Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers

Title: Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers

Author: Patrick Kavanaugh

Published: Zondervan, 1996

This volume bothers me. It appears to be the most ecumenical and non-divisive book on music ever written. That makes it far more dangerous than books that take a more blatantly controversial stand.

It is not as "neutral" as it appears to be. There is something subversive in the assumption that composers are de facto "spiritual". It is an idea just plucked from no where, or rather from the tenuous evidence provided from the lives of the "great" composers. When we look at them in further detail, they are all cut from different cloth. Some were bold believers who worked for the Church. Some were secret believers who never told anyone about their "private" beliefs. Some like Haydn believed a composer can earn musical ideas by being right before God. Dvorak believed God told him what to write. Handel too is regarded as divinely inspired. Others like Schubert are seen as re-crucifying Christ through their music. The conclusions we could draw from these points in our own lives and our own compositions are pretty devastating. As long as we have our own sincere kind of spirituality, God will "pay up" and make our music great.

The whole book seems designed to make one point, and that is right at the end of the book:

"What I conclude, based on a large amount of biographical evidence, is that the composers are, as a group, surprisingly and often deeply religious. Even those with the most secular lifestyles always seem to have a sincere respect for the Deity - a hunger for something greater than themselves which transcends everyday existence." p.203

The fact that man is restless until he finds his rest in God (to paraphrase Augustine) is not conclusive evidence that Classical composers were deeply spiritual. That leaves us without any connection between specific beliefs and actions. 

We cannot draw any conclusion about the nature of music from the disparate lives of composers, great or otherwise. "Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers" leaves us with a question:

Were these men composers because they were spiritual or does Kavanaugh want us to think they were spiritual because they were composers?