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Musical Representations of Religious Experience

edited by
Siglind Bruhn


Introduction (Siglind Bruhn)


Part I: Signs of Transcendence and couleur locale

Of Spain and Sin: A Glance at Wolf's Spanisches Liederbuch (Susan Youens)


From Paganism to Orthodoxy to Theosophy: Reflections of Other Worlds in the Piano Music of Rachmaninov and Scriabin (Anatole Leikin)


Part II: Lifting the Secular Veil

A Sermon for Fishes in a Secular Age: On the Scherzo Movement of Mahler's Second Symphony (Magnar Breivik)


Music, Religious Experience, and Transcendence in Ben Jonson's Masque of Beautie: A Case Study in Collaborative Form (Anthony Johnson)


The Truth Ineffably Divine: The Loss and Recovery of the Sacred in Richard Wagner's Parsifal (Robert A. Davis)


Part III: Temptation, Death, and Resurrection

Eschatological Aspects in Music: The Dream of Gerontius by Edward Elgar (Eva Maria Jensen)


Wordless Songs of Love, Glory, and Resurrection: Musical Emblems of the Holy in Hindemith's Saints (Siglind Bruhn)


The Passion According to Penderecki (Danuta Mirka)


Part IV: The Divine Breath of Worldly Music

Spiritual Descents and Ascents: Religious Implications in Pronounced Motion to the Subdominant and Beyond (Chandler Carter)


Time and Divine Providence in Mozart's Music (Nils Holger Petersen)


Music and the Ineffable (Eyolf Østrem)


The Contributors


Siglind Bruhn

The relationship between music and religion has long been a clearly delineated one, seemingly requiring little verbalization, much less justification. Up to the late Middle Ages, music employed for ritual expressions of faith in sacred contexts and for evocations of the numinous (as, e.g., in the theater) was contrasted with music presented for entertainment, be it that of an aristocracy with too much time to fill, or that of the common people with a need for diversion from their hard lives. Both the highly intricate works played in the august halls of princely palaces and the easily accessible genres presented in the open air on market squares and the like were eventually referred to as "secular" in nature. The distinction was understood to denote the spiritual as well as the aesthetic impact: music heard as a pastime or background to other activities (like formal dining or dancing) fulfilled different purposes and consequently conveyed different messages from music heard in the context of rituals addressing human erring and divine Redemption, or right versus wrong human conduct. The latter was believed to aid in the communication of eternal truth, while the former was suspected of arousing sensuality and thus potentially leading away from the spiritual perspective of life.

In subsequent centuries, music offered for entertainment at various levels of sophistication spilled from the courtly salons to the concert hall and the home. Such music, created for virtuoso performance or for the enjoyment in private chambers, occasionally made room for an expression of religious experiences outside the dedicated spaces of worship and moral edification. This aspect is particularly intriguing in instrumental music, where allusions to extra-musical messages are at best hinted at in titles or explanatory notes, and in those cases of vocal music where it can be shown that the musical language adds a subtext or at least significant nuances to the verbal text.

Based on case studies that transcend a music-analytical approach in the direction of the hermeneutic perspective, the essays collected in this volume set out to explore how the musical language in itself, independently of an explicitly sacred context, conveys the ineffable. The focus is on the musical means and devices employed to this effect and on the question what the presence of religious messages in certain works of secular music tells us about the spirituality of an era.

Great care has been taken to gather contributions that address various notions of the term "spiritual" and explore musical works from across the span of the common-practice period of Western music (from the 16th to the 20th centuries) and from a variety of genres-solo piano music, string quartets, and symphonies; early music drama and its Wagnerian and later offspring; piano-accompanied lieder as well as Romantic and modern oratorios, and even ballet music.

The first two essays explore how traits of local musical traditions are employed-either by cultural outsiders who interpret their "otherness" to effects suiting their own ends, or by composers emerging from within the tradition and exploiting its signaling functions. In her essay, "Of Spain and Sin: A Glance at Wolf's Spanisches Liederbuch," Susan Youens investigates the ambivalent attraction of Spain to the German imagination in two poems from Emanuel Geibel's and Paul Heyse's Spanisches Liederbuch. She argues convincingly that the composer's idiosyncratic, post-Wagnerian concept of the numinous as well as his anguish about his own sexuality, which brought him into conflict with rigid Catholic sexual morality, have influenced his music and may have contributed to a sense of identification with mythical Spanish religiosity.

This picture from the South-Eastern part of Europe is complemented by one from the North-West. In "From Paganism to Orthodoxy to Theosophy: Reflections of Other Worlds in the Piano Music of Rachmaninov and Scriabin," Anatole Leikin discusses ancient pagan traditions, Orthodox Christianity, and later mystical beliefs in Russia in connection with instrumental music. The essay traces how certain characteristics of musical language associated with or influenced by various religious experiences found their way into the 19th- and early 20th-century piano repertoire, particularly that of Rachmaninov and Scriabin.

Part II of the collection deals with music that served secular goals at least at the surface: the masques performed, with the active participation of the English aristocracy, at the court of King James, Richard Wagner's operas, most of which played to late-19th-century Germany's taste for Nordic myths, and Mahler's symphonies, which satisfied early-20th-century Viennese audiences' hunger for recognizable folkloric ingredients. As the three studies show, even such purportedly worldly compositions may be designed along concealed spiritual agendas.

Magnar Breivik's essay, "A Sermon for Fishes in a Secular Age: On the Scherzo Movement of Mahler's Second Symphony," reads Gustav Mahler's second symphony as a giant depiction of the dualism of human death and eternal life. Between the first movement, "Totenfeier" (Funeral), and the extensive "Auferstehung" (Resurrection) finale, the works includes three intermediate movements. According to Mahler's program notes, in the third movement, often referred to as the scherzo, "the spirit of disbelief and renunciation" has seized the fictive protagonist. The movement is based on the composer's prior setting of "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" from the collection of German folk poetry, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Breivik explores the music in this piece in relation to the legend and its parable, as a senseless and purposeless dance of human renunciation denoting denial and the spirit of alienation from traditional faith in a secular fin-de-siècle.

In "Music, Religious Experience, and Transcendence in Ben Jonson's Masque of Beautie: A Case Study in Collaborative Form," Anthony Johnson draws on the fact that, as recent research has suggested, a number of Stuart Masques (particularly those produced in a collaboration of the poet, Ben Jonson, and the architect, Inigo Jones) may be structured around "transcendent moments": complementary nodes in which their scenic, choreographic, and textual architectonics key in with one another through the Platonic/Pythagorean number harmonies which were common to the arts of the time. Where the music played to these masques, which was written primarily by Alphonso Ferrabosco II and Nicholas Lanier, survives, there is evidence to suggest that this aspect, too, may have been formally arranged to complement the same transcendent moments. Johnson examines the musical, scenographic, and literary collaboration on the Stuart court masques and discusses the implications of the "transcendent moments" they create as surrogates for religious experience.

Robert Davies, in his essay, "The Truth Ineffably Divine: The Loss and Recovery of the Sacred in Richard Wagner's Parsifal," analyzes the representation of the sacred in Romantic art. Parsifal's tangled and problematic roots in medieval romance, in Christian allegory, and in the aesthetics of the Wagnerian music drama give rise to forms of subjectivity that redefine traditional conceptions of the sacred. The author argues that the internalization of quest-romance that is such a dominant pattern in Parsifal, while appearing to affirm a traditional apprehension of the ineffable, in fact involves a radical reworking of the forms of religious experience for an essentially godless modernity.

The three essays of Part III deal with subject matters that are more specifically sacred; in each case, at least one aspect of the work is found to be presented from an unexpected angle.

In "Eschatological Aspects in Edward Elgar's Dream of Gerontius," Eva Maria Jensen reads this concert-oratorio, which is based on a text by Cardinal Newman, as a secularized interpretation of death and salvation whereby religious qualities have been reduced to aesthetic attributes. She analyzes how Elgar copes with the eschatological aspects of Newman's text and, particularly, how he expresses in music-in a work that, while unusual in many respects, stands firmly in the centuries-long tradition of European oratorio writing-those issues that are difficult if not altogether impossible to express in words.

In "Wordless Songs of Love, Glory, and Resurrection: Musical Emblems of the Holy in Hindemith's Saints," Siglind Bruhn discusses Hindemith's three musical portrayals of canonized persons in compositions not intended for sacred functions: Saint Francis of Assisi, protagonist of the ballet Nobilissima Visione, Saint Antony of Egypt, the visionary impersonation of the painter Grünewald in the opera Mathis der Maler, and the Virgin Mary, whom the composer places at the center of a highly provocative tension between spirituality and sensuality in his two versions of the Rilke song cycle Das Marienleben. Bruhn observes that in all three cases, the composer introduces the protagonists with historic quotations: a trouvère song, a Lutheran choral, and a 14th-century Easter hymn respectively. She argues that both the initial choice of the pre-existing musical material and its further development within a 20th-century composition serve to characterize the protagonists in their struggle between spiritual quest and human temptations in the midst of their idiosyncratic concerns.

Danuta Mirka, in "Passion According to Penderecki," addresses the general question of how the internal structure of a compositional system determines the expression of a work, and offers a persuasive answer with regard to the sonoristic system of binarily opposed sound-masses in Penderecki's interpretation of the Passion drama. She juxtaposes the composer's sonoristic instrumental writing, employed in sections of the Gospel text that depict dramatic aspects of the story (and particularly the extreme emotional states ascribed here to the suffering Christ) with his vocal writing based on twelve-tone principles, which he uses in the settings of hymns, psalms, and a sequence constituting the contemplative, liturgical comments to the events of the Good Friday.

Finally, Part IV of the volume addresses several of the overarching concerns shared by composers from diverse periods and places in their attempt at a musical representation of religious experience. Chandler Carter's essay, "Spiritual Descents and Ascents: Religious Implications in Pronounced Motion to the Subdominant and Beyond," builds on the fact that the nearly obligatory large-scale tonal motion in works of the common practice is to the region of the dominant harmony. Nonetheless, he argues, composers sometimes strongly emphasize the region of the subdominant or its harmonic extensions, even at or near structural cadences. In analyzing examples of such pronounced motions to the subdominant and beyond in works by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but also by Josquin, Schubert, and Verdi as well as Stravinsky, Vaughn Williams, and Ives--works in which either a text or an explicit program points to a religious or spiritual meaning--Carter speculates on the possibility that such tonal motion can imply a similar meaning also outside such explicitly stated contexts.

Mozart's person and music have been valued very differently in religious contexts. In his essay, "Time and Divine Providence in Mozart's Music," Nils Holger Petersen addresses not so much Mozart's personal relationship to Christianity, but argues that his works, including even non-texted compositions, can be read in a theological light. He proposes to take up the hermeneutical problems mainly through a discussion of the idea of musical form in relation to the traditional Christian understanding of the concept of time, a concept formulated by St Augustine in the late 4th century but prevalent in Christian theology ever since. Through a musical double example, two string quartet movements from the quartets in d minor (K. 173 and 421), Petersen shows how the musical structure in Mozart's work can be understood to deepen traits of a Christian understanding of time and history.

In the final essay, "Music and the Ineffable," Eyolf Østrem looks into the aesthetic history of the assumption that music may be particularly apt at expressing the ineffable. He presents two approaches to the notion of "the ineffable," one an historical understanding based on concepts about God's ineffability as developed by Jerome and Augustine, the other a philosophical evaluation of the term in light of modern language philosophy. While according to Jerome, God exceeds any comprehension, Augustine allowed for an understanding beyond language, based on sensual experiences that suggest the ineffable God by way of analogy. Less prominent during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, these thoughts resurfaced with the German Romantics and their aesthetics. Their notion of the character of absolute music resembled Augustine's notion of the ineffable God. Finally, Østrem shows how the "loss of the referent" stated in the writings of Saussure, Wittgenstein, and Derrida has not only reshaped our view of language, but has also made it possible to re-construe music's relationship to the spoken word.