Tag Archives: religion

Liszt in Amsterdam and a little-known Missa Solemnis

Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) was a key figure in the development of Western music. Mostly remembered today for his legendary virtuosity and his notoriously challenging piano pieces, he was also a prolific composer, a teacher and a conductor with profound influence on subsequent composers such as Hector Berlioz, Edvard Grieg and Richard Wagner (who also married Liszt’s daughter Cosima).

Perhaps one of his lesser-known works is his Missa Solemnis “Graner Mass”, composed for the occasion of the confirmation ceremony of the then still  incomplete Basilica of Ezstergom (home to the Hungarian Archbishop in the Diocese of Gran) on August 31, 1856.

I was completely unaware of Liszt’s sacred choral music until I bumped into a relief on the wall of the Mozes en Aaronkerk church in Amsterdam some days ago. From its inscription I was informed  that Franz Liszt attended a performance of his “Graner Mass” inside that very temple on April 29, 1866.

Mozes en Aaronkerk (Waterlooplein, Amsterdam)

Mozes en Aaronkerk (Waterlooplein, Amsterdam)

It was a pleasant surprise, and one that led me to discover Liszt’s obscure Missa Solemnis. I had been in Waterlooplein countless times in the past to check the excellent outdoor flea market and browse through the various clothes, antiques or records, but had never paid attention to that small relief on the church wall right on the edge of the square. It always feels nice, and sometimes extremely rewarding, to be a tourist in your own city.

Relief of Franz Liszt in Mozes en Aaronkerk in Waterlooplein, Amsterdam.


Great moments of Greek(lish) rock, pt.1: The Psychedelic Apocalypse

Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666.

(Rev. 13:18)

Although 60s-70s Greek rock music was of no particular interest to the international public (not least because of obvious linguistic reasons), there were however some notable exceptions. Perhaps the most well-known Greek English-singing band of the era is Aphrodite’s Child (named after a song by Dick Campbell), formed in 1967 by Vangelis Papathanassiou (keyboards), Demis Roussos (bass guitar and vocals), Loukas Sideras (drums and vocals), and Anargyros “Silver” Koulouris (guitar).

Their first single Rain and Tears (1968), an adaptation of Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D, was recorded while the band was based in France. It met with considerable international success and went on to sell more than one million copies.

The band’s undisputed masterpiece, however, would be 666 (The Apocalypse of John, 13/18). Recorded between late 1970 and early 1971, 666 is considered a landmark in the history of progressive rock. An album of astonishing musical diversity, it was a powerful combination of original concept and highly innovative sound.

666 was largely Vangelis’s own musical project, as is testified by the advanced (for the time) use of synthesizers/keyboards, sound effects, and overall production. Musically, the album contains several remarkable moments (e.g. Aegean Sea, Break, The Four Horsemen), however it works best when seen as an uninterrupted, thematically-unified musical composition.

Aphrodite's Child: Best ofIts musical merits notwithstanding, the release of 666 was not unproblematic. The record company did not approve of the record’s length and largely experimental style, to say nothing about its subject matter. To top it off, the track “∞” featured Greek actress Irene Papas singing frantically “I was, I am, I am to come” in an aural simulation of female orgasm.

When the double album was eventually released in 1972 (one year after it had been completed), its blood-red cover (where the number 666 is prominently displayed) would also stir some controversy. This, however, only helped to boost the album’s sales, which exceeded 20 million copies worldwide.

Despite being the band’s greatest achievement, 666 would also be their swan song. Relationships between band members grew increasingly worse during the album’s recording, and by the time the record was out Aphrodite’s Child had already split. Both Roussos and Vangelis would follow successful solo careers, the latter achieving worldwide fame as a composer of electronic music (including the soundtracks for Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire).

Even though the children of Aphrodite had chosen to go their separate ways, they had managed to give birth (albeit a troubled one) to their psychedelic masterpiece – an everlasting monument of Greek rock music and one of the defining albums of the 70s progressive and experimental scenes.

The music of suspended time

Ten minutes. The time it takes to water the plants, do the dishes or read the daily news. At least in the conventional sense of “time.” Because there exists another, parallel dimension where time can be suspended indefinitely and a single moment can signify an eternity. In this dimension, which is no other than the realm of abstract music, ten minutes of “normal” time assume a new importance and are long enough to open a portal to a radically different perception of reality and the cosmos.

Ten minutes is approximately the duration of Spiegel im Spiegel (“mirror in the mirror”), a piece by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) written in 1978 for piano and violin. If there was ever a musical synonym for absorbed meditation and contemplative stillness, this would have to be it.

Arvo Part

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt

Spiegel im Spiegel is written in the compositional style of tintinnabuli (from the Latin tintinnabulum = bell), a technique invented by Pärt himself and influenced by his mystical experiences with religious music. Although his early works are characterized by a variety of styles ranging from neoclassicism to serialism, his preoccupation and study of choral music, Gregorian chant and the polyphonic music of the Renaissance eventually led Pärt to develop an idiomatic style characterized by simple harmonic structure and rhythmic patterns, alluding to the ringing of bells.

Tintinnabulation”, says Pärt, “is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity.” Of this type of music, Spiegel im Spiegel is one of the earliest and finest illustrations. It is also one of his most popular works and has been repeatedly used in films, as in Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love (2001) and Guy Ritchie’s Swept Away (2002).

That a work by Pärt such as Spiegel im Spiegel has been so well-received is a bit of a contradiction. One can hardly think of more introspective, detached and unfashionable music than this. And yet it contains a certain quality that defies time and space, speaking directly to one’s heart and inner self. As Steve Reich, one of the founding fathers of minimalism, once put it: [Pärt’s] music fulfills a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.”

It is not just the ten sublime minutes of Spiegel im Spiegel. Much of Pärt’s music is of profound expressivity and unfathomable beauty (his Tabula Rasa is another case in point). The composer once compared his music to “white light which contains all colors”, its division being possible only through a prism, which could be “the spirit of the listener.” At its best, this music indeed offers that which only divine light could ever promise to reveal: a glimpse of the eternal.