Address given at the Festival of St Cecilia 2013
20 November 2013 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Lucy Winkett, Rector, St James's, Piccadilly
According to St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians which we heard a few moments ago, the singing of music, of psalms and spiritual songs is given as an alternative to drinking, debauchery, unwise and dissolute living. Thinking of my own musical experience, and the close cultural proximity of Evensong to the pub, it occurs to me that rather than being an alternative to these things, music making is quite often an accompaniment to these things. St Paul however is offering the making of melody as a better path, a somehow purer path and in doing so, describes music as something of an escape into what he characterises as the light of truth from the night of disobedience.
It’s certainly true, especially in such surroundings as this, that music calls us beyond ourselves, out of the minutiae of daily living, into another richer layer of awareness and consciousness. But whether it is in itself a means of escape from the complexities of real life into a purer light I am not sure. Benjamin Britten’s purpose in writing music however did seem to be attempting something close to this ideal;
'Music for me is clarification; I try to clarify, to refine, to sensitize... My technique is to tear all the waste away; to achieve perfect clarity of expression, that is my aim.'
This tells us about the method – but what I want to try to explore in the next few minutes is less the form but the content and to ask in the light of Scripture and in the presence of God what it is theologically that is being expressed in the musical language of Benjamin Britten whose work is more popular today than ever.
For me, Britten’s music is full of searing truth about what it’s like to be human. He is drawn to express the complexities of desire, war, humour, regret, hope and longing. For the writer Alex Ross, Britten’s musical themes include the endangerment of innocence, the persistence of secret wounds, the yearning for unblemished worlds. (The Rest is Noise p 431)
In his operas, Peter Grimes, Turn of the Screw, Death in Venice, he explores our unintended complicity in the suffering of others, the unpredictable power of our own regret and the ambiguities of adult emotions in the lives of children. He explores what we might call the ordinary difficulty of living; of thinking good but doing evil; of wanting freedom while remaining confined. Ross again describes Britten’s psychological landscape as one which contained 'undulating contours of fear and guilt, (with) fault lines and crevasses, (and) wan redeeming light'. Like his friend Shostakovitch, 'he seems to have been born with a feeling of being cornered'. (Alex Ross The Rest is Noise p 436)
In this service, we are hearing something of Britten’s own musical story. His Hymn to the Virgin, composed when he was just sixteen and sung at his funeral, is simple and touching in its faithfulness; but we have also heard the Scriptural story with which he is possibly most closely associated. The tortuous story of Abraham and Isaac was given extra twists in Britten’s setting. He emphasised the apparent cruelty of God by prolonging the waiting; as Isaac is bound and about to be killed, more time is set aside musically for the intervention of a God who seemed never to be coming. And in his setting of Columba’s prayer, Britten illustrates the Celtic sense that God is associated with thunder and anguish, but also with the promise that the strain of living will somehow be released, 'questing' will come to rest.
Any person composing music dares to, in the words of Britten’s estranged friend WH Auden 'invade our climate of silence and doubt'. The sheer risk of saying anything musically is colossal. It’s not a safe enterprise, even with the measure of control and dialogue with performers that Britten often had. And to give it over, means that there are no more controls – authorial intention becomes only one of many considerations taken into account by conductors and singers.
If music is itself a language of the human spirit, then it does its own theology, reveals its own interpretation of God’s nature and presence. When Shostakovitch read the score of 'War Requiem', he declared that he had seen one of the 'great works of the human spirit' (The Rest is Noise p 436).
Perhaps it is because Britten writes from some kind of borderland between the now and the not yet. And it is striking that even though he is writing in this hinterland space, he also doesn’t fetishize complexity and ambiguity. He is not content simply to stay there; he yearns for simplicity and clarity and as such writes music that is often orientated towards the divine while remaining movingly humane.
This is a profoundly theological border. Britten’s music is written, as it were, on the journey up the hill in conversation with the innocent young Isaac, unaware of the intention of his father who himself is driven on by duty to a higher force. His later music it seems to me is often written in the moment the knife is drawn, realising the inevitable violence to come, while God is silent and the wind is shrill.
The recognition that composers and performers are often vulnerable to the vagaries of life is what underpins the work of the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund whose work we support today. They recognise that making music with the level of skill and commitment of professionals means that musicians live with a high degree of risk not only to their own health and security but also to those they love. As a new chapter begins in the life of Help Musicians UK, we honour their work today and pray for them as they develop their therapeutic outlook, their continuity and stability in what is always an uncertain profession and their compassionate inclusion of musicians of all kinds; not just singers of oratorio and anthems but folk violinists, jazz pianists and punk rock bands.
Their work recognises and attempts to mitigate the risks of making music the centre of your life. But to live with music as your inspiration is necessarily to live with a spiritual sense of adventure and exploration. To quote one of Britten and Auden’s collaborations; if we want music to 'tell us the truth about love', Britten’s musical language belongs in a church which acknowledges the apparent silence of God, and the undoubted volatility of the human condition. At its best, church doesn’t try to neaten or explain away the struggles of life. Church should be a place where any story can be told, any regret presented, all authentic love validated, and where it is acknowledged that the quest for ritual purity can be as damaging as it is noble.
Britten never shrugs his shoulders musically and says 'well that’s just how it is'. He protests against war, struggles with personal ambiguity and erupts from time to time in fury or waspish laughter at the absurdity of it all. Most poignantly of all, he offers paens of praise to the God he is no longer sure is listening. His is acute and, I want to say, faithful music; faithful to the mercurial nature of humanity and acutely tuned to the possibility of a better world, a deeper rest, a fulfilment not yet imagined.
As human beings we live in the gap between what is and what could be; the good that we would do but somehow cannot do. It is our fate to hope for more, to long for peace while waging war, to believe, despite so much evidence to the contrary, that there is, just out of reach, a better way.
I want to suggest then that it’s important, beyond matters of taste or preference, that the music of Benjamin Britten is sung in a world where wars have not yet ceased, where some griefs remain unexpressed, where, to use his word, clarification is still a goal for us disordered and messy people. I hope that Benjamin Britten’s music is sung and played in concert halls and practice rooms for years to come: but above all in church, in the presence of God who longs to call us through the ordinary difficulty of living into the haven where we would be.