by DANIEL HEILA
Being areligious, atheist, or just spiritually disinterested doesn’t mean you can’t get something out of sacred music or that it won’t speak to you, stimulate your intellect, your ear. Case in point: Cascadia Composers’ show last weekend, ‘The Desire for the Sacred,’ which mixed secular and sacred spiritualism. And this weekend, Cappella Romana, the Northwest’s foremost professional vocal ensemble, performs a major sacred work by a great 20th century Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Vigilia for a capella choir, that provokes, for me, questions about the relationship between sacred music and secular listeners. Performances in Portland on January 28 and 29 promise to be stirring events for believers and nonbelievers alike.
Rautavaara, who died last year at age 87, was known for abrupt and radical stylistic shifts. A young adept of the neoclassical era, he jumped ship in the mid-1950s to explore 12-tone and serial compositional techniques, a focus that prevailed through the ’60s, in commanding pieces with abstract titles: Praevariata, Modificata, Divertimento, Cantos (a favorite among structuralists). Toward the end of this period, his comic opera Apollo contra Marsyas foreshadowed Rautavaara’s turn to sensuous inspiration and concerns of the soul and heart as opposed to the mind. In an uncanny symbolism, and in line with the composer’s confessions of self-focus, Marsyas loses his hide (he is a satyr), his very outward being, after challenging Apollo, the supreme agent of reason, to a musical contest. It is hard not to see the abandoning of reason (Apollo/serialism) and the transformation (losing one’s hide) to sensuality/spirituality via metaphorical death — the Dionysus/Apollo dichotomy in its most personal expression.
In the 1970s, Rautavaara’s music became the servant of a spiritual transformation and fed the composer’s maturing sensuality and religiosity on into his later years—becoming a music that some call mystical. He was only one of many composers in the late 1960s and early ‘70s to abandon the deliberate modernism of the 12-tone row and total serialism and embrace tonal/modal music of static dynamics and repetitive forms. For Rautavaara and others, the American minimalists Reich and Riley included, that transformation involved re-examination of spiritual convictions and religious heritage.
In Estonia, Arvo Pärt fled the barren territory of modernism and the dogged oppression of Soviet culture henchmen to convalesce in ancient music forms only to return a master of mystical minimalism. His countryman Veljo Tormis had years earlier plunged into the virtually bottomless well of Baltic folk song to produce authigenic vocal works—expansive and primal—that have been performed internationally to great acclaim and that gained considerable momentum in the atmosphere of holy minimalism of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ’90s.
And across the Baltic Sea’s Gulf of Finland, Rautavaara, feeling that serialism produced results too far removed from the laborious compositional process to have sustainable meaning, tamed his angular, unforgivingly textural serial voice of the 1960s to produce transcendent vocal compositions held aloft by susurrous orchestral textures and often employing Christian sacred texts.
Vigilia (or All Night Vigil) from 1972, a setting of sections of the Eastern Orthodox Vespers, Matins, and First Hour based on the Orthodox vigil of St. John the Baptist for full a capella choir with solos—including basso profundo (sung in Portland by Grammy-winning soloist Glenn Miller)—is Rautavaara’s first piece with overt religious text. The 1970s produced other religious works (largely choral or vocal based) and Cantus Arcticus, an orchestral work which can be heard as a spiritual homage to the Arctic, to nature (a shared focus of American composer John Luther Adams), with the voices of the choir replaced by songs of birds performed via tape recordings. The opening of the composer’s heart absorbed his reverence for nature as well as his faith.
These postmodern spiritual compositions constitute some of the most widely performed and listened-to art music in the western world. What is the vital connection? Is it the texts (which are most often not in English) and their religious meaning, or is it the music’s penetrating, abstract tonality riding simple rhythms that rise and fall with corporeal respiration? This music pushes performers to the limit of their range—stratospheric soprano lines and leaps, bowels-of-the-Earth rumblings of basso profundi—and a listener cannot help but thrill at the endless marvel that is the human voice, with no need to apply the text’s meaning.
Something I ask myself when listening to programmatic music is, would the music sound the same without knowledge of the program? Would Rautavaara’s oeuvre be labeled mystical without titles that reference angels? And, with regard to his works with sacred texts, are these works given more attention because they have overt meaning attached, and do we swoon at their beauty because of the overt associations or because we are sensorially stimulated, experiencing pleasure — a notion that Christian authorities (and other religious authorities) have tried to repress in one way or another throughout history. Does the music serve the mysticism of the text or is the text illuminated by the mystical nature of music? I vote for the latter.
I for one do not identify as a religious person and religious texts tend to detract from my appreciation of music. But how is it that I can respond to sacred music so similarly to the devout if I have no religious associations? Because these texts are often in languages I do not understand (Finnish being one of them, I am ashamed to admit), I succeed in appreciating the music for its ability to transport me to a new place, a place free of suggested meaning, religious or otherwise, a place where I can feel wonder and awe at the music’s ability to charge my spirit. This I see as the (sadly hackneyed) universal appeal of music. Or better said, music’s universal numinousness. Mystical experience emanates from the self in response to our surroundings. Words used to describe those experiences corral our wonder into manageable frameworks of meaning. But isn’t the mystical, physical response the thing we crave, that thrills us deeply?
I think these are all very pertinent questions to ask when listening to sacred music as an areligious listener, and I hope they encourage you to take a chance. Don’t rob yourself of the beauty of sacred music. Take a chance to seek out the extra-textual mystical experience. The voice is the primal instrument, a physical expression of an individual’s soul, and a choir is a collective soul of great force. Perhaps, when a choir raises its voice in praise the text is simply terra firma, something to grab hold of, a way to not fly off into the terrible beauty that music can inflict.
Cappella Romana, conducted by John Boyer (Finnish conductor Timo Nuoranne, originally scheduled to direct, was delayed by visa problems) performs Vigilia twice in Portland this weekend, both in chapel environments—8 pm Saturday at St. Mary’s Cathedral, and 3 pm Sunday at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church. Click here for more information.
Daniel Heila writes music, plays flute, and loves words in Eugene.