Belief and Beyond Belief: Meaning | Recommended Listening

With the launch of Meaning, the first part of our Belief and Beyond Belief festival with Southbank Centre, we’ve been discussing our favourite pieces of music that we think best deal with themes of life and meaning. So even if you can’t join us at our Meaning concerts, be sure to turn up the volume and join us in pondering deep questions with another of our recommended listens...


Leoš Janáček, Glagolitic Mass
(1926) – A vigorous, life-affirming and totally distinctive expression of national identity and faith.

David Lang, the little match girl passion (2007) – This tiny, intimate piece of devotional music mirrors the structure of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, but replaces Jesus with Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl, elevating her suffering and reclaiming the significance of a short, inconsequential life.

J.S. Bach, Gloria in Excelsis Deo, BWV 191 (1745) – Written to celebrate Christmas and the end of the Second Silesian War, this is the only one of Bach’s 209 surviving cantatas that sets a Latin text rather than German.

Morton Feldman, The Viola in My Life 1 (1970)  – The sparse, meandering wisps of sound that form much of Feldman’s music demand your full attention, and turn the act of listening into a uniquely meditative experience. For those not quite ready to attempt maintaining focus through the extreme durations of works such as the 6-hour long Second String Quartet, the relative brevity of the Viola series make them a helpful introduction to Feldman’s distinctive sound-world.

James MacMillan, Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993) – Scottish Catholic composer James MacMillan weaves together a rich tapestry of texts, musical styles and liturgical references to create this personal and emotionally vivid recounting of Christ’s final moments.

Richard Strauss, Metamorphosen ­(1945) – Whether an elegy to the destruction of Germany under the Nazis and during the war, a philosophical meditation on war in general, or something else entirely, Strauss’s emotionally intense study for 23 solo strings is a transformative listening experience.

Hildegard von Bingen, Ordo Virtutum (1151) – Hildegard of Bingen was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, philosopher, mystic, and composer of this, the oldest surviving morality play by more than a century, which passes plainchant melodies between various solo singers and choirs to depict the Virtues and the Devil struggling over a human soul.

Thomas Adès, Tevot (2007) – Adès carries the listener on a vast, awesome sonic journey, and provides a perfect 21st-century example of music’s unique ability to express the ineffable.

John Tavener, Funeral Canticle (1996) – A prominent so-called ‘Holy Minimalist’, John Tavener moved from writing riotously post-modern music in the late 1960s to works in later life notable for their slow-moving simplicity, harmonic consonance, and religious devotion. Funeral Canticle, composed for his father’s funeral, is particularly beautiful, and allows the listener space for their own private contemplation.


What pieces of music, books, or other works of art do you think best deal with themes of life and meaning, or have had a particular impact on you and how you find meaning in the world? We would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations!

You can find out more about our Meaning concerts and book tickets here