• Vested Interest

Religious Identity and Sacred Music

Colin Lynch
September 30, 2015

Whom does our sacred music come from? It’s an interesting question, to which we often give little thought. Were these great composers drawn closer to God through music, as we often are? Or did they even believe in the God about whom and to whom they wrote the music that touches us so deeply? When we think of great composers of the church: we think of J.S. Bach, the devoted Lutheran, or Antonio Vivaldi, the “red priest” who taught music to girls in an orphanage. Last week, we experienced the music of William Byrd, who was ever faithful to his Roman Catholic church despite working for a monarchy imposing reformation.  But what about composers like Thomas Weelkes, a notorious drunk who infamously urinated on the Dean of the Chichester Cathedral from the organ loft during Evensong? And then there’s Carlo Gesualdo, whose life is probably too sordid even for a Showtime mini-series. What about John Rutter, who follows in the agnostic footsteps of Ralph Vaughan Williams? Could a Jew write Christian music? These seem like timely questions as public debate swirls about religious identity in the midst of papal visits, supreme court rulings, and presidential primaries.


They are also interesting questions to consider this Sunday as we hear sacred music by Felix Mendelssohn, a composer, pianist, organist, and conductor during the beginnings of Romantic period (c. 1780-1910), whose religious background offers similar ambiguity. The grandson of Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, his parents baptized Felix and his siblings into the Lutheran Church during a period of strong anti-semitism in 19th century Germany. Upon the family’s conversion to Christianity a few years later, his father added the Christian-sounding surname “Bartholdy,” making him Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. His father had hoped that the family would eventually drop the name “Mendelssohn,” but Felix used both names as a practicing Lutheran.  Mendelssohn rarely talked about his personal faith, but it is clear that he composed for a variety of faiths, including Lutheranism, Catholicism, and Anglicanism. Yet many still saw him as a Jew. Richard Wagner, a professed anti-Semite, believed that as a Jew Mendelssohn was incapable of writing profound music and could at best superficially imitate the works of Bach and Beethoven. Hitler’s Third Reich even banned the music of Mendelssohn.


But what of his music? Mendelssohn's genius was obvious from an early age; by the time he was a teenager he was already considered one of the finest pianists of the day. He came of age at a time when Beethoven's music had brought about the romantic era and dominated Europe. Most composers in the 19th century struggled to make their mark in the shadow of Beethoven. However, Mendelssohn took a different approach. Instead of trying to either emulate or compete with the master, Mendelssohn used pre-Beethoven composers like Haydn, Mozart, and Bach as his muses. Indeed, people often identify his music with the Classical period rather than the Romantic. Mendelssohn’s eye to the past even led to the rediscovery of the music of J.S. Bach, which had long ago fallen out of favor. Indeed, it was Mendelssohn who dusted off Bach's 18th-century St. Matthew Passion and conducted it for the first time since Bach's death. Thus what Wagner considered a pale imitation might equally well be said to be a bold refusal to be bound by the categories and styles of his time.


Despite Mendelssohn's traditionalism, he adds a Romantic flair by composing some of the most sweeping and memorable melodies in Western music. While many of his Romantic-era peers were focusing on drama and angst, Mendelssohn focuses on melody, tightly controls dissonances, and achieves a kind of pastoral beauty in his orchestral and vocal works. A quintessential example of Mendelssohn’s style is heard in his oratorio Elijah, a sacred drama for chorus, orchestra, and soloists, depicting events in the life of the prophet Elijah. Mendelssohn, famous across Europe and beyond, traveled to England in 1846 to conduct Elijah's premier.  His six Organ Sonatas were written for an English publisher just one year earlier. Wildly popular in England, he was a favorite of Queen Victoria-- there's even a letter from Mendelssohn where he describes accompanying her at the piano. 


As we wrestle with questions of religious identity, you might ask yourself on Sunday how Mendelssohn’s music shapes your worship experience.  I’m reminded of a marquee outside of Trinity Church this past summer with a quote from Robertson Davies: “If it transforms you, it is art. And it is holy.” 


Post-script:  We would like to introduce and thank Jon Richardson, who is now serving as our music research assistant and will be collaborating on posts for Vested Interest. Jon, a parishioner who attends the 9 am Holy Eucharist, is doing this work as part of his studies for a Master’s Degree in Musicology at New England Conservatory. We look forward to the nuggets of insight that Jon offers in the weeks ahead. 


At "Vested Interest," church nerd Mary Davenport Davis explores all things liturgy and music at Trinity and beyond. Chime in with comments and questions!