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Art is not a pleasure, a solace, or an amusement; art is a great matter. Art is an organ of human life, transmitting man's reasonable perception into feeling. In our age the common religious perception of men is the consciousness of the brotherhood of man — we know that the well-being of man lies in union with his fellowmen. True science should indicate the various methods of applying this consciousness to life. Art should transform this perception into feeling.

The task of art is enormous. Through the influence of real art, aided by science guided by religion, that peaceful cooperation of man which is now obtained by external means — by our law-courts, police, charitable institutions, factory inspection, etc. — should be obtained by man's free and joyous activity. Art should cause violence to be set aside.

And it is only art that can accomplish this.

Tolstoy, “What is Art?” p.183

 
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 Godmusic blog page #3          August 2010--May 2011

 

Yes, but not really.

Someone came up to us while we were having breakfast in a hotel last week to ask what we thought about the Islamic center that is being considered near the site of the World Trade Center. I think she assumed we would be angry about it and we would have a mutual rah-rah session. Sadly, no. I had about half-a-second to think "oh boy, here we go." Despite having the same feeling (as I found out later) my wife forged ahead with our support for the idea.

They are going to call it Cordoba house, she said. This refers to a center of tolerance and learning in which people of all faiths got along peacefully and respectfully. You don’t hear about it, but there were several such times and places were other faiths were treated with dignity, where people managed to live side by side in peace.

Then came the nub of the argument for those against. Yes, but don’t you feel for the victim’s families? They don’t want the 'Mosque'.

Well, actually, some of them do, and some of them don’t. Which is one of those bits of information that go over like lead balloons, and is not the point anyway (nor is the inaccuracy of the term Mosque in this case), so we shall pass over this, as our interrogator did.

Don’t you think, she said, that it is like letting them win if a 'Mosque' gets put in?

Actually, I said, ‘they’ aren’t forcing us to do anything. ‘they’ don’t get to call the shots. We do. We can show that we’re bigger than that. The fact that 20 maniacs destroyed two buildings in Manhattan and killed some 3,000 people is terrible. But they don’t speak for all of Islam. Most Muslims are peaceful.  

Oh, I know, she said. But it just seems wrong to let a Mosque in on the site of where they killed all those people.

In other words, yes but not really. She will pay lip service to the idea that not all Muslims are terrorists, but she doesn’t really believe it. I told her as much. And, I’m afraid, that’s how many of the victim’s families feel. They are thinking of their pain, which is very understandable, but they really aren’t interested in making a difference between the people who killed their loved ones and the billion or so other people who practice the same religion and aren’t criminals. They think that Islam is one great big monolithic system and that everybody who practices it is a bad guy. I can’t get on board with that.

President Bush tried to tell us to make the distinction many times. My liberal friends never heard that. Now that Obama is saying the same thing, my conservatives friends aren’t noticing. The other day, we were told that Obama was out of touch with the American people for suggesting that Muslims were entitled to the same religious freedoms as the rest of us. Sure, he’s out of touch. He’s trying to preserve our democratic freedoms by once again trying to get us to see past tribalism. It has always been a tough sell. He’s hoping we will respond to the better sides of our nature. This is a tense moment.

But for many of us, getting past such generalities is a hurdle we aren’t willing to get over.

So let’s try something. Let’s suppose they’re going to put up a church.

 --What’s wrong with a church?

 Well, we’re going to do it in Oklahoma city. Near the Murrah Federal Building, or what remains of it…the memorial to the victims of that horrible attack.

 --So what?

 So, Timothy McVeigh, the man who perpetrated the bombing, was a Christian.

 --No way.

 Sure he was. And we can’t let those people win by letting them build a church after what they did.

 --Wait, a minute. I read about this. He wasn’t really a Christian.

 He was a Catholic. At least for a while. What, you’re going to tell me that it would be ok to build a Presbyterian church nearby, as if they are any different? If you’re not willing to consider that there are different sects within Islam and to distinguish destructive teachings from people-affirming teachings, then why aren’t all Christians the same?

 --You said he wasn’t really Catholic anymore.

Well, he seems to have lost his beliefs. Although he also said he ‘retained [his] core beliefs.’ Whatever those were. He didn’t believe in hell, for one thing (though he sure caused plenty). But he did once say that “science is my religion.” Personally, I think he was pretty confused.

--That was one messed up dude. And you are telling me this guy who was very questionably even a Christian speaks for all Christians everywhere? What, just because he lives in a predominately Christian country and looks sort of like us? That isn’t even remotely fair.

True, it isn’t. It's not the beginning of fair. And it’s a ridiculous argument. And I can make it till I am blue in the face and some of you just aren’t going to buy the premise of it. If you aren’t willing to get beyond the all-of-us versus all-of-them mentality there is nothing I can do about it. But if even one of you is willing to stop in his or her tracks and say ‘you know….’

Realize, too, that this simplemindedness affects all of humanity. Meaning that many Muslims have it, too. And they are going to interpret our actions as the way all of Christianity is treating all of Islam, and if we tell them they don’t get the same religious freedoms as everybody else in this country it is just going to add to their list of grievances, and they are going to stew about it the same we many of us are, and they are going to feel ever more justified and doing whatever they can to show their contempt for us—all of us, because people living under that mental banner aren’t interested in being able to tell the difference between those of us who stand up for the freedoms of others and those of us who would like to see our enemies killed. That’s how 9/11 came about in the first place. There were no innocents in the minds of the hijackers. It was us versus them.

There is a better way. People of influence have gotten themselves killed for suggesting such things, including our founder. In fact, our founder was so out of touch with the American people that he said things about loving our enemies and forgiving people 77 times (or 490 times) and other radical things like that. Imagine what a powerful message could be sent to the us-versus-thems of the world if we said go ahead and build an Islamic center. We will tolerate you, we will even embrace you. Obviously you are not welcome here if your desire is to blow things up and hurt and kill people. But we are willing to see the better side of Islam just as we are willing to act out of the best teachings of Christianity. We aren’t nearly as naïve as our less forgiving brothers and sisters think we are. But we know that often people will respond in love if somebody is willing to show it to them in the first place.

Then, unfortunately, we’ll need some tight security around that place. Just a hunch.

::sigh::

 

I've been thinking the whole time I've been writing this about the wisdom of showing sympathy for the victims, for reminding everyone what a horrible thing was done that day in 2001. I lived in Baltimore at the time and felt close enough to worry that my own safety might be in jeopardy. I remember having to remind myself several times that it was unlikely my location in town would be a target even if the buildings downtown were. Then I remember the plethora of stories about anthrax and suitcase bombs and everything and being afraid all over again. I know what irrational fear feels like. I didn't know anyone in the Trade Towers well, but I recall feeling acutely that we were all under attack, and the depression and confusion that went with that whole period in our lives. I want to make sure everyone out there knows I am an American, that I feel for the victims, that I don't think the world is a nice place were the terrorists will all go away if we just hold hands and sing.

But the thing is, as raw as our hurts still are, they are also revealing. We can't get around the real issue, which is that if an Islamic Center is built near Ground Zero it will remind us of terrorists. We can't shake off the idea that any sign of Islam makes us afraid. How do you suppose a Muslim is supposed to feel if something that they take as a sign of the sacred, of peace and wholeness and the deepest bond in their lives, the bond with God, is taken by us as a sign that killers are among us? If every church one of them saw reminded them of the Crusades, we'd tell them to get over it (not too nicely).  But the shoe is on our feet. We have a chance to have higher standards. Showing me some of 'them' who don't care much for 'us' isn't good enough. They don't all go around blowing up buildings. Believe me, there are 3 million of 'them' in this country. Things would be blowing up a lot more often if most of 'them' didn't want peace.

We have to be better than that. If we aren't, we will learn some really ugly things about mass hysteria. Things that we thought couldn't happen here. We need to be careful we know what the real enemy is.

Nobody is talking about building Al-Qaeda headquarters in Manhattan. This is a place of study and of prayer. And, I think, bravery. Because anyone who goes there will know they have a big target on their back from people who think that they are the good guys. And believe me, if anyone tries anything evil I know we'll be all over it faster than anything you've ever seen because we don't trust anybody to start with. They'll know that. Theirs will have to be a real act of faith. Because nothing they do or don't do will convince some of us that they aren't murderous fiends. It can't be easy living under those conditions. But for the love of God...

No, really.  For the Love of God....

 postscript--On the idea that because a poll shows that '70 percent' of Americans don't like the "Mosque" (Islamic Center) the President shouldn't either:

"Then Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets, and saw that the Israelites were worshipping a golden calf. And lo, he did call Aaron and had him conduct a poll and he foundeth that a majority of the Israelites preferred that they worship this calf. So he said unto Yahweh "I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to go with the people on this one. They get very cranky when I am out of touch with them and you know what a stiff-necked people they are. Maybe the Philistines are looking for a new god."

And behold, the world was changed in that instant.

Crèche Politics
posted Dec. 1, 2010

Each Christmas I get a little alone time with the manger scene we keep on the altar at church. Usually I am pacing around, on a practice break, trying to stay warm. It is a standard crèche, with all the standard figurines, and, I am afraid, some of the standard limitation of the human spirit built right in. I thought I’d have a go at some of that. 

It’s a very peaceful little scene. Somehow Mary and Joseph are already doctrinally saavy about their purpose and are assuming the position—that of adoration. They are telling us how to view this scene ourselves. Mary has not only just given a virgin birth, she seems remarkably beatific about it—but then, maybe the exhaustion after childbirth will do that to a woman. Jesus isn’t giving her anything to get irritated about—if the rest of us parents had babies like that we would have time to be adoring, too. After all, they’re so cute when they aren’t wailing up a storm.

One of the things I note about this is that the holy family is so centered. Literally. They are in the middle of the crèche, in the middle of the altar. Pretty much any time you see a Jesus movie or play or drama He is in the middle of everything so you don’t have to go looking. Jesus sure isn’t Waldo. The story suggests that he was born in a little backwater district of an outlying, unimportant city, in a very non-hospitable location. But when the story is told we have to make sure the doctrine speaks louder than the words.  Keep your attention focused on that little baby. He sure is Someone. And we are going to make it easy for you to do, too. We know you’re on a tight schedule.

But I have a little A.D.D. so it isn’t long before my eyes wander and I’m off looking at the supporting cast.

There are the three kings. Heaven only knows if they were kings—well, and John Hopkins Jr. He’s the fellow who wrote ‘We three kings of Orient are.’ He is the modern reason there are three of them, and that they all have crowns on their heads. If they get a chance, they really ought to send him a card—although the idea that they were kings apparently goes back to about the 6th century. They get names during the Middle Ages, too. Matthew’s gospel says nothing about their royal status—I imagine this was a pretty serious promotion for them. It would also be a pretty big risk, leaving their regents in charge while they went on a lengthy junket, and without their army, too. At least, none of them seems to have brought any retinue. Can you imagine three kings traveling by themselves? The makers of our crèche can. Space is limited, so you have to be a major character to apply for it successfully.

There are only three "kings" in our crèche, where the gospel writer leaves the number to our imagination. If there was a large number, such that it would appear a royal convention was in town, that would explain why there was no room in the inn—the kings were hogging all the hotel suites.   I am mixing and matching gospel accounts, (and confusing the timeline somewhat) though I am doing no worse than tradition already has done. Matthew, who mentions the ‘wise men’ (or whatever Magi really are) as travelling from some undisclosed location in the east, tells us they arrived some time later at Jesus’ home in Bethlehem. It is really Matthew’s only contribution to the story, which we draw mainly from Luke. There is no stable, no angels, no animals, and no shepherds in Matthew's account. Not only should the wise men thank Mr. Hopkins and various Medieval manuscripts for their status, and the fact that their number made is so small that they can consider themselves individually important, there is an added bonus. They should, if Matthew had anything to say about it, not have had to occupy the same building with those shepherds.

Shepherds, we know, smell bad, and their trade is not considered an occupation for the upwardly mobile. No Jewish mother is bragging to her neighbors about her son who is a shepherd. Luke includes them because he seems to be concerned about Jesus’ ministry to the poor and neglected of society. Matthew decided to leave them out. Maybe the wise guys actually were shepherds—or vice versa, and the two gospel accounts are fighting over who Jesus’ visitors really were.

Our crèche has only one shepherd. He seems quite out of place, outnumbered by the kings, and the angel, and the holy family. Perhaps the shepherds have sent their union representative. He seems a bit young to have to negotiate with all this management about his status and benefits, but an angel is there to help. Why the rest of the angels (remember that heavenly host?) couldn’t be bothered to show is anyone’s guess. They just got done singing to the rest of the shepherds and went home, apparently.

Those kings are really something. The two ‘main ones’ have brought along their black friend to show what a diversified crew they are. Actually, they are supposed to be of three races, but the Asian one is so light skinned that you can’t tell except under duress. This was apparently supposed to be a reminder that Jesus was to be a light to the whole world, even the exotic foreign element. Which is where the Asians and black folks come in, evidently.

Perhaps you, reader, are black. Perhaps your entire crèche consists of black figures. Or Asians. Ours is all white, (as is most of our congregation--surprise!)—with two exceptions. One is the sidekick king, who will be the first one to die if this turns into a horror movie, and the other is a blue donkey down front. I did not realize donkeys came in blue. I’m not being prejudiced, I’m just saying…

I’m surprised there aren’t more animals in here, actually. It’s supposed to be their turf. Did they get kicked out to make way for the kings’ camels? And, considering how crowded Bethlehem is on this night, wouldn’t a few more people stumble into the barn who couldn’t get into that overbooked inn?

You’re right, they aren’t in the Bible. Keep it simple, right? By all means, add a few pleasant touches from medieval tradition, but otherwise, try to keep the numbers down. I mean, who is telling this tale, George Lucas?

Come to think of it, you could CGI a few cuddly critters right over there next to the….oh, never mind.

 

 

St. Bach
posted February 10, 2011

The following is in response to the chapter on "Bach" in Erik Routley's book "Church Music and the Christian Faith" (Agape, 1978)

When it comes to the role of music in the church, vast assemblages of words have been sent marching out to meet the organist and make sure that he or she doesn’t upset the apple cart by doing anything that might be noticed.

Erik Routley, a celebrated hymnologist from the last century, joins the procession of saints in setting strict boundaries around the musical artist. He is naturally concerned that hymns retain their important place in the church’s activities, and would prefer that other musical expressions be kept to a minimum. Among his thoughts in this area are that the prelude should provide unobtrusive background noise and that it not do anything to draw attention to itself, on the strange theory that not all the assembled are musically inclined (that is, specialists) so it would be unseemly to ask them to give a few moments to an activity that might not have spiritual relevance for them. Everyone will of course love to sing so thoughts of dispensing with the hymns are to be banished. The whole congregation consists of Bible scholars as well so the scripture reading and interpretation of same (the sermon) can fortunately be retained. It is unfortunate that among all of those other useful activities music continues to be so unreasonable as to think that some might benefit from actually listening to it, and that the others might practice forbearance, believing with Paul that it is not good to condemn something outright if others are being fed by it.

Such unseemly outbursts on behalf of the legitimacy of music are precisely what the (predominantly) non-musicians of the church would like to avoid. And what better way to avoid them than by appealing to the example of one of music’s very own ‘saints?’ The more exalted, the better.

It is for this end that Mr. Routley wants to enlist the aid of one Johann Sebastian Bach. Routley pours every encomium he can think of in describing the man—though he will have to do better if he really wants to compete with all the drooling musicologists, musical practioners and laymen who rack their brains running out of superlatives to describe the man and his music. I don’t mean to suggest that Mr. Bach isn’t deserving of high praise, but it is funny sometimes.

Routley believes that a composer must renounce any thought of being great if he wants to compose for the church, and while this is in part a laudable strategy (the human ego being what it is), it would seem that he is heading for difficulty in the case of Bach, widely considered a great if not the greatest composer who ever lived, and yet one whose efforts were largely on behalf of the church. It is the way Routley negotiates this problem that interests us here. His portrait of Bach differs widely from the one we know from documentary sources. His strategy demands it: first he lays down a series of principles, and then he shows us how the world’s best known church musician embodies those principles. If he seems heavy handed it is because, in making his case, he is trying to ward off images and ideas of what he thinks of as the Romantic Artist, whose music and philosophy he believes have no place in the church. Given this larger purpose, it is no surprise that his Bach will be found to be the very opposite of every tendency he deplores.

Routley’s book originally came of age in 1959, a time of great ferment in the musical world. Music underwent more trends and countertrends in the turbulent twentieth century than in any that came before, probably. With those changes came many charges: that artists put too much stock in originality, that they believed themselves to be superior people whose work was misunderstood only because people at large were too stupid to understand or did not want to be bothered, that music needed to be rescued from or divorced from an irrelevant past, that it was a great boon to mankind but only in a very specific, composer-sensitive manifestation, and the rest was heresy.

It was a war of sorts, which means that some of the views represented above were very specifically spelled out by the composers themselves and some were caricatures represent by their opponents. The truth seemed to be many things depending on whose action was undergoing examination. Some were trying very hard in print to free art from anything that was not art (to them), and to hang on to the persistent image of the Romantic Artist as inspired demi-god. Others had a bit less of an ego, but their less sensational positions did not get attention

It would be of special concern to churches that their musicians not think of themselves as gods, also that they realized the importance of the entire body of Christ and strive to communicate with that body rather than assuming that mass intelligibility was tantamount to selling out one’s vision. However, writers and policy makers, when discussing church music often draw the line well outside these risks; anytime music so much asks for respectful attention it is practically accounted a sin for some writers—if it does not want to commit the sin of pride it shall function exclusively as hymn accompaniment and background noise.  As a species we have other examples of this tendency: women struggling for equality were often seen as ‘uppity’, for instance. As soon as this treatment got them angry they were ‘hysterical!’  Since Routley’s position is that musicians be meek, unassuming persons who accompany hymns but otherwise are not seen or heard from, it will be no surprise to see the words ‘humble’ or ‘accepting’ popping up frequently in his description of Bach:

“Bach was in himself an extraordinary combination.  He was in one way a child of his age, fitting peaceably into the prevailing fashions of court and church music.  None of his music suggests that he is a rebellious social misfit, whatever his day-to-day sentiments might have been.  At Arnstadt, Muhlhuasen, and Leipzig he was an organist; so he wrote for the organ.  At Cothen he was a court musician, so he wrote secular music.  At Weimar he was a choirmaster, and wrote for his choir, and at Leipzig he wrote for the august ceremonies of the Thomaskirche.  He wrote eighteenth-century music, not affecting any antiquarianism; a modal chorale becomes an eighteenth-century chorus in his hands.  He was content to do what the world [read: the authorities] required of him, and in this became perhaps the last of the medieval craftsman.”

There is a lot to discuss here.  I am not up to speed on the state of Bach scholarship in 1959, but some of the ideas Routley has inherited seem to come from early Bach biographies and are since in dispute; however, he also has some facts wrong. Bach was not a choirmaster in Weimar, nor an organist in Leipzig (though he apparently substituted on occasion). His sacred and secular cantatas, as his works in general, cannot be dated with precision, but he seems to have written many kinds of works in many places, sometimes for courts while he worked for the church, and sometimes for sacred chapel services while he worked at court. The contentment that Routley is working so hard to contrast with the malcontentedness he sees on display in the world of young artists is rather a large leap of biographical license, as I will show in a minute. “He was content to do what the world required of him” really means he did what the authorities told him to do (and no more), but this is an argument filled with holes as well. One recent biographer has pointed out that composing music was not required of him at all in many of his positions, and so, like most creative spirits, he was already doing more than was required. Sometimes the way he did this made his listeners squirm.

At Arnstadt, his first position as organist, the young Bach soon found that the town’s resources would not give him the artistic nourishment he needed to develop his talent. He travelled 250 miles to Lubeck to hear the great organist Buxtehude, and on his return began to implement the things he had learned there, which was not appreciated by the authorities, who made him testify at a council meeting about some of these ‘innovations.’ He was also accused, in the same meeting, of having ‘preluded too long’ before hymns. Bach probably felt that his improvisations would be appreciated as befitting the house of God, to which one ought to bring all of one’s talents. In this, he was mistaken. When he was reprimanded, he seems, perhaps out of anger or stubbornness, to have made them exceedingly short, as if to make a point. (“Oh, that’s what you want, do you?”)

When he got to Muhlhuasen, a post he applied for only a few years into his Arnstadt tenure, he found the musical tastes of the authorities to be very conservative. Mr. Routley is right that Bach was in part “a child of his age” if we take that to mean that he was intent on absorbing all of the prevailing trends and latest ideas and incorporating the best of these them into his own music. This tendency, however, is rarely encouraged in a conservative institution like the church, and at Muhlhausen the pressure to write in a style a generation or two back was enormous. Where Bach had remained at Arnstadt for nearly four years, his tenure at Muhlhausen was only a year. He had found a position at the court in Weimar.

I’m going to take a slight detour to discuss another point of Mr. Routley’s. While checking documents pertaining to Muhlhausen I noticed with a start the makeup of the organ there. Routley contends that it is one of the misfortunes of latter-day Bach playing that organists use too much bass. I happened to notice that all four of the stops for the pedal there were of the 16 foot variety—actually three of them, the fourth being a 32 foot. All low bass sounds, in other words. Now, couplers from the manuals were available, which would allow a less ‘rumbly’ pedal registration. Bach’s other organs have similar, though less bass-heavy pedal ranks. One that Bach specifically suggested improvements on has a range of options including a 1ft pedal rank, but in a letter from Bach directing these improvements to the organ he asks “for stronger wind pressure, to the 32-foot sub-bass and the other bass stops….Then follows the 32-foot sub-bass…which gives the whole organ the most solid foundation. This stop must have its own wind chest.” I would suggest then that the evidence we have is that Bach valued bass sounds and also that he had the requisite fire-power at his disposal on most of his early organs. Probably Bach, whose compositions show he valued a variety of approaches and methods, used low bass sounds sparingly in some cases and lavishly in others. In any case, Mr. Routley is essentially agreeing with the conventional wisdom of the age (if the comment was first made in 1959 he is even in the vanguard, unless he added it to the revision in 1978) that favors brilliant, clear sound over a healthy (or heavy) bass sound. Still, it is worth asking, even if it does challenge the certainties of today, did Bach? 

Bach seemed to enjoy himself at Weimar. That is, until the Duke’s wife died and he remarried. This woman was described by Bach as an ‘amusa’—one who had no use for music (later a rector at the Thomas school in Leipzig would seem to fall into this category as well. It does not seem to matter to such persons whether there is a Bach on the premises. Music is music, that is to say, not worth wasting breath over. No matter how skilled the practioner.) Bach decided to move on once again.

If you are keeping score, fourteen years have elapsed since the beginning of Bach’s employment history; he has had three jobs, the first two of which lasted a total of five years, and this last a record nine. During his Weimar stay he had already gotten restless and auditioned elsewhere, whereupon he was promoted and his salary increased to keep him at his current location. But eventually he moved on from this job. The transition was not easy. His employer would not release him from his service; Bach spent a month in jail for trying to leave, and was eventually released by his unhappy boss. Bach then spent five years in the court in Cothen.  He auditioned for another position three years into the appointment, but refused to pay for the job (at Hamburg, the job went to the one willing to pay the most to have it).

Now, at nineteen years and four jobs (and a few attempts at others) Bach arrives in Leipzig where he will spend the rest of his life. If he seems relatively slow to jump ship by today’s standards let us remember that it generally took several months to get a position and generally someone had to die for a spot to open up in the first place. About seven years into the appointment, after several squabbles with the town council, Bach wrote a friend that he was hoping to get employment elsewhere. His hopes never materialized, and Bach spent his last 27 years in Leipzig.

At every stop along the way there was friction with his employers. Some of Bach’s biographers believe it was because Bach was not especially easy to get along with.  Mr. Routley acknowledges that Bach could be an irascible fellow, but maintains that “this was always because he protested, whenever he thought it right, against conditions that made it unnecessary difficult for him to be a good workman.”  Indeed, an incident in Leipzig when Bach was asked to explain his behavior may make a case for this righteous indignation on the part of Herr composer, simply trying to do his job well and not having the resources. Bach wrote a detailed letter to the authorites complaining that he did not have enough competent singers and players for the cantatas sung in the Divine Service each week. He needed around 20; trying to cut corners and trim costs, the school provided only 8 and expected Bach to corral the remained from the university students on a volunteer basis. Many of these, Bach thought, were insufficiently trained or just plain incompetent.  However, Bach went on writing music for large forces, whether he was provided with them or not. His large-scale passions, his B-minor mass, are testament to a refusal to simply accept what he was given; the difficultly of his compositions demanded more of the performers than they were probably able to give. Was this humble submission to the requirements of his Age, his job, his circumstances, or did he keep his eyes on what should have been and insist on that? 

You’ll recall that I framed Mr. Routley’s argument in terms of a refutation against contemporary artistic excesses that he saw in the world around him (perhaps in the church as well).  Here he is laying his cards on the table: “The most unromantic and matter-of-fact workmen, [Bach] was no great tragic figure, no frustrated, Byronic, melodramatic bohemian asking to be discovered by some Hollywood producer and made into a legend.  He was an ordinary middle-class tradesman in music and an ordinary middle-class churchman—middle class because he is of the eighteenth century, but a tradesman and churchman because he was spiritually independent of ambition and lust for influence.”

No, he wasn’t a “melodramatic bohemian.” But it is wrong to assume he was, or considered himself to be, ordinary, that he had no thoughts for improvement or of being held in esteem for his efforts. Routley is squeezing Bach’s character and attitudes into a paradigm for musicians today by preaching for all of the things that would have caused Bach to be completely forgotten: keep your head down, don’t seek improvements if what you do if it might upset the non-musical people around you, and don’t do anything new.

(speaking of ‘lust for influence:’ Bach gained quite a reputation as an organist, and was frequently asked to inspect and/or give concerts on various organs throughout the Germanies. He also several times sent his music to princes and kings seeking recognition, jobs, or money. Hardly the actions of one afraid of having a bit of influence. Is that all bad?) 

Perhaps Routley’s strangest contention is that the 48 preludes and fugues that make up the famous “Well-tempered Clavier” are “the archetype of all piano technique for the next 150 years. Pianists know well” he says “that one who can play the ‘48’ has under his or her hands a comprehensive system of studies for any kind of music up to 1900.”

You mean there is everything in there from octave passages to thirds and sixths, wide leaps and massive sonorities that have to be balanced, cantabile melodic passages against  staccato accompaniment, hidden octaves, sweeping arpeggios, situations requiring careful pedaling—but why go on? It makes me doubt that Mr. Routley was a pianist. I’ve played the 48, and also Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. Musical qualities aside, it defies my belief that there is nothing new in the music of the last two centuries.

But it is a strange line of argument precisely because he claims Bach was no innovator. First he takes the line (as put forth by several early biographers) that Bach simply combined all of the vigorous artistic strands of the past, that he was a fulfillment, but a conservative—not too much of one, of course. He was a “child of his age” which means he avoided all of those nasty musicological forays into the music of past eras. Later on Routley will argue for the complete opposite, in passing: One of Routley’s pet peeves is apparently the desire to present music of past eras scrubbed clean of contemporary changes—maybe he would rather hear his Handel with a 300 voice chorus and orchestra. He uses Bach to observe that the composer, when he treated a centuries old hymn or chorale, would simply make of it a contemporary sounding harmonization rather than trying to get the congregation’s ears to assimilate music of another time. But as up to date as that makes Bach appear (and surely puts him into some conflict with the very conservative institution for which he worked) he then will argue that Bach anticipated all of the musical styles up to 1900 (which makes him the alpha and the omega). It also argues that nothing that was done afterward was really new, which suggests that his whole ire toward the Romantic era for bringing unwelcome originality is misplaced. 

Routley is attacking on two fronts. For one, he is concerned about letting Bach appear to have any personal regard (that awful pride that the church has fought against so hard that there is never any hint of virtue in it whenever the church speaks its name; it is all straight evil). He is also trying to assure us that Bach only accepted what was given and did not strive to alter it; i.e., make something new. But his argument is quite odd. First, as we have seen, he sets up the idea that Bach was no innovator. Then, as we’ll see below, the innovations of the following century and a half were not really innovations. Thus he both decries the attitude of the innovative artists around him, and asserts that the artists of the Romantic era were not really doing anything new after all (that is, there aren’t doing anything that Bach hasn’t already done). He does not like the Romantic era (this is elaborated in another chapter), however, he doesn’t like the present movements in art more. Thus, what he dislikes ideologically (the Romantic movement) is actually made part of the halcyon, non-ground-breaking past. The enemy of my enemy, as the saying goes…

The argument does, of course, suggest that everything that the Romantic era did so badly had already been done expertly by Bach, which is the side of the argument that you are supposed to focus on.

It is difficult to form an airtight argument and not to leave holes for others to find. Many of Routley’s observations throughout his book are wonderful, and the chapter in which he himself adjudicates an argument about musical taste in England is very entertaining and shows what a wit he could be.

In fact, much of the book is full of interesting insights, throught-provoking commentary, and the well-worded and full-blooded style of one who was very engaged in what he was saying, and had a lot to offer, whether or not you agreed with his points on everything. I’ve fixated on what is probably the most irritating section of the book, which is not really fair to Mr. Routley, but then, it is often these areas of disagreement that move us most verbosely. Many of our hymns, as Mr. Routley no doubt knew, sprang from controversies in the church, and the author’s desire to make sure we were getting things right!

So I have a great deal of sympathy for him (though perhaps not as much for his position), yet I cannot let him get away with this plea for unquestioning conformity, well intentioned though it may in part be, if he is going to make Bach his star witness. 

Once turned into something he was not (or at least exaggerated into it) the admonition is clear. Bach had none of that ugly ambition; you shouldn’t either. Bach wasn’t frustrated by his colleagues in the church, you shouldn’t be either. Bach didn’t push any boundaries and you shouldn’t either. Gentle Bach, meek and mild. Except that Bach was none of these things.

Instead, Bach was really more like Routley himself: not content to simply accept everything 'peacebly,' but to argue forcefully for higher standards, not by simply abandoning the process but by being part of it. That meant that he was frequently in conflict with his superiors.  Still, Bach’s attitude overall was one of peaceful compliance, we are given to believe, not simply because he did what was asked of him, but because he did not do what he was not asked for. In the latter part of the 20th century, there were many protestors for many things; a spokesman for the authoritarian church was not likely to be sympathetic to them. The mere act of protesting was already outside the lines, never mind what cause they were protesting for. In the context of Routley’s time, then, it is understandable that he would recast any history in light of of current political expediency. But it is also bad history. And not a very fair argument. It is also reminder of how socially tone-deaf the church can be.

Bach was not the caricature of the social misfit that Routley portrays as his foil—how many such persons could be said to inhabit positions in the church in Routley’s time would give us some idea how sympathetic we ought to be to the ideological fight he was carrying on in these pages; perhaps there are plenty of organist about whom such charges could be leveled without gross exaggeration. On the other hand, the caricature itself suggests that any organist of both talent and willingness would have an uphill battle to preserve both his integrity and the musical growth of the church without being caught by the complaint that he was simply not a team player.

Whenever rhetoric is involved, it is a fair question to ask: how much room is being carved out here for the respective positions, and how much, if any, wiggle room is allowed? Can any move made by the other party be accepted in good faith, or will any move not immediately understood by the other be interpreted as springing from a bad motivation? Routley seems to have drawn a pretty tight box around the church musician, and he is in lock step with thousands of similar missives trying to keep unruly musicians in line. For this reason alone, somebody ought to counter their one-sided pronouncements. Can we assume that there are times that an artistic imagination will rock the boat for a reason that is actually good for the body of Christ?

At the tail end of the book, Erik Routley offers a bit of reconciliation: Talk to your musicians! It is important to remember this, particularly in an institution that seems to spend so much time talking at them instead. Still, one wonders how often he heeded his own advice.

 

Half the Argument
posted March 1, 2011

Critical thinking is not a subject that is taught in schools. It is also not particularly encouraged in church. There is a reason for that—it is dangerous. Thinking almost necessarily implies asking questions, which means entertaining the possibility that you will come to a different conclusion than you are supposed to. And for many, religious faith is entirely about the conclusions—conclusions which have already been drawn and which it is your role to passively accept. The curious thing about all this is that we live in an age and a culture where enough of humanity’s members have a decent sprinkle of education, and where reason and the role of the grey matter is at least respected to a point, and so it is not always seemly to dismiss evidence gathering and analysis altogether—but the real thing still needs to be avoided.

Such, at least, is my uncharitable assessment of the character of a study I came across on the book of Revelation. I have so far not proceeded beyond the preface, in which the author tells us what to believe about the book’s origins, the author’s intentions, and the appropriate mode of interpreting the book’s contents. The style of writing, and the way the author presents his argument, remind me of my study bible, which also stacks the evidence, providing mainly conclusions, and a few supporting details to make its case, with nothing to get in the way. In case your mind has been dulled by years of such writing, I thought it would be useful to point out how the author of this study pretends to give us all sides of an argument, but really presents us with only one: the only valid conclusion! We have to agree with him because he gives us none of the other voices. Most of us are not likely to go looking on our own, and voila! The case is made.

To give an example: here he is about the likely date of the book:

“Revelation was written in the last decade of the first century (about AD 94-96), near the end of Emperor Domitian’s reign (Ad 81-96). Although some date it during Nero’s reign (AD 54-68), their arguments are unconvincing and conflict with the view of the early church. Writing in the second century, Irenaeus declared that Revelation had been written toward the end of Domitian’s reign. Later writers, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Victorinus (who wrote one of the earliest commentaries on Revelations), Eusebius, and Jerome affirm the Domitian date.”

I have no dog in this fight. I am aware that there have been many skirmishes with regard to dating the gospels as well as the other books; many of these are backed by assumptions about what earlier or later dates might mean with regard to the authenticity or authority of those books. But at present I have no idea why it is so important to this author to date the book later, unless it is so the book’s presumed author, John, is near the end of his life on the island of Patmos and not busy proselytizing people somewhere on the mainland.

Anyhow, the point here is not to debate his contention, it is merely to show that he doesn’t give his opponents a fair hearing. It may be a good debate strategy to assume that those who disagree aren’t worth giving a few lines, but it is not fair. Note the witnesses who come forward to support his contention: Iranaeus, Clement, Origen, Victorinius, Eusebius, Jerome. Quite a list of eminent personnel in the early church (although not early enough to have had it on good authority directly. Being a century or more removed, they would have had to have been heirs to a tradition themselves.).

And in the other corner…..some. Some say. Some is, alas, the poor cousin of They. Whenever Some say something, you can be sure it is wrong. But when They say it, you are on much better ground. All we need to know is that “their arguments are unconvincing.” We don’t get to hear any of their arguments, or who any of them are.  Is it possible that some of them might even turn out to be eminent church fathers themselves? I’ll look it up later and get back to you.

(I will give him points for telling us that Iranaeus lived during the second century. Once I read a real journalistic swindle in which the author posed as a man who was determined not to believe anything about the gospels or about the divinity of Christ unless he had hard evidence to support it. His first witness was Iranaeus, whom he felt had to be an authority, and whom he treated practically like an eye-witness. In which case, I am just such an authority on Abraham Lincoln, since I was born a mere hundred years after the man was shot, and can practically be considered a personal friend. The testimony of these early church fathers can of course be accepted on faith, but it is a real leap to call it evidence. They were often centuries and hundreds of miles removed from the events of the gospels.)

Shall we underline the point? Many Biblical commentaries, including this book, do a disservice to the use of our minds by pretending to give us both sides of an argument but herding us toward their conclusion without much scholarly ado. Here is a better example, in the paragraph that precedes the one I quoted above:

“There are differences in style between Revelation and John’s other writings, but they are insignificant and do not preclude one man from writing both. In fact, there are some striking parallels between Revelation and John’s other works. Only John’s Gospel and Revelation refer to Jesus Christ as the Word (19:13, john 1:2). Revelation (1:7) and John’s Gospel (19:37) translate Zechariah 12:10 differently from the Septuagint, but in agreement with each other.  Only Revelation and the Gospel of John describe Jesus as the Lamb (5:6, 8; John 1:29); both describe Jesus as a witness (see 1:5; John 5:31-32).”

There is something admirable about the wealth of details provided here; there is something to pursue, something to consider, passages to look up and investigate further. But again, they are all on one side. The other side is summed up as ‘insignificant’ and that is all you need to know. I’m sure people have spent large portions of their lives arguing the other side, but they will not be given an audience, because it would be taking a chance. To do so would be to risk that we would disagree with our author. The best way to make sure no one wanders off the reservation is to put up fences, the way totalitarian states do to make sure nobody ends up preferring to live elsewhere.

The author of this preface then sums up the various ways in which Revelation has been interpreted with an eye toward the literalness or the symbolic, and with regard to the prophetic content of the book: is it a prescription for the end times, or a commentary on the times in which it was written? It is not hard to guess which positions he will take before we read them, but at least this time there will be a bit more scenery on our whirlwind journey, and a short description of the various conclusions persons have come to regarding this much-debated book. Our author has to present various positions in order to show us why they are all inadequate, and this is his closest flirtation with opposing voices. He presents us with only a summation; also, he can’t seem to go two sentences without complaining about the shortcomings of these views, but at least there are several Bible verses parenthetically referenced to back up what he is saying; I looked up several, and at least I can understand why he thinks what he thinks based on what he is emphasizing. There is little point in getting into detail here. He is sure that the book is end times prophecy, a claim he says the book itself makes. True enough, Revelations 1:3 in the NIV states the following: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take it to heart, because the time is near.”

It does seem, after a passage of 2,000 years, that the term near might have to be redefined a bit, but at least our argument will need to be with the text itself. Millions of persons in every generation have stoutly declared that the time of the fulfillment of these prophecies are shortly into the future, and they are now mouldering in their graves. Still, if Christ shows up in the clouds with trumpets blaring before breakfast on a Tuesday in the near future, though every bit of my critically thinking mind, every bit of scientifically trained thought patterns and modern assumptions in me will be flummoxed, it is not my world; I won’t try to stand in the way. I think this is a healthier approach to the book, myself, to live in a state of preparedness which stems from living according to the teachings of Christ and in love with God and his creatures, without the hysteria that often comes with the sense that cataclysmic events are about to descend upon us. Religion has often been sustained by that intensity, but it is not often for the better. But I digress—a bit.

Christopher Hitchens, a strident atheist with no patience for religious belief, has nevertheless done the religious world a favor by exposing the totalitarian side of religious fear—fear to engage with any position beyond what is given, to question anything, because to do so would invite punishment. In a ‘communist paradise’ the residents are not free to complain about anything without repercussions. So many feel thusly, in our engagements with God, despite the fact that this is itself a very unbiblical position—you haven’t heard anyone complain against God until you’ve read the Psalms, or Job. It is also feared that knowledge of other ideas may cause us to abandon those which we are told must be unassailably right. It reminds me of a religious image I noticed in a hymn some years ago. “On Christ the solid rock I stand” goes the hymn. “All other ground is sinking sand.” The first part of the image is solid. It probably comes from the end of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus tells his followers that those who obey his teachings are like people who build their houses on solid ground—a rock (no headaches trying to put in underground cables in those days!).

What he did not say was that the whole world was a treacherous place and that there was only one small rock in the whole world and that moving in any direction would cause one to sink in the mire—but that is the image the hymn gives out. It is a rather significant change, don’t you think? Growth implies movement, and change, and even experiment. And you have to get off of that rock to do it. And if you even make your bed in Sheol, according to the Psalmist, or walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is there, with you on your journey, wherever it takes you for the time being. Unless you are convinced that you have found the one mindset that will sustain you through all of life’s travails, and think that you have achieved perfection already. As if God were not about relationship, but a place on the map. And out of fear you cling to that rock because you don’t trust enough to try any of the rest of God’s real estate.

I am not a great fan of ignorance, or fear (I have enough of my own, thanks).  One would imagine that Biblical studies would be an attempt to efface some of this—but not when it is counterfeit, when it pretends to entertain debates, or engage the mind in critical thinking, but offers foregone conclusions instead; when it only presents alternate ideas to the extent that it is necessary to warn the citizenry to avoid them. “Test everything” says Paul, “hang on to what is true.” These two measures seem at odds sometimes. In the testing there is no certainty. There is only faith, that eventually, God will lead us where we should go. But it is perilous. For those wishing to skip this step and proceed directly to a conclusion, there is a mountain of literature. And I suppose the whole world could not contain all the books of this kind.

 

Squirrels and the Church Fathers
posted April 10, 2011

There are some squirrels in the back yard whom I’ve taken to naming after the church fathers. The reason for it is: one of them will see me sitting in the swing, minding my own business, enjoying the atmosphere, and will begin making grating clucking noises. If you haven’t seen a squirrel angry before you’ll have to come for a visit. One afternoon one of the squirrels gave me a ten minute lecture about how I was invading his territory. His territory, mind you—he had no concept that I might have paid money for it, and was, additionally, serving as his groundskeeper. Mind you, he would prefer I be less diligent about it. This winter I was unable to rake up all of the leaves, but he and I have worked out a little agreement. I leave them there, and he collects them for the house he is building in the tree, in the elbow between branches. It won’t last, any insurer would say so. After the first big storm of spring he’ll have to start over. He probably doesn’t mind—all he seems to have to do is build a nest and sit in it, save for the excursions to gather nuts and complain about the humans invading his yard. This is a squirrel fully alive. I’ve taken to calling him Iranaeus.

Another squirrel—let’s call him Augustine—I found cavorting with a female squirrel at high speed just the other day. They picked fleas off of each other for a few moments, then one mounted the other for fully two seconds, and off they ran. I assume there will be a batch of young squirrels later this spring. Augustine will probably be a chaste squirrel some day, but not yet. He was probably the one lecturing me last week from the safety of the telephone pole.

Augustine’s sermons aren’t as ferocious as some of the others, but they are hard to understand. I long for some plain-spoken squirrels, but it isn’t their style. Or maybe they are speaking in Latin. It is hard to tell at such a velocity which doctrine they are defending.

You get the sense that they are trying to win the yard for squirreldom in any case. They are seldom at a loss for words, though when my cat ventures to gaze out the window they freeze for as long as it takes. They aren’t aware that he isn’t a threat on the other side of a closed window. I rather wish I’d named him for a heretic. Come to think of it, I may have. Erasmus was a 15th century scholar who wrote much, translated the Bible, and generally got in the pope’s nostrils. It was Luther, though, who had the privilege of being about to fart and know the pope smelled it in Rome.

Erasmus once had the privilege of freezing a squirrel for 20 minutes. It was only because, on my return from some household chore, finding the two of them in the same position--because I laughed that the squirrel was able to get away. Erasmus, his concentration broken, looked to see the cause of my merriment, and the squirrel, released from those will-obliterating eyes, dashed for shelter.

Now that the weather has again taken a turn for the worse, as though Beethoven were in charge of it and he has paused long on the dominant chord of winter before fully launching into the recapitulation that is spring, I’ve taken to simply staring out of the window and watching the squirrels ply their trade. There’s Origen, who seems to take the long view of leaf collection, patient, unfazed by the lack of degrees Celsius (he’s the one with the really high voice), and Clement, the nicest one of the bunch, who counsels the other squirrels to burp gently.

The other day I noticed Athanasias hard at work with a mouth full of dead grass which he’d ripped out of the lawn. It occurred to me that he and his fellows are doing something important after all. They aren’t stopping to let me decide which is the good grass and which is the bad, but then, I haven’t got any reason to distrust their opinion about it so far. And there is plenty of dead grass out there. And plenty of leaves and branches and nuts and all kinds of other things with which I could easily do without. So I suppose the occasional lecture from these righteous squirrels is not so bad if they are going to do me the kindness of improving the yard. Some afternoons when I look out the window to catch a glimpse of their industry they are on Sabbath; maybe they are enjoying the massive nest they’ve built high in the tree, a little closer to the vault of the heavens. But it is nice to see them get out and work the fields some of the time. I hope they realize there is enough grass for everyone.

 

michael@pianonoise.com