British composer Sir John Tavener passed away yesterday. He will be greatly missed. The majority of Sir John’s music is of the choral Christian variety. You have probably heard his music many times; as background to lots and lots of new-agey TV shows and perhaps in some incense-laden massage or yoga studio. His Funeral Canticle is used in the opening of Terrence Malick’s ‘Tree Of Life’ and his music was played at Princess Diana’s funeral. As a tribute to his talent and skill I want to say a few words about the general state of Christian music to hopefully demonstrate why he was so special to so many of us.
Let’s start by admitting that the vast majority of Christian music (and religious music in general) has been, is and will continue to be absolute crap. At it’s best it can be as profound an expression of faith as any prayer, but let’s be honest: that case is the rare exception. No matter how good the intentions, most of the time, religious music is qualitatively much worse than its secular equivalent. Part of this is for the same reason most music is crappy. But religious music is even more challenging to do well and this makes his accomplishments even more exceptional. There are four basic reasons for this mediocrity:
Firstly, over the years most religious music has trended more and more towards a strictly visceral appeal. Frankly, a lot of people attend various churches to ‘feel’ something immediate. So the more ‘passionate’ the music, the better. This has always led to over the top expressions one sees at so many churches, white, black and plaid. Singers trying to outdo one another with mile-wide vibratos, pointless lyrics, endlessly repetitive and simplistic melodies. And ‘Christian Rock’? As oxymoronic a phrase as ‘military intelligence’. The very term is like ‘special olympics’ (apologies to special olympians.) But the term implies that the music needs to be judged by a different set of standards simply because the participants are different. Rubbish.
Secondly, lots of Christian traditions stopped caring much about music a looong time ago and have really had a tough time finding their way back. This includes my Catholic tradition. Music at 99% of all American Catholic parishes has been a childish abomination since before Vatican II. The many great reforms of VII included a strong desire to reach ‘folks’, so… no more stuffy organs and choirs. Let’s pick up a guitar and sing folk songs! And if you’ve attended a Catholic service in the past 30 years you’ve undoubtedly been asked to sing some of the worst ‘folk’ melodies imaginable.
I confess to you my brothers and sisters that when I still play organ at my local parish, I often throw in stuff like The Theme From The Ghost And Mr. Chicken just because at this point, parishioners are so used to crappy tunes, no one’s gonna notice the difference between Dona Nobis Pacem and Don Knotts. My contempt and cynicism will probably get me a few extra centuries in purgatory. But that’s my problem…
Thirdly, most people who do religious music are terribly defensive. You can’t criticise the quality of the stuff because ‘the message’ is positive. I hate to use the ‘special olympics’ metaphor again, but since I already pissed off a whole segment of society how much worse can it get? People who do religious music want super-premium brownie points for doing ‘good work’. I don’t think Bach or Sir John felt that way and neither do I.
Finally, and this is key to me, it is my view that you cannot fake really good spiritual music. If you don’t feel it, you can’t do it. I think this really annoys agnostics and atheists who really enjoy religious music. It’s amazing to me how many atheists I know who show up for Easter services at a big cathedral just to bathe in the glory of the choir singing Bach. I know people scoff at this idea, but I’m about 100% sure that without genuine love of God, you don’t get a Missa Solemnis (or for that matter, Elvis.) In this era when everything human seems programmable (a computer wins on Jeopardy) faith is still an essential element in creating truly great religious music. Another (perhaps minor) reason for concern that people of faith seem to be fewer and fewer.
Sir John’s best pieces are deceptively simple. At first hearing much of it sounds like a lot of very pleasant and typical diatonic ‘new-agey’ stuff. But underneath there’s a lot of craft and depth that, I believe, sneaks up on the listener. For musicians the stuff provides a lot of ‘meat’. Some of it is crazy hard to sing with looong notes and unusual intervals that are quite difficult to blend properly. Great fun for all when done well.
At bottom, though, what made him great was his knack for expressing the meaning of phrases with his choice of notes. At its best his phrases are in my opinion far more profound than most of his peers that also have a very ‘popular’ sound (Gorecki, Paart, Hovahness, etc.) As you follow the text, you realise that Tavener’s best pieces come from a place of true belief. A person of lesser or no faith simply wouldn’t put as much attention to detail or have the same sensitivity in this regard. They might come up with just as pleasing melodies, but their treatment wouldn’t follow the contours of the meaning as well because for them, there is no deeper meaning than the beauty of the notes.
I believe that great religious music projects that deeper meaning. And even if the casual listener only detects it on a subliminal level it still makes an impression that merely beautiful notes do not. So I mourn John Tavner’s passing not just for his absence at too young an age (69) but because he is one of an ever shrinking list of artists that make great music of faith. The irony for me is that more and more this world seems to appreciate the gentle serenity of his style of art, all the while acknowledging less and less the engine that drives its creation.