On Christmas Eve, I will honor a convinced agnostic: Camille de Saint-Saëns. The French composer’s life is marked by an interesting paradox. He preferred reason to faith, and still, for most of his career, he worked as an organist at the church La Madeleine in Paris. As such, he composed in 1858 a wonderful Christmas cantata in nine movements, the “Oratorio de Noël” Op. 12. It was performed for first time on December 25 of the same year in La Madeleine and dedicated to his pupil, the Viscountess de Grandval. Saint-Saëns had intensively studied the choral music of Bach, Händel and Mozart and makes an explicit reference to Bach in the “Prélude”. He had already composed a mass, his Op. 4, at that time.
Noteworthy are the duet “Benedictus”, the animated sixth movement “Quare fremuerunt gentes” (Why do the nations rage), the seventh movement “Tecum principium” (Your people is with you) with its wonderful solo part for the harp and the ninth movement “Consurge, filia Sion” (Rise, daughter Zion). I recommend the live recording by the Bachchor Stuttgart and the Bachorchester Stuttgart, which is available on Spotify.
Praise from Liszt
The composer lived form 1835 until 1921 and is like Rachmaninov a late representative of the romantic period. He was soon labeled a Child Prodigy. At the age of three, he was able to recognize notes. He started to compose little dances at the age of six and to play a year later. At the age of ten, he gave his first concert. After his studies at the Conservatoire de Paris, he started in 1856 as an organist first in St. Merry, from 1858 on in La Madeleine, the official church of the Second Empire under Napoléon III. Apparently, Franz Liszt once heard him play at La Madeleine and declared him “the greatest organist alive”.
Saint-Saëns’ example shows that a composer does not necessarily need to be penetrated by a deep personal faith to write music transporting God’s word. Under Napoleon III, the organist of La Madeleine was a public servant, just like the priest. And since Saint-Saëns made a point of writing faultless compositions, composing remarkable sacred music for church services was not different to him than writing remarkable secular pieces for orchestras.
There is an interesting parallel: In 2012, the German composer Hans Werner Henze, an outspoken atheist, marxist a former member of the Italian Communist Party, composed a choral work depicting the desperation of Jesus’ followers after his crucifixion. He called it “An den Wind” (To the wind) and wrote it for the celebration of the 800th birthday of the choir of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Henze confessed to have a deep admiration for Bach, which had it made possible for him to compose a piece of sacred music.
Bach’s lasting influence
Both Saint-Saëns and Henze illustrate the lasting influence of Bach’s music. It must have a singular attractiveness that bridges centuries and deep ideological differences. I suspect that both Saint-Saëns and Henze realized at some point that reason and human action is not the answer to the last questions and that the human being longs for a spiritual “something”, whatever you may call it. For Saint-Saëns, it was formal perfection, for Henze it was Bach as the personification of genius. As a matter of fact, Saint-Saëns was in regular touch with Gabriel Renoud, a French priest, and debated spiritual issues, political questions and music in an exchange of letters spanning over several years.
If music will not necessarily lead an atheist to start believing in God, it may at least open up his mind to a certain form of spirituality. A Merry Christmas to you, if you happen to be a Christian, and a life in peace and full of stimulating music to you if you are not.
© Charles Thibo