Rothko Red, Blue over Black

The death last week of composer John Tavener has led me to think about the idea of the ‘sacred’ in music. A profoundly religious man – he was a convert to Russian Orthodoxy – Tavener’s faith and sense of mysticism suffused much of his music. Historically, and in the minds of most people today, the sacred in music is, as it was with Tavener, inextricably linked with religious faith. Yet, I think that we lose something of what is ‘sacred’ about sacred music if we understand it purely in religious terms. We also constrain, even diminish, our sense of what it is to be human.

For religious believers, the sacred is clearly that which is associated with the holy and the divine. From a sociological and anthropological perspective, on the other hand, as Émile Durkheim pointed out, the sacred sphere is best seen as constituting a social space that is set apart and protected from being defiled: a set of rules and practices that cannot be challenged. The sacred, in this sense, provides a means, ironically, of protecting not the kingdom of heaven but the citadels of earthly power. ‘The sacred order’, the Polish Marxist-turned-Catholic philosopher Leszek Kolakowski observed, ‘has never ceased, implicitly or explicitly, to proclaim “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”.’ It ‘reaffirms and stabilizes the structure of society – its forms and its systems of divisions, and also its injustices, its privileges and its institutionalized instruments of oppression.’

In its 1967 directive Musicam Sacram, or ‘Instructions on Music In The Liturgy’, the Catholic Church set out its rules about what could or could not be regarded as sacred music. After explaining that ‘sacred music is understood [as] that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form’, Musicam Sacram lists what is acceptable ‘sacred music’, adding that ‘since modern music has become chiefly a secular art, greater care must be taken, when admitting it, that nothing profane be allowed, nothing that is reminiscent of theatrical pieces, nothing based as to its form on the style of secular compositions.’

There is, however, another sense in which we can think about the sacred in music, and in art more generally. Not so much as an expression of the divine, or as a set of rules and taboos, but, paradoxically perhaps, more an exploration of what it means to be human; what it is to be human not in the here and now, not in our immediacy, nor merely in our physicality, but in a more transcendental sense. It is a sense that is often difficult to capture in a purely propositional form, but which we seek to grasp through art or music or poetry. Transcendence does not, however, necessarily have to be understood in a religious fashion; that is solely in relation to some concept of the divine. It is rather a recognition that our humanness is invested not simply in our existence as individuals or as physical beings, but also in our collective existence as social beings and in our ability, as social beings, to rise above our individual physical selves and to see ourselves as part of a larger project, to project onto the world, and onto human life, a meaning or purpose that exists only because we as human beings create it.

In the premodern world it was difficult to conceive of such meaning or purpose except in relation to God, or gods, or as aspects of the universe itself (though there were major strands in ancient Greek, Indian and Chinese philosophy that attempted to understand meaning and purpose in a purely human fashion). Hence, transcendence was inevitably seen in a religious light. But with modernity it became increasingly plausible to imagine purpose and meaning as humanly created. Indeed, as the French philosophe Denis Diderot claimed ‘If we banish man, the thinking and contemplating being, from the face of the earth, this moving and sublime spectacle of nature will be nothing more than a sad and mute scene’. It was ‘the presence of man which makes the existence of beings meaningful’.

rothko rust and blue

This new kind of sensibility had begun to infuse Western art and music from before the Enlightenment. From the late medieval period on, ‘sacred’ art became increasingly humanized. The German critic Eric Auerbach called Dante, in the title of a famous study, a ‘poet of the secular world’. Dante’s Divine Comedy, despite its focus on the eternal and immutable features of heaven and hell, is at heart, Auerbach insisted, a very human exploration of this world. The human takes centre stage in The Divine Comedy, in way that had not happened previously in Christian thought. In this, Dante looks forward to the poets and artists of the Renaissance and beyond. Eventually the sense of transcendence in art came to be detached from religion entirely as in twentieth-century works such as Stravinky’s Rite of Spring or in Rothko’s paintings, in many of Barbara Hepworth’s figures or in Pablo Neruda’s love poems. It makes little sense to call such works of art ‘sacred’. There is, yet, a transcendent sensibility that links these to, say, works such as Bach’s Cantatas or Giotto’s frescoes or Dante’s Divine Comedy. To lose sense of that is to diminish both what is ‘sacred’ about sacred art and what is transcendent about much non-religious art.

The New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross, author of the wonderful The Rest is Noise, observed in a lecture last year that the twentieth century, though ostensibly more secular than the nineteenth, produced far more ‘religious’ music, much it by composers ‘who are not devout, who may even be agnostic or atheist’. What was also striking about the twentieth century, Ross suggested, was the way that composers employed dissonance, as opposed to harmony, as a means of expressing a sense of the sacred. Both, he suggested, might have derived from the sense of darkness many felt about the twentieth century, especially in the shadow of the Holocaust.

There is, I think, a large element of truth to this, though I don’t go along with it fully. I am writing an essay to develop these ideas further. In the meantime, here are five twentieth-century works that seem to me to embody the sensibility of sacred music without being religious. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is perhaps the exception here – Messiaen was deeply religious and the Quartet plays to a (quasi) religious theme, though it can be seen in a non-religious light too.  Stravinsky, too, was religious but not so The Rite of Spring. Britten and Ligeti were both non-believers adopting a religious form in their respective Requiems. Feldman’s Rothko Chapel was written by a non-religious composer about a religious setting that had been created by Rothko, an artist who wrote of his work:

I’m interested… in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate these basic human emotions…The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience as I had when I painted them.

The story I am telling is, of course, primarily about the Western classical tradition. There is a different story to tell of the non-Western and of non-classical traditions. I will, hopefully, return to that in the future.


Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring


Olivier Messiaen, Quartet for the End of Time
(Final Movement)


Benjamin Britten, War Requiem


György Ligeti, Requiem (Kyrie)


Morton Feldman, Rothko Chapel


The images are Rothko’s ‘Red, blue over black’ and ‘Rust and blue’; the cover image is from one of Rothko’s paintings in the Rothko Chapel.


  1. My quick observation is that the five works you’ve chosen have some programmatic title that implies some religiosity. If they were known by other names would they be any more “sacred” than other works? The argument for a transcendent sensibility might be better argued from an untitled sonata or symphony.

  2. Shatterface

    There’s an Isaac Asimov short story in which scientists use the most up to date psychological techniques to create the ultimate feels iif music – and the computer comes up with When the Saints Come Marching In.

    Asimov was, of course, an atheist and e thickly Jewish so this wasn’t just some Christian propaganda.

  3. Christopher Talbot

    An interesting article/blog. There are a number of points I would like to make. Firstly; I have not yet read Alex Ross’ book but I am very uncomfortable with the statement above about the use of dissonance as a response to what might be called the “spiritual chasms” of the twentieth century. Dissonance is not the absence of harmony, as I think you imply. It is that part of harmony which is resolved into consonance. Indeed, dissonance was a feature of much music from the fifteenth century onwards (from the very birth of tonal harmony in fact). It was a feature of English music in particular from Plantagenet times to the Restoration style of Henry Purcell (whose harmonic language informs Britten’s own). Does this reflect the particularly intense religious conflicts in England at the time? I don’t know. The development of Atonality (or “Pantonality” as Schoenberg called it) was a feature of the Twentieth Century, but – although plenty of commentators have tried to link it to historical events – I do not believe that it has that simplistic relationship. If the period of “Free Atonality” – largely pre-First World War – pointed to anything, it was indeed to an internal search for greater expression, more subtlety, more ambiguity: an exploration of Kafka’s “balance of the deep interior”…

    • Sometimes, given the essays people occasionally write as comments, I feel I should impose a limit. But, no, there isn’t one. And I would be very interested in reading the rest of your comment.

  4. Christopher Talbot

    Just to outline two other points then. I actually thought Benjamin Britten was pretty religious, although his background was catholic and his religious-themed works are generally for the Church of England (not sure of this any more!). But the War Requiem – although it has passages of the Latin text – is primarily a statement of the composer’s pacifism. The Ligeti Requiem (its author being a Hungarian Jew, most of whose family had perished at the hands of the Nazis, and who himself came close to being murdered) has a more complex relationship with the spiritual. Many High Modernists have used universal texts such as that of the Requiem Mass or the Ordinary of the Mass (see Brian Ferneyhough’s Missa Brevis) as something that the composer has in common with the audience, and perhaps no more. But the effect of the dense complexity of the music and the simple message contained in the words can have a dynamic effect upon the audience, I believe. The Catholic Church’s ruling that you mention must have been around the same time as its abandonment of Latin ( a crucial point in the devaluing of its message?), and also two years before Messiaen’s colossall “La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus Christ” which is a tour de force…

    • Shatterface

      Is the augmented 4th – the ‘devil in the music’ or ‘chord of evil’ – sacred or anti-sacred?

  5. Christopher Talbot

    … of all the attitudes (surrealism, eroticism etc…) which made Messiaen such a thorn in the flesh of the Church Hierarchy. By contrast, I feel Tavener’s career was dedicated to a perverse kind of pre-modernity that by the sixties had become vogueish, especially amongst the milieux in which he circulated (his ancestor, John Taverner, was one of those “humanised” renaissance composers (and a Catholic agent)): it is just that the Eastern mysticism he chose was not that of India or Japan, but Greece then Russia. He was adamant that his music was not music as such but a form of “sound-icon” (if I am up with his thought on the subject). Anyone who has seen Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev”, would realise that, even by that artist’s time, this kind of thinking was in retreat.

    • Many thanks for this. I am sorry you were unable to write it as a single post. I am not sure why – I certainly have not imposed a word limit. On a couple of your points: I was not suggesting that atonality was simplistically linked to ‘historical events’. The roots of modernity, not just in music, but in art and literature too, are complex, and linked to a host of developments, from the ‘death of God’ to the ‘crisis of reason’, from the new political and cultural possibilities that were opening up at the turn of the century to the fragmentation of the old linear view of history and culture. I am just about to read Kildea’s biography, but I had always thought of Britten as an agnostic. I agree that Britten’s Requiem is more political, Ligeti’s more spiritual, but in both cases the use of religious texts seems to me an attempt both to link to particular traditions and to find a language through which to articulate a sense of transcendence.

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