Some years ago now, I wrote a post about the relationship between my faith and my love for avant-garde music. One thing I pointed out was the tension between beauty and deliberate discomfort (one might even call it ‘ugliness’) in a lot of this music: I suggested that whilst moments of beauty in avant-garde repertoire were often ‘fleeting but hard-earned’, its ‘free inclusion of sounds that are uncomfortable or even disturbing’ reflected for me ‘an honest response to the beautiful but broken world’ in which we play and hear this music.
That was six years ago; as I look around me now, in 2022, the brokenness of the world is clearer than ever. Although the autumn days here in York are dawning as beautifully bright and crisp as always, the sudden onset of cold weather (after a summer of unprecedented heat and rolling droughts) is coinciding exactly with huge rises in energy bills, widespread inflation, domestic political turmoil, and the ongoing global uncertainty caused by Covid-19 and the deepening crisis in Ukraine. In the midst of such fear and chaos, artistic creativity can seem an impossible luxury, a waste of time and energy that could have been focussed on survival.
And yet in these situations I find myself remembering the famous examples of music created in the midst of crisis: Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, a set of musical meditations on Revelation that was written and premiered in the German Stalag VIII-A prisoner-of-war camp in 1940; Haydn’s Missa in tempori belli (Mass in Time of War), written in 1796 as the Austrian forces were being driven back by the French revolutionary army; Lewis Allen’s song ‘Strange Fruit’, written in 1939 in response to waves of lynchings of Black Americans, and made famous by Billie Holiday’s performances at the outset of the American civil rights movement. Moments of beauty in these pieces interact with outpourings of fear, anger, confusion, and sorrow; in that sense they continue the Biblical tradition of lament, which provides a space for emotional honesty even when our emotions don’t seem to line up with our theology. (I find it very reassuring that David’s Spirit-inspired words in the Psalms include complaints about God’s perceived distance, inaction and abandonment – and yet he is described as ‘a man after God’s own heart’!)
Art that expresses these painful shared realities can give voice to the hurt of a community, providing catharsis, building unity, or inspiring collective action; it can also remind us of the compassion of Jesus, the ‘man of sorrows’ who bore in himself all of our suffering, and thus understands every hurt that we experience. (One movement of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, written for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962, makes exactly this point by fusing the Agnus Dei with a war poem by Wilfrid Owen that likens the agonies of a dying soldier to those of the crucified Christ.)
As we respond to the sufferings of the world around us, then, let’s be alert to the ways in which artistic creativity can form a part of that response – providing an outlet for all kinds of emotions, including lament.
I wanted to close by sharing one more piece of contemporary music that I’ve been listening to a lot recently: Caroline Shaw’s and the swallow (2017). It’s based on Psalm 84, a song which casts praise as yearning, the desperate desire of the writer to be once more in God’s presence; Shaw’s setting was written in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, and she presents the psalmist’s yearning as a wider longing for home and safety. The piece closes with a haunting evocation of the ‘autumn rains’ of the text, with their promise of long-sought cleansing, refreshment and new life.