Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Take my money--please take my money...

I've just finished my taxes for the August 15 extension deadline. I don't care about the money. I'd pay twice as much if I could avoid the record-keeping and paperwork and, given my wage rate, it would probably be cost-effective. It took me all day, a bottle of wine, and almost 2 runs of the Bach B minor Mass to get through it. And with all that I am paying the Feds in 3 figures and California in 4.

Ah but now we're on the Sanctus, with the soprano line circling around and brass blasting. I suppose I do like this better than the Russian church music--it is definitely cosmic and much more varied. My colleague J.D. had a short piece of his picked up by the newspapers, "Philosophy Professor Says Heaven Could Be Boring." Could be if they're singing Russian chant, but definitely not if Bach is going.

Baroque was a risk. You could keep chugging on with chant forever, hypnotically. But this stuff, forced up to squeeze out emotion (the sweet violin and tenor solos for the Benedictus, the bouncing Hosanna, and now this brooding Agnus Dei) is unstable and was bound to collapse, like a TV sitcom degrading to warmedy. Even the social critiques became nice: MASH lost its edge and Archie Bunker became a diamond in the rough with a good heart.

It did collapse. Bach begat Mendelsohn--who I LIKE, but whose blocky Lutheran chorales suggest blocky Germans singing Lutheran chorales rather than angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. That brooding Agnus Dei morphed into "Jesus Lover of My Soul" and lesser sentimental Victorian Jesus hymns. Baroque church architecture (I'm thinking of St. Paul's) took a funny turn, branching into smarmy Roccoco, with pink and white gilded putti, on the one hand and earnest secular federal style on the other, the stuff of every state capital in the US. I went with Graham W., to St. Martin's in the Fields where the rot had clearly set in and we concluded that the two fattest putti were Handel and Mrs Anne Kiligrew.

There's a moral in here somewhere but I don't feel capable of extracting it. Maybe it's about the risk of Incarnation, "nothing human is alien to me," taking on intellect, emotion, every human thing and incurring the risk that the whole religious enterprise would become merely human--as it did. Along the way though the parishioners at Thomaskirsche must have had a blast with Old Bach at the organ and his 27 kids helping out with his original productions in the choir and orchestra.

Oooo, must go. We're at "Et in spiritum sanctum dominum et vivificantem (I've gone back on the disk). This is where I came in. 35 years ago on a hot night I slept on the fire escape of my college dorm and when I woke up the fields shouted "Lord! Giver of Life!"


Anonymous said...

Don't forget, though, that the Sanctus in the Verdi Requiem is a wild and raucous double fugue. Talking about angels and archangels! So there, Mr. Bach, and back to you.

And it's true that Mozart did use too many notes, but that Requiem Mass of his isn't too bad a thing, either. I got a chance to sing all these things this summer, and I can say for sure that it was like being in heaven already, so no worries there. The Crucifixus from the B Minor Mass is 13 repetitions of the Lamento, basso ostinato, and the choir singing over it a tune based on Vivaldi: "Piango, gemo, sospiro e peno" ("I weep, moan, sigh, and suffer"). A person's jaw would just drop, I mean it, if she weren't already singing.

I think maybe you're right, though, that the religion part was already done for after Bach. I've been listening to some (of all things!) Rossini Masses this year, and the first movement always goes something like this: "Kyrie Eleison, tra la la."

I've heard the Stravinsky Mass is great, but haven't been able to find it anywhere.

H. E. said...

Try for Stravinsky.

I've sung all the Easy Repetoire for Amateurs (I'm a mediocre mezzo, but very enthusiastic) and I grant there is life after Bach. Not only Mozart's Requium but smaller items, like his Regina Coeli and Ave Verum--no tra-la-la there. But the composer I really fancy is Hadyn: I think you do get the angels and archangels full blast in his Te Deum. Some of the string quartets are even more religious--like the second movement of the Kaiser (variations on Deutchland, Deutchland Ueber Allis).

I also get dumped on for liking Vivaldi. But if Bach liked him too, what the heck.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for the link! That's great. And maybe I can also locate another of my hard-to-find favorites: Saint-Saens' Christmas Oratorio. That's, to me, the nicest little collection of Alleluias ever put together in one place. But over much too soon; I know Bach would have carried on for another 128 measures, in counterpoint. Oh, well. Saint-Saens was only 23.

You've made me think of my own college-years fire-escape story, BTW. Rather than sleeping, though, it involved dancing. And instead of fields, it was Flatbush Avenue. And in place of "Dominum et Vivificantem," it was "Doo-Sunday ronday ronday ronday ronday boppa doo-ron, -day ronday ronday boppa doo-Sunday ronday ronday ronday ronday boppa doo-run." Etc.

Of course, I've always been a bit heavy on the "immanent," at the expense of the "transcendent." Probably that's where things started to go wrong.

That's an interesting point about the Incarnation, BTW; still thinking that one over.

Anyway, thanks!

H. E. said...

I just googled--try it! Saint-Saens I read somewhere used to do his scales and arpeggios every day reading the morning paper. I used to read while practicing the "higher technique" of the violin--scales and arpeggios in thirds, sixths and octaves which sound perfectly terrible to everyone apart from other string players. Probably why I got kicked out of music school.

About the theological issue, here's quite a remarkable thing--"Second Coming." The gist is that at the new Incarnation God really dies and everyone is better off for it.

Anonymous said...

I once seriously considered learning the violin solely so I could play the solo in the 2nd movement of the 4th Brandenburg Concerto. But then I thought better of it.

I wonder if God will ever die completely. I really don't think so, to be honest - there are a lot of benefits to religion, including, apparently, some measurable physical ones. What I think might happen is that religion will become a sort of training school for mysticism; maybe Christianity, for instance, will eventually evolve some sort of yoga-like discipline (probably more a meditative than a physical one) that people can use to escape the day-to-day.

I will be happy, if something like this should happen, to sign over my rights to my own personal motto: "The Mysterium Tremendum of God: Way Better Than Drugs!"

H. E. said...

I never got to play that one [sigh]--my transcendent moment was playing 2nd violin in the second movement of the Schubert non-trout string quintet (C major?)

There's some literature on religion and the brain that suggests some--but not all--of us are wired up for religious experience. This is the first thing I could google up.

I don't know about the prospects for Christianity. There's a rich tradition of Christian mysticism, see e.g. Evelyn Underhill Mysticism. But once when I used the phrase "Christian mysticism" in class (Catholic college), there was a shocked silence until one student said "you don't usually associate Christianity with mysticism." The few who have any real interest in religious experience go for a hodge-podge of New Agey things or, if they're smart, Buddhism--Christianity for them is so tied up with "rules" (as they put it), youth group, and neo-folk masses (guitar, keyboard, miked soloists) that it isn't a live religious option.

BTW for a funny, cranky book that's also informative Thomas Day Why Catholics Can't Sing is not to be missed.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever heard the Pablo Casals recording of the Brandenburgs? I'm sure you have. It's absolutely, totally great; just this huge idiosyncratic robustness and strength of expression.

Uh-oh. Now I have to go out and get that one, too. PLUS the Schubert - I don't know that piece. Every day it's something else.

Many people I know are very interested in mysticism, and they keep being interested in Christianity, too. The story is very compelling - really probably one of the greatest ever told - and it still speaks to a lot of people, almost against their will sometimes. It's still spreading like crazy worldwide, too - in China, in Africa, etc.

And there's some evidence, too, that the "rulebound" version of Christianity has begun to fade. For instance, Protestantism has started to decline in the United States, by quite a lot - 11 percentage points over 9 years. Here's the poll. That's a big drop in a short time, and I think it's a reaction against fundamentalist versions of Protestantism. Of course, you could interpret it in other ways, too.

Thanks for the references.

H. E. said...

Thanks for the poll--and the reference to the NORC site which looks interesting.

I hope you're right about the survival of Christianity. I'm pessimistic. Secularization is trickling down from the top--from elites in the US to the masses and seems likely that secularization will trickle down from affluent countries to the third world eventually. I don't think it's a reaction against fundamentalism--most of the decline has been in in liberal, "mainline Protestant" churches: the Episcopal church got 5% of the population in 1960; now the figure is around 1%.

Mainline churches have been trying unsuccessfully to stop the decline. I was involved in church growth programs, read the literature and was disgusted. The received view was that religion just wasn't interesting. A few religious enthusiasts might drop in but they wouldn't stick around unless they were folded into the "community," gotten into "activities" and put on committees.

They were also keen on tailoring services to the appeal to perceived interests of the clientele, The church growth consultants we worked with informed us that since only 1% of CD sales were "classical" we should choose church music to appeal to the tastes of the other 99%.

I can sympathize with my students--it isn't only the "rules" but the systematic stripping out of every last bit of the numinous in order to produce the cheerful, friendly, contemporary feel that was supposed to appeal to people (but didn't) that made the whole thing seem prosaic and pointless.

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