It is certainly true that dark and horrifying beliefs can drive humans to superlative artistic heights, although I’m not sure this is widely realised. The usual cliché is that suffering is required to release the genius in a great artist, with the corollary being that perhaps, without suffering, great art is not even possible at all.
I don’t personally agree with either of the latter two statements, and it was only very recently that the first point occurred to me. In fact, the opposite is often taken to be true: for fascist art of the 1930’s was triumphalist and leaden, and the militaristic Romans derived their entire artistic corpus from the far more liberal Greeks. But recently I had a bit of an epiphany.
Mrs A and I both like to listen to some classical music while reading in bed, before we go to sleep. The other night, the radio played a sublimely uplifting choral piece, so beautiful that we simultaneously put our books down and shut our eyes, just to listen. The next day I tracked it down, and discovered it was ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ (‘Have Mercy upon me, Lord’) by Gregorio Allegri.
The story behind the piece is fascinating. Composed in the 1630’s for Pope Urban VIII (who famously forced Galileo to recant), it was sung for special Matins during Holy Week, and performed exclusively in the Sistine Chapel. Such was the fame of the beauty of the work, and so jealous was the Pope of his masterpiece, that excommunication was promised to anyone who attempted to write it down or perform it elsewhere. Then in 1770, while visiting Rome the 14-year old Mozart sat through a performance and then transcribed it from memory. The Pope at the time, Clement XIV, was so impressed by the prodigy’s feat that instead of suffering excommunication Mozart was showered with praise. Since then, it has become one of the most highly regarded pieces of choral music in the world.
The other interesting thing about the Miserere is that it is a sung version of Psalm 51. The lyrics are typical enough for a Christian hymn: those of an unworthy sinner begging God for forgiveness and redemption. It was while reading through them that I came to the line ‘Behold, I was shapen in wickedness: and in sin hath my mother conceived me’. And that was unfortunate, because this wonderful piece of music, so new to me and so lovely, directly relates to possibly the most odious and hateful dogma ever conceived: Original Sin.
The concept itself is simple enough, that the sins of Adam and Eve are transmitted through human nature onto all their descendants, and that we are all, at birth, destined for eternal damnation in hell unless saved through the grace of the Catholic Church. Conformity to the doctrines of the Church alone can atone for Original Sin: there is no salvation outside the Church, no matter how moral one’s life or charitable one’s works. As a tool for enforcing discipline within the Church, and ostracising and dehumanising those outside it, Original Sin is without peer among world religions.
This all seems rather academic, and faintly ridiculous in an archaic way when viewed from the safety of a modern, secular society. But in pre-Enlightenment Europe tens of millions who believed, truly believed, the teachings of the Catholic Church, lived lives in genuine fear of eternal torture as a result. Try only to imagine the horror of someone fallen foul of the hierarchy of the Church, faced with the belief that they would now suffer such a fate. For a current equivalent, one only has to look at the very real cases of people executed for apostasy from Islam in some of the more wretched countries of the world. The hatreds and lust for power implicit in monotheistic religions still ruins and takes innumerable lives.
Reflection on evils of this kind can quickly get depressing. However, despite everything I believe it is possible to separate a work of art from the beliefs of the artist and the original context of the work: Wagner’s music is still performed and venerated despite his links with and support for the philosophy that lead to German supremacism and ultimately Nazism. And so I still listen to the Miserere, and wonder at its serene beauty, and close my eyes and allow myself to be borne up upon the impossibly soaring treble.
The choristers singing it in the Sistine Chapel all those years ago were truly performing great art. They were also, quite literally, singing for their souls.