The Sound of Belief

The Sound of Belief

Going back to an earlier entry regarding controversies that divide churches or religions, music is one of those controversies.

People come to sacred music in different ways. A few years ago, I met two famous but very different Estonian composers, each with their own belief system. One was born to a church organist and became deeply religious in a very Estonian way despite his upbringing in the church. When he was growing up, having anything to do with the church was at his own peril considering the strictures of the Soviet regime. His belief system, which is found in so much of his music, is very similar to the beliefs of many Native Americans (First Nations) who feel at one with nature. They feel there is a balance with nature that must be maintained and that this has very powerful properties. It is a similar belief held by many Estonians who have lived this way for many centuries.

The other composer’s beliefs are found in more traditional religion, although they, too, go back many centuries but are rooted in a more Christian-like tradition. With the various Soviet crackdowns it is a wonder he was able to get out of the country as he did. He now frequently travels to Estonia but lives elsewhere.

The two composers are Veljo Tormis and Arvo Pärt. After meeting Pärt and hearing him talk about himself and his music with such humility, I was quite moved by him. Whether he’s writing a piece that is technically a sacred or a secular piece, he uses his beliefs to guide his composition. He talked about the slightest musical change or dynamic level indication as being of great significance to him in his composition.

Tormis’s music, which has this great rhythmic drive and tremendous power to it, seems to come from the earth – again, a sacred force for him. For both men, their music is very much a part of their belief system. What they create is stunning yet completely different. I consider both to write sacred music using sacred sources.

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8 thoughts on “The Sound of Belief


    I thought it was interesting when I visited Estonia for their gigantic choral festival a number of years ago… I was quite young at the time, and had never heard of any Estonian composer except for Arvo Part. But based on my conversation with the Estonian singers I met, they overwhelmingly saw Veljo Tormis as their national hero, and Part was just sort of a distant famous guy who they didn’t have much connection to. Just an interesting side note.

  2. William Osborne

    I find it interesting that a blog about sacred music must almost by necessity question so many postmodern suppositions. An axiom of postmodernism is that truth is conditional. The philosopher of science, Paul Karl Feyerabend, for example, said that the only absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth. Many forms of religious expression, on the other hand, are based on conceptions of absolute truth. “Belief” is to be an unshakable foundation.

    How do artists chart their courses between these two predominate forms of thought? Is an absolute “Belief” system necessary to write sincere, authentic sacred music? Are works like the St. Matthew Passion or the Sistine Chapel the result the artists having absolutist belief systems? If so, why do the works seem to have so many universal meanings? Why do they reach people across so many cultures?

    Given my own sensibilities, I would like to say that notions of absolute belief actually reflect only the more simplistic and parochial kinds of religious experience. On the other hand, many, if not most of our greatest sacred art works seem to come from people who held, to one degree or another, absolutist belief systems.

    It is interesting that we have thought so little about the actual religious beliefs of the people who have created our greatest sacred art. What did Bach, Messian, Machaut, Palestrina, Michelangelo, Titian, da Vinci, and El Greco actually believe? And how did those beliefs shape their work?

    Perhaps this is the most improtant question: Why and how do great works of religious art transcend parochialism and capture universal meanings that touch the lives of so many people? And what do these seeminly universal meanings say about the conditional nature of truth in postmodernism?

    William Osborne

  3. rtanaka

    On an intellectual level, the most significant meeting between the secular and sacred in recent history probably comes from the debate between philosopher Jurgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict.

    Habermas is a secular atheist and the Pope is of course the Pope, but what was surprising about the discussions was that they actually had a lot to agree with each other when they met. They shared similar goes of humanitarianism, justice, universality, and a necessity to create an environment where reason is prized.

    I have a lot of respect for Christians who stick to the core message of their religion of love and compassion, which Habermas acknowledges is at the root of our concepts of liberalism in Western society. Science might tell us how the physical world works, but it doesn’t have much guidance in terms of morality and ethics. I think some atheists make the mistake of assuming the secularization = progress, but they are two separate things if you consider humanitarian goals to be important.

    It’s important to keep the dialog between the two streams going, because they are not necessarily diametrically opposed and if music is any indication, the two can work to compliment each other.

  4. artmusicsouth

    I thought I’d chime in here (I usually just lurk around.) I think what William has said here is very intriguing in light of Anne’s interesting articles.

    What are the theological presuppositions of those we deem great artists?

    Bach is one of the obvious ones given his commitment to Lutheran theology. What makes him interesting of that there is thread in his music that shows forth in all of his work, not just the so called sacred. All of his music reveals a world view that typically does not recognize a distinction between the sacred and secular. What I mean by this is that, because of the Reformation, the idea was thought faulty that somehow there is sacred work (the priests, church, etc.) and secular work (everyone else.) Granted there is the idea that there is some music that is appropriate to worship and some that is not, but that is a discussion for another day. What I find interesting is the fact that we have divided life into these tidy compartments can lead folks to certain positions:

    1) (from the Christian) Only sacred music is truly spiritual and therefore it is only worthy of my attention – this is evident in what is typically called the Contemporary Christian Music Industry.

    2) (from the non-Christian) If there is a God I think it is foolish for him/her to not be interested in music that does not have “spiritual” theme. There is nothing wrong with my violin sonata or listening to my favorite rock band. Because of that I will not have anything to do with the church or this God.

    Both of these analogies are limited but they illustrate the compartmentalization in Western society that has occurred because of this view of sacred vs. secular.

    The converse to this view is inherent in Reformational thought (though these folks still had their own presuppositions they had to work through.) They viewed that all of creation is God’s handiwork and endeavors within that creation were valid and valuable pursuits. No person has one up on the other because he may be clergy. If you are a carpenter your work has merit. If you are a salesman your work has merit. If you’re an parent your work has merit.

    Therefore as an artist all of my work carries with it the idea that it too is sacred though it may be intended for the concert hall, local pub, or what have you. This is, I think, where Bach was coming from as well as folks such as Messiaen, Georges Rouault, Makoto Fujimura, James MacMillan, and so on.

    Jeremy Begbie has a great book on this called “Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom int eh World of Music” which deals with this somewhat. It’s a great read and worth picking up.

  5. artmusicsouth

    Just a point of clarification. The Reformation responded to the dominant view that life was divided into sacred/secular distinctions. The Reformers saw all of life under God’s care.

  6. marknowakowski

    William, I had to read your post several times, to be honest. ;) I think that Feyerabend was likely aware of the logical contradiction in the statement of “the only truth is that there is no truth.” I would only add, in response to your question: “Can there be a universal idea or goal if there is no absolute?” Surely, even modern physics points to the absolute, painting a universe issuing from a single fixed point…

    For whatever reason, we often forget to mention the matron of modern sacred music, Nadia Boulanger. Practically nun-like in her Catholic piety, it seems that all of her students — even the so-called “secularists” — had a profound spiritual strain running through their music.
    I once attended a conference with over 150 of her previous students. The energy — and sheer musical joy — was unlike any gathering of composers I had ever attended. I wonder, would a gathering of Schoenberg’s former students be nearly as infectious? ;)

  7. William Osborne

    I appreciate the comments by Artmusicsouth and Mark. Both seem to confirm Anne’s commentary about the way “belief” guides both sacred AND secular composition. I wonder if composition could be described as a projection of belief systems.

    In the Bön traditions of Tibetan Buddhism it is said that mind struggles incessantly against the treachery of language, and that what we observe and describe is the observer himself (or herself.)

    How does the “treachery” of language shape music? From where do our musical predispositions come? Which musical beliefs, if any, are absolutes? Isn’t all art a projection of our own worldview, and by nature a culturally situated perspective? What does this say about belief and the nature of sacred art?

    Are there universal meanings or patterns in art that might follow along the lines of Chomsky’s conceptions of a universal grammar? (Recent neurological evidence suggests part of the human brain is selectively activated by aspects of thought that have been defined as universal grammar.) Do these notions relate to Jung’s idea of archetypes?

    I guess the reason I do not practice religion is that I have so little “faith.” I can’t find any religious conception that seems absolute. Even the term “God” seems an embarrassingly anthropomorphic term. (“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became his counselor?”)

    Is it appropriate for sacred art to be an expression of doubt? Is it our own doubt that leaves a place in our hearts for other peoples religious experience? Thank you, Anne, for keeping us thinking.

    William Osborne

    P.S. By the way, Mark, the “Big Bang Theory” is not at all universally accepted. On the other hand, it does seem to be a universal that men are always thinking about banging. (Sorry.)

  8. marknowakowski

    In that light, I guess we can find someone, somewhere, to oppose virtually any theory we can think of. ;) (Perhaps excepting your own final statement…)


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