A Picture Of A Purpose

A symphony inspired by the priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Frederick Hart’s sculpture ‘Ex Nihilo’, photographed by Paul Chenoweth. Shared under Creative Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

The discovery of natural evolution has been a revelatory development in human intellectual history. It is an idea that has given us a whole new perspective on our place in the world, and changed the story of who we are.

The language associated with evolution is often applied to other aspects of our lives too – including music. We can hear ‘survival of the fittest’ rhetoric in the way a canon is upheld and defended. We can see how certain musical innovations explosively multiply, like an advantageous genetic mutation. And a sudden change to a cultural ecosystem – war, political revolution, technology – can dramatically alter the various fortunes of its musical species.

Back in 2015 I wrote about the eleventh symphony of Edmund Rubbra, the last he composed. Rubbra’s life and music demonstrates the challenges of artistic evolution – of swimming against cultural currents, and ending up marooned far from the mainland of public consciousness. Here I want to explore another of his symphonies, one which sits at an intersection of different evolutions – natural, spiritual, and musical. It is his eighth, composed between 1966-68.

A clue to understanding this symphony is found in its subtitle: Hommage à Teilhard de Chardin. The story of this extraordinary man is worth telling, as it sheds light on ideas that shaped Rubbra’s worldview – ideas of a vision to unify Christianity and the theories of evolution.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest and mystic, but also a leading geologist and paleontologist of his time. He was born in 1881 into a wealthy Catholic family in the French region of Auvergne – a landscape of mountains and dormant volcanos. His father was an amateur naturalist who collected all sorts of specimens, and through him the young Teilhard developed a fascination with rocks and stones. 

Auvergne landscape, by Julien Chabal. Wikimedia Commons.

The twin devotions of Teilhard’s life – Christianity and science – were nurtured at a Jesuit-run boarding school. Sensing a religious calling in his late teens, he then entered a Jesuit novitiate. Life here gave him much to study, and he also received his first taste of foreign travel, with successive periods spent abroad. Wherever he went, he never wasted opportunities to go on trips to collect local rocks and fossils.

Teilhard was ordained as a priest in 1911. But a formative moment came from reading the book Creative Evolution by the philosopher Henri Bergson. It was ‘fuel at just the right moment’ he later recalled, ‘for a fire that was already consuming my heart and mind’. The word ‘evolution’ haunted him ‘like a tune’, it was ‘a summons to be answered’.

Teilhard moved to Paris to study geology and paleontology, where he would eventually complete a doctorate and gain a professorship. But his ideas about evolution found an unexpected catalyst in the violent upheaval of the First World War.

Teilhard served as a stretcher-bearer for an ambulance unit. Despite being present at many major battles, he somehow survived completely unscathed, and was even made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. Meanwhile, in the down-time between fighting he was putting into words a mystical vision – perhaps with the enhanced clarity of a man staring death in the face. As Ursula King describes in her excellent biography, evolution was informing Teilhard’s perception of a universal consciousness, a ‘Christ in the cosmos’. Shortly after the war, he wrote in his essay The Priest:

Let creation repeat to itself again today, and tomorrow, and until the end of time, so long as the transformation has not run its full course, the divine saying: “This is my body”.

His language could be strange but beautiful. For all his expertise of the physical earth, Teilhard wrote of the desire ‘to pierce through the seamless veil of phenomena’, and find its hidden spiritual potential. In the 1920s he coined the term ‘noosphere’: a ‘thinking layer’ above the biosphere, consisting of human thought, feeling and love. Teilhard saw this as means of humanity evolving further, and becoming ‘Planetised’.

The thinking envelope of the earth […] is multiplying its internal fibres and tightening its network […] its internal temperature is rising, and with this its psychic potential. 

When in 1923 Teilhard took a ship to join a French paleontology mission in China, it would be the first of many years working there throughout the 1920s and 30s, including some difficult and dangerous expeditions to remote inland regions. Most famously, he was involved in excavations that unearthed remains of early hominids known as ‘Peking Man’.

But throughout a stellar career in science, Teilhard continued to write on his spiritual ideas. His magnum opus was the book The Human Phenomenon, pulling together themes from a lifetime of thought. It describes how the increase in complexity of life leads to a greater ‘within’ of organisms, or consciousness. Drawing on the concept of the ‘noosphere’, he extrapolates this process forward to see humanity attain a supreme conscious state – the ‘Omega point’, the point of God himself.

And yet sadly, although many of his writings were circulated among friends, most were barred from publication during his lifetime. Teilhard’s ideas were too unorthodox for the comfort of his Jesuit superiors – something that caused him considerable distress and disappointment.

Teilhard de Chardin, unknown photographer. Wikimedia Commons.

Nonetheless, after Teilhard died in 1955 his works were soon published, and the fact that Rubbra was familiar with them by the late 1960s shows the speed of dissemination, even in translation. Rubbra’s son Adrian Yardley recalls that he had ‘pretty much all of his writings’ available in Britain. In an article about the symphony, the composer described how Teilhard ‘exercised an enormous influence on me’.

His cosmic view of evolution gives, if one responds to it, a picture of a purpose, a oneness, that makes nonsense of any fundamental antagonism or real separation between the world-view of science and of Christianity.

Rubbra shared Teilhard’s Catholic faith and unusually spiritual inclination. But he made it clear that his musical homage could only go so far.

It was no part of my intention, even if possible, to translate these ideas into music: but they meet, I hope, in a like optimism.

The symphony was composed some ten years after its predecessor, and this long gap coincided with an important development in Rubbra’s approach. His music always had its own kind of internal evolution, an organic flow of ideas. But he described how ‘my thoughts had gradually crystallised into a knowledge of the dramatic value of intervals’. 

The deployment of certain interval units, embedded in harmony and threading through melody, became a key unifying force. Furthermore, the chosen intervals contract through the symphony’s three movements – from fourths, to thirds, and seconds – something that Rubbra alluded to with a scientific analogy.

There is an odd parallel, in the intensity generated by the progressive contraction of intervals, to the energy engendered by the astronomical phenomenon of star contraction. 

A night sky might well be where this symphony begins. A quiet, widely-spaced string chord creates a sound of vaulted wonder. Two clarinets and divided violas, a fourth apart, introduce a mysterious undulating figure. 

There follows a succession of probing ideas, restless with creative potential. Out of this emerges a noble theme, first heard on strings. It is partly ‘mirrored’ by its own inverted shape below, an unfolding contrary motion which suggests some cosmic significance – each action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Leo Black has compared this movement to the ‘Representation Of Chaos’ from Haydn’s Creation, and its primordial turbulence gives way to riotous fertility in the second movement. Starting from a set of motifs based around thirds, Rubbra rejoices in twisting and turning his material through ever-new combinations, colours, and metrical games. It shines with a love of endless transformation that Teilhard would have recognised – this could be a flight through unspoilt forest glades, each bursting with abundant forms of life.

If the blazing major-key conclusion feels like a moment of arrival, then the slow finale ushers us into a very different world. Adrian Yardley has remarked that this symphony is ‘in many ways a pilgrimage’, and the hovering horn chords at the opening suggest the stillness of a consecrated space. A violin theme slowly unfurls, built from intervals of seconds with added sixths, and its shape is immediately inverted halfway through.

A few years previously, Rubbra had set to music an ancient Chinese poem about a priest’s journey. The song begins with the line ‘you were foreordained to find the source’, and there is a parallel here to the enclosed arcs of this theme, each returning to its starting note. The sense of beginning with the sureness of finality is masterfully spun out through the deep breaths of the following music.

Later on, a shape from this theme is extended into a long, meditative line. Its disarming eloquence caused the critic Hugh Ottaway to remark it had ‘the magic of a new discovery’. And when a graceful decorative figure appears towards the end – first on violins, then flute – it is this new theme in retrograde and at double speed.

Replete with suggestions of sacred geometry, the symphony reaches its conclusion in a state of transcendent calm. At the last chord, a strange flourish on the celesta adds a lingering glimmer of mystery.

Rubbra’s new approach is compelling, and demonstrates a highly original mind. But at its premiere, critical reaction to his intervallic structure was mostly unfavourable. It was still effectively a tonal symphony with conventional scoring, and in the more radical cultural climate of the time, this piece must have seemed like the work of yesterday’s man. It was all too quickly forgotten. 

Edmund Rubbra. Shared with permission of Adrian Yardley.

The dominant narrative of music history selects a few innovators and influencers. Today, while we are fortunate to have much of Rubbra’s music recorded, it elicits relatively little discussion or performances. But with time and perspective, perhaps the picture of his singular purpose can be seen more clearly. 

Any revival of interest in Rubbra will bring an important question into focus: what value does our culture place on this kind of optimism? Listening to his eighth symphony is to behold the work of a benign creator – with all its joy, fascination, surprise, and mystery. But while there is certainly deep feeling in Rubbra’s music, there is relatively little that reflects aspects of our psyche such as despair, irony, anger, or violence.

Instead, the optimism that Rubbra hoped to share with Teilhard seems to be a kind of attitude to life. It has roots in religious faith, but it also stems from patient dedication, careful thought and contemplation, and trusting yourself to find the path to your own truth. Asked in an interview if criticism affected him, Rubbra said ‘not fundamentally. At the moment perhaps, but I realise what I’m doing and what I have to do’.

Teilhard de Chardin carried on working and travelling into his seventies. He was elected to a chair at the Academy Of Sciences, but Church authorities, suspicious of his ideas and influence, refused to let him reside in Paris. Instead he spent his final years exiled in New York, where he found funding for a research position. It was at a friend’s apartment there on April 10th 1955 that he suddenly collapsed from a severe heart attack and died. That day was Easter Sunday.

Teilhard de Chardin’s grave in Hyde Park, New York State. Photograph by ‘Ɱ’, shared under Creative Commons.

Teilhard’s body was buried upstate from the city, in a cemetery at the Jesuit novitiate of St. Andrew-on-Hudson. A small gravestone only lists his name and dates, and the site has since been taken over by the Culinary Institute Of America. ‘It seems a forlorn place’, King writes, ‘for someone who travelled the world and is said to have influenced the thinking of both the United Nations and the Second Vatican Council’.

Nonetheless, Teilhard’s works have gone on to develop a considerable following. While ideas like the ‘noosphere’ may seem far-fetched, they demonstrate a mind that thought deeply about humanity’s future, and which correctly foresaw a more connected and globalised world.

Teilhard lamented a Church complacent in its ‘abstract theology’, ‘artificial ritualism’ and ‘over-refined piety’, calling on it to reflect the forces that gave people a zest for a life. For him that force was the music of the earth – his fascination with the patterns of its composition since his childhood, and a perception of spiritual truth within it. As he wrote in the introduction to The Heart Of Matter:

The Diaphony of the Divine at the heart of a glowing Universe, as I have experienced it through contact with the earth – the Divine radiating from the depths of blazing Matter: this it is that I shall try to disclose and communicate […]

And while Teilhard’s body now lies in a humble resting place, his ideas have been granted much greater honours. Recently, his name was heard by millions of TV viewers during a sermon by Reverend Michael Curry at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The Bishop drew on words Teilhard wrote with a typical fusion of spirituality and science. 

After harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, human beings will have discovered fire.

Judging by social media commentary, many people watching the wedding seemed to be surprised and moved by the Bishop’s positivity and passion. Perhaps, even in our cynical and fearful age, there is a bigger receptiveness to the power of optimism than I often suppose. 

If Rubbra’s music were given just a small fraction of that audience, who knows how many might become willing followers on his musical pilgrimage? For now, his symphony can only lie in wait, a glittering crystal of rare musical thought. Those who chance upon it will find all the magic of a new discovery.

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You can listen to Rubbra’s eighth symphony on Spotify. ‘Spirit of Fire: The Life and Vision of Teilhard de Chardin’ by Ursula King is available from Orbis Books. ‘Edmund Rubbra: Symphonist’ by Leo Black is available from Boydell and Brewer.