Vladimir Ashkenazy and the “Agatha Christie” Petitioners
What do the writers W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, Jorge Borges and Francois Mauriac, have in common with the composer Benjamin Britten, the guitarist Andrés Segovia, and the philosophers Augusto Del Noce and Jacques Maritain? They all signed an international petition in 1966 begging the Holy See not to destroy the ancient Latin Mass.
Better known is another petition, organised from England by Alfred Marnau of the Latin Mass Society, seeking the same thing in 1971. This was signed by an impressive selection of Britain’s cultural elite—the editor of the Times, the President of the British Academy, the Duke of Norfolk, a brace of Anglican bishops, and most memorably the crime-writer Agatha Christie. Often forgotten is the fact that to the 57 names of Marnau’s petition, another 42 were added in a list published in Italy, including a whole selection of Jorge Borges’ Argentinian literary friends, and three Americans: the artist Djuno Barnes, the poet Robert Lowell, and the American-turned French Academician, Julien Green. A new crop of petitioners appealed to Rome in 2006 to lend moral support to Pope Benedict XVI who was preparing to loosen restrictions on the ancient Mass. These included the film director Franco Zeffirelli, the philosopher René Girard, and the actor Jean Piat, who voiced Scar in the The Lion King.
It is an eclectic mix, including figures from business, diplomacy, politics, and academia. But it is the artists, musicians, novelists and poets who stand out. Among these petitioners are eight composers, four conductors, three members of the Académie française, and two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. By no means are all Catholic: lapsed Catholics like Graham Greene signed up, new converts like Malcolm Muggeridge, and also many with no particular connection with the Church, like the writer Nancy Mitford, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and the soprano Joan Sutherland.
Why did they interest themselves in the question of the reform of the Catholic liturgy? The 1971 petition text explained:
The rite in question, in its magnificent Latin text, has…inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts—not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus, it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians. In the materialistic and technocratic civilisation that is increasingly threatening the life of mind and spirit in its original creative expression—the word—it seems particularly inhuman to deprive man of word-forms in one of their most grandiose manifestations.
It is now the 50th anniversary of this petition, and of the rather limited concession made to it by Pope Paul VI: the “English Indult”, conveyed to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, John Heenan, in a letter signed by Annibale Bugnini dated 5th November 1971. It is worth emphasising the motivation of these petitioners: not nostalgia, not lack of imagination or a rigid inability to accept change, but a recognition, very often from outside the Church, of the incomparable cultural and spiritual value of this liturgical form.
Non-Catholics, even in a non-Catholic country like Britain, who are people of education and culture and wide social contacts, are inevitably going to encounter the Catholic liturgy. They will attend Catholic weddings and funerals; they will find it in books, paintings, and even popular films—today, they will see images on the internet. Up to 1970 they were conscious that what they were encountering was something ancient, mysterious, and profound. They were often moved by it. In the Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde put into the heart of his decadent anti-hero a yearning for the beauty of this liturgy:
The daily sacrifice, more awful really than all the sacrifices of the antique world, stirred him as much by its superb rejection of the evidence of the senses as by the primitive simplicity of its elements and the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolize.
It was this liturgy, indeed, which inspired countless conversions in the generations before the liturgical reform. Wilde himself briefly sought reception into the Church in his youth, and finally made it on his deathbed.
The only surviving signatory of the 1971 “Agatha Christie Petition” today is the Russian pianist and conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy. At the age of 84, he is living in retirement in Switzerland. In my role with the Una Voce Federation, I was able to get in touch with him, and he accepted an honour which the Federation can bestow on those who have made a special contribution to the movement for the Traditional Mass: the De Saventhem Medal, named after the Federation’s founding President, Erich de Saventhem. Mr Ashkenazy wrote, in accepting the medal:
My personal view of the matter is, that it is of great spiritual value and importance that the more ancient Latin Catholic Liturgy, with its associated cultural and musical traditions, be preserved for all those who are concerned with strengthening, or at least maintaining, our connection with the Divine; the ancient liturgies, be they Catholic or Orthodox (I am baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church) are, by default, bound to represent a much purer spiritual relationship with Christ in particular, and with the world in general, than do, to quote Dr. Erich Vermehren De Saventhem: “the flat, prosaic, philistine or delirious liturgies which will soon overgrow and finally smother even the recently revised rites…”
Being a musician, I am fully in agreement with the idea that the ancient/traditional Roman Catholic Mass will have inspired a plethora of invaluable artistic achievements over the ages: mystical works, poetry, philosophical treatises, musical works of genius, magnificent edifices, wonderful paintings, incredible sculptures, and even the construction of marvellous musical instruments like the organ and the piano!
Regarding the piano, the great composers who were inspired by the Christian faith include Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff, who were also wonderful pianists; the point being that our Faith has inspired countless true believers to achieve great artistic and spiritual heights, and the preservation of the Ancient, and more Authentic, Liturgies, which are immeasurably closer to the original spiritual source than the more banal ones of today, could go a long way towards continuing to inspire us all, both culturally and spiritually.
Beauty and Aestheticism
The attraction to the ancient liturgical tradition which is felt by those sensitive to beauty in words and in music, and for that matter in architecture, painting, sculpture and the vestments used in Mass, is impossible to deny. Occasionally, this reality is used against supporters of the Vetus Ordo, who are accused of being “aesthetes.” In Trojan Horse in the City of God, Dietrich von Hildebrand defined the aesthete as follows: “The aesthete enjoys beautiful things as one enjoys good wine. He does not approach them with reverence and with an understanding of the intrinsic value calling for an adequate response, but as sources of subjective satisfaction merely.”
Such an attitude to the liturgy is certainly possible, but it would hardly flourish among Traditional Catholics today, who are obliged to attend Masses in a range of aesthetic settings which only on rare occasions could compete with the aesthetic delights of a decent regional art gallery or a cultured person’s private music collection. For different reasons, the same is true of the liturgy celebrated in England at the eve of the liturgical reform. Catholic church buildings and sacred music were a pale imitation of what was available in many Anglican churches down the road. The reason Catholics and non-Catholics alike appreciated and continue to appreciate the efforts of a humble chant schola or the slightly scruffy ceremonies of a Low Mass is that the aesthetic qualities which these display serve something else. Whether the worshipper can articulate it or not, the experience of this liturgy speaks of what von Hildebrand called “the other values that may inhere in the object”: moral and spiritual values. These are not brought out more clearly when the aesthetics are dumbed down, on the contrary. Von Hildebrand continues:
It is the antithesis of aestheticism to appreciate the great function of beauty in religion, to understand both the legitimate role it should play in the cult and the desire of religious men to invest the greatest beauty in all things pertaining to the worship of God. This correct appreciation of beauty is rather an organic outgrowth of reverence, of love of Christ, of the very act of adoration.
To von Hildebrand’s observations we can add one of Pope John Paul II: “artistic beauty, as a sort of echo of the Spirit of God, is a symbol pointing to the mystery, an invitation to seek out the face of God made visible in Jesus of Nazareth” (Ecclesia in Europa , 60).
Oscar Wilde’s conflicted creation Dorian Grey was precisely an aesthete. Wilde’s book is about how Grey’s unnatural separation of artistic and natural beauty, from the values they grow out of and manifest, comes to destroy him. Nevertheless, Grey was mesmerised by the Mass, not because of its artistic perfection as a human performance, but because it spoke to him of something really profound, something inexpressible, which gives the soul air to breath in the spiritually stifling atmosphere of the industrial and, now, post-industrial, era. It was perhaps Grey’s chance of redemption, which slipped from his fingers.
Art and Rigidity
When not accusing Traditional Catholics of aestheticism, the opponents of the ancient Latin Mass often appeal to a contrasting stereotype. Readers may find the following description oddly familiar:
…a type of individual who needs to feel that his environment is highly predictable … he needs to know where he stands; and so he fastens on to norms: he does not ‘let himself go,’ for fear of where this might lead; he looks to authority as a guide … [He also] relies very heavily on stereotypes in [his] perception of the social environment.
This is a description of the “rigid” or “authoritarian” personality, by the British psychologist Peter Kelvin (in his The Bases of Social Behaviour, 1970). Kelvin was developing a theory set out by Theodor Adorno, who had tried to explain fascism in Freudian fashion, in terms of the suppression of sexuality in childhood (The Authoritarian Personality, 1950).
The association of fascism, psychological rigidity, attachment to rules particularly on sexual morality, and morbid risk-aversion, was being applied to Catholics attached to the Traditional Mass long before Pope Francis was elected. As a psychological theory it is about as up-to-date as the paddle steamer, but it made a strong impression on those educated in the middle to late decades of the 20th century, because it was so useful for damning anyone who opposed the destruction of any kind of tradition.
The Adorno-Kelvin theory has it that artistic risk-taking is incompatible with “rigidity.” However, the association of defenders of tradition with fear of change and lack of imagination breaks down completely when one considers the people who signed the petitions to save the Vetus Ordo. As Alfred Marnau’s petition text expressed it:
One of the axioms of contemporary publicity, religious as well as secular, is that modern man in general, and intellectuals in particular, have become intolerant of all forms of tradition and are anxious to suppress them and put something else in their place. But, like many other affirmations of our publicity machines, this axiom is false. Today, as in times gone by, educated people are in the vanguard where recognition of the value of tradition in concerned, and are the first to raise the alarm when it is threatened.
Marnau himself was a poet and novelist, one, moreover, who in 1939 had been obliged to flee the Nazis when they threatened his homeland (he was born in Bratislava). He had this in common with the two intellectual giants of the early Traditionalist movement already mentioned in this essay, Dietrich von Hildebrand, who fled Austria as the Germans invaded it because of his anti-Nazi activities, and Erich von Saventhem, who managed to defect to the British from a posting in the German embassy in Istanbul in 1942, being implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler.
The petitioners, similarly, are neither fascists nor stuck-in-the-mud reactionaries. Just as the modernist poet T.S. Eliot defended the traditional Anglican Book of Common Prayer, so ground-breaking artists of all kinds defended the ancient Catholic liturgy. Artistic creativity requires the courage and imagination to do something new: it does not require the destruction of the old. On the contrary, to remove from the common cultural experience classical artistic expressions does not stimulate creativity, but takes away precious sources of inspiration. No writer or artist of real worth wants new generations of children to be deprived of the great literature and art of the past: not only do artists recognise their value, but these works provide the context in which their own achievements make sense.
What the cultural petitioners of half a century ago, and before and since, recognised, is that the ancient Latin liturgy of the Catholic Church is an irreplaceable part of the cultural landscape, the landscape which forms the background to all artistic endeavour. To a greater or lesser extent they also understood that its role in this landscape was about the expression of deep spiritual values: indeed, as we who are attached to it know, it has a unique power to draw in to those values even those first attracted to it for superficial reasons.
At a moment when the ancient Mass is again under threat, we should remember the petitioners with gratitude.
Photo: Agatha Christie in 1967 via Wikipedia Commons.
Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press), and the author of The Liturgy, the Family, and the Crisis of Modernity (Os Justi). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and President of Una Voce International. He was a member of the Philosophy Faculty in Oxford University for 18 years and is now an independent scholar and freelance writer. He lives outside Oxford with his wife and nine children.