I lost my religious faith the day I discovered my father was a fifth columnist. I say lost, though it is perfectly possible I never truly had it. But there I was, 16 years old in my school uniform, wearing a paper badge that read ‘Jesus Saves!’ or perhaps ‘Smile, Jesus Loves You!’—something of the sort. It was about five centimetres in diameter and stuck to the lapel of my blazer. The words, whatever they actually proclaimed, were in orange lettering on a purple background. It was the 1970s.
‘Why do you wear that?’
As soon as dad framed his question, I knew I’d been rumbled. I blushed. Yet it was the obvious question, and what was this badge if not an invitation to ask it? Now that I’d been called to account, I floundered. Not only could I think of nothing to say to my father, I couldn’t even explain the badge to myself. At length, I mumbled something about God, to which dad replied that he didn’t believe in Him.
Now this was a surprise. My father was a man who could—and did—recite chunks of the Book of Common Prayer. Of course, it’s a quotable book, and dad’s recitation of passages from the Creed or the General Confession were not of a particularly pious nature.
‘We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,’ he once observed in the car, having taken several wrong turns; ‘Have you done those things you ought to have done?’ he was fond of asking, in relation to my homework. And it wasn’t just the prayer book: there were quotes from oratorio. He needed little prompting—a closed garage door would do it—to burst into ‘Fling wide the gates’ from Stainer’s Crucifixion.
So there was all that; but there was also family legend. I imagine all families must have this, parents asked to regale their children with stories about the times before they were born. In our house, many of these tales revolved around my parents’ attendance at St Lawrence’s Anglican Church in Liverpool. All their oldest friends had been in the congregation and my sister and I called them uncle and aunty. I had the sense that St Lawrence’s formed a kind of bedrock to our existence.
‘So what about St Lawrence’s, then?’
‘I was recruiting for the Labour Party,’ dad replied matter-of-factly.
Whether this was the whole truth, I never found out, but coupled with my shock at suddenly learning dad was not a believer, and a second shock—slightly smaller and tinged with relief—that perhaps neither was I, came welling pride. My father was a man of mystery! An infiltrator, a spy. Almost a double agent. Learning secrets about one’s parents can be discomfiting. When, as children, we demand to hear those old stories yet again, we want them to be the same as last time—legends become legends in the retelling, the listener waiting for familiar, reassuring words and phrases; we do not want to encounter elements in the stories that were not there before. But dad’s undercover work was all new to me and I was impressed.
So the badge was removed, and God went with it. But just as my father remained a quoter of the prayer book, so the accoutrements of Christianity never left me. Lines from hymns and verses from the Bible and, yes, the prayer book, pop unbidden into my head as they did into dad’s. Since I don’t believe in God and don’t wish to, I must be an atheist, but I am not a militant atheist, and when people such as Richard Dawkins insist that religion in history has only been a force for evil, I disagree. Setting aside everything else, there is the art that would not exist but for religion, art that was inspired by faith and often paid for by the Church.
In 2015 I was commissioned by four Australian cathedrals, two Catholic and two Anglican, to compose a mass—a missa brevis, or short mass—for liturgical use. When I told my friends, their most common response, after a beat of incredulity, was the tentative enquiry: ‘But aren’t you an atheist?’
Let me say this was not a question asked by the cathedrals themselves, and there was no reason it should have been. They were commissioning a piece of music from me, so my relevant credentials were musical. The temptation to set to music Latin words previously set by Byrd and Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Bruckner, Dvořák and Stravinsky was irresistible. And while many composers have been devout—in sixteenth-century England, Byrd risked his life for Catholicism; Bruckner’s whole musical output was an act of devotion—there’s also nothing to stop an atheist writing a mass. Moreover, if you remove from the list of liturgical music all those pieces composed by nonbelievers, you will leave a significant hole. Brahms is gone for a start and probably Schubert. Not that they wrote a lot of church music, but Strauss and Tchaikovsky can join the list, along with Sibelius, who composed some of Finland’s best-known hymn tunes. And the Anglican liturgy will be especially affected, for there will be no music by Parry (the composer of ‘Jerusalem’) or Holst (‘I Vow to Thee My Country’) or Britten (A Hymn to the Virgin, A Ceremony of Carols, the Missa brevis he wrote for Westminster Cathedral).
Ralph Vaughan Williams, editor of the English Hymnal, was described by his second wife as ‘an atheist who occasionally lapsed into agnosticism’, yet he took to his editorship with gusto, even writing some new tunes for the publication (‘Come Down O Love Divine’, ‘For All the Saints’). John Ireland, who composed one of the English-speaking world’s most beautiful hymns, ‘My Song Is Love Unknown’, once declared: ‘I am a Pagan. A Pagan I was born & a Pagan I shall ever remain.’
Strictly speaking, I suppose we are all born pagans, but growing up in England, as I did, I was sent to Sunday School, which I disliked, and at my state primary school sang hymns and Christmas carols, which I liked very much. At my Church of England grammar school, there was more hymn singing at twice-daily assemblies, along with Bible readings and prayers, and sometimes anthems, in which I sang, because I was in the choir. Most of the concerts we gave also contained religious music: oratorios by Bach and Handel, Vivaldi’s Gloria—if a choir sings classical music, it will tend to be religious. But none of this accounted for that badge. My moment of teenage fervour can only be explained by two things, music and sex. Only the music was real.
As a teenager, I listened to everything I could lay my ears on. Rock music, particularly the more progressive sort for which I now have little patience, folk music, jazz and classical music. I was an avid listener to the radio and each fortnight brought home an armful of classical LPs from the local public library. This music became so important to me that I began, consciously, to explore the repertory. If, for example, I heard a Schumann symphony on the radio, I would make it my business to hear his other symphonies. It seemed important to be familiar with the literature. And some of it moved me to tears.
But there was one particular moment, an epiphany I suppose you’d call it. Nothing like this had happened to me before, and as epiphanies go I’ve had very little since that has matched it. I wish I could claim that it was something more recherché, but the music that floored me so unexpectedly was Beethoven’s ninth symphony, and the choral finale at that. It wasn’t the first time I had heard this music. On the contrary, the recording was one I owned and had played numerous times (Franz Konwitschny conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, since you ask).
The moment that got me comes midway through the finale, following the variation on the famous ‘Ode to Joy’ theme that Beethoven turns into a Turkish march, the tenor soloist joining in with a tune that always seems to have escaped from a Bierkeller. This is followed by a serious fugal workout for orchestra alone. But then comes a mysterious, ruminative passage in which the French horns have repeating F sharps in a rhythm reminiscent of a heartbeat. Over this, oboes and bassoons play a tentative ascending figure in D major, which leads nowhere; they try it in D minor (still nowhere); finally they settle for the dominant key of A and, without warning, we are whisked abruptly back to the chorus, loudly and triumphantly punching out Schiller’s ode in D.
That was the moment—and it shook me, literally. I was physically affected. There were tears, but there was also something harder to explain, something like possession. I felt the music had taken me over, taken me in. The music was inside me—in my head—but I was also in the music. This must be God, I thought.
I wanted it to be God, because I secretly hoped He might help me locate a girlfriend. At a school for boys, it wasn’t immediately obvious how I might meet members of the opposite sex, but a couple of my friends attended the local Methodist youth club, and I knew there were girls there. Now that I had God, I could go too. Maybe there would be sex. In fact, there was table tennis, but at least there were girls in the room.
It is easy enough, 40-something years on, to smile at my teenage self. But something significant had occurred. For a short time, I was serious enough about religion to attend church and get confirmed. If my father had a problem with that, he never mentioned it; it was only when I took to badge wearing he finally raised the matter. And hand in glove with this brief commitment to religion—it can’t have lasted much more than a year—went an ever-deepening engagement with music and art in a broader sense, a curiosity that eventually took over from religion. For when I stopped going to church I began attending concerts—new music and early music, symphony concerts, chamber concerts and operas—and music became something to proselytise about. I might have been half-hearted when it came to religious evangelism, removing my Jesus badge the first time I was called upon to justify it, but my advocacy for music was tireless. I seldom attended concerts alone, and often dragged along half a dozen friends.
I find it interesting that Richard Dawkins has almost as little time for art as he does for God. I think he detects a similar irrationality of response by adherents of both, and it bothers him. It doesn’t bother me—quite the contrary—and it didn’t bother the musicologist Wilfrid Mellers. The last time I spoke to him, he was in his late eighties and had just written a book about religious music in the European classical tradition. It was called Celestial Music? (note the question mark). I asked him what he thought about religion, to which he replied that he thought it was ‘nonsense, really’. Then he added: ‘But perhaps we need more non-sense in our lives.’
I suppose my response to Beethoven’s ninth was irrational. I still find that moment exhilarating, but it has never again bowled me over the way it did that particular day. At the time I thought it was something to do with God, now I just think it was Beethoven. Either would condemn me in Dawkins’ eyes. My feelings at that sudden choral entry, blazing away in D major, were, it occurs to me, something like Stendhal’s syndrome. The Frenchman had his dizzy spell while viewing Giotto’s frescoes in Santa Croce, but if a wall painting can provoke such a reaction, how much more likely is music to do it, an art form that takes over the body? And isn’t this all fairly close to the way that some Pentecostals respond to the divine presence? Isn’t this what they call being ‘slain in the spirit’?
I can’t recall a single religious inclination in the past four decades, but I do think that perhaps what I and others get from music is what a lot of people get from their faith. And of course it’s not all bursting into tears or feeling faint—in fact hardly ever. Proper listening involves engagement with a musical work. We have to concentrate, to contemplate, but mostly we must listen. I often think that an important aspect of music is that it forces us to stop talking, an attitude similar to prayer. If listening takes place in the concert hall, then sometimes the experience will be amplified by the presence of others. By sharing the experience, even wordlessly, we seem to make it more intense: the audience as congregation, music as communion. This is not, however, to suggest that everyone in the concert hall is having the same experience. If there are a hundred listeners, there are arguably a hundred slightly different pieces of music, because we hear and process music, and certainly understand it, in our own unique ways. We make it—or at least remake it—in our heads. Perhaps it’s the same with God.
I am not, of course, suggesting that with music and religion it’s either/or. Most of the world’s religions use music as an aid to worship and you can see why. But there are some religions or branches of religion that don’t permit music at all, or not certain types of music. Or perhaps they redefine the term to suit their needs.
I was once in a Melbourne taxi with a Muslim driver who was listening to the most magnificent singing. I was captivated and asked him what the music was.
‘It’s not music,’ he replied. ‘It’s the Koran.’
‘Oh, right … But it’s being sung,’ I said.
‘No it’s not,’ he said.
‘He’s singing,’ I insisted. ‘It’s beautiful.’
‘He’s not singing.’
I finally got the driver to agree that the man was ‘chanting’, and that this ‘chanting’ was a way of helping to focus the listener on the text. Not that I mentioned it, for fear of starting another argument, but the chanting of the Koran was reminiscent of an ornamented plainsong.
In the music of Christianity, medieval plainsong (sometimes generically, and wrongly, referred to as Gregorian chant) led to Renaissance polyphony—to many voices in communion (the symbolism was intended) and to more complex, multilayered forms of composition. At which point—the sixteenth century—enter the Council of Trent along with some strenuous questioning of the place of music in the liturgy. Was music now too beautiful? Was there too much detail in the masses and motets of Palestrina, too much to take in? In a nutshell, was music getting in the way of doctrine? I understand this concern. Music can seduce us. Music seduced me into thinking I was having a religious experience, when I was having a musical one.
My best attempt to make sense of religion is to regard it as a branch of poetry. Art, it seems to me, is humanity’s attempt to explain itself to itself, and so, I believe, is religion. Some people would find that notion blasphemous. Hey ho.
As a composer, I want people to pay attention to my music. I want their ears, their concentration and their critical faculties. And I have to confess, I am delighted when I’m told by an audience member that my music has moved them. It means that something inexplicable has occurred, some wordless exchange between me and the listener, some non-sense.
My Missa brevis was commissioned by St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane (their director of music, Graeme Morton, was the ringleader); St Stephen’s Catholic Cathedral, Brisbane; St Patrick’s, Melbourne; and St George’s, Perth; in consortium with Fr Arthur Bridge’s Ars Musica Australis. The mass is dedicated to ‘all who seek asylum’ and each of its sections makes use—sometimes quite subtle use—of the tune of the spiritual ‘Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child’.
Late in 2015 I found myself at St John’s early one Sunday for a final rehearsal before the choir sang the mass at that morning’s Eucharist. At the end of the rehearsal, Graeme Morton asked me when was the last time I’d been to church, not counting weddings and funerals (they can tell, you see). I did a quick sum and told him it must have been 42 years. At the end, as the choir walked up the aisle and Graeme, bringing up the rear, passed my pew, he muttered under his breath, ‘And when was the last time you were in a procession?’, grabbing my arm and pulling me into line behind his choristers.
The whole business was fascinating to me: composing the mass, writing for an organ for the first time in my life, discussing the work with the commissioners, hearing it sung in a liturgical context, dotted through a 90-minute service. Still the single most interesting part was when it was all over and the tea and biscuits came out. This was when I was approached by a number of parishioners who told me that their worship had been enhanced by my music. Now I have had compliments over the years, but never of this nature, and while, of course, I said thank you, I admit the words gave me pause for thought. Only for a moment. Then I realised I was never so pleased in my life.