Why Do We Make Saints Of Dead Composers?

I get itchy in temples and I make jokes at funerals. You could reasonably describe me as “irreverent.” But I have felt the divine. I was in college, and it was a Wednesday, and I was stuck in choir rehearsal. And we had a moment, together, in the middle of John Rutter’s “Requiem.” My voice became my neighbor’s. Our breaths fused into one. What I felt was liquid gold. I understood, then, what spirituality was. It was something deeply alive.

This is what music is meant to do: break through to people like me. “Music is a human technology for accessing divinity,” said Ryan Dohoney, professor of musicology at Northwestern University. “What Freud called the oceanic feeling—music gives us that.” 

Pianist and writer Sharon Su knows that feeling. “When you have experiences like that, it’s so often connected to very specific pieces of music, and when it’s connected to specific pieces of music, it of course involves the composer,” she told me. “Because you feel as if it was that composer who did that to you… he enabled me to have that experience.” 

Rutter’s composition enabled me to feel the ineffable, to have one of the most profound experiences of my life. On that Wednesday, he formed a connection between me and whatever lies beyond. So—should I be worshiping Rutter for the spiritual work he did upon me? 

You laugh. 

But what if I change the question? Should I be worshiping Beethoven? 

It’s no accident that we call the Great Composers “canon.” A saint in the Catholic canon is an intercessor, the one who speaks for you to God. The saint is worshiped alongside the divine, and in many faiths, the line between the two is blurred. In the world of classical music, we effectively worship the Great Dead Composers as saints, the ones who transmit perfection into the musical world. 

Gerrit Pietersz. Sweelinck, “St. Cecilia, Playing the Organ” (1593)

If this metaphor sits ill with you, consider it further. We carry small idols around in classical music: those little busts of composers that follow us everywhere. They sit on physical pedestals. We make pilgrimage to the holy sites of our composer-saints; their graves, their catacombs, the weird little pillars where their hearts are stored in jars. (I’m sure this practice funds a good chunk of Vienna’s tourism economy.) We act as though their marks are infallible, perfect in their intent. They demand our complete devotion, in every scratch and inkblot. 

We are also prohibited from committing heresy. We do not get to “dislike” the Well-Tempered Clavier. We play it because it was long ago deemed doctrine.

This metaphor is very real to me, as a South Indian musician with training in the Carnatic style. In Carnatic music, our greatest composer is Sri Thyagaraja (literally translated, Saint Thyagaraja.) Beatified by public acclamation, he is worshiped every year by devotees around the globe at festivals known as “Thyagaraja Aradhanas.” I asked my mother, the Carnatic musician I know best, how she relates to Saint Thyagaraja. What would she do if she were to visit his final resting place?

“I would offer my respects,” she answered.

I prodded further. Wouldn’t she pray to Lord Thyagaraja, sitting on the sands of the river Kaveri, at the holy samadhi where his bones lie interred?

“Praying is to somebody who you think is your creator… Respects are [given to] somebody who has attained that level of respect equal to God by their extreme dedication to an art, with no other distraction. So it cannot be the same.”

“By their dedication and their extreme gift,” she added, “they have been tried to make equal to God.” 

Their dedication, and their talent. These two combine to make a composer worthy of canonization, in our world. But of course, those criteria are necessary, not sufficient. You must be dedicated, and talented, and then, you could be canonized. But maybe you won’t be. 

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Jacques Callot, “Ste. Cécile, vierge et martyre” (1636)

The canon is not open in the world of classical music. We know this, even though we’ll often only gesture towards it. Look at Juilliard’s audition requirements. To audition to be a piano major, you must perform a “substantial composition by Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, or Mendelssohn.” Which Schumann? Which Mendelssohn? You don’t have to ask. You know it’s not Clara or Fanny. They are not in the canon. 

Did Clara lack for dedication? Did Fanny lack for talent? Or was their canonization simply not useful? Of course we want to think that our reverence, our communal canonization, comes out of that deeply felt sense of divinity in art. Once you’ve felt it, it’s difficult to imagine otherwise. But there is a crasser truth. Deifying a composer uplifts the ones who chose him—namely, his patrons. Beethoven’s patrons secured their place in history through Beethoven; his created immortality was partly in service of theirs. 


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And this is what we whisper in confession: classical music serves two gods. One is beauty. The other is power. The canonization of the composer functions theoretically in service of both.

Suppose we expand the canon. Harvard Theologian and Reverend Matthew Potts described how expanded canonization works in the Christian tradition.

“Someone like the Virgin of Guadalupe is a Saint that serves a political purpose,” he said. “It gives legitimacy to indigenous peoples in the Americas in a way that is meaningful to the Church … one of the things it uses is cults of devotion to signal to folks that they belong.”

Perhaps we could ameliorate the harms of composer-worship in classical music by worshiping more broadly. Bring in Fanny; bring in Florence. Let me worship Sakamoto so as to see myself reflected in the heavens.

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If the only sin of composer-worship was its service of exclusionary power, this might be solution enough. But the canonization of the composer, to the lengths we take it in classical music, doesn’t just reify power. It also offends our truer purpose: to make art and to serve beauty—which is to connect to the divine.

When discussing the Book of Exodus, novelist and spiritual thinker Marilynne Robinson said, “God does not need food. God does not need shelter. God does not participate in the satisfaction of these kinds of demands that the world makes on the rest of us. But God can participate in beauty…. God knows beauty. And God enjoys beauty.” 

A musician can fulfill that divine demand Robinson sees in Exodus by creating the most beautiful music of which they are capable. But the demanded genuflection before the dead in classical music stands between musicians and their creative prowess. When the musician worships only the sanctified composer, when she puts the composer’s wishes above the audience’s needs, she is creating music that is limited in its scope and possibility. By serving the supposed perfection of the composer, she detracts from the living warmth of her own music-making.

We’re taught to perform this way. It’s how the institution raises us. Su shared her memory of this training with me, and it felt deeply familiar. “I was specifically taught that the performer acts in service of the composer. When I play, the audience should not be hearing Sharon. They should be hearing Beethoven, or Bach, or Schubert,” she said. “They should be hearing the intention of the composer, and if I’m in the way, I’m doing something wrong… there definitely is this sense in classical music that the performer is in some way lesser than the composer. That is by virtue of design.” 

“Get rid of your sense of self,” she added, “because you are supposed to be the conduit for the composer.” 

I’ve heard this too, and as a grown musician, what I once took for granted I now find quite strange. A composer is often described as a conduit for the music. In What To Listen For In Music, Aaron Copland wrote the composer’s theme “is a gift from Heaven. He doesn’t know where it comes from—has no control over it.” The composer lets the divine flow through him into music. How does it make sense to be a conduit for a conduit? If we’re being true to the divinity of music, surely, the composer and the musician should both serve the same purpose: to act as vessels for beauty.

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Johann Gottfried Schadow, “Saint Cecilia at the Organ, Flanked by Angels Making Music”

And as a listener, I admire the performers I see. I want to hear them. I don’t want a talented pianist to twist their Steinway’s sound just to fulfill the limitations of a dead man’s dreams. I want that musician to show me all of their gifts, all of their love. When the musician erases themself from the performance, I am robbed. 

Carnatic music doesn’t take composer-worship quite as far as the Western classical tradition. Because Carnatic music isn’t written, because our records were undercut by colonialism, because improvisation is the hallmark of a skilled Carnatic musician: for all these reasons, Carnatic music evolves constantly. You can be devoted to Thyagaraja, body and soul, and also experiment with his music on stage as you see fit. In fact, if you are truly talented, this is what you should do. Altering the composer’s music is your way of keeping it relevant and alive. It is not done out of disrespect for the composer; it is done out of respect for the music.

I wonder if we might not consider such an approach in classical music, too. If instead, we were to love the living music, alive and whole, created by the composer and the performer together. There are composers who would like us to do so. Copland wrote, “There is nothing infallible about a composer’s musical instincts.” He is certainly in the American canon, and yet he told us quite clearly that composers were not greater-than.

It is that illusion of infallibility we must abandon. Indeed, religion itself never meant for the saints to be treated as such. As Reverend Potts told me, “Saints are not meant to be infallible; they’re meant to be human. They’re consecrated not by their spiritual heroism, but by love… that’s supposed to be, theologically, what makes them sainted.”

Love, not perfection. Warmth and fallibility, together all at once. We don’t serve the music by canonizing our composers, treating them as ideal creators. We honor music’s sanctity by giving it life: by loving the music in its collaborative, contemporary creation. What is holy is not the composer; it is the life we give his work.

I actually did go on pilgrimage once. At 19, I wandered through the streets of Vienna, alone, broke, and searching. I goggled at Haydn’s black-keyed piano. I stared out of Beethoven’s apartment windows. I expected to feel moved, but all I felt was a sad sort of emptiness.

I couldn’t get admission to the Mozarthaus, so, defeated, I stumbled into the cathedral next door. Inside, a traveling boys’ choir was performing Rutter’s “For The Beauty Of The Earth.” It was a piece I’d learned years earlier, one that had lodged itself inside me. Hearing it there, sung in the city of musical dreams, I finally felt the resonance I’d come for. The ghost of Beethoven couldn’t lift me up, but the energy of those children did. Their song, to me, was sacred. ¶

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