Holy Minimalism: Classical Music is For Everybody

It’s time to start writing about composers who are still alive and writing today.  We love dead composers (oh dear, that sounds like a threat), but there’s something significant about listening to works by people living in the same world we are.  The work of artists throughout the ages becomes a mirror for the times they are living in.  It’s interesting to see what we can learn about our own civilizations by studying contemporary works.

Now before you stop reading and run away screaming I would like to point out a few things about modern music.  Music generally written after 1950 gets a bad reputation based on music written before 1950.  When people hear the term “20th Century music,” they think of the serialism of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School (definitely not music you’d play in the car on a hot date).

Many people equate modern music with music that is “complicated,” “directionless” and, of course, “ugly.”  The music I’m going to write about is actually none of these things.  This music is meant to be simple, moving, and quite beautiful.  This is music written by composers that are often called “holy minimalists.”

John Tavener (b. 1944)

The term minimalism (in a very summed up version) basically refers to music that is written for or with limited means.  Limited melody, harmony, rhythm, ranges, text or instrumentation.  This style of music has been quite popular in the last little while especially with composers from Eastern Europe and those associated with the Orthodox faith.  Some examples have been Arvo Pärt (pehrt) from Estonia, Henryk Górecki (gor-et-ski) from Poland, and John Tavener from England.  A great example of minimalism used in sacred music is with John Tavener’s setting of a William Blake poem “The Lamb.”  A very simple setting with little material becomes an incredibly moving expression of faith.

This brings up the question, why would anyone want to create a work of art with limitations?  It comes from the idea that less is more.  Rather that looking at it as a set of limitations, it’s more about enjoying simplicity.  Let’s consider this idea by looking at interior design.  Here are pictures of two different dining rooms, one in the Rococo style of the 18th Century and the other in a modern minimalist style.

While both are beautiful, they couldn’t be more different.  Many minimalists make their case for simplicity and limitations by looking at the rococo dining room say that it gets much too busy.  There’s too much going on, the eye is constantly moving around the room examining the various ornamentations and not given the opportunity to rest.  On the other hand, the minimalist room offers less and allows the eye to rest on fewer decorations.  There is something to be said about the clean lines and smooth surfaces offered by minimalist interior design.  Composers will argue that the same thing happens to the ear as it does the eye.

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)

Going back to music, there’s also something to be said about laying a foundation of simplicity paving the way for much bigger forces being saved for a specific effect.  Coldplay does this in their song “Fix You.”  The reason I listen to this song is that moment at 3:02 when the band explodes into the climax.  Everything before that leads up to that moment but it’s pretty subdued with just a few instruments and Chris Martin’s voice.  It’s not the most exciting, but the climax wouldn’t make sense without it.

It’s the same in Arvo Pärt’s “Nunc dimittis.”  Arvo Pärt is a composer from Estonia who has become one of the great living composers today because of his use of minimalism.  He writes in many different genres including sacred music for the Orthodox faith.  This piece, “Nunc dimittis,” comes from the Vespers portion of the liturgy and are the words of Simeon after he has seen the infant Jesus at the temple.

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”

The first 4 minutes are all a very subdued foundation. This of course expounds the idea of a man who is finally at peace and ready to lay down his life.  At 4:03 the piece takes a new direction at the words “Which thou hast prepared,” leading to 4:43 where the choir explodes at the word “lumen” or “light.”  The way that Pärt writes this section makes you feel as if you’re seeing light for the very first time, the same way that Simeon might have felt seeing the infant Christ for the first time.

Henryk Górecki (1933-2010)

Another great composer who often writes in a simpler, minimalist style is that of Henryk Górecki from Poland.  Górecki’s third symphony, often called the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” has often been referred to as his masterpiece.  While it’s not a sacred piece, nor meant for worship services, it uses sacred texts associated with the virgin Mary in the context of suffering, agony, and lamentation.  It relates the suffering of Mary weeping at the cross of Jesus with the suffering of holocaust victims in Poland.  The second movement uses a four line poem written by an 18 girl on the walls of a Nazi concentration camp.  It’s written for orchestra and soprano, but it’s not a very complicated piece.  Very simple and accessible music, but highly expressive.  While the sound of the video isn’t the best, I love the performance and images associated with this music and felt it was as important as the music.

A final example of sacred minimalist music is found in John Tavener’s “Song for Athene.”  While Tavener wrote this for a friend of his who passed away it was made most famous when it was performed at the funeral service of Princess Diana in Westminster Abbey.  The text is taken from Shakespeare as well as the Orthodox funeral service.  This recording by the Sixteen.

Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Alleluia. Remember me O lord, when you come into your kingdom.
Alleluia. Give rest O Lord to your handmaid, who has fallen asleep.
Alleluia. The choir of saints have found the well-spring of life, and door of paradise.
Alleluia. Life: a shadow and a dream.
Alleluia. Weeping at the grave creates the song:
Alleluia. Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.

Remember, if you like what you heard, share it with someone else.


3 thoughts on “Holy Minimalism: Classical Music is For Everybody

  1. cool post, matt. you know i’ve been around minimalism for a long time, and love it, but one question i have is the following: why are minimalist compositions often so dissonant? to me, that is almost complex, rather than simplistic. i think of a simple 1-3-5 chord as simple (boring) music, but these composers employ different compositional techniques that lend the music to such emotional expressiveness. what are your thoughts?

    • Good question. I don’t really see dissonance as complex nor do I see consonance (1-3-5) as simple (or boring). It’s just dissonance and consonance; Different colors for different purposes. Remember we’ve been using consonances and dissonances since the middle ages. During the Renaissance we had a great deal of control over how dissonances were approached and resolved.

      I think the balance between dissonance and consonance in minimalist music maintains the idea of “less is more.” Not necessarily in the amount of dissonance on a given chord, but how quickly it comes and goes. In Bach’s music (particularly the chorales), you’ll see harmonies changing on every beat (sometimes between beats) and dissonances coming and going at a really rapid pace. In later Romantic music there’s an even great deal of dissonance that just resolves to another dissonance only to go on to another dissonance, finally to be resolved after 4 or 5 hours (Tristan und Isolde is a great example). Minimalist music on the other hand will have much slower harmonic changes, and dissonance will be treated more carefully and slower (closer to the Renaissance).

      That’s my opinion at least. Did I explain myself clear enough? Sometimes it makes sense in my mind, but doesn’t come out in writing.

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