My love of so-called Sacred Music

I have been a member of a choir, almost continuously, since I was ten.

I have been a member of a choir, almost continuously, since I was ten. The hiatus was forced upon me during puberty when my voice changed from treble to alto to baritone,and ultimately bass, skipping tenor, over a period of a year.

My school, a very old grammar school in the North of England, the first record of which was in 1320, had had a choir for literally centuries and a wonderful music department. I was introduced to Mozart’s Fifth Symphony at the age of ten, which he had composed when he was ten and I immediately developed a love of all classical music, both sacred and secular, including opera, which has endured until now.

I do not acknowledge that my love of so-called sacred music is in any way contradictory to my atheism despite the protestations of Christians that there must be something lingering in my psyche which yearns for a faith.

Rather, the desire of the classical composers who wrote these magnificent oratorios, Handel, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart was to flatter their patrons all of whom were aristocrats. The patrons were, for political reasons, very ‘religious’ men and it paid, quite literally, to flatter them.

One must understand that the patrons were men of considerable wealth,  most of it inherited, and were land-owners. They all had a vested interest in the religion of the day, because it, through its practitioners, was able to keep the mostly unlettered mass of peasantry in check.

A particularly cogent quotation by Seneca, who lived from 4 BC to 65 AD, says it all: “Religion is regarded by ordinary people as true, by the wise as false and by those who rule as useful.”

And now, for something completely different (to quote my very favourite British comedy team – Monty Python, every one of whom is or was an atheist), a short anecdote about Clare Booth Luce, the first U.S. woman Ambassador in history, appointed by President Eisenhower, to serve in Rome. She was the wife of Henry Luce, the publisher and managing editor of Time Magazine, and she was also a convert to Roman Catholicism. The story goes that shortly after her appointment she visited Pope Pius Xll in the Vatican.

She was shown into his study by his private secretary and they were left alone. After about 30 minutes the secretary felt an obligation to his employer to intervene. What he saw as he entered the study shocked him.

Pius Xll was backed up into a corner and Mrs. Luce was standing in front of him wagging a finger at the Pope, who was pleading, in Italian, saying;” Ma Signora – sono già cattolico – but Madam, I already am a Catholic.”

The whole point of this anecdote is that converts to Catholicism are, by far, the most enthusiastic proselytisers because of their recent discovery of joy in their new faith. The anecdote lacks a certain credibility for those in the know in the sense that Mrs. Luce and Pius Xll were already on friendly terms before her appointment as Ambassador to Rome.

The story has meaning for me because it came on the heels of my departure, after living in, and enjoying the many delights of Italy for close to two years.

 

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