It is something of a surprise to many music lovers to be told that the composer of their favourite piece of religious music, whether requiem mass, sacred oratorio, anthem, Christmas carol or hymn tune, held atheistic or agnostic beliefs -- or simply didn't believe in anything at all, perhaps not having thought of religion beyond that of their own creative obsession.
It is most likely that composers in general did not, and do not, have the kind of religious beliefs that are clearly defined by a carefully declared philosophy. Many seemed to regard the matter as relatively unimportant, unless like Bruckner, Messiaen or John Tavener (as very different examples in their own ways, taken at random) their religious beliefs were held central to their work. Few would declare themselves agnostic, after T E Huxley -- those doubting without proof -- or atheists with an active disbelief in God's existence.
Sir Hubert Parry (of whom it was said would set the whole Bible to music had he but time) was an agnostic with a very deep respect for fundamental Christian doctrine and the spiritual value of the St James Bible. Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert had little time even to think about it beyond the opportunism that writing for the church presented, for the church had great resources. It may even be that Palestrina's fabulous contribution to the music of the Catholic church was a result of his unerring technical command of those musical resources, and fine singers and architecture of unequalled acoustic qualities. His gifts did not need belief to authorise them. After all, he had practical feet firmly on the ground rather than in the heavens, being an astute business man with commercial vineyards and a wealthy wife from whose late husband he inherited and successful ran a fur trade.
Although Brahms occasionally drew on biblical texts, he maintained a hearty distain for the church. Debussy, like Cyril Scott and several English composers of the 1920s, found greater attraction in the occult, and Vaughan Williams, architect of the English Hymnal, claimed no great interest in the church. Benjamin Britten would no doubt have supported sentiments expressed recently by John Rutter, and echoed by many others who currently inspire the Christian world with songs of religious affirmation and joy, that it is not necessary to believe to take pleasure in singing religious praises.
In 1902 Parry wrote 'music deals with the inward man and not with what is external to him', and with that quote in Bernard Benoliel's fine book on Parry (Ashgate) is one from a letter Beethoven wrote to Bettina von Armin in 1812: 'There is no goodness except in the possession of a good soul'.
Listeners should hear the music, not question the musician.
Copyright © 20 December 2007 Patric Standford,