The avant-garde composer's infamous piece reminds us that we need silence

“Music is the silence between the notes.” This profound observation – it is difficult to discover who said it first – has often preoccupied me in my own performances on the concert platform. It seems to take on a new significance since silence is being, well, talked about quite a lot these days.

In the Church, Cardinal Robert Sarah is one of the most vocal about the value of silence. His 2015 article for L’Osservatore Romano explored the Second Vatican Council’s exhortations on liturgy – “not in fact a simple catalogue of ‘recipes’ for reform but a true and proper Magna Carta for all liturgical action”. “We often forget,” he writes, “that sacred silence is one of the means indicated by the Council to foster participation.” Noting that Sacrosanctum Concilium states that all “action is directed to contemplation”, Sarah goes on to assert that since liturgy is, in the words of the Council, “above all things the worship of the divine majesty” it “requires our silence.”

Cardinal Sarah’s latest book, God or Nothing, has been described by Cardinal Burke, Patron of the Order of Malta, as a “remarkable testimonial of the Catholic faith in the face of many serious contemporary challenges”, and the issue of what to do about the sheer noise of daily life is again top of the agenda. Here, though, it is the problem of the Christian voice being at its quietest and its least heard for several centuries that occupies Sarah. As he observes: “Western societies are organized and live as though God did not exist. Christians themselves, on many occasions, have settled down to a silent apostasy.”

January 2016 saw an appeal from Cardinal Sarah for a “high-quality liturgical renewal” involving silence as a fundamental component. We need to respect silence in the sacred liturgy as “a Christian ascetical value”, a “necessary condition for deep, contemplative prayer”. Sarah asks: “If our ‘interior cell phone’ is always busy because we are ‘having a conversation’ with other creatures, how can the Creator reach us, how can he ‘call us’?”

As a musician, I would like to point out that in classical music, too, silence is a controversial subject. To go back to our quotation, consensus seems to ascribe it to Debussy – but then again Google puts Mozart in the frame, and Aaron Copland, and Erik Satie. I can imagine as a candidate American composer and theorist John Cage. That seems appropriate, after all, since the composer who “wrote” what is arguably the most infamous piece of twentieth-century music – a piece consisting of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of “silence” – was surely the greatest proponent of the notion of silence as a kind of music.

Music theorists like to find in Cage’s 4′33″ some achievement of “conceptual” genius, and they ascribe to it layers upon layers of meaning that they cannot seem to find in works of “sounding” music. It is remarkable to note what Cage himself discovered in his research about the phenomenon of silence. On visiting the acoustically isolated anechoic chamber at Harvard, Cage found that “real” silence was rather loud: “It was not silent. Two sounds: one high, one low.” He was later told these sounds were his own nervous system in operation and his blood circulating.

In silence, then, Cage heard himself, and his piece of music allows us to do the same. But if allowing four and a half minutes of silence into the concert hall stands as a testimony to the ultimate absorption of silence into the arena of classical music more generally, there are countless other works from right through the ages owing their effectiveness to similar great judgement calls of punctuation and expectation. As the line about “silence between the notes” implies, it is possible to experience the wonderful phenomenon which Cage’s piece takes to extremes in virtually every piece of music. In the opening material of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for instance, there seems to be what can only be described as a living force between as well as during the iconic phrases.

And then there can be the silence immediately after a great performance. An example that gained much publicity at the time was the masterful rendition of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony by the late Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in August 2010 (thankfully available on DVD). Critic Paul Gent, for the Daily Telegraph, described events as follows: “As the violins began the slow winding-down and decomposition of the final pages, the texture thinned to a spectral web. Several times, the music seemed almost to stutter to an exhausted halt. At last, the strings whispered the final phrase, almost inaudibly. And nothing happened. Abbado kept his arms raised, the players held their instruments in position. I almost forgot to breathe. Then, slowly, he lowered his hands and the musicians put down their instruments. And still nothing happened. The rapt audience sat in silence, unwilling to break the mood, for maybe two minutes – an eternity in the concert hall. At last the applause started and went on even longer than the silence. It was an extraordinary end to an extraordinary concert.”

Our need to experience the possibilities of silence is being recognised in contemporary classical music. Electronic media able to produce barely audible sounds are in vogue: infinitesimal nuances occupy our contemplation and tempt us to notions of irreality. As we enter the sacred spaces of traditional performance we are more and more jealously trying to guard our silence and we are thrown off guard should anything disturb it: many concert programmes mercifully include an exhortation to “turn off phones and other electronic devices” before the performance begins. (And now please may I thank the person who punctuated my cadenza in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C, K415 – St John’s, Smith Square, June 1999 – with a ringtone of the opening of Bach’s D minor organ Fugue. I did not enjoy it at the time, but I do now.)

Should you require it, you can even buy a mobile app that allows you to listen to exactly four and a half minutes of silence on the go. (You really cannot make it up.) That is 2016 for you, but what is really revealing, however, is that Cage felt that his piece would be “incomprehensible in the Western context” when he “wrote” it in 1952. Because, funnily enough, four and a half minutes or so is about the time of absolute silence we experience during the Canon of the Mass in the Usus Antiquior, the traditional Latin Mass. In other words, this length of silence proposed by Cage to classical music audiences in the mid-twentieth century was of a length commonly experienced daily by millions in the Western world at that time.

But, sadly, it may be that silence in the Mass was not understood well enough for us to register its sheer normality and naturalness. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1908 gives us the “mystic reasons” for the profound four-and-a-half-minute silence in the traditional Mass. The silent prayers are “thus shown to be purely sacerdotal, belonging only to the priest, the silence increases our reverence at the most sacred moment of the Mass, removes the Consecration from ordinary vulgar use, and is a symbol of our Lord’s silent prayer in the Garden and silence during his Passion”. Moreover, “the Ordinary to the Sanctus, with its lessons, represents Christ’s public life and teaching; the Canon is a type of the Passion and death – hence it is said in silence. Christ taught plainly, but did not open his mouth when he was accused and suffered.”

So let us not forget that Catholics are traditionally used to listening to the sound of silence. Fortunately, through a reabsorption of this phenomenon promoted by Cardinal Sarah we can now rediscover and relish this opportunity – in music and in liturgy – more and more.