Requiem (Sanctus) – Gabriel Fauré
I stopped going to Sunday school when I was 11, after I’d passed the eleven-plus and was readying myself for the bus journey to Lewes Grammar from my tiny Selmeston village home. Now I had the perfect excuse to cut that out of my schedule. “Homework”. The stories were all over-familiar and draped in languid irreproachable moral conclusions, I was tired of their parables and lessons, my brain knew there was something else out there. I was already an atheist at 11 years old. No offence to any religious readers of course – my wife is a practicing Catholic. But I’m still an atheist. I remember my dad describing himself around this time as an agnostic. Sounded cool. But it meant “don’t know”. Not sure. I wasn’t an agnostic. I was sure that God, as taught me in Sunday school and other places, Didn’t Exist. And I’m still sure about that, which is why I define myself as an atheist. My wife, in contrast, has faith. Fair enough.
I was brought up as a Christian. Bible stories. Moses. Adam and Eve. Abraham. Those three in particular I find frankly laughable now. Less than worthless. Dangerous nonsense. The New Testament was always different. It had revolutionary zeal, disobedience, miracles, betrayal, a hero who died and was reborn. I treat this is a true story which has been shaped by men. Since growing up I’ve discovered the Gnostic Gospels with more lines for Mary Magdalene and other women, and come to see St Paul as a problematic figure who rewrote sections of the Bible and divided men by nationality.
I’ve studied all the main religions over time with the help of Joseph Campbell and his books Hero With A Thousand Faces, The Power Of Myth and other examinations of comparative religion – they are brilliant works of scholarship and imagination, showing how each culture creates a religious story out of the same basic elements, a tale with choices, wonderful happenings, a hero’s journey, a chosen people and death. Most religious books also have an “end times” climax right at the end = the Christian one is called Revelations. It describes the the end of the world “…people will be gambling, selling and buying each other, cheating, lying and stealing, killing and despoiling the earth. Then the end will come.” This is clever because of course it describes the earth exactly as we know it, thus leading to the inevitable conclusion – we’re doomed, we may as well pray for our souls. It has worked for centuries. Interesting to note that since the rise of science and in particular Darwin over 150 years ago, other myths have taken over the “end times” scenario – notably ourselves – homosapiens – in the form of war, climaxing in the atom bomb which loomed over my childhood rather like Revelations must have loomed over my ancestors. Since 1989 and the dismantling of the Soviet Union we have grown to fear first ‘the greenhouse effect’ and now ‘climate change’. The “We’re Doomed” lobby will always have a scenario, and an audience.
All of which is to say that Sunday for me, as an atheist, is still special. It used to be a vacant empty day – no shops, no work, a day for “family” and so on & so forth. But since capitalism needs to survive and we all need to keep buying more shit to keep the charade going, Sunday became just another shopping day, and large temples to spending grew up on our ring roads where people flocked on Sunday to worship their Stuff, to buy it and hoard it. But for me Sunday morning is for classical music.
I can’t remember when this started but as far away as university I’ve put on a classical record first thing on a Sunday morning. The record won’t necessarily be religious, although many of my favourite classical pieces are. Well the church was the main source of income for hundreds of years, so most of Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn and lots of early music emanate from God and his works. I’ve never had a problem with this. Why would I ?? I think the finest piece of music ever written is probably the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. If you don’t know it, you’re in for a treat, it’s immense, pure, and beautiful. If you know it, you know exactly what I mean.
I’ve been listening to Fauré’s Requiem since the 80s – I couldn’t put a date on it, or a reason why I bought it, or who introduced me to it, or any interesting biographical moments or details. But if I had a magic counter on my musical choices (which I used to fantasise about as a teenager – my own pop charts!) then this piece of music would be in the top 3 Sunday morning selections, I’m very sure about that. It’s really short, and absolutely stunning, especially, for me, the Sanctus. I have been known to chop it back, rewind selector, the same short piece which is just so mysterious and perfect that I can scarcely believe it. Like that moment in “If…” the Lindsay Anderson film where Malcolm McDowell is listening to Peter Kamau’s African Sanctus and continually lifts the needle back to the haunting infinite opening chords.
Gabriel Fauré was a 19th century French impressionist composer (my definition) – the Requiem dates from 1890, was revised and finished in 1900 and is composed of seven short pieces (the Sanctus is 3 minutes long). It’s largely a vocal piece and most of the great singers have tackled it’s refined and subtle beauty. I don’t have a particular favourite version, but I’m listening to it soothe me (baby) right now. Long live Sunday mornings.