No Instrument of Faith

The Atheist Organist

Can non-believers really understand and interpret religious music?

When I say I’m an organist, the first reaction invariably is “where?”, the assumption being that I’m a church organist. I’m not. I don’t hold an organist’s position anywhere.

The next assumption is that I’m religious. I’m not. I’m very much an atheist.

To me, the idea that playing the organ somehow implies adherence to a particular philosophy or religion is every bit as absurd as it would be to assume all oboe players to be Buddhists, or all tuba players to be vegans. Or, if you will, that the best jazz musicians must be black.

An Existential Instrument

Charles-Marie Widor said that with the organ you have to embrace the grandiose. He also said that this is due to one single property of the organ: that it can sustain notes indefinitely. It’s this property that lets the organ evoke power and brutality so convincingly, but also what gives it great, almost hypnotic subtlety and nuance.

To me, the pipe organ is an existential instrument, which I think is the real reason it was adopted by various churches. As an atheist, I regard religion as just another expression of humankind’s quest for existential meaning. Thus the use of the organ in religion is just a subset of what the instrument is capable of expressing.

I’m specifically interested in the existential aspect of the organ. Thus I’m drawn to music which explores the human psyche. In organ literature, this above all means symphonic organ music. Personally I prefer the French organ literature made possible by the instruments of the great organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll: Louis Vierne, Maurice Duruflé, Jehan Alain, Olivier Messiaen and others.

I’ve also played a lot of contemporary, modernist and expressionist organ music, and for the same reasons: it’s progressive music that pushes the boundaries of expression whilst exploring the deeper levels of the human psyche.

But surely you love Bach?

I’m sorry to disappoint you but no, I don’t.

To me, Bach doesn’t represent the pinnacle of composition for the organ, and he’s certainly not “the composer who describes the human condition in the most perfect way.” That’s Christian, conservative propaganda for the sentimental. Nothing else. Bach suits conservative people to a tee since he, like them, is a proponent for status quo.

Bach’s universe is entirely static. It’s a strictly hierarchical world with an all-seeing, unforgiving deity at the top. Under him priests, ministers, kings and emperors mediate the heavenly dictator’s will to the unwashed masses, who are expected to spend their lives in subjugation and fear.

Bach does nothing to question or change the order of things. Instead he writes a gazillion cantatas and chorale preludes, most of them with titles like Ach Lieber Gott, Sei Doch Nicht Bös’ (“Oh Dear God, Please Don’t Be Angry”). Bach thus has contributed to helping keep people in their place since the 1700s.

I want no part of that.

I’ll take Freudian, gloomy chromaticism or nihilistic tone clusters over the hierarchical, static Weltanschauung of J S Bach any day. The strictness of his musical structures may be admirable at times, sure. But then, so are some of the buildings built in the 30s for propagandistic reasons. In our times, we need to be more careful than ever with such things.

Interpreting Religious Music

Can non-believers really understand and interpret religious music? Yes, absolutely, and just as well and with just as much depth as religious people.

For instance, when I play Messiaen, I interpret exactly the same things as a religious person does: Messiaen’s existential thoughts and ideas, his psychological longing for meaning, his projections, his joy, his despair, his inventiveness, his personal ideas about reality. It doesn’t matter if these ideas are dogma or not; if they are expertly expressed in the score, anyone with enough empathy and understanding of the human condition can interpret them.

The interpreter, atheist or believer, interprets Messiaen as he expresses himself through his music, consciously or unconsciously. There is no special gift or understanding conferred by religion, no part of existence or of art to which the religious have exclusive access.

We’re all human. We all function similarly. Religion is just a subset of human thought about how the world is organised. I refuse to be bound by that subset, and I absolutely reject any suggestion that non-religious people can’t interpret religious music as well as religious people do.

If you don’t agree with me, then I suggest you take a minute to think about jazz and skin colour. It’s really the same kind of discussion.

Dialogue & Discussion