Berlioz and Post-Christian Europe

In the 16th century, the Catholic Church largely collapsed with the Protestant Reformation. The schism and the century of war that followed it led many Europeans to doubt the Christian faith; how could there be competing, mutually exclusive versions of what was supposed to be the ultimate truth about life? In the 17th century, Descartes and Spinoza founded a new Western philosophy we call Liberalism, that was atheist or at least non-theistic in nature. All of Western philosophy since that time has been a response to Descartes. In the 18th century, the “Enlightenment,” that philosophy replaced Christianity as the foundation of Western intellectual culture and politics. Then in the 19th century, the Romantic era, common people and societies began more and more to abandon Christianity. In Europe today that abandonment is all but complete. Only 1% to 3% of Europeans practice Christianity. In the United States many people still practice, but every indication is that after 2 or 3 more generations, we will end up where Europe has.

In 1837 Berlioz composed one of the great musical settings of the Catholic Requiem Mass. He wrote it to celebrate a political revolution, however, not to affirm the Catholic faith. In his memoirs, Berlioz wrote of his great affection for the Catholic Church. Of all religions, he said, “it is the most charming, since it stopped burning people.” Like his father he was agnostic, but in his memoirs we also read, “So greatly am I in sympathy with [the Catholic] creed that, had I the misfortune of being born into the the clutches of one of the schisms hatched by Luther and Calvin, I should certainly, at the first awakening of my poetic instinct, have thrown off its benumbing grasp and flung myself into the arms of the fair Roman.” In 1824, though, after graduating from medical school, Berlioz told his parents that he had decided to pursue a career in music. His agnostic father eventually came around and supported his decision, but his devout Catholic mother cursed him, and wouldn’t see or speak to him before he returned to Paris to continue his musical studies. His memoirs state that Berlioz’s “hatred of those medieval doctrines” began on that day. Writing of the first time he met Felix Mendelssohn in Rome, Berlioz said, “Mendelssohn believes firmly in his Lutheran creed, and I am afraid I shocked him terribly by laughing at The Bible.”

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