No Such Thing as Religious Music: David Randolph

Lifetime Member David Randolph, 94, was honored at an April 19 luncheon hosted by Foundation Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor in New York City for his stellar contributions to the performance of music, secular and otherwise, and for his support of the Foundation. Randolph made the following remarks.

Introductions like that remind me of the story of the lion who wakes up one morning feeling very powerful, goes into the forest, and meets a tiger, and says, “Who is the king of the beasts?” The tiger says, “You are sire,” and he slinks away. The lion meets a big bull: “Who’s the king of the beasts?” “You are, sire,” and he sneaks away. Finally he meets a great big elephant and says, “Who is the king of the beasts?” The elephant takes him with his trunk and throws him a hundred yards away, and as he picks himself up he says, “Well, if he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know.”

Somebody asked me recently, “What’s the secret of long living?”

I said, “Choosing the right parents. After that, it’s just luck.”

You’re looking at somebody who’s having a first experience in his life at this moment. Never in my life have I been at a gathering in which practically everybody shares my viewpoint about religion, and it’s really very refreshing to have this experience, so please know that I’m reveling in this phenomenon.

I think God has been “getting even” with me. I’m a lifelong atheist. But, in over 50 years of conducting choruses and orchestras, I’ve conducted mostly so-called “religious” music: masses, passions, cantatas in praise of God and so forth. Why “so-called”?  Because, as many of you realize, there is no such thing as religious music—there’s only music with religious texts, and without the words you have no idea if any music is intended to be religious or not.

I want to quote one humorous example that puts this idea to rest. I have had the good fortune of knowing a magnificent musician named Michael May, who was a virtuoso pianist, harpsichordist and organist. He did I don’t know how many “Messiahs” with me in Carnegie Hall with The Masterwork Chorus and Orchestra. To make a living he became a church organist. At one point during the communion, there were a lot of parishioners and he needed a lot of music. He ran out of music, so what he did was to take the score of “Carmina Burana”—how many of you are familiar with that? It’s a piece of music whose text has to do with lovemaking, debauchery, gambling and drinking. He played it slowly and softly, without the chorus, and nobody knew the difference. So without the words, you cannot tell whether or not a piece of music is intended to be religious.

The usual approach of choral conductors, especially when conducting “religious” music, is exemplified by an occasion that I went to just about a year ago. I was an onlooker, or, as I guess I should put it, an “on-listener.” Four choruses got together to prepare a concert with four different numbers, and each of the conductors conducted one number. And this is typical of the sort of thing that happens:

One of the conductors exhorted the singers with, “Come on folks, you’re singing for your savior; put your hearts into it.” That’s the typical approach. Now I must say that in 50 years of conducting six different choruses in New Jersey, Manhattan and Long Island, I have never once mentioned the word God or Christ, except to make sure that the singers put the “d” on God, and the “st” on Christ at the same time, so we don’t get a lot of hissing. I have never proselytized for religion, never, in all that time.

A couple of months ago I had the pleasure of appearing on the Freethought Radio program with Dan and Annie Laurie, and Annie Laurie said to me, “How can you as an atheist conduct Handel’s ‘Messiah’?” My answer was this. Suppose Dan were engaged as an actor to play the role of Iago in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” admittedly one of the most vicious and horrible people in the world. Would he be able to do it? Yes. Does he have to be vicious and horrible? No, not at all. So there’s the answer to how you conduct “religious” music.

I know that the crucifixion is supposed to be sad, and the resurrection, which I do not believe in, is supposed to be happy and joyous, so I conduct the resurrection so that it sounds happy and joyous. Of course, the composers had something to do with it; they set the words to appropriate music, but only appropriate. I’ve told my choruses that the word “Hallelujah” means “Whoopee.” How many here remember Jimmy Durante? I’ve tried to convince my choruses to sing “Hallelujah” the way Jimmy Durante would have done it, without any belief in it myself of course. Now, why do I conduct all this so-called religious music? Because most of the greatest music for chorus and orchestra has been written to religious texts. The reason: The church is wealthy and can afford to hire the greatest composers in the world.

Now for the influence of the religionists upon music: It’s assumed, too often, that in order to write good religious music you have to be very religious. I remember being at a rehearsal of one of the so-called religious works in the company of a man who’d played in the New York Philharmonic for 30 years, a professional New York musician. And as we were listening, I was shocked to have him whisper in my ear, “Don’t you have to be so religious, to write this kind of music?”

Even a professional musician falls victim to that sort of thinking. The assumption is that a composer who has more religious fervor will be able to write better music than one who doesn’t. Then how do you account for the fact that so many of the greatest works—”religious” works—have been written by atheists: Brahms, Berlioz, Verdi, Fauré, among others? And how do you also account for the fact that there are so many dull works by people who had all the necessary religious fervor but didn’t know where to put those black dots?

You read in program notes in concert and record jackets that the greatest religious music was composed by religious composers. Brahms, who wrote a “German” requiem, was an atheist, and he chose his own words from the bible. When somebody asked him why, he said, “Because I’m a musician and I need them.” He also said he was sorry he had called it a “German” requiem; he would have preferred to have called it a requiem for humanity.

Now, the extent of the influence of the religionists: In his text, Brahms nowhere mentions Christ, purposely. Yet in the G. Schirmer edition of his requiem, published here in America, they insert the word “Christ.” At the first performance of the requiem (this, incidentally, has a checkered history), there was a so-called first performance before Brahms had written the movement with the beautiful soprano solo. There was an empty space in the text. And the authorities insisted upon having a soprano sing “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” from Handel’s “Messiah” in the middle of Brahms’ requiem. That’s evidence of the effect of the religionists.
A couple of observations: Bach, we know, was a very devout Lutheran, and when he was asked to write music for the Catholic Church, he simply took the music he’d written before, took out the German words, and substituted the appropriate Latin text. Handel was a very devout believer, no question, but he spent most of his career in London writing 42 operas—it’s not realized generally he was an opera composer— until finally business was bad, and he failed. He therefore turned to writing oratorios. Of the 16 oratorios he wrote, 15 were on Old Testament subjects, only one on the New Testament. You know what that was. But the fact that he chose the Old Testament subjects made him very popular with the Jewish population in London. But there too, the element of practicality—not questioning his religion—but the element of practicality took over.

As I mentioned, some of the greatest religious music has been written by atheists. About Brahms: Dvorak, who was a very devout believer, was befriended by Brahms, visited him, and this is on record because his son-in-law was present and he quoted this statement: As they left Brahms, Dvorak said, “What a wonderful person, what a great soul, and he believes in nothing.”
Berlioz wrote a tremendous re­quiem that I’ve had the pleasure of performing twice. He calls for a chorus of 800, and in the smaller, gentler portions, only 400. He specifies 25 first violins, 25 seconds, and so forth; it’s monstrous. As I said, I’ve performed it twice in Carnegie Hall, with 276 in the chorus and 105 in the orchestra, and four brass bands, one in each corner of the stage, and 16 kettledrums across the stage.

Naturally, the assumption is that Berlioz had to be very religious to write this. However, in preparation, he wrote a mass, and I want to quote a letter that he wrote to a friend. He said, “When I set about writing this mass, in reading the Credo and the Kyrie, I remain so cold, so icy, that more than convinced I would not be able to do anything powerful in this frame of mind, I gave it up.” In other words, he couldn’t stand the text that he was setting to music, yet you’ll find all sorts of expressions of how religious he was.

Verdi was an atheist, and his wife wrote about him, “He drives me mad; sometimes I could beat him. When I explain to him all the beauty that God has created, he says, ‘You’re all crazy.’ “ And yet, one of the biographies of Verdi contains this: “Verdi’s requiem was not written for the Roman Catholic church, yet it’s the work of a deeply religious man who was suffering for his fellow men and believes in God.” This is the sort of thing that we’re up against, constantly.

Next: How I met Dan and Annie Laurie. I’d been a member of FFRF and Dan once wrote an article about Brahms’s atheism that set me to pen and paper. I said that I had conducted the Brahms requiem any number of times, and that in my program notes I was always careful to specify that Brahms was an atheist. I also pointed out the lack of religious belief on the parts of the other composers that I mentioned. That led to a correspondence between myself and Dan and Annie Laurie and their coming to my concerts and rehearsals. Dan wrote another article from which I learned things that I didn’t know about some of the popular composers—that most of them were atheists.

Now, since I’m delving into history, may I take a moment for something personal? For nearly 38 years I conducted The Masterwork Chorus of New Jersey. There is a person here today who singlehandedly in 1955 created The Masterwork Chorus in her living room in Whippany, N.J., with 28 people. She’s here today, but before I introduce her, I want to tell you that she’s responsible for several things.

First, it was she who put me on the stage of Carnegie Hall in 1960. That’s a lifetime ago. And it was she who told me about the existence of the Found­ation. I’d never heard of it before, and she got on my tail and that’s why I’m a Lifetime Member. Shirley May.
During my years with The Masterwork Chorus we did 167 performances of Handel’s “Messiah” in Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall. Shirley would come to me from time to time and say, “You know, a number of the chorus members have come to me and said, ‘David must be a very religious man’ “ (because of the way in which I conducted these works). There was an elderly French lady, a chorus member, who was very, very Catholic, went to mass twice a day, and in the course of our association, she somehow learned of my religious, or lack of religious, orientation, and she would say to me, “You must be religious! How do you know exactly how to get the right religious feeling? I will see you in heaven.” And I would say, “Yvonne, look at me now. You’re not going to see me in heaven.”
I will end with a justification of my earlier statement that there is no such thing as “religious” music. In my book, This Is Music, I made three statements. I said, one: There is no such thing as religious music. Two: There is no such thing as patriotic music. And three: No title in music has any significance. That goes completely contrary to the usual wisdom that’s taught in music appreciation classes, in lectures and program notes and so forth, and in the commentaries of people on radio and television when they talk about music. My book received 20 reviews from all over the country, which I have in my file, and despite the fact I went right in the face of the conventional wisdom, not one of the 20 reviews took issue with me.

I think in a sense I did what Dan Barker did in his book, Losing Faith in Faith. As a rabid minister he saw the light, and while I was never a rabid believer at all, I saw the light and put myself on record to the effect that there is no such thing as religious music. I think, by the way, that Dan’s book belongs up in the same class with Dawkins and Hitchens, and in the event that I sound very partial to Dan and Annie Laurie, I confess that I am. Among other things, Annie Laurie’s book, Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So, is a wonderful insight into the treatment of women in the bible. Also, in the very recent broadcast on which I was a guest, I heard the other part of the program. She held her own beautifully against an Israeli rabbi who had removed from a photograph the pictures of two women. Can you imagine? But, Annie Laurie, you really gave it to him.

In my book, one of the arguments I gave for the fact that music cannot be religious is the following: I gave the example of one of the moments of the Bach B minor Mass, at the words, “Credo in unum Deum,” (I Believe in one God.) Every program note will tell you that Bach, as an accompaniment to those words, has the double basses and cellos playing even-quarter notes, powerfully and incessantly. And they point to that as an evidence of the steadfastness of Bach’s religious belief. Bach was a believer, but lots of secular composers have written lots of music with even-quarter notes! Therefore, that doesn’t prove anything. Needless to say, if a composer sets to music words with religious conviction, and writes powerful music, the assumption is that he’s trying to promulgate that belief. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the music expresses a religious idea.

There’s another argument that I’ve made in my book. In the same “Credo” of the B minor Mass, a five-part chorus is singing “Credo in unum Deum” in all sorts of ways. I say that if you put a “non” in front of the word “Credo,” that would be an equally effective paean to atheism. Is it not true?

My final point: In my book, I said that the ritual stamping on the ground as part of the dance of the savages to try to get the gods to send rain has the same motivation as the creation or performance of Bach’s B minor Mass: propitiating God. And one sentence I took out just before the book went to the publisher was: “And both are equally ineffectual.”

Do we have any questions? If I don’t have the answer I will make it up.

Q: What’s your next performance?

A: The Mozart C minor Mass, another glorious work, on Dec. 10, 2009, at Carnegie Hall. Incidentally, if anybody would like to receive notification of a future concert, the programs have been arranged for the next two years, and we’ll have a brochure that we can send you.

Q: Do you know any great contemporary composer who could write a non-prayer work?

A: There are composers who could do it, but I don’t think they would, for the obvious reason. I have never in all my 50 years of conducting choruses said a word about religion. I’d better not, in view of the way I feel about it. But we have to, in a sense, remain in the closet. Some of you have expressed surprise at the fact that I had been conducting religious music—so-called religious music—as a lifetime atheist. Very few people know it, because I can’t shout it from the rooftops. So I think by the same token any common composer would be reluctant to do that. We don’t have any music for atheism, alas.

(An audience member suggests Dan Barker’s music.)

DR: By the way, I’ve been listening to Dan’s. Are you aware of the cleverness of his music? Do you write the text yourself?

Dan: The ones that I write!

DR: Bravo. And the music is very, very clever.

Audience: Tom Lehrer.

DR: Yes, he’s another one, but Dan’s are really wonderful, and they’re about atheism. It’s good to realize that now, as you pointed out, Dan, the temper of our times is changing. With the acceptance of books by Dawkins and Hitchens, there is a greater acceptance of atheism.

Incidentally, just in passing, consider all the music that’s been written with idealistic purposes. For example, the Beethoven Ninth, with its plea for the brotherhood of man. Unfortun­ately, all these works that plead for peace don’t do any good. It’s a sad commentary that all of these works that have such idealistic purposes are completely ineffectual when we realize that the big decisions are made in the boardrooms of the big companies, not by humanity at large. It’s a rather saddening phenomenon.

Freedom From Religion Foundation