Ariel Ramirez: Misa Criolla
Sacred music has been one of the cornerstones of Western cultural history since composer Pierluigi Palestrina – thus legend has it – persuaded the Pope in the mid-16th century that church music didn't have to be sung in one part, but that a more opulent style could also be allowed. Since then, nearly every major composer has written his own personal setting of the Mass. Argentine composer and folk-music scholar Ariel Ramírez produced a particularly original variation on the theme in 1964: his »Misa Criolla« is based on traditional South American dances, featuring Indian, Spanish and African influences. Instead of an orchestra, the singers are accompanied here by the Pan's pipes, guitar and maracas, and no-one will manage to stay seated in his pew when he hears these hip-swinging Creole sounds.
»Gloria« from the Misa Criolla
This is an article from the Elbphilharmonie Magazine (issue 02/2020), which is published three times per year.
Olivier Messiaen: Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus
»Any music that approaches the divine, the sacred and the unspeakable in deference is religious music in the full sense of the word.« This was how French composer Messiaen defined religious music. Although he played the organ in a Paris church for over 60 years, his works often go beyond the confines of the liturgy. And this also applies to his two-hour piano cycle »Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus« (Twenty Looks at the Child Jesus) of 1944. In the work he imagines not just the feelings that the Virgin Mary and Joseph may have had as they regarded the infant Jesus lying in the manger. The synaesthetic composer and passionate ornithologist also finds space for his beloved bird calls, extravagant tone colours and »stalactites, spirals, galaxies and photons« - and for an extremely complex fugue as a mirror image of divine Creation.
Aretha Franklin: Amazing Grace
»Amazing Grace: the church-music equivalent of the Sistine Chapel«
Producer Jerry Wexler
»Respect«, »Think« – with these and countless other hits, Aretha Franklin (1942–2018) ensured her place in music history as the »Queen of Soul«. She inherited her vocal power from her father, Reverend C. L. Franklin, a fiery Baptist preacher who often let her sing in church services. In 1972 Aretha recalled her roots and recorded the gospel album »Amazing Grace« in Los Angeles' New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, »the church-music equivalent of the Sistine Chapel« (producer Jerry Wexler), which became the bestselling gospel record of all time. The original film of the recording session only recently came to light, enabling cinemagoers to not only admire the source of the wonderful melodies, Aretha's mouth, but no lesser figure than the enraptured Mick Jagger in the audience.
Elbphilharmonie Magazin | Glauben
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Another voice whose power, warmth and euphony are hard to escape: Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1944–1997) was regarded as the most important protagonist of Qawwali singing and one of the greatest vocalists of all time. His spiritual home was Sufism, the current within Islam that seeks access to God in mysticism and ecstasy. He could spend hours singing himself and his followers into a trance, accompanied by the traditional Qawwali ensemble consisting of drums and a manual harmonium. Thanks to the World Music craze triggered by Peter Gabriel, his music spread around the globe in the 1980s, and was often used for film soundtracks, e.g. for Martin Scorsese's »The Last Temptation of Christ«.
Arvo Pärt: Magnificat
What constitutes good music? »I have discovered that it's enough for a single note to be beautifully played« – this is Arvo Pärt's answer to the question. From the mid-1970s on, the Estonian composer translated this insight into music of immense meditative simplicity, often repeating a simple triad over a long stretch. His fascination with Gregorian chant and soaring harmonies is reflected in his »Magnificat« of 1989. With his chosen style, however, he fell between all stools: the Soviet regime, whose attention Pärt soon eluded by emigrating, was suspicious of such sacred subjects, while his avant-garde colleagues in the West were sceptical of his rapid popularity and the simplicity of his music. Pärt himself wasn't too bothered: »In art, anything goes – but not everything is necessary.«
»It's enough for a single note to be beautifully played.«
John Coltrane: A Love Supreme
Sleeping by day and playing at night; a tramp with a saxophone in his hand, with tattered clothes, but always plenty of alcohol and heroin – like many a jazzman, John Coltrane (1926–1967) cultivated this image for a long time. Until Miles Davis chucked the tenor player from the legendary record »Kind of Blue« out of his band in 1960. His career could have been over, but he experienced »a spiritual awakening by the grace of God, and this led me to a richer and more productive life«. One morning he came downstairs »as Moses came down the mountaintop« (thus his wife Alice) with a new album in his head, and he went on to record it in a single session in a single take in December 1964: »A Love Supreme«. It reflected his new-found love of God, culminating in a psalm – and also represented an important step towards free jazz.
Andrew Lloyd Webber: Jesus Christ Superstar
»The rocky production dutifully tells the story of the Crucifixion, but leaves out the Resurrection«
»Blasphemy!«, some people cried. Jesus Christ as a musical star – outrageous, especially as the rocky production dutifully tells the story of the Crucifixion, but leaves out the Resurrection. On the other hand, Jewish associations protested against the anti-Semitic presentation of the high priests. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and his lyrics writer Tim Rice found themselves running into a wall on Broadway, which forced them to only release the production on record in 1970. But all the agitation soon died down, and »Jesus Christ Superstar« went onto become one of the most successful rock musicals of all time. Even Vatican Radio broadcast the music with the blessing of Pope Paul VI, and the Last Supper song hit no. 188 in the charts.
Text: Clemens Matuschek, last updated: 14.4.2020