Not long ago, James R. Oestreich, classical-music editor of the New York Times,filed a "Critic's Notebook" essay on a new quest for spirituality at the Salzburg Festival and Lincoln Center, two flagship institutions. Jim's report brought to mind a piece of mine he commissioned for and published at the Times several years ago, reproduced below. The subject: recordings (then new) by contemporary composers of a spiritual bent: Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Krzysztof Penderecki, Giya Kancheli, and others.
Curious to know what my thoughts had been back then, I looked for the story in the Times database, but to my consternation, it was not there. My hard-copy file confirmed that my memory was not playing tricks on me. Though my e-mail to various editors at the Times went unanswered, someone there did rectify the situation. (Other missing items remain so, such as my profile on the heldentenor Siegfried Jerusalem.)
My commentary on music of a spiritual bent was never to all readers' liking. In particular, I remember correspondence with a cranky member of the clergy who found my avowedly areligious stance offensive. (And here I had thought I had been so ecumenical.) In retrospect, I have reservations of my own. In particular, the heavy-handed rhetoric and incessant allusions (however germane) now strike me as grating. Yet the issues under discussion may still be of interest. And readers who have yet to encounter Pärt's transcendent "Kanon Pokajanen," to which much of the space is devoted, may be grateful to be pointed in its direction.
If, as they say, religion is the opium of the masses, many composers today are heavy users - and pushers. Not a day goes by, It begins to seem, not a blessed day, without a new recording of new music steeped in devotion.
The Would-be Xanadu in this line was attempted in 1995: the "Requiem of Reconcilation" in memory of the victims of World War II, commissioned by the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart for the Europäisches Muslkfest Stuttgart, and Introduced by the conductor Helmuth Rilling. Fourteen composers chipped In a movement each: among them, such strange bedfellows as Luciano Berio, Friedrich Cerha (savior of the third act of Berg's "Lulu"), John Harbison, Bernard Rands, Judith Weir, Wolfgang Rihm, Alfred Schnittke and György Kurtág.
Like the iii-fated Requiem for Rossini, which patched together the work of a dozen composers now lost to history (plus Verdi, who spirited his magnificent "Libera me" into his subsequent masterpiece in honor of the poet and patriot Alessandro Manzoni), Stuttgart's War Requiem failed to catch on. (Documentation survives In a recording on Hänssler Classics.) Yet it seems the quintessential construct for the waning century. Four score and seven years ago (give or take), our modernist forefathers James Joyce and T. S. Eliot brought forth Babels of jumbled styles and tongues that were accounted "difficult." In the fin de millennium global village, channel-surfing and cross talk are the Human Condition. The eclecticism of a Gustav Mahler was once "difficult," too. Times have changed. Today his old heresy is glatt kosher. You are what you quote, the more polyglot the better. Now, God knows, anything goes.
Ours has been called a godless age. Yet listeners flock to the distant past, spinning disks of monastic chant and Renaissance polyphony as purveyed by the Tallis Scholars, Lionheart, Anonymous 4 and their numerous ilk. The well of spirituality shows no signs of running dry. Overtly or by implication, the continuing output of such popular or esoteric composers as James MacMillan ("Seven Last Words From the Cross," "Visitatio Sepulchri"), Giya Kancheli ("Abii ne Viderem," "Life Without Christmas"), Einojuhanl Rautavaara (" Angels and Visitations") and Sofia Gubaidulina ("Offertorium") addresses the spirit as from one coreligionist to another. From the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, Schoenberg's Moses was lately proclaiming God "unimaginable because invisible, not to be surveyed, infinite, eternal, omnipresent, almighty." His definition fits a principle for which I have no name. But "God" is the wrong word. Raised beyond the pale of organized religion, I choke on doctrine.
For some, the veil lifts in church, once a week. For me, revelation arrives, on no fixed schedule, in nature, love and art. Though I do not "believe" in him, God speaks to me in the images of the old Flemish and Italian masters. Angels (for which I confess a weakness) and hell (the literal "mouth of the lion" in the lower right-hand corner of countless Last Judgments) are to my eyes truth wrapped in metaphor: in other words, the real thing. As a general matter, though, art tinged with dogma seems to me to start out at a disadvantage. Bach overcomes it effortlessly in the"St. Matthew Passion"; so do Haydn in "The Seven Last Words" and "The Creation," Beethoven in the "Missa Solemnis" and Mozart, Brahms, Berlioz, Verdi and perhaps Britten in their settings of the Requiem.
To this list I now add Arvo Pärt's miraculous "Kanon Pokajanen," as realized by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Tõnu Kaljuste on a Grammy-nomlnated recordlng (ECM 1654/5; two CD's). Commissioned by Kölnmusik for the celebration of the 750th anniversary of the Cologne Cathedral last year, the piece sets a cycle of ancient Church Slavonic prayers of repentance for chorus a cappella.
Physically, technically and spiritually, it is a tour de force, though In effect it is austere in the extreme. Over a span of 80-plus minutes, at a pace as glacial as the march of the moon, we travel from the midnight of contrition to a dawn of atonement. The rise and fall of the phrases are governed by the speech patterns of the faithful would speak them in private devotion. The musical grammar - strict, transparent - feels as old as time. In the beginning, the full chorus bursts forth in solemn radiance, the voices so present and absolute that they strike the ear as the answer to some silent "Let there be light." Later, sections for the men's voices, forlorn and murmuring, alternate with sections for the women's, floating and maternal. In one passage, the sopranos glisten away into thin air, like beaten gold. Elsewhere, the basses and tenors sing in octaves, bending the notes into strange Oriental dissonance. Here, a ray of sound escapes the shadows, like candlelight glancing off the halo on an icon. There, the voices spread from the rock-solid bass to a soprano ether, as if to encompass the cosmos.
Woven through the tapestry are three refrains. The first, a cry for mercy, chimes and swings like bells. The two others, formulas glorifying the Trinity and declaring acquiescence in the divine will, churn broodily, stony and severe. Or so they do at first. Toward daybreak, the women's voices cease to peal for mercy, at last joining In the glorification and the Amen. Such astral transformations not only give the canon continuity; they shape its meaning. The final prayer - a coda that flows seamlessly from the eight odes of the canon yet traces its own independent arc - achieves an earned serenity that may well be called celestial.
Another sacred commission introduced last year stands in the sharpest conceivable contrast. For the Oregon Bach Festival, Krzysztof Penderecki set out to write a setting of the Mass to place beside Bach's. this stroke of hubris resulting in a 50-minute setting of the Credo only, scored for orchestra, chorus and five soloists. As the composer explained in a letter to Mr. Rilling (godfather of this work as he was of the Requiem for Stuttgart), the Credo alone absorbed all the musical ideas he had originally intended to spread over the Mass. In his defense, Mr. Penderecki mentioned that he had injected extra bits in Polish and German into the liturgical Latin text. The piece as it stood said all he had to say, and besides: "You will see that a Credo on a grand scale is moch more original than a Mass in traditional form."
The recording (Hänssler Classics 98311) reveals drama on a herculean scale, painted in every color in the composer's box. He deploys a vast post-Romantic arsenal, beginning with a cappella chorus in mighty assertion, next awakening the organ in an earth-shattering pedal point, then unleashing the brasses like giants from the Old Testament. There are stirring marches, spells of heartsick gloom ("Crucifixus"), heart-on-sleeve episodes for the soloists, exquisite Instrumental interludes.
Repetition, relentless accents, and melodic elaboration make the text enact what it means. Faith, says the finale in a grand unambiguous climax followed by a confusion of anxiety-ridden voices, harried by lIght, vicious percussion, is a victory hard won, and hard to hang on to. A lonely, stratospheric "Alleluia" sounds stripped and spent: The concluding "Amen" thunders on a minor chord, the organ lights the sky with a little puff of high-pitched haze, and silence falls.
That "Kanon Pokajanen" closes with a formally similar gesture, for voices alone, implies no common ground. Mr. Pärt's elements, to speak in metaphor, are light, rock and and water. Mr. Pendereckl's are blood, sweat and tears. His Credo Is a stunning performance, maybe even, for co-believers, a convincing one. Still, the Age of Faith lies far behind us. Scientific method is long entrenched. Inevitably, contemporary forays into realms of rite and ritual strike an unbeliever as superstition or a higher charade.
Like most prejudices, this one merely serves to keep those who hold it in the dark. What might they be missing? (What might I be missing?) Apart from figures like Mr. Pärt and Mr. Penderecki, there Is a whole international school of disenchantment and alienation: composers who turn their backs on a contemporary world run mad, in search of values that are everlasting. New recordings from John Tavener, Gavin Bryars and Zbigniew Preisner ring changes within a single esthetic. Faux-medieval is not a bad description: the musician's Gothic revival.
Is such music for real? Who is to say?
How can you tell if an artist is sincere? It is hard to prove the contrary. (There is such a thing as honest affectation.) On the receiving end, the question ought to be what chords the music strikes in us.
In any case, we may make, a strong presumption of sincerity in these latest recordings. Each memorializes a loved one who is no more. Mr. Tavener mourns his father; Mr. Bryars and Mr. Preisner each mourn a friend. What funeral orator tells unvarnished truth? A universal shyness forbids speaking ill of the dead. But the brush with mortality makes us face all the truth we can bear.
In "Eternity's Sunrise" (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907231; CD), assisted' by the Academy of Ancient Music under the direction of Paul Goodwin, Mr. Tavener addresses "Death, Love and Eternity." Texts of William Blake, Giorgios Seferis and Sappho of Lesbos share with the liturglcal passages of the concluding "Funeral Canticle" a lapidary unadornment. Not that one hears much of them; for long stretches, the chorus and even the soloists might as well be doing pure vocalise. Drones from low instruments induce a sort of hypnosis; individual players take occasional flight, as do individual singing voices in long-drawn, cruelly exposed arabesques. Elsewhere, the plain inspiration is chant. Between the depths and the heights, a vast middle is often excluded, a space of silence.
The general effect is of blocklike, simplistic structures deliberately drained of drama but drenched in a contemplative mood that varies little. (The paradox of new music for an early-instrument ensemble should not go unremarked, but Mr. Tavener minimizes any incongruity.)
With "The Sinking of the Titanic" several years ago, predating the musical and the movie, Mr. Bryars imagined an acoustic mirage: the hymns of the band somehow continuing and dissolving into the black and icy water. The effect was ingenious and deeply haunting. Now the composer recalls the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, in which his friend and sound engineer Bill Cadman lost his life. Mr. Bryars's title "Cadman Requiem" (Point Music 462 5U-2; CD) puns on Britain's ancient religious bard Caedmon, whose verses Me; Bryars introduces between sections of the traditional Requiem. The crusty Old English within the Latin context works a contrast not unlike serpentine interjections of Greek within Mr. Tavener's English. In the spectrum of sounds Mr. Bryars draws from the celebrated vocalists of the Hilliard Ensemble and from Fretwork, a six-person consort of viols, he leaves Mr. Tavener far behind. The textures vary from densely layered passages to strangely splintered ones, where the principal musical line keeps switching from one voice to another.
The two Caedmon solos unfold in a less archaic, more melodic idiom, and are delivered in individual fashion by the arresting tenor John Potter and the robust but rough baritone Gordon Jones. Still, the general impression is much the same. In our minds, we are back in the Middle Ages, the heavy drone again doing its part.
Without exploding the faux-medieval style, Mr. Preisner's "Requiem for My Friend" (Erato 3984-24146-2; CD) goes a good deal farther. Careful readers of film credits may recognize the composer's name from Hector Babenco's "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," Agnieska Holland's "Secret Garden" and Louis Malle's "Damage," as well as numerous films by Krzysztof Kieslowski, the friend in question ("Decalogue," "The Double Life of Véronique" and the "Three Colors" series, "Blue," "White" and" Red").
Titled "Requiem," the first section of Mr. Preisner's work, his first independent large-scale composition, confirms his facility in creating atmosphere. The church ambiance is overwhelming in long echoes and the groans of the organ. Bells, cymbals,tangy chromaticism, a pastoral fiddle solo, the impersonal declamation of the text, the babbling innocence of a countertenor solo (not to mention the presence of a countertenor in the first place) and the lovely lisping, shushing sonority of passages in Polish: all these transport a listener deep into imaginary mists of time. (Strange to say, a disembodied, pulsing" Hosanna" recalls a "Kyrie" In Maury Yeston's remarkable score for the Broadway musical "Nine.")
In Part 2, which bears the title "Life" (uh-oh!), Mr. Preisner pulls more motley material from his hat. A breathy chanteuse noodles lazily. A flute planes and hovers like a condor on "Nature." A long, aimless processional starts and goes nowhere as a chorus sings in Greek.
Pure movie music, alas. So much for the willing suspension of disbelief.