Be Still, And Know That I Am God:
Concert Halls Rediscover the Sacred

Three popular composers are reuniting
classical music with contemplative spirituality.

by Martha Ainsworth

“The silence must be longer,” I protested. “This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.”

The conductor, rehearsing The Beatitudes by composer Arvo Pärt, looked skeptical. He sought a rational analysis. “Exactly how many beats?” he demanded. “What do you do during the silence?”

“You don’t do anything,” I explained, “you wait. God does it.”

The slightly perplexed looks on the faces of the performers reflected the feeling many people have on first hearing of a new style taking root in the classical music world. Called “holy minimalism” for lack of a better description, the music of three composers - John Tavener of England, Arvo Pärt of Estonia, and Henryk Górecki of Poland - has found an enormously receptive audience, filling concert halls and generating best-selling CDs by reuniting classical music with, of all things, contemplative spirituality.

LISTEN NOW (RealPlayer)

Symphony No. 3, "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" by Henryk Górecki. Dawn Upshaw, soprano; London Philharmonic Orchestra, David Zinman, conductor. buy it

Lamentations and Praises by Sir John Tavener. Chanticleer; Joseph Jennings, conductor. Read the review - buy it

Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten by Arvo Pärt. Stuttgart State Orchestra. buy it

This music, including popular works like Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, Pärt’s Tabula Rasa, and Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, often resonates even with people who never before listened to classical music. Górecki is the first living classical music composer whose music topped the Billboard charts; his Symphony No. 3 has sold over a million copies. One hospice worker cited the cult status of Pärt’s Tabula Rasa among terminally ill patients who called it “angel music” and asked to hear it as they died. John Tavener, already beloved by choirs worldwide for his beautiful, meditative music, burst into international public awareness in 1997, when the ecstatically soaring Song for Athene was performed at the funeral of Princess Diana as her coffin was carried from Westminster Abbey. Awestruck, audiences asked, “What was that song?” and CDs of Tavener’s music flew off shelves.

The popularity of Tavener, Pärt and Górecki is interesting because they reject values typically associated with contemporary classical music. “Holy minimalism” is to music what contemplative spirituality is to prayer. To most of us, prayer involves addressing our words to God; but to the contemplative, prayer means listening in receptive silence. Whereas in traditional classical music you expect to hear development of musical ideas moving forward to a climactic conclusion, this music seems to go nowhere - and that is intentional. The purpose is contemplation. The music is meditative, hypnotic, and gently repetitive, as in the Christian tradition of centering prayer one might continuously repeat a word or two from Scripture to be drawn deeper into prayer. The gentle repetition gives the music a feeling of stasis, of being suspended in time. “Time and timelessness are connected,” wrote Pärt. “This instant and eternity are struggling within us. And this is the cause of all our contradictions, our obstinacy, our narrow-mindedness, our faith and our grief.”

This conflict between time and timelessness, between “this instant and eternity,” is depicted in Pärt’s setting of The Beatitudes, in which music alternates with full measures of silence. Such lengthy silences are characteristic of “holy minimalism,” confusing traditional musicians for whom silence is just an absence of music. Górecki, asked to comment on the phenomenal success of his Symphony No. 3, responded, “Let’s be quiet.” Arvo Pärt, who spent eight years in contemplative silence before developing this new way of composing, says, “The most important things that happen between people who are very close to each other are not stated, are not even possible to express. One doesn’t need to and shouldn’t say anything.” Conductor Paul Hillier, a leading interpreter of Pärt’s work, explains further. “All music emerges from silence, to which sooner or later it must return,” he writes. “How we live depends on our relationship with death; how we make music depends on our relationship with silence.” Robert Reilly says, “Some of their compositions emerge from the very edge of audibility... conveying the impression that there is something in the silence that is now being revealed before once again slipping out of range. The deep underlying silence slowly surfaces and lets itself be heard. For those precious moments one hears what the silence has to say.”

The “holy minimalists” reject complexity in favor of simplicity. Their music is transparent, austere, and serene. Although deeply human, it is not theatrically emotional; Tavener compares his music to the icons of the Orthodox tradition, which do not impose their own emotions on the viewer, but open, through prayer, as spiritual windows to the Holy. In the same way, Tavener, Pärt and Górecki do not preach, they do not impose their own experience on the listener. In their transparency, they seek only to open a window, allowing the listener to connect with the Holy.

And yet the music of Tavener, Pärt and Górecki continues to perplex many listeners, performers and critics. “We are living in an age that does not believe that sound is capable of putting us in touch with higher levels of reality,” writes John Tavener. “So I am out on a limb.”

The music of the “holy minimalists” challenges 400 years of musical tradition. Since the 17th century at least, most composers have tended to approach sacred music intellectually, by combining essentially secular musical forms with religious texts. The study of music history tends to narrow its focus to music composed after 1600, so the values of the Enlightenment - humanism and rational analysis - are the filter through which classical musicians have been trained to think. Musical techniques change, but most modern composers take an analytical approach.

By contrast, the “holy minimalists” are convinced that humanity lost something vital in the Enlightenment; they believe that “humanism” and “reason,” taken to extremes, have blinded us to the sacred. The dangers of this imbalance are familiar to readers of the classics of contemplative spirituality, such as The Cloud of Unknowing, whose author writes, “Our intense need to understand will always be a powerful stumbling block to our attempts to reach God in simple love, and must always be overcome. For if you do not overcome this need to understand, it will undermine your quest. It will replace the darkness which you have pierced to reach God with clear images of something which, however good, however beautiful, however Godlike, is not God.”

Influenced by this spiritual tradition, Tavener, Pärt and Górecki sought to rediscover a sacred nature to music, deeper than intellectual understanding. Their biographies are curiously parallel. Each of them initially began composing in accepted modern idioms, emulating Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Despite initial critical approval, all of them felt something essential was missing; all turned to spirituality for answers. Tavener and Pärt experienced a spiritual reawakening through the Russian Orthodox church, Górecki in the Catholic church in Poland. Within this spiritual context, each composer then turned for inspiration to ancient musical forms that pre-dated the super-rational Enlightenment: Gregorian and Byzantine chant, medieval polyphony, and sacred music of non-European cultures.

The music that resulted from these three spiritual journeys, though inspired by ancient sounds, has a captivating freshness that strikes a resonant chord in audiences weary of the harsh dissonance of much contemporary classical music. “The sterile democracy between the notes has killed in us every lively feeling,” said Pärt, echoing the sentiments of many listeners. Tavener, Pärt and Górecki breathe new life into a beleaguered art form, as for Ezekiel God breathed life into the dry bones.

And yet none of them would say that they are creating anything new; all turned to the distant past in search of renewal. “It is totally, totally impossible for man to write anything that is new,” insists John Tavener. “The only person who can make things new is Christ.” Tavener devalues innovation and human fabrication. He believes that “all music already exists. When God created the world he created everything. It’s up to us as artists to find that music.” This he does through prayer. Photographs show his composing studio (like Pärt’s) filled with icons and candles, looking more like a chapel than an office. “Music, for me, is a process of re-finding God,” says Tavener. “Modernism knows nothing about this process... it worships its man-made structures... it has bound itself to a way of thinking that is barely human, let alone spiritual.” By contrast, he feels that ancient music such as Byzantine chant “has been plucked out, as it were, from something that has always existed and which touches the primordial part of us.” Echoes of chant are found in many of his works. “I believe that chant is the nearest we can get to the music that was breathed into man when God created the world.”

The depth of meaning in this music, for musicians, is challenging and radically new. Yet while those who approach the works of Tavener, Pärt and Górecki in a prayerful context are rewarded with spiritual depth, it is not necessary to understand classical music or think about deeper metaphysical meaning to enjoy the music. Some of their works definitely demand the attentive cooperation of the listener, but much of it appeals to those who are simply drawn to the serenity and relaxation of the meditative, ethereal sound.

Listeners’ reaction to the music of Tavener, Pärt and Górecki seems to depend partly on temperament. If praying in receptive silence for an hour sounds good to you, you will probably be drawn to this music. If, on the other hand, an hour of stillness sounds like an hour of torture, the music of the “holy minimalists” may leave you bored or at best perplexed. “Nothing happens!” cry some critics who, listening through the filter of Western musical values, call Tavener, Pärt and Górecki reactionary and archaic - just as some Western viewers find Russian icon painting, compared to Western art, unsettlingly stark and lacking in expression.

Yet stories abound of people who weep inexplicably upon hearing the music of Tavener, Pärt and Górecki, for whom its poignant beauty and simplicity touches a deep inner reservoir of joy and sorrow. The continually growing popularity of these three composers, demonstrated by sold-out concerts and ever-increasing CD sales, testify that more and more people are being drawn to classical music through this new spirituality.

Martha Ainsworth earned the M.Mus. degree in choral conducting and sacred music from Westminster Choir College. She sings professionally in New York City and with the Princeton Singers (, who have just released their seventh CD.

This article appeared on in March 2002.

© 2002 Martha Ainsworth. All rights reserved.

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