December 23, 2020

“I owe Christianity a huge debt,” the best-loved living composer of Christmas music said. “And it is rather ungrateful of me not to believe in it more.” John Rutter’s sweetly singable modern carols, anthems and large-scale choral works have filled churches and halls around the world since the late 1970s. The New York Times even dubbed him, a little impiously, “the composer who owns Christmas”.

Yet the choirs’, and congregations’, favourite describes himself only as “friend, fellow traveller, and agnostic supporter of the Christian faith”. He has problems with God as a controlling deity: “a bit like a Mafia don who is capable of doing good and charitable things, but also almost takes pleasure in doing malicious and harmful things”. Covid-19 might surely count as one of those mafioso stunts. Undaunted, the tireless and selfless Rutter has just written a new seasonal piece, Joseph’s Carol, in honour of the scientists who worked on the Oxford vaccine. It premiered in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre last Friday.

Christmas is the time for atheists, agnostics, heretics, waverers and those whose frail faith patchily comes and goes like the reception of Magic FM in the Chilterns (as Boris Johnson once put it) to drown their doubts and enjoy the glorious musical monuments to centuries of firm belief. Except that, often, they are no such thing. Rutter, the sympathetic “fellow traveller” with Christianity, stands on the shoulders of musical giants who shared his semi-detachment, yet laid down much of the Western soundtrack of religious observance.

“There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good Mass,” said Ralph Vaughan Williams — a “cheerful agnostic” who spent half a century revitalising the music of the Church of England, after he edited the English Hymnal in 1906 and wrote, or adapted from folk-songs, some of its best tunes. (The melody for “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was collected from a Surrey farmhand.) Some atheists did write masses, though a groping, stumbling doubt marks many sceptical masterworks more than confident unbelief. Still, even a church-averse anti-clericalism has never held composers of sacred music back. Camille Saint-Saëns had “a repugnance for religious ceremonial”. But he wrote more than 50 ecclesiastical works — a rather lovely Christmas Oratorio among them.

In his splendidly sourced and argued book Dominion, Tom Holland has shown how Christian precepts and feelings shape today’s secularism. Ghosts of church doctrine and practice guide the superficially godless creeds of contemporary politics and culture. However, the musical canon of the past two centuries indicates that this traffic flows two ways. The modern Christian culture that many people like to revisit as tourists at Christmas itself owes much to non- or half-believers.

“There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” wrote Walter Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. Pay attention to the post-Enlightenment musical record, and you might decide that there is (almost) no first-rate document of faith that is not at the same time a document of doubt.

Verdi’s Requiem; Brahms’s German Requiem; Berlioz’s mighty trio of sacred humdingers (L’Enfance du Christ, the Te Deum, the Grande Messe des Morts); those five decades of Vaughan Williams from the Hymnal to Pilgrim’s Progress (about which the composer said “I wanted the idea to be universal and to apply to anybody who aims at the spiritual life”), Benjamin Britten’s lifelong service to church and choir; even Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, written by an artist drifting away from the Catholicism of his youth: questing doubt or overt scepticism often seems not a hindrance but a requirement for the post-Romantic sacred masterpiece.

Beethoven himself wrote his Missa Solemnis after a lifetime’s search for a personal God beyond creed and rite (he read and admired Hindu scriptures). Brahms’s Requiem gloriously defies divine transcendence in favour of human mourning and yearning. When Dvořák, who did keep his Catholic faith, visited his idol, he was aghast: “Such a man, such a fine soul — and he believes in nothing! He believes in nothing!”

Verdi thunderously, and poignantly, celebrates the life of novelist Alessandro Manzoni and rails against death in his Requiem. Its awe and terror came, though, from a spirit with little supernatural anchorage. His wife Giuseppina numbered him among those who while “observing every precept of the highest moral code, are happier believing in nothing”. It vexed her that “this brigand permits himself to be, I won’t say an atheist, but certainly very little of a believer, and that with an obstinacy and calm that make me want to beat him.”

These testimonies come only from the past two centuries, when doubt and disbelief could find a voice in some Western societies without fearing the cell, rack and pyre — or, at best, social ostracism and professional death. Before that, compulsory piety often draws a veil over private heterodoxy. There’s no reason to doubt the Lutheran devotion that animates every note of Bach. But even that default Christmas blockbuster, Handel’s oratorio Messiah, attracted 18th-century suspicion for its weird choice of Biblical texts and sensational, operatic treatment of their words. One minister denounced it as “no better than a profanation of the name and truths of God”.

Some Christian apologists claim that the music may embody a faith so deep that it can even hide from the conscious mind of its creator. Others resort to the traditional standby of divine inspiration itself. It’s hard to argue with that. Or they may acknowledge that artists can reject dogma, priesthood, ritual and all the paraphernalia of church control while staying true to a spirituality free of walls and laws.

That makes most sense, perhaps. And there’s little evidence that the serial composition of sacred works leads their makers inexorably towards some institutional definition of the one true God. We do know that figures such as Vaughan Williams wrote sacred pieces with utter sincerity as if the scriptures they set were true. Their faith, if it exists, lies within the music, not behind or beyond it.

Nostalgia for the lost certainties of childhood may also drive sacred music from former believers. The church, wrote Berlioz, had given him seven years of youthful joy: “Although we have long since fallen out, I have always kept tender memories of it.” (More pointedly, he calls the Catholicism of his upbringing “this charming religion, so attractive since it gave up burning people”.) Listen to L’Enfance du Christ, with its “Shepherd’s Farewell” that might melt an infidel heart of Dawkins-grade quartz, and that nostalgia has an oceanic force. But if Berlioz had a god, it was William Shakespeare.

In Britain, the career-long commitment of Vaughan Williams, Britten and Rutter to the renewal of church music did not lead to road-to-Damascus personal revelations. Britten, so his life-partner Peter Pears maintained, remained “an agnostic with a great love for Jesus Christ”.

Herbert Howells, composer of subtly gorgeous Anglican liturgical works (listen, for instance, to his three Christmas Carol-Anthems), lost rather than gained faith as time went by. “People assume he must have been deeply religious,” his wife Ursula reported, “and I have to tell them he wasn’t. He loved the tradition of the church, and the Bible as literature. But he was never more than an agnostic who veered toward belief.”

At this time of year, plenty of people “veer towards belief” for a while. They approach the sublime sentiments of festive showpieces “Hoping it might be so” — as Thomas Hardy’s Christmas Eve poem “The Oxen” puts it. It should comfort them to know that many of these works emerged not out of rock-solid faith but radical uncertainty. Their creators were not hypocrites, dissemblers, or wishy-washy faint-hearts; nor are they.

Earlier this year, John Rutter told a Vatican conference that composers, formal believers or not, may have a sense of faith “because music is a mystery, just as faith is a mystery”. Musicians, he said, “are at home with the transcendental”. Perhaps we should just enjoy the sacred music of the past with a measure of humility about its origins and meaning, then and now. So, not-quite-believers, listen to this year’s live-streamed Midnight Mass with a glad heart and a clear conscience. Honest doubt has built many great cathedrals of sound.