Music Beyond Belief: an explaination of the relationship between personal faith and musical composition by composer Joseph Alen Shaw

Musical notation from a Catholic Missal, c. 1310–1320 * This beautiful Missal made from parchment originates from East Anglia. It is considered a very important manuscript as it is one of the earliest examples of a Missal of an English source. Sarum Missals were books produced by the Church during the Middle Ages for celebrating Mass throughout the year – uncopyrighted/CC0

Here is a feature to whet your appitite for the upcoming (October 15) issue of The BeZine, which is themed music. This essay is by Joseph Alen Shaw, composer, musician and scholar. It is shared here with Mr. Shaw’s permission. He and his essay come to us via John Anstie. John, a musician and poet, is the lead for the October issue. You can visit John at My Poetry Library. J.D.

“Any discussion of modernity’s mainstream in music would be incomplete without a serious reflection on the spiritual values, belief and practice in composer’s minds.” – James Macmillan (2013)

Western music throughout its history has undoubtedly been shaped enormously by religious and/or philosophical beliefs. One can only vaguely attempt to imagine the plethora of alternative courses of development which may have unfolded if it were not for the original patronage of the church and the influence this had, particularly in terms of the composition and performance of music. The last two centuries however saw a change in the way religion is perceived and practiced in many parts of the world and this had an inevitable effect on music. As part of a lecture held at the University of Notre Dame in September 2013, the Scottish composer James MacMillan highlighted some very important points about how faith and music have co-existed in the past and furthermore how they are allied now. He states that ‘there are some forms of art where the connections with the numinous are more difficult to discern than others. In the case of music, there seems to be a veritable umbilical link with the sacred.’ He goes on to say that ’composers have always responded to society’s need for spiritual and religious feeling’ and examples of this attitude can be seen from Bach to Stockhausen, from Lutheran Chorales to Sternklang (Park Music), 1971. The former were essential to the churchgoer’s daily experience in prayer and ritual, whilst the latter had a similar impact on the public wherever Sternklang was performed in attempting to lift their spirits into a realm above our own. This evidently affirms the ‘umbilical’ link furthermore.

Stockhausen said that ‘a creative person is always most excited when something happens that he cannot explain, something mysterious or miraculous.’ And similarly Michael Tippett with his remark that ‘it is a great responsibility: to try to transfigure the everyday by a touch of the everlasting.’ Macmillan in his lecture poses the question ’can a religious artist still be understood and affirmed in our own time?’ The answer to this is not as simple as yes or no but just as important is the notion of non-belief, realism or atheism and how composers who fall into this category fit in on the spectrum of philosophy in music composition and performance. A similar question could be asked of composers who base their reasoning on science and a more skeptical view of the world around them as inspiration for composition. Are their ideas valid and as fruitful as those inspired by faith?

Kenan Malik in an article entitled What Is Sacred About Sacred Music? explores notions of how transcendence itself can be defined by humans as physical and social beings. For religious believers, the sacred of course is that which is associated with divinity and holiness, but as shown below it can have a meaning beyond divinity:

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 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.

Turning to the question of composers’ personal beliefs and how it may or may not affect the music they compose, it is certainly true that what composers do and indeed that which they create is not necessarily what they believe. Composers have to make a living and keep their ‘head above water’ and even with the wealth of material and knowledge available to musicologists at the present time the option to know the true thoughts and beliefs of composers from the early centuries in matters of faith cannot be readily available. Much of the information pertaining to these artists’ real personal beliefs have to remain shrouded in the realm of speculation. The most accurate piece of information would most likely be their confidential diaries and not letters that could contain bias towards certain ideas for reasons of personal circumstance. This applies much more to composers from the centuries past and less so to artists closer to the present day who could be vocal about their beliefs and, with the advent of new technologies, in the cases of living composers, still are.

The more interesting strand to emerge from this line of enquiry however is how a composer’s personal belief or faith feeds into the compositional process and the musical product thereafter, if at all. One could be argued that the key question to be asked is whether or not an artist whose convictions are so deeply rooted within themselves could possibly have produced the same music without their beliefs that they hold so dearly. Kevin Malone is an academic lecturer and composer at the University of Manchester. He refers to himself as a ‘realist’ and refutes the more common label of ‘atheism’ because of its tendency to ‘suggest there is theism in the first place’ which is an interesting idea in and of itself. In 2016 his new work Mysterious 44 was given its world premiere at the University, an opera that used the well-known Mark Twain story as its basis. In the story three young boys learn to read and thus begin to think for themselves, which angers a village priest and leads to consequences. The opera has a cast of fifteen live singers They interact with two invisible characters, video animation and a surround-sound electronic score. The ‘Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science’ funded the production of the opera twice and a voice recording of Richard Dawkins himself begins the opera with a reading from the Mark Twain text.

It is clear from this that religious texts and philosophical ideas nevertheless provide strong catalysts and even entire frameworks for composers who are not believers themselves. The twentieth century in particular has seen a wide range of composers from varying stylistic inclinations choose to write music which references the rich teachings and legacy of doctrinal liturgy, whether it is performed in actual services or not is irrelevant. As well as this composers have used a large amount of symbolism from faith as material, as did Kevin Malone in his opera where he comments that ‘just as religious composers may use tri-partite structures to symbolize what they see as a trinity of spirits, I too use some numerical devices.’ He also suggests that the use of structures relating to numbers are ‘composer’s conceits’ and nothing more:

Mysterious 44 is an entertainment. Good entertainment should also be educational and not just ear and eye titillation. By writing Mysterious 44 I strive to promote clear and individual thinking, self-determination and hopefully an expanded use of the musical arts to not beguile listeners into perpetuating group thinking but to stimulate the natural curiosity for truth of which each of us is capable.

The example below from earlier in the canon (Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra) shows a use of all the 12 pitches to represent science, which was written in response to Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) ideas which would contend the ideas of Stockhausen in particular and suggest instead that our physical reality is all that exists and all that we are able to know. It becomes more difficult to associate musical composition and performance with a reach to the beyond as Stockhausen would with this model in mind. Again, here we can see that this manipulation of pitches in order to make a personal statement about the progress of science is a composer’s conceit and the effect is only achieved successfully because the music in itself is so sublime.


One of the most influential composers and atheists of the twentieth century, chose to use part of the liturgical doctrine in a composition which brought about an entirely new style of composition in the middle of the 1960s.

György Sándor Ligeti was born on 28th May 1923 in a small town of only five thousand inhabitants which is now Transylvania. Despite not having any particular religious upbringing as a child, the young Ligeti had an interesting fantasy life and a strong grasp of the world around him simultaneously. He invented his own utopian society called Kylwiria in which there would be no suffering or death, and even created a whole new language for such a place also. These sorts of fantasies of course are very common amongst young children but Ligeti was an exception in that they persisted into his teens and the ideas which had formed in his mind from this cemented themselves into kernels of artistic vision which would go on to inspire even some of the last pieces he composed in his last years. Interestingly one of Ligeti’s first attempts at composition at the age of sixteen was a large symphony in A minor based on elements from Also Sprach Zarathustra which he worked on over two summers in a cemetery near to his home. As previously noted Ligeti was not a practicing Jew and became Jewish ‘only through persecution’ at the hands of the Nazi regime in World War II. His family suffered horrendously as the hands of the same forces, with his father and brother both being murdered in the concentration camps. For many years he believed his mother had died too in Auschwitz, but her medical training saved her as she was skilled as a doctor in the camp. Throughout much of this time Ligeti ‘stayed alive by coincidence.’ He fled Hungary in 1956 and began a new life in the West, earning his place as one of the key figures of the new musical establishment alongside those such as Boulez and Stockhausen.

In a radio interview broadcast on July 2006 with John Tusa (the managing director of the Barbican Centre at the time), Ligeti discussed in great detail various aspects of both his socio-political and religious beliefs. Ligeti was described as being ‘the great atheist composer’ by Tusa and this poses further questions on Ligeti’s personal relationship or lack thereof with the mysterious and miraculous, which Stockhausen refers to. It seems to suggest that in conversation with his colleagues both publicly and privately, he may have been very open about his lack of any true religious conviction of one kind or another. Thomas May (a contributing writer to the San Francisco symphony’s program book) explains that ‘Ligeti had developed an immunity to all ideologies’, and a strong case can be made that his lack of adherence to any of the major monotheistic religions is not surprising, having suffered both directly and indirectly at the hands of two severe dictatorships from the beginning of the twentieth century. Ligeti’s father was certainly considered to be ‘an atheist and socialist’and whether these characteristics would have been passed on without the tragedies in his life is of course unknowable but does branch outward into an interesting line of enquiry. Ligeti taught his students to be non-believers but at the same time he was fully aware that a certain naivety was necessary as a creative artist and particularly as a composer. This idea was most likely one of the key components of the elevation of Messiaen in Ligeti’s admiration, whose faith permeated into all areas of his life and not just the art of his music.

One of the pinnacles of the composer’s achievements which gained him international status in the avant-garde circles was his Requiem, a prime example of the textural style of his early output begun in the spring of 1963 and completed in January 1965. It is also a fine example of how religious themes and ideas can be used and translated into a secular non-doctrinal context as compositional material. Interestingly Ligeti chose to set the Lux Aeterna as a separate piece slightly later in 1966. Only a year after the completion of the Requiem, the text and the sound world was still clearly fresh in his mind. The requiem as a form of composition has had a long and rich history in the canon of Western classical music. James Macmillan emphasises that as time has passed and the relationship between sacred music and its intended specific use in liturgical services has changed, ‘the liturgical forms have found their place in the concert halls of today’ and the Requiem is certainly no exception to this observation. The Ligeti requiem is intended to be a concert work and as he explains:

My Requiem is not liturgical. I am not Catholic, I am of Jewish origin, but I do not follow any religion. I took the text of the requiem for its image of the anguish, the fear of the end of the world.’

Paul Griffiths refers to this piece as ‘the most overwhelmingly impressive product of Ligeti’s cluster style’ and the effect on the listener is certainly warranted a similar description. As the composer himself said, his work is principally inspired by and revolves around the day of judgements and a primeval fear of the end of the world. It is essential a funeral mass for the whole of humanity, a personal statement about death which does not rely on its creator being a practicing believer of Catholicism or indeed any belief system to be able to relate to it.

The instrumentation of the orchestra at the start of the work reflects Ligeti’s natural instinct for extremes in the exploration of texture and timbre. It is scored for trombones, bass trombone, horns, contrabassoon bass tuba, contrabass clarinet, double bassoon, bass clarinet and double basses. For much of the piece Ligeti splits the chorus into four-part groupings of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. Using this twenty-part texture to weave dense patterns of what Ligeti liked to call ‘micro-polyphony’. The clustered, harsh brass tones combined with the urgency of the vocal line both within solos and in unison throughout the piece provide the perfect response to the liturgical text. It has an overriding sense of desperation and helplessness which is inherent in the Dies Irae text. This piece is most certainly one of the finest examples of a religious work by a non-believer to have entered the repertoire so far.

Attitudes towards music and religious belief/philosophy have certainly changed dramatically over time as has been shown. A deep sense of religious conviction merely serves as a vehicle by which he/she is able to express him/herself. Performers and indeed listeners may benefit in some way from knowing the inspiration and/ compositional processes behind the music. However a composer in the most general sense is a creator who concerns him or herself with the sound as the building block materials of their art. The priority of any composer first and foremost therefore should be the creation of sound. Just as Ligeti was adamant that ‘the experience of terror does not lead to the creation of art’, nor necessarily does a personal experience of the divine for that matter.

Extra-musical inspiration is essential in the composition of music, whilst the relevance and transparency of the personal motivation of the composer within a piece itself is limiting and questionable at best. Although impossible to prove of course, it could be argued that Ligeti (because of the strong commitments to his new and particular musical language at the time in the 1960’s) would have written a similar Requiem if he had been a Catholic for instance. Similarly, a case could be made that Stockhausen’s experiments for most of his life in the electronic studio in Cologne would have been undertaken without his inclinations towards the mystic and otherworldly domains. Experimentation with sounds is the key factor here which draws composers to creating their work. Music as an art form is not a language although it can be treated as one in a variety of ways. Its syntax is that of a young child who can speak few words but is able to express an indeterminate amount more depending on the perceptiveness of the listener. Personal faith and music therefore are inextricably linked to varying degrees in the minds of composer, performer and listener.

© 2016, essay and illustration, Joseph Alen ShawAll rights reserved


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Griffiths, Paul, György Ligeti. London: Robson Books, 1983
Harvey, Jonathan, Music and Inspiration, London: Faber and Faber, 1999
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Toop, Richard, György Ligeti, London: Phaidon, 1999

Macmillan, James, Conversations with Composers,  (accessed on 02/04/2016)
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