When atheists compose Masses

Convincing Catholic sacred music cannot be written by every gifted composer. When Gustav Mahler, a convert from Judaism, was asked why he had not composed a Mass, he replied that if he did he would have to omit the Credo. After Mahler wrote his gargantuan Symphony No 8, called the Symphony of a Thousand, he claimed that metaphorically it comprised a Mass.

A more literal example is when the Protestant composer Robert Schumann, who described himself as “religious, but without religion”, wrote a Mass and a Requiem intended for “church service and concert use”. Schumann created four-square, monumental sounds, as if to offer aesthetic advice to Catholic listeners.

In 1844 he had accompanied his pianist wife Clara on tour to Russia, where she commented that Orthodox liturgy was “even more excessive” than the Catholic Mass, with the congregation “throwing themselves to the ground every minute” and “crossing themselves a thousand times”.

Schumann’s stern, stoic sound structures avoided this type of exuberance. In 1829, he had written a letter to his mother from Heidelberg: “They are just beginning service in the Catholic church next door, and the congregation is singing … In my present lodging I have got the Catholic church on my right hand, and a lunatic asylum on my left, so that I am really in doubt whether to turn Catholic or go mad!”

Sadly, Schumann went mad.

A happier fate was reserved for later Protestants who ventured into Catholic sacred settings. An article in The Musical Times of October 1930, titled “The Movement in Roman Catholic Church Music”, observed that “There will always be a welcome at Westminster Cathedral for a polyphonic Mass by a Vaughan Williams, and in extra-liturgical oratorio for a symphonic Mass by an Ethel Smyth.”

Indeed, Ethel Smyth, an Anglican, described in her memoir As Time Went On (1936) how in 1891 she composed a Mass, inspired by a Catholic friend, Pauline Trevelyan, who “never made the slightest attempt to convert me”. Yet Trevelyan was thought to be so persuasive that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s wife told Smith, “If she doesn’t make a Roman of you, no one will!”

No one did, although Smith waited decades after its premiere before her spare, sober, and entirely convincing Mass would be championed by the conductors Adrian Boult and Thomas Beecham.

Twentieth-century composers of different religious beliefs (or none) showed ecumenical interest in Catholic sacred music, in good part due to the foresight of Westminster Cathedral’s masters of music.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor (1921) received its liturgical performance at a Mass in the cathedral. A self-proclaimed agnostic, Vaughan Williams claimed: “There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good Mass.”

His Mass blends lush vocal sounds in the rich polyphonic English tradition. It was eventually followed by a far more spare and eerie work, the Missa Brevis (1959), by Benjamin Britten for three-part treble choir and organ.

George Malcolm, who served as Westminster Cathedral’s master of music for a dozen years, receiving papal honours in acknowledgement of his efforts, had trained a juvenile choir to make the “sound boys make in the playground”, as he put it, instead of the more customary fluting, ethereal noise. Benjamin Britten was so impressed that he wrote his Missa Brevis, albeit omitting the traditional Credo, as if agreeing with Mahler.

In October 1960, the Missa Brevis was lauded in Music & Letters as “undoubtedly a little masterpiece in which there are many magical sounds”. The same year, it was performed in Manchester and Ely cathedrals, and at the International Sacred Music Congress in Cologne.

Britten’s example inspired other non-Catholic composers, as Peter Maxwell Davies explained in The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams (2013). According to Maxwell Davies, when Westminster Cathedral offered him a commission to write a Mass, he demurred: “I’m not a Christian, and certainly not a Catholic.”

The response: “It’s all right, we commissioned Ben Britten and he was an Anglican; they commissioned Vaughan Williams and he was an atheist. What we want is a decent piece of music.”

Maxwell Davies’s ties to Catholicism, including friendship with George Mackay Brown, an Orcadian poet and Catholic convert, possibly led him to create a finely honed, uncompromising Mass (2001) and Missa parvula (2003), both conjuring up earlier Catholic themes in his work.

Intriguingly, Maxwell Davies had no plan to include a Credo in his Mass, yet was “prevailed upon” to add one, according to the critic Roderic Dunnett. Another recipient of a Westminster Cathedral commission, Judith Bingham, followed Britten’s precedent with a Credo-less Mass that nonetheless echoes the polyphonic richness of the Vaughan Williams tradition.

With so many Protestant composers excelling in writing Catholic sacred music, is it any wonder that Eastern Orthodoxy, to which composers from Igor Stravinsky to the Estonian Arvo Pärt were attached, motivated certain of them to write Masses as well?

Generations of music writers have examined the degrees of belief expressed even in Masses by Catholic composers such as Mozart Verdi, and Fauré. Yet do we inquire about the religious convictions of an artist who created a silver ciborium or gold chalice now in the Vatican Museums? Devotional powers of music clearly do not depend on the religious adherence of its creators, leaving us an enduring inspirational legacy that transcends mere details of biography.

Benjamin Ivry is the author of biographies of Ravel, Poulenc and Rimbaud, and is a translator from the French of authors including Gide, Verne and Balthus