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O come, all ye faithless The drive to create sacred music isn't always born of unswerving belief

You don't have to be Christian to write a good carol. Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

You don't have to be Christian to write a good carol. Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images


December 23, 2020   5 mins

“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-SaĂ«ns 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 Dvoƙák, 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.


Boyd Tonkin is a journalist, editor, and literary and music critic, and author recently of The 100 Best Novels in Translation.

BoydTonkin

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Katy Randle
Katy Randle
3 years ago

As a professional singer and a non-believer, I can vouch for the fact that music is its own mystery. I have often been approached after oratorio performances by those who are convinced that my faith is apparent in my delivery – I just smile. No point in upsetting people needlessly.

I find it an interesting point that many of the most powerful works were written by those who doubt. Certainty can often manifest as complacency, and that is a dreadful basis for art.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Katy Randle

If what those people who approach you is true, it doesn’t depend on your sharing their belief!

rbailey5555
rbailey5555
3 years ago

Perhaps the wonderful sacred music of Christmas reflects a longing for the certainty of the divine for those composers whose faith is in doubt.

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

Do you have to believe in God with your conscious mind to do God’s work? The sermon from Ely Cathedral last Sunday mentioned a theologist who said that God doesn’t keep bothering people who do not accept that He has revealed Himself to them. But God can still move you and guide your hand without you understanding that is what is happening. He can address you directly, out loud and you can obey His command and still in your arrogance refuse to accept that has happened, because you define yourself in relation to modern ‘scientific’ ideas about reality and rationality.

That does not mean God has failed to impart Himself to you or that your creative inspiration is not divine, though it may not be. But if it is, its divinity will be obvious to those who hear it. Musicians and composers in particular, in fact provide a line of communication for others.

A few years ago the chimney sweep I called out turned out to be a chap of nearly 80, who was a Mormon. He’d left school aged 14 and worked for a coal merchant and then doing similar hard and filthy jobs in the power stations. He’d had no formal musical education but after he became religious God had inspired him to write a couple of hymns. He sang them to me, in his beautiful wavering, high tenor voice on that late autumn morning in a shaft of sunlight as it streamed in through the drawing room windows. I am familiar with the Mormon musical tradition and we’d sung some Mack Wilberg arrangements at choir, it may be that he was just singing 2 beautiful hymns he liked. I only have his word against my own ignorance of particular Mormon hymns that he’d really written them in a moment of divine inspiration, but it was a wonderful experience I’ll never forget. Though sadly I had a chimney fire a couple of weeks later.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Some years ago when taking my grandchildren around a South London Park to see life sized, Victorian, replicas of Dinosaurs, one of them piped up with “what was God doing when Dinosaurs were around?”. To which I could only answer “not a lot”.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

If every breath we take is enabled by God, we do not have to believe to do His work!

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago

Music to the ears of us devout sceptics!

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

‘In his splendidly sourced and argued book Dominion, Tom Holland has shown how Christian precepts and feelings shape today’s secularism.’

I didn’t find this book to be ‘splendid’ at all. Instead, I found vast chunks of lumpen, regurgitated history that made a number of extremely tenuous claims as to Christianity’s shaping of ‘today’s secularism’. Perhaps most tenuous of all is Holland’s claim that Christianity underpins the woke/SJW movement when, quite plainly, there is nothing remotely Christian or forgiving about these people. I read another of Holland’s books this year and that, too, was very poor. Bah humbug!

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I couldn’t agree more! A hopeless book.
Holland completely ignored the incontrovertible fact that the entire matrix of Western Civilisation is the inestimable gift of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Sadly, we will not see their like again.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Well I think you can probably claim that the West was partly shaped by Christianity, with some Ancient Greece and Rome thrown in. Other factors, of course, would be the fact that the Industrial Revolution took place here, and the Enlightenment. Of course, Holland would claim that the Enlightenment arose from Christianity and I have no problem with that to some extent. It’s just that he overstates his case and is, in my opinion, a bad writer.

Anyway, all these elements, and doubtless many others, combined and conspired to create the West which, for all its faults, gave the world the fairest and most advanced societies in history, with the possible exception of present day Japan.

As things stand, however, the West is going backwards very quickly. Or, if you prefer, forwards into a future that is unmoored from both reason and religion, and likely to be very bad indeed. The West seems now to be based largely on nothing but the printing of fake money for fake jobs. Our governments and governing structures, for some decades now, have been devoid of all competence or integrity. Our corporations are often competent – even too competent in some respects – but lack all integrity. Our education systems are devoid of all reason, rigour or discipline. And one could go on.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Well under the chicken and egg theory, the Classical World predates Christianity by several centuries. JC & Co were just an unfortunate mystical, oriental cult that gained traction because of tensions within the Roman administration. They also introduced some weird ‘desert’ taboos in terms of art, treatment of women, intolerance etc, that we are still saddled with.

However the complete decadence of the West that you describe is all too real. We seem to be intellectually and morally exhausted, and bent on self destruction.
This bodes ill with Fu Manchu & Co snapping at our heels.

The irony is that the greatest event in human history bar none, the Industrial Revolution took place in England/Cornwall. (Not a Scotchman in sight). Even the sainted Romans had rejected it under Vespasian!
Now the wretched Chinese, who have piggy backed our ‘genius’ are about to hoist us on our petard!

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago

I don’t think it is true to say that Rutter ‘laid down much of the Western soundtrack of religious observance.’

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

I think John Rutter is right to see a connection between music and faith. Somebody once said that music is the “gateway to Heaven”. That was a poetic way of saying that music can help us to feel after and perhaps even experience something of the Cosmic Mystery if you are an unbeliever, or to reach out and be deeply moved by the presence of God if you are a believer.
Many unbelievers and those on the edge of faith have told me that a beautiful piece of music, or a breathtaking view etc. can grant them a moment of transcendence when they feel they are in the presence of Mystery. However the big difference between that and the Christian believer is that he/she knows who the Mystery is, and because of His grace and mercy can relate to Him as a child relates to a loving father. Added to this there is a more than confident hope that this relationship with God the Father (made possible through the work on earth of Jesus Christ, God the Son, and made real in our lives through God the Holy Spirit) will continue into Eternity.
This means that there is a fundamental difference between the worship of the unbeliever, devout sceptic or whatever they want to call themselves and the worship offered by the believing and committed Christian. For the unbeliever the notes composed or the words written and sung are devoid of the true qualities of worship God asks of His people. And they are love,gratitude,humility and the deepest appreciation of who God is as revealed in the Bible, and also the deepest appreciation of what God has done for humanity through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Unbelieving, sceptical and sarcastic composers and poets may well produce,through God’s grace, sublime works which believers can use as vehicles of worship. But the same composers and poets,and those of like mind,will never be able to understand or experience the presence, power, mercy and love of God in worship or in anything else unless and until they repent and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ which is the true gateway to Heaven.

Tony Nunn
Tony Nunn
3 years ago

Having read the article I found myself wondering about the faith, or otherwise, of earlier composers like Thomas Tallis, “the father of English church music”. Tallis was undoubtedly a pragmatist who maintained his career as a composer and Gentleman of the Chapel Royal through the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, adapting his style to suit the prevailing orthodoxy, but what did he actually believe? Was he an agnostic like his much later admirer Vaughan Williams? Or was he, as I would like to think, a believer whose personal faith transcended the religious politics of his day?

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Nunn

He was the Word Who spake it
He took the bread and brake it
And What His Word doth make it
That I believe and take it.

Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
3 years ago

Personally I find Rutters music shallow and completely devoid of the spiritual. Style wise it’s easy to spot and even easier to forget.

Michael Dawson
Michael Dawson
3 years ago

Thanks for a very informative article. Sorry I don’t have anything at all insightful to contribute beyond my gratitude.