Music that elevates faith and worship of God

Music that elevates faith and worship of God

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev

The following is an extract from an address delivered at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on 9 February 2011 by Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate. Metropolitan Alfeyev is an accomplished composer of sacred music and his address was titled "Music and Faith in My Life and Vision." With acknowledgement to Zenit News Agency.

Which composers wrote works that exhibit a combination of organic, creative inspiration with deep religious faith? I find the most obvious illustration of this mutuality in the creative work and indeed the destiny of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach is a colossus as his music contains a universal element that is all-embracing. In his monumental works he manages to unite magnificent and unsurpassed compositional skill with rare diversity, melodic beauty and a truly profound spirituality. Even Bach's secular music is permeated by a sense of love for God, of standing in God's presence, of awe before Him.


Bach is a universal Christian phenomenon. His music transcends confessional boundaries: it is ecumenical in the original sense of the word, for it belongs to the world as a whole and to each citizen separately. We may call Bach an "orthodox" composer in the original, literal sense of the Greek word orthodoxos for throughout his life he learnt how to glorify God rightly.

Invariably he adorned his musical manuscripts with the words Soli Deo Gloria ("Glory to the One God") or Jesu, juva ("Help, O Jesus"). These expressions were for him not merely verbal formulae but a confession of faith that ran through all of his compositions. For Bach, music was worship of God. He was truly "catholic," again in the original understanding of the Greek word katholikos, meaning "universal," or "all-embracing," for he perceived the Church as a universal organism, as a common doxology directed towards God.

Furthermore, he believed his music to be but a single voice in the cosmic choir that praises God's glory. And of course, throughout his life Bach remained a true son of his native Lutheran Church. Albeit, as Albert Schweitzer noted, Bach's true religion was not even orthodox Lutheranism but mysticism.

His music is deeply mystical because it is based on an experience of prayer and ministry to God which transcends confessional boundaries and is the heritage of all humanity.

Bach's personal religious experience was embodied in all of his works which, like holy icons, reflect the reality of human life but reveal it in an illuminated and transfigured form.

Bach may have lived during the Baroque era, but his music did not succumb to the stylistic peculiarities of the time. As a composer, moreover, Bach developed in an antithetical direction to that taken by art in his day.

His was an epoch characterised by culture's headlong progression towards worldliness and humanism. Centre stage became ever more occupied by the human person with his passions and vices, while less artistic space was reserved for God. Bach's art was not "art" in the conventional meaning of the word as it was not art for art's sake.

The cardinal difference between the art of antiquity and the Middle Ages on the one hand and modern art on the other is in the direction it takes: pre-Renaissance art was directed towards God, while modern art is orientated towards the human person. Bach stood at the frontier of these two inclinations, two world-views, two opposing concepts of art. And, of course, he remained a part of that culture which was rooted in tradition, in cult, in worship, in religion.

In Bach's time the world had already begun to move towards the abyss of revolutionary chaos. This tendency swept over all of Europe from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th. Forty years after his death, the French Revolution broke out. It was the first of a series of bloody coups which, conducted in the name of "human rights", stole millions of human lives. And all of this was done for the sake of the human person who, once again, proclaimed himself to be, as in pagan antiquity, the "measure of all things."

People began to forget God the Creator and Lord of the universe. In an age of revolutions people repeated the errors of their ancestors and began to construct, one after another, towers of Babel. And they fell - one after another -burying their architects under the ruins.

Bach remained unaffected by this process because his life flowed within a different perspective. While the culture of his age became more and more removed from cult, he entered ever more deeply into the depths of cult: the depths of prayerful contemplation. As the world was rapidly becoming humanised and de-Christianised and as philosophers achieved further refinement in formulating theories designed to bring happiness to the human race, Bach sang a hymn to God from the depths of his heart.

After Bach

Some opine that Bach was the last of the great religious composers and that sacred music in general, a legacy of antiquity, belongs exclusively to the past. Bach's artistry indeed marked the threshold beyond which Western music distanced itself from its religious roots and took the path of secular development. Chronologically, the divorce between music and religion coincided with the Age of Enlightenment, and, having taken this radical step, musicians did not turn back until recently.

This does not mean that church compositions were abandoned in the Classical and Romantic periods. Far from it. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, to name but a few, wrote, for example, masterly settings of the Mass and the Requiem. After Bach, Brahms occupies second place in my list of favourite composers, and the third place is Beethoven's.

I am very fond of the music of the Romantic period - of Schubert, Schumann, and others. Their works, however, bear a secular spirit even when the texts are religious. Undoubtedly their compositions are outstanding, highly emotive, and compelling: nevertheless they are fortified by a worldly air and by styles and forms foreign to associations of sanctity.

During the epochs of Impressionism and the Avant-garde, interest in anything to do with religion seems to have faded altogether. Avant-garde composers renounced the final elements that linked music to faith - the elements of harmony and of beauty as fundamental for musical creativity. Cacophony and disharmony became the constructive fabric with which musical works were built.

The mid-20th century saw music styles that turned from atonality and dissonance to aleatoric ["chance"] music and random sonorities, as heard in the works of Stockhausen and Ligeti or in those of John Cage who combined noise with silence. Important and groundbreaking was Cage's piece entitled 4.33, which is nothing more than four minutes and thirty-three seconds of complete silence, accompanied only by natural sounds (for example, the coughing of the audience in the auditorium).

The appearance of this work in 1952 bore witness to the fact that the musical Avant-garde had completely exhausted itself - as if it had nothing more to say. Cage's silence has little in common with the spiritual silence that burgeons from the depths of religious experience: his was simply a soundlessness which testified to the complete spiritual collapse of the musical Avant-garde.