Can you imagine Bach without the religion?

A valued newcomer to the classical music knowledge base is the Social Media for Musicians blog which includes posts such as ‘Finding your audience and filling your online auditorium: blogging’. Now let’s freewheel for a moment and fantasise that Rachel Ann Poling, who writes the blog, had instead posted ‘Finding your audience and filling your online auditorium: religion’. Disbelief would probably be the mildest reaction and outrage the more extreme - this despite millions having been moved in the past week by performances of the Bach Passions and other sacred music. And this despite hard facts - a commodity notably lacking in discussions of classical music's use of social media – showing that liturgical music is successfully engaging new audiences.

Clearly religion comes with a lot of baggage these days, which explains why it has become a dirty word in the arts world and elsewhere. Then there is the problem that much of the new liturgical music is created for evangelical groups, and Christian Evangelism has some uncomfortable links with the ‘religious right’. So nervousness about playing the religion card is understandable, but does rather overlook that the internet – the current darling of classical music – has uncomfortable links with child pornography, online gaming, phishing scams and other abuses. So let’s suspend judgment for a moment, accept that classical music and religion share a common aim of opening doors to another world, and explore an interesting case study of the power of contemporary religious music.

Today charismatic groups in the West are following the age-old Eastern practice of using an ecstatic mix of music and liturgy to lead their congregation through the door that divides the harsh reality of contemporary life from the better world beyond. One of these groups is the Gitans – gypsies – of France; communities of Gitans have been present in the Languedoc region of south-west France since the sixteenth century and following the French Revolution – which created a more tolerant atmosphere – Gitan families from Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia migrated to Perpignan in Languedoc. These were supplemented two centuries later by gypsies fleeing the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). Just as the gypsy community in Perpignan is a blend of cultures, so their music is a blend of influences with the rumba, which came to Catalonia from Puerto Rico and Cuba, mixing with the more traditional flamenco.

Evangelical Christianity was introduced to the Gitans by a young Breton pastor Clément Le Criossec. He preached in the north of France in the years after the Second World War and went on to found the Mission Évangélique Tsigane. According to the Evangelical Federation of France, the number of Evangelical churches in the country has risen from 800 in 1970 to more than 2,200 today. Following the separation of the church from the state in 1905 Catholicism has declined in France while membership of charismatic movements has increased, and, led by a religious revival among the Gitan community, there are now eleven Evangelical churches in the traditionally Catholic city of Perpignan.

As Evangelical Christianity spread among the Gitans in the 1960s the traditional liturgy fused with contemporary gypsy music. One of the products of this fusion is the ‘Gitan canticle’ which emerged during the 1980s in Perpignan for performance in Evangelical assemblies, and my header image shows a recording of these liturgical works made for the French Long Distance Label by gypsy group Tekameli. Biblical texts provide the sub-text of these ecstatic canticles; but, in a reflection of the gypsy practice of combining their adopted religion with traditional Roma beliefs, the canticles also sing the praises of a free God that defies strict biblical attribution. This makes these canticles much more than a musical curiosity as it links them to the qawwali Sufi tradition of the Indian sub-continent, from where the ancestors of the gitans are thought to have migrated in the eleventh century. And it also links them to perennialism, the belief in a shared root among the great faiths that has attracted contemporary musicians including John Tavener, Jonathan Harvey and Philip Glass.

There is no doubt that Evangelical Christianity is an acquired taste. But beware of the canard that you need to be a churchgoer to appreciate the power of ecstatic music; C.G. Jung, who was no evangelist, said about his religious convictions in a famous BBC interview “I know, I don’t have to believe, I know”, while one of the great oeuvres of religious music, the English Hymnal, was edited by the agnostic Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is also significant that seven years after it was posted my story about the Taizé community – a non-evangelical congregation that uses liturgical music very effectively – remains one of the most widely read stories on An Overgrown Path. And Paco Peña’s Misa Flamenca, a work with many similarities to the Perpignan gypsy canticle, continues to be performed by a commendable mix of musicians around the world - see CD below.

At the core of the problem is, once again, classical music’s current obsession with entertainment – religion and entertainment don’t mix, ergo religion and classical music don’t mix. Which is both wrong and unhelpful, and there is much that Western art music can learn from these gypsy canticles and their backstory. For, as the sleeve notes for the Long Distance CD tell us, they are an example of the transformation of music from an artificial amusement to an experiential art that opens the door to a higher level of awareness and consciousness. Which takes us back to where we started. Can you imagine Bach without the religion?

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wonderful post,Bob.Why WOULD you want to separate bach form his vision?I think that is what gave him his juice,no?and I know many an theist and agnostic for whom Bach is a great source of aesthetic two cents,anyway
billoo said…
Bob, have you read George Steiner's 'Real Presences'? I think he asks the same question.
Pliable said…
billoo, no I haven't read Real Presences. But I am now searching out a copy!

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