Tuesday, May 31, 2016

An embarrassment. . .

As the cantor of Leipzig, Bach was responsible for composing music for Sunday services, which produced reams of choral music, mostly cantatas. Because of this, it would be difficult to find a composer who wrote more sacred music. Like Victoria and Bruckner, Bach’s works stem from his own devotion. But more than any other composer, Bach uses complex music to articulate theology.
Readers who enjoy Bach’s music and want to understand this interplay between music and theology better will be grateful for Markus Rathey’s new book. Rathey has taught at Yale for many years and collaborated with great interpreters of Bach, including Masaaki Suzuki. Like Suzuki, he has an appreciation for Bach’s faith and has formally studied theology as well as musicology. 

Many introductions to religious literature and music presume that the reader is skeptical and secular. An implicit apology must be made for the author’s faith, an assurance that, yes, this is religious but it can be understood and appreciated by people who are not religious (everyone who is normal and cultured). Faith is embarrassing, and it needs be sent away like a bothersome child.                  From a review by Nathaniel Peters of Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy  by Markus Rathey published in First Things. . .
The third paragraph of his review is a gem.  It highlights the way we dance around the theology of those whose contributions we love but whose inspiration we cannot quite stomach.  Everyone from Harriet Tubman to J. S. Bach.  The people whose faith was not private or insulated from life but public and whose lives were shaped by the power of belief, conviction, and truth that endures forever. 

It has always irritated me when I go to the symphony and read the program notes in which the faith of the composer is sidelined to mere insignificant detail in their life and career.  Once hearing the Reformation Symphony of Mendelssohn I read in the notes not one reference to the musical theme (A Mighty Fortress) or the occasion (anniversary of the Reformation) or to the fact that Mendelssohn (alas I cannot get behind the new surname Bartholdy) was Christian and Lutheran!  Why, you might think that faith were hidden or absent from the creative mind and musical genius of this man.  So it is with Bach.  He is unfathomable apart from the knowledge of and the appreciation for this man of faith.

The truth is that we are mostly embarrassed by the faith of those heroic and gifted folks who went before us.  They shined in certain areas but it is always in spite of their faith and not because of it.  Our own skepticism and cynicism must redefine their faith in terms of spirituality (a concept largely unknown to people of faith) and treat faith at all as mostly an impediment to their personality and a burden they had to overcome to achieve greatness.

We cannot abide the idea that faith is deep, profound, and active in the lives of people -- that their accomplishments were informed by and their lives shaped by the power of this faith.  We try not to name God and certainly do not name the Trinity.  We treat Jesus as if He were mere inspirational hero and not Savior, as if sin were no big deal, and death were normal.  For if these were true, then we would need no Savior and no salvation and faith could be whatever we want it to be.

The erudite and elite treat faith the way you would a misbehaving child -- something that must be endured up to a point and then disciplined -- if necessary, put away when it draws too much attention.  So Bach remains loved for a musical genius no one can explain unless they discover what S. D. G. means and begin to sort out how this man lived his gift and craft within the liturgical life of a very Lutheran Church. 


SKPeterson said...

Wiki (problematic source) indicates that Mendelssohn was Reformed with no mention of his joining the Lutheran Church. Then again, he was probably a member of Union churches. However, it is interesting that little is also made of Mendelssohn being Jewish and that his father rejected Judaism and then later converted when Felix was a child.

Christopher D. Hall said...

I ran into this the other day when I discovered that Gorecki was devout and wrote sacred pieces as well. I also learned how to pronounce his name properly, but that's beside the point.

Joanne said...

And especially for today: