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
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
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.