Throughout the middle ages, the Catholic Church controlled the development of music throughout Europe, much of what became the great works of classical music’s standard repertoire were directly influenced by the church’s persuasion. It wielded the sort of control that only a handful of powerful organizations have exercised over recorded time; it controlled what people thought.
Over time, that power waned but the church remains steeped in tradition. As such, you wouldn’t expect that one of the church’s enduring leaders, Pope John Paul II, would have a passion for contemporary classical music, but nevertheless, he did. And his passion was not simply music written by a living composer writing in a traditional style, but a composer who chooses to speak in a decidedly contemporary musical dialect.
Recent events in the Pope’s life featured music from Gustav Mahler and Henryk Górecki. Although Mahler’s music is certainly a pillar of standard repertoire, the same can’t be said of Górecki’s music.
Henryk Górecki, a living composer of Polish nationality, has used a variety of contemporary compositional techniques to create music, especially atonality. Throughout the recent decades of his career he began to write in a lyrical style of minimalism with heavy influences from Eastern European ethnicity.
So why would Pope John Paul II take such an interest in this decidedly non traditional composer’s music? According to the Pope’s musical advisor, Gilbert Levine, the pontiff believed that Górecki’s music helped him express his own spirituality in ways that words sometimes failed to compare.
Pope John Paul II, a man steeped in tradition and ritual, learned to identify with and utilize the music of a contemporary composer to express certain facets of his feelings and thoughts. If an individual like the Pope found a way to connect who he was as a person to the music of eminent composers from standard repertoire and the music of living masters, then there’s hope that the art of classical music won’t slowly fade into obscurity.
The Pope’s passing has provided a model for others to use regarding finding a way to connect an aspect of their lives to classical music. That’s always been one of the great characteristics of classical music; it provides each listener with something unique and special, we just have to figure out where that connection is made.
The answers for building a brighter tomorrow for classical music don’t reside in playing more standard repertoire or forcing people to listen to new music, it’s finding a way to help people decide on their own how and why classical music will be special for them.