Featured: Reconnecting the Past with the Present

June 29, 2017


The Tintern Abbey festival was profiled at the Jazz Archive Conference held in Siena, Italy, 25-28 May 2017

Tintern resident Vanessa Dodd, Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing and co-founder of the Tintern Festivals Association, was invited to read a paper at a four-day international academic conference on Music, Festivals and Heritage held recently in Siena. In her paper entitled ‘Reconnecting the Past to the Present’ she spoke about the ways in which experiences of the sublime in sacred spaces can link us to our historic forbears, with particular reference to Tintern Abbey and the Sacred Site and Sound Festival held there and in St Michael’s Church in 2014. The paper was well received by attendees who included: musicians, musicologists, cultural sociologists, urban futurists, ethnologists and media practitioners from universities in a variety of countries. The keynote lecture was given by Professor Andy Bennett of Griffith University, Queensland, Australia on the legacy of festivals. The full text of Vanessa’s paper is shown below: 



This is a speculative paper proposing several lines of inquiry that could be taken up in the future. It explores the possibility of whether some 21st century festivalgoers can reconnect with the spiritual energies of the past deemed ‘sacred’ through bespoke music programmes, performed in formerly sacred heritage sites. I am using Tintern Abbey a former Cistercian monastery in Monmouthshire, South Wales as a case study and the festival of sacred music that took place there in 2014. The organisers of the Sacred Site and Sound festival state in their mission statement their aim to re endow formerly sacred sites with sacred sounds and you will see from the programme of music, it was consciously devised in the spirit of the hermeneutics of continuity echoing the Marian worship of the medieval monks with such works as Benjamin Britain’s A Hymne to the Virgin and Sir John Tavener’s A Hymne to the Mother of God . Whilst Sir John Tavener’s Lamb set to the words of William Blake, a first generation Romantic poet recalls the Paschal mystery, the former monks were focused on.

I shall be investigating a cocktail of interdependent subject-orientated theories, mostly philosophical, pertaining to music, architecture and the emotions; as to whether such a rehabilitation affords a sort of connection with the past for present day audiences. Developing a hypothesis that starkly rebuts Jacques Derrida’s postulation that quasi works of art, such as the ruined Tintern Abbey serve only as physical parergon – that which frames and draws attention to the lack of something in the middle.

I shall be paying particular attention to the philosophical notion of the mathematical sublime1 as experienced by the late 18th and early 19th century Romantic poets, painters and tourists with just a brief consideration of the more contentious and objective theory of sacred geometry. The romantic era circa 1730-1850 is an important link between the distant past and our own, a new world view signalling a shift from the old religious feelings towards a more secular kind of spirituality, the

Romantics reworking Christian platonic thought, to meet the more secular needs of their age. In the wake of the Enlightenment, this is a period when the sublime becomes a signifier for that which exceeds the grasp of reason2 and sacred architecture becomes symbolic of the spiritual archetype, rather than of God (Abbot Suger cited in Strachan p.38) suggesting an intermediary link here with the former inhabitants of the monastery, the Cistercian monks, who like the Romantics regarded objects of sense i.e sight and sound as symbolic of the eternal.

Tintern Abbey is situated in the Wye Valley, a rural area of outstanding natural beauty, a factor to consider in the inducement of the sublime experience in today’s visitor. The Cistercian mission from Normandy who founded the Abbey in 11313 sought primarily to seclude themselves from the world in such locations, in order to become closer to God. By the time monastic life was suppressed in 1536 and the Abbey plundered for its wealth, most spiritual energies that had driven the order we could say were exhausted. Yet somehow those energies never fully went away, but were preserved in the location, arguably reinvigorated by the Abbey’s fall into ruin, attracting the first generation of Romantic poets in search of the picturesque and the sublime experience.

 Of what sublime experience are we talking?

Derived from the latin sublimis, sub (meaning up to) and limen (lintel), the sublime has stood variously for the perceived effect of grandeur, a sense of the divine and the overwhelming majesty of nature. The term has had many applications ranging from man-made objects such as heritage buildings to natural features, such as mountains, whose shapes in the past and to the present day, evoke deep feelings in their beholders. The term has also been applied to thoughts, heroic deeds, modes of expression and to transcendental states of mind. And it is to this subjective we could say secular but spiritual experience we turn as the possible connective thread with our forebears. Modern man and woman’s natural desire for feelings of exaltation extending like a chain back through time; with perceivable links between the Cistercian monks in their religious practices, the romantics and ourselves. A sense ofthe sublime we might all recognise as described by William Wordsworth in his poem ‘A Few Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey’:

“A sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused/ Whose light is the dwelling of setting suns/ And the round ocean, and the living air/ And the blue sky, and in the mind of man/ A motion and a spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of thought,/And rolls through all things”

Wordsworth’s lines describe a form of knowledge in which the distinctions between subject and object, self and other, no longer apply. (Shaw p. 94). In such expressions of self annihilation, which lie beyond thought and language (Shaw p.3) we find something akin to the transcendental experience of infinity, described by theologian John Milbank:: ‘as the absolutely unknowable void, upon whose brink we finite beings must dizzily hover (cited in Shaw p.211). A feeling sublime oft elicited by gothic architecture whose very grandeur was intended to invoke ecstasy, wonder and astonishment in believers. For the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, gothic art as exampled by the Sagrada Familia is quintessentially sublime. On entering a Gothic cathedral, he tells us he was filled with devotion and awe; lost to the actualities that surrounded him, with his whole being expanding into the infinite; earth and air, nature and art all swelling up into eternity, and the only sensible expression left is, ‘that I am nothing’. A feeling experience echoed by 21st century travellers gothic architecture continuing to impact on devotees throughout the centuries who tell us:

The feeling here is overwhelming. I can’t explain it. You feel like you’re in a powerful place. The church is huge, with the walls nearly totally intact. It gives a feeling of grandeur and awe. But can we explain such phenomena? In his numerous writings on the sublime, Coleridge distinguishes between the noumena and the phenomena, drawing our attention to the interaction between mind and matter, effected by what writers of the period would understand as correspondences (Shaw pp.93-98). One of the key features of the gothic building that might rouse such feelings of the sublime is arguably the pointed arch or gothic arch often thought of as an expression of the human desire for the divine in concrete form. The Cistercian monks built consciously in the gothic style as laid down by their founder Bernard of Clairvaux. Religious buildings of the age used the vocabulary of forms consistent with their religious practice, the monks believing that prayer raised the mind to God as mirrored by the arch. Although there is no consensus as to where the pointed arch comes from4, it was considered by Sufi/Islamic scholars, its pro-genitors, to be more uplifting than the rounded arch, rising upwards from both sides from earth/life to air/heaven. The dynamic present participle: ‘rising’ implies a journey, a process, a transformation (Strachan 39) urging us upwards towards an altered state of consciousness as well as the indicating the direction of prayer. Gordon Strachan in his study of Chartres cathedral also claims that the arch ‘echoes the shape of the subtle body of the worshipper, adjusting the balance of their aura’. And that mediaeval craftsmen knew that certain shapes and columns set up sympathetic vibratory patterns which in turn could be reinforced by chanting, singing and playing of music. 

 But can the mathematical sublime be explained by proportional complementarity?

Gordon Strachan argues that the span and height of the gothic arch can never actually be worked out in whole numbers6, as favoured by proponents of sacred geometry but does uphold that the pattern of ratios in gothic architecture as a whole are based on the irrational fractions of geometry.7 Arguing persuasively that the expression of the ‘not exactly’ measurable comes closer to the ultimate mystery of God, the immeasurable, the great geometer much lauded by mediaeval stonemasons. A not exactly measurable feature we can also detect in the tempered scale developed for keyboard instruments.

 Music has oft been described as liquid architecture or vice versa8: architecture as frozen music (Goethe)9, inferring some kind of correlation between the two – our experience of pitch being is of a spatial dimension – we hear things as if high or low – with ascending phrases indicating an increase in pitch, descending ones, a lowering.

The music equivalent of the vertical thrust of the gothic arch lies in the tempered ascending scale, whose impact on the human subject can be understood further through the application of the common sense music theories of American psychologist Caroll C. Pratt: namely that music in its movements and tonal character are an analogue for the emotions and thus a signifier for emotional states of mind. 1 An expressionist position which even the most arch formalist critic such as Eduard Hanslick10 might concur. Despite Hanslick’s platonic bias, that the beauty in music is contingent on the absence of emotional representation, Hanslick did acknowledge that the quality of music could echo the dynamic quality of the emotions, with strength and weakness implied in the varied velocities of music from slow to fast. A property of music also recognised by Malcolm Budd, a modern day music philosopher who maintains that the qualitative properties of music, in reflecting our outward and internal physical movements characterise the way we feel.11 An accord revealed by many musical instructions which equally describe human feelings and psycho-physical states to name but a few: 12

Agitato (agitated), energico (energetically), inquieto (restless)

liberament (freely), marcato (emphatic), strepitoso (noisy),

placid (peaceful), risoluto (strong), solenne (solemnly), tosto,

(swift), traquillo (calm).

Many post modern thinkers such as Thomas Weiskel13 claim we no longer share in the sacred or mystical aspects of the sublime (cited in Shaw p.3) but I believe there is a case to be made, that at a sacred music festival in a heritage setting we may re experience it. In indefectible locations such as Tintern Abbey where we engage in an intensely sensory field, absorbing the harmonies of the building, the architectural number in space (eighty per cent of connections in the brain are linked to vision) and the rising harmonics of music, or number in time, as did the monks before us, the vibrational nature of our human emotions are stirred.14 From this we can deduce that ruined sites are not mere par ergons as Derrida would have it, framing voids, but concrete conceptual frameworks for experiencing the so-called mathematical sublime(Shaw p.118). Whilst post modern painters, such as Barnett Newman15 strive to present the unpresentable as unpresentable with which in the modern world we are meant to be content, such a music festival presents the unpresentable as presentable. Offering a portal to another world, a mode by which the empirical and the transcendental can be co-implicated.1 Putting quasi-scientific explanations aside, experiencing the Abbey on a starlit night coupled with the aching, swelling sounds of music, such as we have here in Arvo Pert’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten we lose a sense of self as experienced by Coleridge and as desired by the Cistercians. In the presence of gothic arches breaking through the bounded space to the vault of the open sky,16 and no longer constrained by reference to a higher faculty, the modern day festival goer can become re-aligned with the mystery of being in contemplation of the vastness and mystery of the universe, of life and death and the great questions of existence.


Budd, M. 1994. Music and the Emotions. London and New York: Routledge

Shaw, P. 2006. The Sublime. London and New York: Routledge

Strachan, G.2003. Chartres: Sacred Geometry, Sacred Space. First Edition: Floris