Sunday, November 4, 2007

I’m a Believer

Josquin Des Prez/The Hilliard Ensemble (Sacred)
LP: Motets et Chansons (EMI, 1984)

It’s Sunday morning and I’m enjoying one of my favorite CDs - a Hilliard Ensemble recording of some enchanting motets written by Josquin Des Prez (c. 1450 - 1521), the master of High Renaissance polyphonic vocal music.

Known as the greatest composer of his age, Josquin's mastery of technique and expression was universally imitated and admired. Figures as diverse as the Renaissance courtier Castiglione and church reformer Martin Luther sang his praises.

Writing in a period of unquestioning belief in the literal truths of Christianity, Josquin's art is a reminder of a time when religion ruled peoples’ lives and the church was the principle sponsor of the arts. Soothing yet mysterious, ecstatic yet restrained, his music invokes a joy almost too deep to behold.

But you do not have to be a Christian to experience the profound mystery at the heart of Josquin‘s music. If the purpose of religion is to unite us with some essential part of our nature - the Latin religio means ‘to bind or connect’ - this suggests that there is a religious impulse informing all musical creation.

Just as the great religious works should be read as poetry rather than prose, the power and meaning of sacred music is to be found in the metaphorical, beyond words, beyond even language itself. Literalism here is the enemy of understanding.

Perhaps Brahms was mistaken when he condemned, “young composers who are atheists,” asserting that “they are doomed to speedy oblivion, because they are utterly lacking in inspiration. Their works are purely cerebral.”

On the contrary. The materialist who rejects supernatural phenomena in favor of a naturalistic view of life is neither denied religious experience nor prevented from engaging with 'religious' music. You do not have to be a Christian to be enraptured by a medieval mass, nor do you have to follow Islam to be thrilled by qawalli. Both are capable of alerting believer and non-believer alike to the mystery of creation.

Though I’m an atheist, Christmas wouldn’t be quite the same without the poetic hymns and carols so beloved of my childhood, and there’s nothing like the sound of church bells ringing on a Sunday morning to start me waxing nostalgic. John Lennon’s first solo album - the one on which he proclaims, "I don't believe in Jesus" - famously opens with the sound of bells which he identified as a throwback to his boyhood.

No matter that science has made a housecleaning of faith. When it comes to sacred music, I'm a believer. Despite the advances of technology, there remains a mystery to life which is approached in the very act of creation. And whether it’s Des Prez, Debussy, or Doo Wop, music – and art in general – will remain one of the essential means by which we engage in that exploration.

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