Stephen Hough on Faith and Music

(This is Neil.) Last year, I posted on “Jacques Maritain on Art.” Although I’m the decidedly unartistic contributor to this blog, I was happily able to revisit the topic with the “Credo” column in the Times, written by the acclaimed pianist Stephen Hough, who has also just complied a book on lectio divina. Hough asserts that “Faith does not work directly on the materials at hand,” and even worries that a believing artist will foolishly think his art inevitably good if it, say, comes from pious motivations or is part of an explicitly religious project.

Nevertheless, art is like contemplation, and, as Hough says, does require the “inner silence” necessary for any real concentration and “an ability to see and to hold many parts in unity.” True artistic genius finally leads us to the sacred, for it may serve as “an example of the profligate overflow of God’s grace and goodness, given without limit or condition.” We see that reality is more than we ever imagined, and it then becomes possible to imagine that “after Cana all water can become wine.” I think, based on my very limited knowledge, that Jacques Maritain would tend to agree. I wonder if Todd would agree …

Here is Stephen Hough’s column:

The French-American writer Julien Green once wrote that he was a Catholic and a novelist, but not a Catholic novelist. I think the distinction is more than merely a way to prevent limitations of subject matter and moral judgment; it has to do with the difference between God’s responsibility and ours in the creative process.

Music’s abstraction removes that specific dilemma facing the believing writer, but when asked about the relationship between my musical and spiritual life my initial reaction is that there is none. My faith shapes me (although not as much as it should), and then that “me” plays the piano or composes. Faith does not work directly on the materials at hand. Whether I play a good concert tomorrow night, or whether the Mass setting I finished writing two weeks ago for Westminster Cathedral is inspired, has nothing to do with whether I prayed before or during the process; and this is directly related to the cherishable insight of Catholic spirituality that the material world, after the Incarnation, is now for ever infused, perfumed with God. This is a step beyond seeing the goodness of creation: yes, everything is made by God, but, after Christ, all that “good matter” has had hands of benediction extended over it in a new way. After Emmaus every crust of bread is sacred; after Cana all water can become wine.

Caravaggio’s religious works are greater than William Holman Hunt’s not because he was a firmer believer than the good Englishman but because he was a better painter — and his infamous case is, delightfully, the exception which proves the exception: “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew v, 45).

Artistic genius, and our delight in what it produces, is an example of the profligate overflow of God’s grace and goodness, given without limit or condition. In fact, an artist’s complacent confidence that his faith and good behaviour will lend him God’s help in a special way is likely to be the very obstacle which gets in the way of greatness — a log in the artistic eye preventing him from seeing the “world in a grain of sand”.

Where faith does have an impact for me is in the mental health that results from its vision of ultimate reality — the broad-shouldered realisation that becoming like children, as Christ commanded, is not to make us immature, but to encourage us to see life as a playground with so many swings and roundabouts, and buttered scones at home at the end of the day. If I walk on to the stage with concerns about wrong notes, critics, applause, fame etc I will not play as well as I can.

Even physically, we play our instruments better when limbs are free and loose, and people regularly report an increase in physical and mental energy when they start to pray or meditate. In addition, prayer can form in us an inner silence which is an essential part of concentration. To be able to hear each note, each bar, each phrase, both individually and as a related whole, requires an ability to see and to hold many parts in unity — a key to any life of contemplation. Avoiding distractions, creating new and better material out of mistakes, balancing self-demand and self-esteem, are all qualities which unite a musical and spiritual life. The hidden, daily annoyances of cancelled flights, noisy hotels, bad food and inferior pianos, are a constant ascetical challenge; and the patience required in the course of a tour to meet, with kindness and attention, hundreds of new people backstage or at receptions is a real call to holiness — much like a priest at the door of his church who tries to greet each person as if they were the most important in the world . . . at least for those few seconds.

It was nice, when I was setting the words: “Dona nobis pacem”, to know that they were a heartfelt prayer, and that the “nobis” included my friends and those thousands of people in the course of a year for whom I play. But don’t blame God if the music does not sound inspired.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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One Response to Stephen Hough on Faith and Music

  1. Pingback: Music March 3, 2007 12:29 pm

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