Classical music needs wider as well as younger audiences

Arguments continue to rage as to whether classical music is elitist. If the commonly accepted definition of elitist as an offensive air of superiority is applied, classical music has little to answer for. However, if the alternative definition of control by a select and powerful group is used, the defence is much weaker. Classical music remains a predominantly white, Judaeo-Christian, Euro-centric, corporate-controlled, male dominated art form, and, even in the 21st century, attitudes such as ’I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors’ still persist. This ethnocultural hegemony extends to the repertoire, which remains rooted in the white, Judaeo-Christian tradition. This means that the term 'classical music' is automatically assumed to refer to Western classical music, despite there being an equally strong tradition of classical music in non-Western countries. Western society is now ethnically and culturally diverse; yet, despite this, virtually every attempt to expand the market for classical music has centred on reaching a younger segment within the existing culturally exclusive audience. This strategy inevitably perpetuates the ethnocultural elitism seen in the photo* above, which was taken in the Avery Fisher Hall, New York.

However, there are some noteworthy initiatives that challenge the white, Judaeo-Christian hegemony of classical music. One such challenge comes from the Salzburg Summer Festival, a historically conservative institution that was co-founded by Richard Strauss in 1920, and which over the years has hosted legendary musicians including Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan. The 1930s were a dark period in the history of the Salzburg festival, when elitism of the most vile kind desecrated the music. But much more recently Salzburg has challenged tradition with the introduction of the Ouverture Spirituelle festival-within-a-festival. Launched in 2012, each year this trans-cultural festival brings together sacred music from Christianity and one of the other great perennial traditions. In 2014 the Ouverture Spirituelle brought together music from Christianity and Islam, and earlier this year I was delighted to be invited to write three essays for the Festival programme books. Delighted, because not only did this commission show that an alternative voice can also be an authoritative voice, but, additionally, it provided an opportunity to develop some of the themes that have preoccupied me On An Overgrown Path over the last ten years.

Quick fixes of overturning concert hall conventions such as formal dress and clinical lighting will not revitalise classical music on their own. The solution is far more complex and longer term: we need wider as well as younger and - don't forget - older audiences, and we also need to retain and value the current core audience. Salzburg's Ouverture Spirituelle is just one component in what is, hopefully, an emerging multi-faceted long term solution, and over the coming weeks I will be publishing my three programme essays here. The first is reproduced below; it complemented an iconoclastic concert by the choir of Bayerischen Rundfunks and instrumental soloists directed by Rupert Huber. In the concert sacred Christian music from Anton Bruckner and Hildegard von Bingen was coupled with the world premiere of a choral work by the Palestinian-Israeli composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi celebrating the 9th century Sufi martyr Manṣūr Al-Ḥallāǵ.

Intoxicated by a love for God

Bob Shingleton

Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179)
O Jerusalem aurea civitas (Hymn to St Rupert)

Anton Bruckner (1824–96)
Mass No. 2 in E minor WAB 27

Samir Odeh-Tamimi (b. 1970)

The Spanish scholar of Islamic studies and Catholic priest Miguel Asín Palacios described Sufism as ‘Christianized Islam’. He argued that Sufism is notable for reconciling Islam and Christianity by identifying Jesus, Isa in Arabic, as a messenger of divine love. This year’s Ouverture spirituelle celebrates the music of Christianity and Islam, with tonight’s concert bringing together those two monotheistic faiths, with the world premiere of a composition celebrating one of the leading figures in Sufism coupled with two acknowledged masterpieces from the Western Christian tradition.

Manṣūr Al-Ḥallāǵ was born in southern Persia in 857CE. He became a pupil of Junayd of Baghdad, who was an early proponent of the ‘sober’ school of Muslim mysticism. But in complete contrast to his teacher, Al-Ḥallāǵ followed the path of ‘intoxicated’ Sufism with an unrestrained love for God. (It was this path that another great Sufi master, the founder of the Mevlana order, Jalāluddin Rūmī, followed 400 years later.) Al-Ḥallāǵ is celebrated among the intoxicated Sufis for advocating total integration with God and the complete obliteration of the ego. He wrote a number of influential texts including The Book of Justice and Unity and he was a prolific poet. His cerebral and passionate verse is best known for its advocacy of union with God, but it also ventures into opaque and abstract meditations on Sufi psychology and obscure Arabic riddles. An active missionary for Islam, Al-Ḥallāǵ travelled to Turkestan and on to China via India. In common with many Christian mystics of the period, Al-Ḥallāǵ enjoyed a reputation as an alchemist, not in the sense of converting base metals, but rather the transmutation of human souls to attain true wisdom in the form of sophic gold, a goal that looks back to the primeval Egyptian tradition of Hermeticism.

But Al-Ḥallāǵ’s metaphysical intoxication was his downfall: his commitment to total integration with God led him to make the heretical declaration ‘Ana al-Haqq’ (I am the truth as a manifestation of God). A fatwa was issued and Al-Ḥallāǵ was imprisoned in Baghdad for eight years before being tried. He was defended by a prominent Islamic jurist who argued that metaphysics were beyond the control of Sharia Law, but despite this, Al-Hallaj was found guilty and his teacher Junayd, the ‘sober’ Sufi, acquiesced to his execution. The condemned mystic was taken to a public square in Baghdad where he was given 500 lashes before his hands and feet were amputated. The next day he was beheaded by decree of the Caliph and his body burnt; this last act was a final gesture of humiliation, as Islam teaches that the dead will be raised in the form in which they died.

The miracles that the Persian Sufi poet Attār reports as occurring at the time of the execution resonate with biblical accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. Three days before Al-Ḥallāǵ’s death his followers found his cell empty; when asked, on his return the next day, what had happened, the Sufi explained that he had been away with God. It is reported that when, as a final punishment, his ashes were scattered in the Tigris River, they recited, ‘I am the truth’, and the waters then started to rise, threatening to flood Baghdad. Although Al-Ḥallāǵ is still viewed by some orthodox Muslims as a heretic, he is revered among Sufis for his teachings and as a martyr who retained a compassionate attitude towards his executioners. In the West he, together with 
Rūmī and Ibn Arabi, is celebrated as the mystical and liberal face of Islam.

This evening’s concert features the premiere of the Palestinian-Israeli composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi’s settings of texts by and about Manṣūr Al-Ḥallāǵ. Odeh-Tamimi was born in Israel in 1970. Having established a reputation playing percussion and keyboards in ensembles specializing in traditional Arab music, he moved to Germany in 1992, where he studied at Kiel University and was influenced by contemporary composers such as Lutosławski, Nono and Xenakis. He has since developed a unique composing style, blending Islamic mysticism and the discipline of Quar’anic recitation with European instrumentation and avant-garde influences.

Settling in Berlin, Odeh-Tamimi met the Tunisian writer Ali Mosbah, who had translated Nietzsche’s Ecce homo and Also sprach Zarathustra into Arabic. Their conversations would often turn to the subject of Al-Ḥallāǵ, though Odeh-Tamimi stresses that his interest was not religiously motivated. ‘When I say I’m not motivated by religion, I mean not in the traditional sense. I’m a spiritual person, but not necessarily associated with a particular religion.’ ‘The message of Al-Ḥallāǵ’, he says, ‘is beyond the scope of a specific religious community. The central idea behind my new piece is that man is defined by his understanding whereas God defies definition.’ Odeh-Tamimi is fascinated by Al-Ḥallāǵ’s personality as well as his poetry and his new composition celebrates Al-Ḥallāǵ the mystical deviant, as well as Al-Ḥallāǵ the great Sufi teacher.

Elements of Sufi ritual inform Odeh-Tamimi’s work, recalling the secret nightly worship of his grandfather, a well-known Arab Sufi healer. ‘I am truly fascinated not only by the words’, he says, ‘but also by the whole world of music that stands behind them’. Samā, for instance, is the Sufi practice of moving meditation; the word literally means audition or listening. Witnessing the rituals of his grandfather’s community, in which he would sometimes be allowed to play the drums, Odeh-Tamimi was captivated by the group as it became completely dissolved in the prayers’ rhythmic oscillations. Repetitive chant therefore features prominently in Manṣūr, which is scored for large choir, as well as four brass players and two percussionists, exploiting the spatial possibilities of the Kollegienkirche.

The Western Christian tradition is represented in this concert by the music of Hildegard von Bingen and Anton Bruckner. Hildegard, who was born at the end of the 11th century in the Rhineland town of Bingen, is celebrated both as a pioneering composer and an influential mystic. From the age of three she experienced visions that she believed were direct communications from God. She became a nun at a very young age and in 1150 she established the monastery of St Rupertsberg. Like Al-Ḥallāǵ, she wrote influential theological treatises, but she also composed a number of major liturgical works and a musical morality play. It is suggested that her sequence, O Jerusalem aurea civitas (Hymn to St Rupert), may have been composed for the rededication of St Rupertsberg, which had been rebuilt following its levelling by Viking invaders.

That context of the construction of a scared building links Hildegard’s O Jerusalem aurea civitas to Bruckner’s Mass No. 2 in E minor, composed to celebrate the building of the Mariendom in Linz. It was given its first performance in the Votive Chapel in 1869, though the Cathedral was not completed in its entirety until after Bruckner’s death, in 1924. Bruckner, who was born in 1824, received his early musical training as a choirboy in the Abbey of St Florian in Upper Austria. His monastic upbringing led him to become intensely religious; it has been said that Bruckner ‘prayed his music’. His Catholic faith, which rivalled Al-Ḥallāǵ’s unrestrained love for God, permeated all of his compositions. This performance of his Mass forms part of a wider celebration of Bruckner’s music at this year’s Festival, including a complete cycle of the symphonies, in which we find quotations from two of the masses and from the Te Deum; Bruckner scholar Hans Ferdinand Redlich speaks of an ‘affinity of mass and symphony’.

All three works in tonight’s concert are, then, intoxicated by a love for God. Mirroring Al-Ḥallāǵ’s metaphysical fervour, Hildegard spoke of being ‘encircled by the arms of the mystery of God’, while Bruckner dedicated his Ninth Symphony, his last, ‘to beloved God’. Musicologist Denis Raisin Dadre has drawn attention to the similarities between the laude sung by the 16th-century Christian confraternities and the rituals celebrated by Sufi brotherhoods. The convergence of the two monotheistic faiths has likewise attracted the attention of many scholars, including the Trappist monk, Catholic author and peace activist Thomas Merton who wrote that ‘Sufis are after what we’re after: the dissolution of one’s present status in order to be reintegrated on a new level.’ By bringing together three examples of music intoxicated by a love for God, this concert shows how the dissolution of present statuses can lead to musical and cultural reintegration at a new and higher level.

After graduating, Bob Shingleton worked for the BBC and EMI Records. During the 1970s he was professionally involved with the Salzburg Festival where his responsibilities included ensuring that photos of Herbert von Karajan were displayed prominently throughout the city. Since retiring Bob has pursued his interest in the more esoteric aspects of music and he writes the arts and music blog On An Overgrown Path.

* Header photo is from a New York Times article titled Classical Music is Not Dead and is credited to Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images. Second photo was taken by me at the shrine of the shrine of the thirteenth century Sufi Shaykh Yusuf Abu al-Hajjaj in Luxor, Egypt, the third at the Catholic L'Abbaye La Lucerne in Normandy. My thanks go to Gavin Plumley, the commissioning editor of English-language programme notes for the Salzburg Festival for his generous support. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Recent popular posts

A tale of two new audiences

Is classical music obsessed by existential angst?

Does it have integrity and relevance?

The Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour

New music for old instruments

Will this attract young audiences? - discuss

Why new audiences are deaf to classical music

Whatever happened to the long tail of composers?

Master musician who experienced the pain of genius

Nada Brahma - Sound is God