Beauty in a world of darkness (Tallis & Black Mirror)

Yesterday morning, I decided to watch the first episode of the Channel 4 programme Black Mirror at the recommendation of a friend. There is a synopsis here on IMDB. I felt kind of dead inside afterwards. This is, of course, part of the point of TV shows like Black Mirror — to hold up a mirror of the darkness of the insane, twisted world we live in. And I understand that. And maybe — maybe — we even need that sometimes. When we become too complacent with living with the darkness and forgetting to kick at it until it bleeds daylight. When we accept brokenness as ‘normal’ and the depraved and misguided as acceptable.

Yesterday just after lunch I went out, and I turned my phone’s radio to BBC Radio 3, where they were broadcasting live the lunchtime Proms. It was Thomas Tallis. When Tallis died, William Byrd said, ‘Tallis has died, and music has died with him.’ I’ve expressed my delight in Renaissance music here before, specifically in relation to Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts. Well, I found myself quickly and easily caught up in Tallis’s music. I hope that this is what the heavenly choirs sing, because there is little music in this world more beautiful. It made my heart sing. I was happy and transported to another realm. Seriously. If I were alive in the 1500s, I would have a very hard time swallowing Heinrich Bullinger’s distaste for Renaissance music. I’m not sure I could ever be Reformed in that sense.

As I listened to Tallis, I thought about Black Mirror. In the episode I watched, the Prime Minister was forced into a horrible situation that involved committing a lewd act on television. One of the fictional commentators on the show said that this was the first truly great piece of art of the 21st century. Obviously fictional, but this is the sort of dark, shocking thing ‘real’ art seems to want these days.

Tallis, on the other hand. Well, Tallis is obviously after something else. Something bigger and better. The sixteenth century is not all glorious light and beauty. It’s not all the chapel at Hampton Court Palace or the art in Venice’s Accademia. It’s not all St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s not all Cranmer’s Prayer Book or Shakespeare’s plays. It is also disease and death and filth and squalor and war and uncertainty and treason and changing political regimes and changing religious regimes and all the usual dirt and muck and sorrow and darkness of the world.

Tallis does not stoop down into the muck, pick up a handful of it, and compose music of dissonance and cacophony that reflects that. He does not put the sh*t of England on display (and yes, it must be that crude word to gain full force) and call it ‘art’. Instead, he raises his eyes to the heavens, to the rolling spheres. He looks to the beauty of God’s creation and man’s artistry. And he makes something that is fitting to the majesty of the Creator God — something that can raise us up beyond the muck and mire.

The world is an uncertain place today, just as it was in the days of Tallis. But I prefer Tallis’ approach, the approach of redemptive beauty. He puts the texts of Scripture and the liturgy to stunning, inescapably beautiful music. With Tallis, I am able to rise above the dirty filth of the Internet age. With Tallis, I can encounter the sublime. This is a great and terrible good. It is not escape, but rather refuge and solace.

The music of Tallis, the art of Michelangelo, the poetry of Donne, the sermons of Andrewes — these are moments of glistening beauty that strike us at our hearts, shot straight from the bow of the Renaissance. And they are moments that are there to help us survive the disease and uncertainty and sorrow and pain and woe and terror that beset us every day, whether in the news or on the internet or down the street or across the stairway or in our own homes.

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