This Trinity Sunday we take a look at 3 composers who express different aspects of God through their music. Each composer has been inspired by different Christian traditions but all, I believe, talk about fundamentally catholic views of God.
I will recommend 3 pieces, one from each composer, which should give an idea of their musical styles and their expressions.
1. For the beauty of the Earth – John Rutter (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bDoMflYErE)
2. Aeternum – Bernat Vivancos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgGJK6SRbP4&list=OLAK5uy_mcFG4-LNHw6hMz24MtDsFhcw4ACjWzha8)
3. Te Deum – Arvo Pärt (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VU7TVEscPcc&t=533s)
Our first composer we will look at is John Rutter the English composer. Rutter writes music from an Anglican background and often draws attention to the beauty of God as expressed in nature. His pieces often evoke a sense of Gods loving kindness and tenderness through their sweet and delicate melodies. It is very reminiscent of the English hills and the British romantic period. This distinctly British perspective on God as expressed through nature is very prominent in Rutter’s work and reminds us that God can be found all around us. In the soft song of birds as we walk among the British countryside, we once again become aware of God’s gentleness and love for us. This world we see has been created by him and is meant to be enjoyed by all. We are drawn into the life of God through creation and it is through creation that God expresses his love for us (ultimately, he makes himself known through creation in the person of Jesus Christ). This connection that Britain has had with God as expressed through nature is found throughout English culture and can be seen expressed not just in protestant Britain but also before in its Catholic years. In the epic poem Piers Ploughman by William Langland we see an exploration of the important relationship that God has to creation. There is a sense of freedom and expansiveness about Rutter’s work which is rooted in the freedom and liberality of God. As we listen to Rutter’s songs we find ourselves almost floating away on the melodies and are carried along till finally we are laid to rest by God’s side. We awake from his dreamy music to remember that now we go forth with God by our side and that heaven can be found on earth as long as we stay there.
Our second composer is Bernat Vivancos the Spanish composer. His music is greatly influenced by his school years at the Benedictine Monastery of Montserrat. Here he was immersed in the beautiful music used throughout the Catholic liturgy. His requiem though is not a Catholic mass setting but instead his honest perspective and meditations on what it means for a human to cease to be. The ethereal and spectral nature of his music draws beyond the material world. This is something so essential when considering death. From a material perspective so little seems to change in the world when someone dies yet our entire metaphysical perspective on life is often radically transformed. Vivancos’ music helps us understand this better by encouraging us to recognize the transcendental. The music often begins quietly but then rises towards a loud and tense climax before softly dying away. As the music swells up and down throughout the song we are washed about between a sense of emptiness and loneliness and then a great agony and a feeling of being crushed. Vivancos’ uses these extremes to make us aware of the higher realities which we are seeking. In the emptiness and loneliness of the quiet we hear a voice. We here God reaching out through the abyss towards us. We are made aware that the quiet exists as an absence of something and that something is God. I mean that in a two-fold sense. That firstly in the quiet we hear God. That silence tells us something specifically about God. Secondly though that the absence shows us that something is God in the sense that God is what IS. Being is fundamentally rooted in God. Similarly in the swelling of the music we hear something of a scream. The agony of the absence found in death is made present through the noise. We often find that as the music diminishes again we are left with one or two solitary sounds which remind us that there is still something remaining and speaking underneath all this. The high pitched notes still ring out in our ears long after they have ceased to be played. The suffering that we hear expressed imprints itself upon us and remains long after the event has ceased. We are left with an image of the woman who screams out in grief and now lies upon the floor weeping quietly. The sounds of the female singers reminds us of the suffering that our lady felt as she watched our Lord die at Calvary. The growing sounds of the male voices come in giving a sense of grounding and act almost like a consoling reply from God himself. The whole piece plays out as a conversation between the individual groaning and screaming out but to who. Of course, if there is no one to listen then why call out. The silence once again speaks. Listening to every sound it is the eternal transcendental Truth making himself known to the one in grief and consoling them in the silence when no one else is there. Ultimately I think this piece is so powerful because it reminds us of how God talks to us through absence. That even in death when we see so sorely the loss of life. God speaks out to us and consoles us and we are made aware once again of how he transforms death into life and suffering into joy.
Our third and final composer is Arvo Pärt the Estonian composer. From an Orthodox background he has an interest in Gregorian chant and utilizes elements of its sound in his music. Famed for his tintinnabuli style which works by utilizing musical extremes. This style allows him to explore many important questions about God through his music. By using musical extremes in dynamics, tempo, pitch and so on he can examine questions about suffering and consolation, loss and hope and thereby better help us to understand the nature of God’s love. In his piece Te Deum which is a composition based on the words of the ancient Christian hymn by the same name. The song whose full title is “Te Deum laudamus” meaning “Thee, O God, we praise” has been a popular hymn in the roman rite for a long time and here Pärt’s re-imagining of it brings new light to the piece. As the volume of the music rises, we are shown the grandeur of God. His glory and majesty almost overwhelming us. We see something of his power and understand perhaps for the first time why it was said by God in exodus 33:20 that “Thou canst not see my face: for man shall not see me and live.” This extreme is contrasted with quiet and softness subsequently. There we see God’s beauty and gentleness. How tender he is to those he loves and how he longs for us to come to know him for he is our greatest good. The sudden burst of noise that breaks through this silence wakes us up and almost strikes us with fear. As if we have become complacent and fallen away from God. He strikes fear into us reminding us of his awesome power. We see of the great and terrible pain and suffering we must endure if we part from him. We see that apart from him we are nothing. Throughout the piece we continue to see this tension explored. One which reminds us of the necessity for a fear of God ground not in self pity but a recognition of what we loose in leaving God behind. This is then contrasted with the great majesty, love and kindness of God. The beautiful Truth that ever seeks out mankind. Who remains loyal to his covenant with his people. An old an ancient God who is very much alive and powerful. Always new and yet never changing.
These three composers each express deeply important aspects of the Christian faith. Their backgrounds have led them to see these eternal truths from different perspectives which therefore allows us to see more clearly how God works through our lives. Whether it be an emphasis on the beauty of creation as found in Rutter, the ever present God who is found even in the darkest of places for Vivancos, or the awe-inspiring God who is the one to whom all we love depends upon in Pärt. They all remind us that we have a powerful and loving God who cares for us even in the darkest of times and who speaks to us through every moment of our existence calling us into ever deeper union with him.