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Souls’ repose

by
15 November 2013

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DOES it matter if you are a Christian? One theme returned to again and again in Sunday's Requiem (BBC4) was the old chestnut of whether personal faith makes any difference to your appreciation of this art-form, and of your ability to perform it.

There was an impressive line-up of heavyweight contributors, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, but the issue was not pursued with the necessary rigour to provide significant illumination.

The extent to which abandonment of belief in God revealed in Jesus Christ among Western culturati coincides with a more informed valuing, by the same people, of the sublimity of our Christian musical heritage is a fascinating phenomenon, and one that deserves more profound examination than we got here.

What this programme offered was a beguiling overview, appropriate to Remembrance Sunday and All Souls'-tide, of requiem settings. There were many good insights: for example, their frequent political significance: Cherubini's lament for Louis XVI's seeking to knock the French Revolution on the head; Britten's Dies Irae more a pacifist's evocation of the horror of the trenches than anticipation of the Day of Judgement.

An attempt was made to tell the genesis of the category, and we saw a curious reconstruction of the rite in St Augustine's, Kilburn; but the real emphasis was on Mozart onwards, the great concert-hall Requiems, the approach revealed in the telling phrase "without the liturgy getting in the way".

No one was prepared to say that a requiem mass objectively affects the deceased person for whom it is offered: that it opens for them the gate of paradise. What the Romantic Enlightenment has left for us is something subjective, helping us to feel better about the mystery of loss and grief, and making accessible our vague hopes or fears about existence beyond the grave. Many of the musical examples were from a heterogeneous back-catalogue of great performances; the very accomplished clips did not have the sound quality they deserved.

If all these requiems have their desired effect, heaven will be pretty overcrowded by now - but what about down here on earth? Don't Panic: The truth about population (BBC2, Thursday of last week) was an extraordinary programme, a high-tech lecture to a studio audience by the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling which used a mixture of complex graphs, conjured up in thin air between him and the audience, and film from Bangladesh and Africa.

There is quiet hope that we might survive after all. He exploded myth after myth, pointing out how mistaken UK educated opinion is on such matters. The worldwide average family size is now just over two. World literacy stands at 80 per cent. Family size drops with even basic education.

He pointed out the quantum leap effected by what seem like unimportant changes: the purchase of a bicycle can get crops to market, and children to school. I particularly relished his corrective to environmental sentimentality: poor people do not live in ecological balance with nature: that is how they die.

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