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Many composers through the centuries have integrated their faith into their classical work. Stephanie Bunbury speaks to two of them.

For centuries, classical music and religion were inextricably entwined practices. From the earliest Gregorian chants through to the height of Christianity, the church provided patronage, venues and a readymade audience for the best and most ambitious composers of the day.

In fact, it was Bach, one of the great composers of the time, who said, “I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music”, a reflection of how his spiritual beliefs influenced his music.

For Mary Finsterer, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s 2023 Composer in Residence, she senses something similar in her own creative drive. Her three faith-based pieces to be performed by the MSO this year culminate in a new setting of the Stabat Mater, a 13th-century text that evokes Jesus’ mother’s suffering as she watches her son die on the Cross.

“Even to write music is in itself an expression of what my faith is,” says Finsterer. “Whether it has a religious theme or not.” Studying at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, her compositional training was predominantly in 20th-century technique, particularly serialism. At the same time, she was fascinated by the early history of western polyphonic music, with its echoes of the chants she had heard in church as a child.

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Mary Finsterer

“I first became aware of the origins of western art music through Gregorian chant, which emerged in the ninth century and was intrinsic to Catholic liturgy,” says Finsterer. However, as a young composer, she says her creative expression, having been directly influenced by her formative training in composition, was not directly linked to her Catholicism. They were almost separate strands of her life.

It was when Finsterer had her first child that the place of faith in her life deepened. “I became more aware of the life and death cycle – my father had died in that time as well – and the focus of what life is really about became stronger.”

It was at that point that her approach to composition and faith converged. Her influences now range from Hildegard von Bingen through to Arvo Pärt; she even wrote a film score for Shirley Barrett’s South Solitary that drew on the Irish jigs and reels she learned through Irish dancing as a child. Her renewed relationship with her faith was thus also a musical liberation.

“Work is really important for us as human beings: what are we doing it for? What are we dedicating it to?”

“I feel I gave myself permission to step outside what had developed from the training that I’d had.” Finsterer grew up in the latter half of the “century of disbelief”, but she can point to a string of modern composers – Messiaen, Stravinsky, Poulenc, John Tavener, Sir James MacMillan – who have also embraced and acknowledged faith and belief as their creative inspiration.

Sir James MacMillan, whose Catholic faith has inspired many of his sacred work, including his own Christmas Oratorio which he composed in 2019, has spoken widely on the topic of faith and its role in musical modernity.

“People are not hearing Bible stories as much as they did. Some younger people are coming across them for the first time in my musical setting,” says MacMillan.

So what does this music mean in our secular age, when many in the audience will never have sung a hymn? MacMillan is convinced it still communicates a sense of the sacred. “Certainly, people who do not have that conventional faith that I have nevertheless find something in music that meets that deep spiritual and psychological need,” he says. “And perhaps that curiosity is important to people. That there’s a deep need to have music take them to a special place that can sometimes speak to the divine or the beyond.”

Metropolis The Lost 21 April 2022
Metropolis: The Lost at St Paul's Cathedral

Does the classical music of other cultures and religions carry a similar spiritual and sacred charge? For MacMillan, he has been interested in other musical traditions since boyhood; he studied ethnomusicology (the study of music’s cultural and social importance) in Indonesia, even learned to play gamelan – a type of musical ensemble native to Indonesia.

“Of course these are spiritual art forms – and there is no embarrassment in these cultures talking about that,” he says. “In talking to people as I did, it’s quite clear they see their music as connected in some way with the work of God.”

Within the western tradition, composers who were agnostic – MacMillan mentions Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten – have chosen to write settings of scriptural texts or religious poetry. Even John Cage’s work 4’33” was originally called Silent Prayer.

“There is something about music which seems to be settled in its search for the sacred, even in our modern times.”

“People even say it’s the most spiritual of the arts – and it’s not necessarily religious people who say that, but people who recognise that one is transformed through music.”

Writing music is a spiritual quest in itself, says Finsterer. “It’s a journey. When embarking on a work of art – a piece of music – one has an idea, a vision of what that is, but the journey will sometimes take you through very arduous terrain.”

While the music Finsterer makes is often praised as beautiful, that is not the point. “The beauty has a purpose: to honour God. And it is more than that. In a sense, music becomes a prayer. I’m grateful people find my music beautiful, that they find something for themselves there. That really means a lot.”

Mary Finsterer’s position as the MSO 2023 Composer in Residence is supported by Kim Williams AM.

2023 metropolis stabat mater 1200x800

Stabat Mater

27 September 2023
St Patrick's Cathedral

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