Sunday, December 20, 2009

Do religion and music mix?

We are used to the idea that the state and religion are best kept separate. I would like to argue that music and religion should follow suit.

Some would argue that music is an ersatz religion, that when also goes well music can bring about experiences in us that are similar to religious ecstasy. If this is true, we should ask what happens when these two powerful cultural phenomena come together in the form of religious music.

Today I heard Franz Schmidt's oratorio The Book with Seven Seals performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Nikolaus Harnoncourt. This piece is my Exhibit A for why religion and music don't mix. It was written near the end of the composer's life and requires a large orchestra, six singers, choir and organist. With such big resources at hand it is an even greater pity that the music (first performed in 1938) is so run-of-the-mill and uninspired. It sounds like half-baked Hindemith.

When composers like Schmidt are overcome by the calling to set religious texts to music it seems that it is music that comes off second best. Perhaps they are blinded by their religious fervour to the point that they fail to notice that the music flowing from their pens is second rate. That is my argument for keeping music and religion separate. Religion only subjects music to extra-musical imperatives such as the worship of a supernatural being and music, at least in the case of many twentieth century composers, is the one that comes off worst. Let's keep them apart.

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