Religious Music for the Non-Religious

There is a meaningful shift of focus from self to the transcendent in church services, weddings, funerals and concerts. What do these events have in common that they can produce such existential similarities? Mendelssohn and his invention of religious kitsch certainly capitalizes on this reality. I have many friends who have expressed that they have complex and sometimes ill feelings towards religious stuff. What impact does this predisposition have on their experience of Romantic music that makes use of religious kitsch? Are they to temporarily turn away in 'disagreement'... or does that maybe miss the point? I found the following passage from Rosen's "The Romantic Generation" useful engaging this question.

It is fashionable to jeer at nineteenth century religion, but we must remember that (it was) an acceptable intellectual position during the nineteenth century itself... Popular religious movements like Methodism did not have their chief support among the people who financed and supported what we think of as high art, and ... none of the important composers from 1820 to 1850 were inspired by recent religious ideas... It is for this reason that Mendelssohn's invention of religious kitsch was so influential throughout the century. It neither expressed nor represented anything, but only stimulated in the listener the illusion of being present at a religious service. It created a feeling of pious devotion in the audience without making any awkward demands. This is clear in the E Minor Fugue. (Charles Rosen: The Romantic Generation, 594-5). Italics Mine.

Romantics used religious kitsch to induce the experience of reverence for purely artistic reasons. The listener must allow themselves to be wooed by this effect. I find that the pleasure in doing so can be quite powerful.


Below is a recording of Mendelssohn's Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, Opus 35 No. 1. You may notice that the prelude pays homage to the Baroque through the use of Style brisé. The fugue sounds very much like the fugues of J.S. Bach, although Mendelssohn does allow the fugue to flower into a more Romantic idiom, eventually leading us to a Chorale that imitates the writing of Lutheran hymns. The presence of this chorale adds something unique to piece, the nature of which is worth contemplating.






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Shayne Gray Photography / Hannah Marie Photography
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