The Custodian of Musical Aptitudes

I worked with guitarist/composer/conductor Dennis Roden for around 10 years at a church in Canton, OH where he was music director and I was pianist/organist (musicians wear so many hats, don’t they?). He recently earned the name Master Roden with his writings on the Stravinsky Mass. The research provided some interesting insights into the compositional process of Stravinsky (odd text accentuation, musical form that does not directly follow the form of the text, etc.), but I was most struck by Stravinsky’s thoughts about composers and spirituality.

Two quotes, in particular, stood out to me as calls to composers in regards to their work:

I regard my talents as God-given, and I have always prayed to Him for strength to use them. When in early childhood I discovered that I had been made the custodian of musical aptitudes, I pledged myself to God to be worthy of their development, though, of course, I have broken the pledge and received uncovenanted mercies all my life, and though the custodian has too often kept faith on his own all-too-worldly terms.

-Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Dialogues and a Diary, (London: Faber, 1968), 125.

Here, Stravinsky elegantly describes the work of a Christian composer; gifted with talents by God, but still human. It speaks directly of the role of steward that the Christian plays to produce much with what we are given. It also recognizes directly the fallibility of humans and the limitless mercies of God.

[Secular-religious music] is inspired by humanity in general, by art, by Übermensch [superhuman], by goodness, and by goodness knows what. Religious music without religion is almost always vulgar.… I hope, too, that my sacred music is a protest against the Platonic tradition… of music as anti-moral.

-Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Conversations with Igor Stravinsky (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), 142.

Stravinsky is also weary of composers of “religious” music that is essentially secular. Simply using a religious text does not make a piece religious. Stravinsky elsewhere suggests that “Christian” music is not truly religious unless it is composed by a “Christian” composer. This suggests that it matters what is in the heart, not merely by the outward workings.

What a challenge does Stravinsky pose to Christian composers!

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