The faith of Colin Davis.
The great English conductor Sir Colin Davis died on Sunday at the age of 85. Hailed by critics as "the greatest Mozart conductor after the death of Karl Böhm" as well as a versatile artist who changed over the course of a long career from "a prickly firebrand to a thoughtful, magus-like philosopher-musician," Davis is also being remembered by many of his fellow musicians with great affection and respect. I am not a critic or a musician, but I can count myself among Colin Davis' admirers, owning a few of his recordings and having seen and heard him conduct a couple of times in New York. The second of my two concerts with Colin Davis was a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, which was memorable not merely for great musicianship but for the palpable sense that this would be one of the last chances that a New York audience would have to hear Davis conduct.
Colin Davis was not a religious man, but he had a great love for the Missa Solemnis. In some sense, as Davis made clear in an interview with the Guardian in 2011, the experience of conducting that work gave him a brief yet ecstatic encounter with the divine:
"At the end of the piece, in the final movement, the Agnus Dei, Christ has gone back to heaven, and Beethoven gives us this image of humanity left behind, crawling about in this mud, loaded with sin. The music is saying that humans cry for peace – and make war. That's what Beethoven means. It's absolutely clear. The music reaches an intensity of protest which is almost unbearable. And yet, there's the power with which he sets the words: 'Credo in unum deum!' [I believe in one God!] You'd better believe him when he says it. And I do. I believe every word of the Missa because Beethoven makes it possible. But when I'm left alone, I can't believe anything. So it's even more poignant for me. But for that brief hour and a half when I'm conducting the piece, I do."The sort of attitude that Davis expresses here can be found among other musicians, who often present themselves as skeptics but are still able to find their way to a sense of transcendence through their art. Though I can't locate the citation right now, I recall once reading an interview with the Flemish conductor Philippe Herreweghe which included a point very similar to the one that Davis makes here. If memory serves, Herreweghe said something to the effect that the only time he could really believe in God was while conducting Bach - in effect, his doubts would vanish when he gave himself over to the music, but only so long as that direct encounter could be sustained. As Davis explained to the Guardian, conducting may not have given him an enduring faith in God but nonetheless provided him with an experience of transcendence - as well as the ability to share that transcendence with others:
"It amounts to an alternative reality. That's the only way I can describe what happens. And I'm no longer this idiot sitting here trying to make sentences about the music I love. In those concerts, I'm beyond myself. And none of my everyday experience is of any use whatever. There's only this joy in communicating with other people, and the feeling that you're part of something that's much bigger than any of us. That's what it feels like. And that's my answer to those people who ask, 'What's the use of music?' Well, yours isn't the only reality. Income tax, prime ministers, and so on, certainly exist, but so does the Missa Solemnis when you are playing it. It has just as much sense of existence as anything else."May Sir Colin Davis rest in peace, and may his memory live on in the many lives that he touched and in the great musical legacy that he leaves behind. AMDG.