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Sacred Music of the 20th Century
LAL-2001, Life Art, Ltd.
129 Frandview Terrace, Box 300, Lakeside, MT 59922

The most unexpected classical music recording I’ve run across recently is Sacred Music of the 20th Century, a compact disc chiefly devoted to a cantata by John Boyle called Requiem for the Unborn. This work, composed in 1995 and recorded by Kurt Sprenger, the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Warsaw National Chorus, was released on a label called Life Art, Ltd., described in the liner notes as “a special corporation to support and encourage the development of contemporary symphonic music that combines the highest moral, spiritual, and artistic values.” The notes go on to say that Boyle, a composer born in 1952 about whom I knew nothing prior to hearing this CD, “is currently working on an oratorio dealing with the tragic consequences from the breakup of the family. This work, which is in keeping with Boyle’s concern with social morals and keen interest in spiritual themes, is due to be completed by late 1996.”

All of which is, to put it mildly, leading with the chin. I know of no group of people in the United States more reflexively liberal than classical musicians, and none more unanimous in the belief that abortion should remain legal and wholly unrestricted in its availability. It is worth noting that this performance was recorded in Poland by Polish musicians; I think it safe to say that no American musician of repute would have taken part, other than anonymously, in performing or recording such a piece of music. I feel no less safe in predicting that this CD will not be played on any nonreligious radio station, or sold in any chain store. As far as the classical music community is concerned, Requiem for the Unborn will be an unpiece.

One may usefully contrast the reception of a new work by Elliot Goldenthal, a composer born in 1954 who is scarcely better known than John Boyle, called Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio. This piece, commissioned in 1993 by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, was performed not long ago at Carnegie Hall, and has been recorded by Sony, one of the largest classical labels in the world. The public performance featured Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony; the Sony recording features the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. I am writing prior to the Carnegie Hall performance, and so I do not know how Fire Water Paper will be received by the critics. But I do know the piece will be received, by which I mean that the New York premiere will be covered by the New York Times, and the CD reviewed by those major publications that run record reviews.

Anyone surprised by any of this has obviously not been reading First Things very closely. America is engaged in a culture war, and abortion is among the most important battlegrounds in that war. Those who support abortion are ordinarily portrayed in the mass media as right-thinking centrists, those who oppose it as bigoted fanatics; as Ross Perot likes to say, it’s just that simple.

It is, in fact, so simple that it isn’t very interesting. For me, the interesting part is not whether anybody in the classical music business is going to pay any attention to Requiem for the Unborn: that is, as Generation X says, a no-brainer. As a conservative and a Christian who is also a practicing critic of the fine arts, I am much more interested in whether or not Requiem for the Unborn is any good—and, more generally, whether any such piece of music, whatever its ideology, can possibly be any good.

The latter question is not as simple as it looks. Most of the conservatives who take an interest in the fine arts would twitch their noses disapprovingly at any left-wing composer who affected to be concerned with “social morals.” Why, then, should we be less tough on a composer who, to invert T. S. Eliot’s formulation, does the wrong thing for the right reason? And while we’re on the subject, what kind of music incorporates “moral, spiritual, and artistic values,” anyway? Isn’t music supposed to belong to a “wholly other” realm of existence in which such matters have no place?

The truth, of course, is that classical music, however elusive its essence, is nonetheless deeply rooted in Western religious practice. Putting aside the vast body of music written specifically for liturgical use by major composers ranging from Palestrina to Stravinsky, countless sacred texts (most notably the mass), have been appropriated as quasi-theatrical vehicles by composers who in many cases were agnostic or atheistic (Berlioz, Verdi, and Vaughan Williams come immediately to mind). Even in this reflexively secular age, nobody questions the musical validity of such compositions merely because they use religious texts. Moreover, we have lately seen an explosion of popular interest in contemporary classical music that has an explicitly spiritual aspect; indeed, the worldwide response to the music of Henryk Górecki, John Tavener, and Arvo Part (who have come to be known collectively as the holy minimalists) is beyond question the classical music success story of the 1990s.

Why, then, should anyone have a problem with a Requiem for the Unborn? The easy answer, as always, comes easily: the issue of abortion has been politicized, and politics and art do not mix. Great art seeks to address all people everywhere, while politicized art is in practice limited in reach to those who already agree with its animating premises, or are at the very least undecided about them. That a piece of music called Requiem for the Unborn is in this sense “propagandistic” is beyond argument: its purpose is to strengthen the convictions of those listeners who already agree with it, and to change the minds of those who do not. Most of the great religious music of the premodern era, by contrast, was not composed to incline its listeners toward Christianity (though some of it did, and still does), any more than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was composed to convert its listeners to some nineteenth-century version of secular humanism. What it was composed to do is more problematic, the function of music never having been adequately defined, but the simplest answer is that given by Bach: its beauty glorifies God.

Only in the twentieth century did major composers get into the propaganda business, and then their preferred causes tended to be not religious but secular. World War II saw a plethora of pieces by American composers whose subject matter was not religion, or music, but politics. Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait (1942), Randall Thompson’s The Testament of Freedom (1943), even Paul Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d (1946): all these works, and many others like them, exist not to glorify God but to exalt what we have learned to call the civic religion. The Soviets deliberately bent their great composers to superficially similar ends—it is impossible to count the number of patriotic potboilers churned out under duress by Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich-and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (1962), in which the text of the requiem mass is commingled with the pacifist-homoerotic poetry of Wilfred Owen, was among the biggest classical-music “hits” of the postwar era. In more recent years, we have had Ned Rorem’s Whitman Cantata (1983), bound in a lavender cover; John Corigliano’s First Symphony (1990), now universally known as the AIDS Symphony; and Libby Larsen’s Missa Gaia: Mass for the Earth (1992), a work which, according to the composer, “adopts the form and spirit of the traditional Mass and replaces the texts with words addressing human beings’ relationship to the Earth.”

What most (though not all) of these works have in common is that they are occasional pieces, few of which have had any significant life beyond the secular occasions for which they were composed. But the “occasion” for Requiem for the Unborn is, at least potentially, of much greater interest. Requiem for the Unborn is about death, and the particular cause of death singled out by the composer clearly has moral and ethical dimensions compatible with serious art. By way of comparison, it would be quite possible (though it might also be quite difficult) to compose a serious opera about the Holocaust, or a serious oratorio about slavery in America. Indeed, the most musically successful oratorio of the twentieth century, Sir Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time (1941), is a meditation on Kristallnacht in which the Lutheran chorales of Bach’s passion settings are replaced by Negro spirituals—a device that sounds trite in the telling, but which in practice is almost unbearably moving.

Is abortion a subject similarly suitable to the making of serious art? To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever tried to write a “pro-choice” cantata: merely to broach the idea is to recognize its utter absurdity. Yet the converse, no matter how repugnant it may be to the sensibilities of most contemporary American musicians, is by no means comparably absurd. If it was possible for Benjamin Britten to write a good requiem whose message is that war is evil, why should it necessarily be impossible for John Boyle to write a good requiem whose message is that abortion is evil?

The point is that what ought to matter most in the end is the artistic quality of Requiem for the Unborn, and here I must render a mixed verdict. Requiem for the Unborn is a half-hour-long cantata divided into four sections: “Death,” “Hell” (which contains an instrumental interlude called “Dance of the Devil”), “The Void” (in which an aborted fetus despairs of its fate), and “Redemption.” The musical idiom, which is conservative but not reactionary, is more or less the sort of thing one might have heard from an English or American composer of the 1930s, with one or two avant-garde devices thrown in for good measure. I found the first two movements competent but unmemorable, the third impressive and highly memorable, the fourth patchy and saccharine—not a bad average for an unknown composer.

But while Requiem for the Unborn is good enough to be judged on its not inconsiderable merits, these merits unfortunately do not include the text. “Hell” is based on lines drawn from The Divine Comedy; the remaining movements are settings of verses by the composer and an unidentified writer named Terry Jimmerson, and they are not good. The last movement, which the anonymous author of the liner notes describes as expressive of “the forgiving and merciful nature of God,” is especially mawkish: Now is the time to put life back into / Life. / Leading the children who can’t / Come this way on their own. / Give them the wisdom to bring forth / The good of this life / You’ve been shown. Given the extent to which the quality of the text is central to the effect of a work of this kind, the average listener, however sympathetic, is likely to conclude, as I did, that Requiem for the Unborn simply doesn’t add up to an artistically convincing whole.

But what if the text had been better? What if the music had been more consistently compelling? And why does the work as it stands now, worthy though it undeniably is, leave me with a distinctly queasy feeling? It isn’t as though I think art more important than life, or that it should be treated with the respect due to revealed religion. And even if I did, the fact would still remain that the existence of one little pro-life cantata hardly threatens the continuing validity of, say, the Missa Solemnis: the autonomy of art is not dependent on the suppression of works by artists who prefer politics to abstraction. John Boyle has as much right to compose a half-hour-long cantata about abortion—or, for that matter, an evening-long oratorio about the consequences of the breakup of the nuclear family—as Elliot Goldenthal has to compose an oratorio about Vietnam.

All this is crystal clear. What is less clear is why I am bothered by the whole idea of Requiem for the Unborn, why I would very much prefer that it had never been composed or recorded, whatever its artistic and moral merits. I can offer only a partial explanation for my discomfort: at a time when political correctness has become for many Americans the chief criterion of artistic “excellence,” it troubles me to see conservatives, be they political or religious, traveling down the same narrow path toward the same bloody crossroads, no matter how tentatively, or how good their reasons.

But that probably says more about me—and, more important, about the way in which the debate over abortion has driven a wedge into the soul of America—than it does about the well-made, well-meaning music of John Boyle.

Terry Teachout is the music critic of Commentary. He is writing a biography of H. L. Mencken.

Image by Carlos Ebert licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.