorieux (The glorious bodies, 1939), Messe de la Pentecote (Whit Mass, 195o), Meditations sur le Mystere de la Sainte Trinité (Meditations ont he mystery of the Holy Trinity, 1969), Livre du Saint Sacrement (Book of the Holy Sacrament, 1984).

Other  instrumental works:  Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the end of the Time, his most known chamber music work, written in a prisoners camp in Silesia, 1941). Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty pictures about the Child Jesus, for piano, 1944). Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum (And I wait for the resurrection of the dead, for wind ensemble, 1964), Éclairs sur l’Au-delá (Illuminations of the Beyond, a great symphony, one of his last works, 1988-91).

Compared with the instrumental works, he wrote a small number of vocal works:  Trois liturgies de la présence divine (Three liturgies of the Divine presence, for female choir and little orchestra, 1944), La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ (The Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ, a monumental oratorio, 1965-69), and the opera, which the composer considered his best work: Saint Francois d’Assise (1975-83).  Messiaen’s music is very personal, he had a fantastic sensibility for the colours, he created an own sound system, he had a special rhythm theory. Heoccupied with the voices of birds, which he often used in his works. He was the initiator of the serial technic with his Four rhythme studies for piano (1949), which made a decisive effect on the young avantgarde composers of that time  (most of them was Messiaen’s student:  Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Grisey, Murail, etc.)

Benjamin Britten was a relatively conservative representant of the contemporary music.  He developped a personal  form of tonality, so his music is approachable to the larger public. Among ,his choir works the most popular is Ceremony of carols for female choir and harp. He wrote operas for church performance:  Noye’s Fludd (1957), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal  Son (1968).  His most successful oratorio is War Requiem (1961), in which he employed the traditional latin Requiem text and poems of the poet Wilfred Owen.  He wrote also a religious orchestra piece:  Sinfonia da Requiem (1940), where the movements are Lacrymosa, Dies irae and Requiem aeternam.

Krzysztof Penderecki is the famous  personality of the contemporary  Polish music. His first period was characterised by  a boldly experimenting avantgarde (chromatic clusters,  aleatory). Around 1975 he changed his style, from that time he uses elements of late romantic and tonality. His religious works in the avantgarde period: Psalms  of David, St.Luke passion (his most famous work, which caused a big sensation, 1965), Dies Irae,  Utrenja (to Old Slavic texts). Oratorios of the neoromantic period:  Credo, Polish requiem, Seven gates of Jerusalem.

Henryk Górecki’s first period was atonal and very hard, and in the 70-s he also changed style, and developped a „sacred minimalism”. His ecclesiastical works:  Ad matrem (1971), Beatus vir (1978), O Domina nostra (for voice and organ, 1985), Totus tuus (1987).  His most successful work is the 3. Symphony for soprano and orchestra, to religious and folkloristic texts (1976).

Arvo Pärt, after an experimenting first period, changed his style in the 70-s, and developped his special tonal style, which he called „tintinnabuli”. He is said the greatest contemporary master of sacred music. Some of his  religious works: St.John  Passion (1982),  Te Deum (1985),  Stabat mater (1985), Miserere (1989), Kanon pokajanen (chois cycle to Old Slavic texts, 1997).

Sofia Gubaidulina  is one of the most famous  representant of contemporary music. She did not change her style, her characteristics are the atonality and the richness in instrumental colours.  Her religious works are mostly instrumental pieces:  Offertorium – violin concerto, Introitus – piano concerto, Radujsja (violin and cello), Stupeni (Grades, for orchestra), Sem slov (Seven words, for cello, baian and string orchestra), De profundis (baian), In croce (Cello, organ and orchestra). Her most famous vocal work is St. John Passion (2000).


IV.  About Hungarian Works

In Hungary   many religious works were written in the last 70 years.   Concerning the style, we can place them into two groups:  atonal, avantgarde works, and tonal, neotonal pieces – like in most every European country.

György Kurtág is a well known and appreciated composer in the whole world.  He began to write in a very expressive atonal-avantgarde style in the 60-s, and this style did not change since that time – may be we can speak about some kind of simplification. He has only one work of religious inspiration: The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza, concerto for soprano and piano (1963-68). Bornemisza was a protestant priecher in the XVI. century. Kurtág took the text from his book Ördögi kísírtetekről (About diabolic temptations). The work is very difficult, it demands virtuosic capacities from both performers.  The four parts are:  Confession, Sin, Death, Spring. 

György Ligeti  left Hungary at the time of the 1956 revolution.  He wrote his Requiem in the West in 1962-65, its first performance was in Stockholm, in 1965. In this work he did not use the whole text of the Latin Funeral Mass, only four parts: Requiem aeternam, Kyrie eleison, Dies irae and Lacrymosa.The two first parts are composed with a many-voice polyphonic technic, after them follows the hysteric extasy of the Dies irae, and the closing Lacrymosa radiates a heavenly quiet. The Requiem is the most significant work of Ligeti’s micropolyphonic period.

Zoltán Jeney began to write his Funeral ceremony (Halotti szertartás) in 1979, then he was working on it continuously until the first performance in 2005  (unfortunately the work has not been performed since that time…). The text follows the burial convention of the Pauline monastic order, written in the Czestochowa Cantionale, but uses different texts  in different languages: Hebrew, Greek, Russian, Italian, German and Hungarian. These texts are not only liturgical, but also  poetical or folkloristical  ones. The monumental oratorio consists of six parts: 1. Commendation of the soul, 2.Funeral  vesper, 3. Funeral vigil, 4. Absolution, 5. Burying of the body, and  6.Consolation.  The work is very strongly structured, its basis is a row of 128 sounds.   Many Gregorian chants are used in it, these derive from the mentioned Czestochowa codex.

One part of the composers uses a tonal musical language – these works are of course easier to perform and to understand, than the avantgardistic ones.  György Orbán composed 14 masses, and a lot of other choir  pieces. His style is a kind of neoromantic, from time to time he uses also elements of popular music. János Vajda is the composer of choir motets and oratorios. Levente Gyöngyösi  wrote many choir works, oratorios and a mass. He is not averse to popular music.  Miklós Kocsár  (1933-2019) was the most important personality of the contemporary  Hungarian choir music.  After experiments in atonal, avantgarde style, he found  a tonal, easier singable style.  He composed motets, oratorios and a mass.


V. Why do composers write religious works? Is the composer religious? Am I religious? Why do  I like religious texts? Why do I like choir?

1. Why do composers write religious music in a secular world?

Of course there are (or may be) spiritual factors:  some composers are really believing Christians.  The nostalgy can also appear: the attraction  to an absolute truth, absolute pureness, innocence, an escape from the squalor of the world. There exists also a practical point of view: the coirs need  singable and enjoyable pieces.  The sympathy  and pleasure of the public is important too: the public identifies itself  gladly with the pureness, solemnity, enthusiasm  of the church music.

2. Is the composer religious? In our age it is difficult to form  an objective opinion, the faith belongs to the private sphere, the composers (and people in general) don’t make confessions about their belief or unbelief.  Until Bach, it could not be any discussion about faith, the religiousness was indisputable. Later the situation became more complicated:  Haydn was religious, Mozart and Beethoven rather believed in the ideas of secular humanism. Mozart and others were masonics (Freimaurer). In the romantic age Liszt, Mendelssohn and Bruckner were religious. About the others I have no sure information. In the last century  Stravinsky, Kodály, Honegger, Poulenc,  Messiaen, Górecki, Pärt, Gubaidulina  were (are) believing Christians.   At the same time, great composers, like Debussy, Ravel, Bartók,  Berg,  Shostakovich etc. didn’t show interest towards Christian themes.

3. Am I religious? I have memories from the childhood, that I often went to Catholic masses with my mother.  But because I was officially Evangelical, I went also  to Evangelic religion lessons – they did not leave deeper impression in me -  I liked mostly to accompany the chorals  on  the organ of the church during the services. It was the poetic side of the religion, which arrested my attention and filled me with enthusiasm.  At the age of 18-19 years I recieved  a Liber Usualis from a musician-priest, from that time I became enthusiast of the religious texts (more the texts and less the Gregorian melodies).At the same time I felt a doubt about the dogmas, I did not feel them important for myself -  for instance the creation of the world, the existence of God and the Holy Spirit, the remission of the sins, the redemption.  But the story of Jesus’ passion filled me with shock and enthusiasm,  and also with certain nostalgy of seeking the absolute pureness, truth and unambiguity.

4. Why do I like religious texts? I like them because of the above mentioned purity, depth, expressivity and unambiguity. I like texts, which are suggestive and expressive, but they don’t express the private emotions of one person, rather  general and collective feelings. I say often, may be a little bit stupidly: „the poet cannot force his own feelings on me”. When I read Gustav Mahler’s thoughts about the texts, I was happy to discover something similar to what I used to think about the problem. He usually used texts, which  realized also his own personality: mainly the poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Mahler’s most beloved texts were not the „literary” poems, but those which he called „nature, life, raw material”, which he could transform according to his demands. Nevertheless, he set to music texts of poets too (Rückert, Goethe, Nietzsche).

5. Why do I like choir?  Because the choir is able to a strong and passionate expression,at the same time this expressivity is collective and generally human, not personal. This collective expression relates also to the nostalgy of contemporary people towards historic ages, when organic societies  and agreeing social groups still existed. So   my  greatest experiences  in this respect are the choirs in Mussorgsky’s operas and t he Russian church music, for instance Rachmaninov’s liturgies.


VI. About my religious works

1. I wrote about 14 choir works, mainly to Latin texts, but there are some motets to German and Hungarian text too.

2. Oratoric works. I wrote a passion at the age of 20 years, during  my studying years. It was a naive experiment, full of mistakes. Much later, in 2003-2004, I felt the necessity to write a „real”  passion, int he possess of a more mature skill. The work used 5 soloists, choir, organ and percussion, the text oncloratoric work is the Resurrection Oratorio, from 2015-17.  It employes 4 soloists, choir and orchestra. A very different genre is the Christmas Cantata for children’s choir,organ and string orchestra (1997). 

3. Works for solo voice and instruments. The 69. Psalm for tenor and piano is the best work of my atonal period (1976). It is possible to feel Kurtág’s influence in it. In 2000 I wrote Icons to the memory of János Pilinszky, for soprano and chamber orchestra. Among the readitional Latin mass movements there is also a setting of a Pilinszky poem about the resurrection on the third day  (the piece was playd also in Kromeríz, two years ago). In 2016 I composed a song cycle for tenor and piano, to poems by Angelus Silesius, the great XVII.century mystic poet. In the same year I wrote a short German passion-cantata for tenor and organ: Und er trug sein Kreuz (And he carried his cross).  My last work in this genre is Ex libro Isaiae prophetae (From the book of prophet Isaiah), for soprano,

organ and percussion.


Closing words

What can I say to conclude?  The Christian religion exists  even in our age,  probably  in the smaller half of the society. It exists, fortunately, but being religious  is not identical with the moral level of the person. I know religious people, who are proud of their faith, but they don’t like other people. And I know unbelieving people, who live their life on a high moral level.

And like in the existence of the religion itself, a  break began in the existence of the religious music too.   Church music , in the traditional sense of the word – that is: music for the church services – came to the end, or it  is nowadays very rare (of course it is possible to play and sing old music). At the same time religious music works do exist, like concert music.

At our age there is a break between the expectations of the churches, of the church public, and the musical style. The religion and the church demands a music which radiates security, quiet, faith. This claim can be satisfied by tonal music (conservative music? old music?). The public often  feels even the tonal contemporary works  like unintelligible ones.  The atonal, avantgarde music  brings a much  heavier problem. The aversion of the church public against it is very great,  it is for it  a disquieting, frightening music, which  expresses a negative, inhuman content. 

At this point I finish to speak. I hope to receive further thoughts from the historians, sociologists,  musicologists.

Copyright © 2011-22 Stránky archivovány Národní knihovnou ČR.