I was once in a job interview and one of the interviewers noted that I had given two sermons while serving as the choir director at Cornell University’s Sage Chapel. “What is your religion?” someone asked, oblivious of or else ignoring the fact that you are not supposed to ask that question of a job applicant.
“The church of music” was my reply, and a good reply it was. Though I have attended church fairly regularly since I was a boy, my only allegiance to Christianity – to say nothing of a belief in God – is one of recognition that the society that I live in is suffused with cultural understandings derived from Judeo-Christian history. I remain, like Ralph Vaughan Williams, a “cheerful agnostic,” but attuned to the reality and power of belief because of many close encounters with the elevated inspiration of the best sacred choral music.
At this moment I am feeling quite simpatico with what I imagine to be the religious impulse of the French composer François Joseph Gossec (1734-1829), whose Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem) I am preparing with the Burlington Choral Society. Despite receiving his first exposure and training as a choir boy (as did I), it seems clear by his compositional output that Gossec found religious texts inspiring not on a devotional level, but as a spur to his musical imagination. His Grande Messe des Morts is an exuberant but unruly garden of diverse plantings, with learned fugues rubbing shoulders with über-Romantic effects like off-stage brass (or, in the first performance of the work in 1760, sub-terranean brass) and extravagant opera-like arias.
An experimenter in sound by musical temperament – his works include a Te Deum written for 1200 singers and 300 wind instruments, and a symphony in 17 parts – he also wrote a great deal of music in support of the French Revolution. The son of a farmer, and strongly sympathetic to the ideals of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” espoused by the Revolution, Gossec became the de facto “house composer” for the Revolution, composing Le Triomphe de la République, and L’Offrande à la Liberté among much other music for military band.
Anti-authoritarian by conviction, one gets the sense that Gossec might have equivocated a bit had he been asked about his religion in a job interview. Interestingly, the moral philosopher John MacMurray, who grew up in a fiercely fundamentalist Scottish Presbyterian family but rejected the institutional church in his 20s, was similarly adept at keeping notions of religious expression separate from belief in religious doctrine. “I stand outside the Churches because I am a Christian,” said MacMurray wrote defiantly.
To which I suspect Gossec would say “Amen.”