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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
by Madalyn Murray O'Hair
The following is from the American Atheist Radio Series
I suppose that I love music, of all kinds, at any time, at any sound level, more than most people do. But I find that this love of music is shared by all of the Atheists I meet constantly everywhere I go. They manage to be saturated in it. A great number of them are musicians, both amateur and accomplished.
And so, I was delighted to receive here in our American Atheist Center a magazine titled Humanist in Canada, of uncertain date, probably February of 1971.
There is a veritable burst of Atheism — Humanism — in every country in the world these days. And, in these other lands the Atheists are discovering and claiming for their own those in our ranks about whom we did not know heretofore.
In the issue of the Humanist in Canada here before me, there is much attention given twelve musicians, and fourteen heads of state. The magazine prefaces the list with the note that just a hundred years ago it was extraordinarily difficult to avoid being classified as some kind of theist or deist and no works could be accomplished if one's true beliefs were known.
Who then were these people — especially the musicians?
Would you believe Ludwig van Beethoven, born 1770, died 1827? The great musician was reared a Catholic but quit the church and adopted Goethe's Pantheism. Pantheism, as you know, is the doctrine that equates god with the forces and laws of the universe. Although Ludwig van Beethoven composed a Catholic mass (Missa Solemnis) which an authority described as \perhaps the grandest piece of musical expression which art possesses,\ he remained a Pantheist to the end. It is piquant that the musical expert who thus appreciates his mass, Sir. G. Macfarrcn, describes him as \a freethinker\ — that is to say, an Atheist — (in the Imper. Dict. of Univ. Biog.) Beethoven's most authoritative biographers are clear about his views on religion. When he was dying he yielded to the pressure of Catholic friends and let a priest administer the sacraments, but it is admitted that when the priest left the room Beethoven said, in the Latin words of the ancient Roman theater, \Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over.\ During the years of his full inspiration he had little religious feeling. When Felix Moscheles once scribbled on a manuscript, \With God's help,\ Beethoven wrote, \Man, help thyself.\
Then let's look at Hector Berlioz, born 1803, died 1869, a French composer. He composed Catholic church music including the famous Te Deum and Mass of the Dead, and indeed he is claimed by the church as one of their own in the Catholic Encyclopaedia. Yet Berloiz often stated in his letters that he was an Atheist. In G. K. Boult's Life of Berlioz, (1903), on page 298 there is reproduced a letter written shortly before he died, in which he says, \I believe nothing.\
We move on to Alexandre Cesar Leopold Bizet, born 1838, died 1875 and generally known as Georges Bizet, the composer of Carmen, etc. His early death cut short a career of great promise. His letters, which were published after his death by L. Ganderax in 1908 are full of skepticism. In one letter, he says, \I have always read the ancient pagans with infinite pleasure while in Christian writers I find only system, egoism, intolerance, and a complete lack of artistic taste.\
These are really the great ones, for next is Johannes Brahms, born 1833, died 1897, the famous German composer. As he composed the superb German Requiem for Protestant churches, most folk imagine that he was a Christian but he was even less religious than Beethoven. He reveals in his letters to Hersogenberg (Letters of J. Brahms: the Hersogenberg Correspondence, English translation 1909) that he was a complete agnostic. The Four Serious Songs which he published the year before he died are described by one critic as his \supreme achievement in dignified utterance of noble thoughts.\ Yet the words to the first song, as a matter of fact, reject and almost ridicule the idea of personal immortality.
But then what about Claude Achille Debussy, born 1862, died 1918, the French composer? He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of eleven and by 1902 his L'apresmidi d'un faune and other compositions were known throughout the world, and he was acclaimed as \one of the greatest musicians of his generation\. He was one of the \Neo-pagans\ (by self-styling) of that brilliant period, and his funeral was purely secular.
And also included, of course, is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born 1756, died 1791. He began to compose at the age of five and conducted a Mass of his own composition at the age of twelve. In the following year the pope made him a Knight of the Golden Spur, and for ten years he was a concert master to the Archbishop of Salzbury. At this time he began to lose his Catholic faith and to get into trouble with the authorities of the church. He joined the Freemasons, who were under the sternest ban of the Church, and turned to opera. Although he wrote a good deal of church music and he is claimed in the Catholic Encyclopaedia as a Catholic, the two leading biographers of Mozart put it beyond question that he was a non-Christian. Wilder gives ample evidence and tells us that on his death bed he refused to ask for a priest and when his wife nevertheless sent for one, the priest was refused, and he was buried without a service in the common grave of the poor. His famous Requiem Mass was composed for Count Walsegg, who paid Mozart but then put his own name on the composition. Ulibichov, the second leading biographer, gives even further evidence that Wolfgang Mozart abandoned the Church.
Why do you suppose this history is suppressed? Why don't we all know that these persons were non-theists or A-theists?
Even Niccolo Paganini, born 1782, died 1840, the great Italian violinist and composer, is among the non-theists. Like so many other distinguished freethinkers he was very precocious, composed a sonata when he was eight years old and made his first public appearance at the age of eleven. He became the greatest violinist of his age. His chief biographer, Count Conestabili, who was orthodox, admits that Paganini practiced \religious indifferentism\, and states, sadly, that his hero neither received the last sacrament nor had any religious service at his funeral. He was well known as \an Atheist.\
Can it be that we own all of the great ones? For next is Franz Peter Schubert, born 1797, died 1828, the Austrian composer. He wrote two Masses and a large amount of other Catholic music, yet like Beethoven and Mozart, he was a skeptic. In his Dictionory of Music, Sir George Grove says that \of formal or dogmatic religion we can find no trace\ in his life. That's in Volume IV, page 634. He quotes Schubert saying of creeds and churches, \Not a word of it is true.\ Also, one can read Elly Ziese in Shubert's Tod. There it is noted that Catholic biographers say that the man who wrote the beautiful Ave Maria must have been a Catholic, although \he has no external connection with the Church.\ One might as well say that all the artists who painted beautiful Venuses must have believed in the goddess Venus. Perhaps the answer is that only the religious art form was accepted, or acceptable, at that time.
And, then of course comes Robert Schumann, born 1810, died 1856, the German composer. He tells us in his letters that he rejected Christianity in his early years and followed Goethe's pantheism. One great advantage of Goethe's system in this difficult period, when skepticism itself was in evolution, was that one could talk freely about god and not mean much. In any case Goethe naturally appealed to these artists, and both Schumann and Beethoven openly adhered to this doctrine.
What! We have Richard Strauss, too. Yes, the German composer, born 1864 and died 1949. He played the piano at the age of four and began to compose at the age of seven. He conducted the Bayreuth Festival in 1894 and was General Musical Director of Prussia. He was a close student of philosophy and expressed his own freethought convictions in the symphonic poem based upon Nietzsche's work, Also Sprach Zarathustra, which the clergy angrily denounced, and in Till Eulenspiegel's Lustige Streiche, which has been described as \one of the most brilliant dramatic scores ever penned.\
Just these men alone in our ranks should satisfy an Atheist, but there is also Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, born 1840, died 1893, the famous Russian composer. He took up law but quit it for music and became the greatest of Russian composers with songs, cantatas, operas, and piano pieces. From his letters, edited by his brother, it appears that until late in life he was a theist but he seems in the end to have become an Atheist after reading Flaubert's letters. \I have, he said, \found some astonishing answers to my questions about god and religion in this book.\ (See Life and Letters, p. 688.) But I wonder what the brother edited out of the book when he recounts that Tchaikovsky was unconscious when his brother summoned a priest to smear him with sacrament, then, in death.
The last one here is Wilhelm Richard Wagner, born 1813, died 1883, the greatest of German dramatists and composers. All admit that he was an Atheist and radical for he took part in the revolution of 1848. Finally when he composed Parsifal in 1882, Nietsche charged him with lapsing into mysticism, and it is clear that he was in a romantic and mystic mood — but all the experts admit that he never returned to the Christian faith. Otto Hartwich says, \Wagner . . . had little taste for the other-worldly speculations of dogmatic theology and none at all in the Church's ethic — hence the bitterness of Nietzsche who thought it the worst feature of Christianity —.\ But the British musical critic who wrote on Wagner, Ernest Newman, reminds us that by the age of fifty all his greatest work had been done while he was an Atheist and his intellectual powers were at their greatest.
Well — I studied music for a long time —and was something of a pianist, continuing with piano all the years I was in college. I took courses in music history and music appreciation, and in music theory, and in the study of all of these greats as I had to learn to play their compositions. Imagine! All that time, it was never even whispered to me that they were Atheists. In all that time I thought I was the only Atheist in the world and I was trying to find anyone who had ever expressed anything about Atheism, and sometimes when I would play the piano for long hours, feeling alone with my ideas, I was playing the compositions of Athiests, of Beethoven, Berlioz, Bizet, Brahms, Debussy, Mozart, Paganini, Shubert, Schumann, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner. I wasn't alone at all.
Somehow I feel that it is not quite fair.
And so I am doubly happy that I can bring this information to you. You are not alone. There are Atheists all around you — everywhere — and there have always been Atheists in history. There simply is a grand conspiracy of silence about them, and I intend that the silence shall be broken.