Thursday, September 29, 2005

Extra-liturgical Music

Community outreach by the church can be sustained through concert programs that complement a high level of commitment to music as part of worship. The church invests talent and substantial capital in music to support the dignity of its liturgy. Choir and organ still fill many historic sanctuaries with hymns and anthems that resurrect the music of composers the church has patronized over the centuries. This enduring cultural legacy needs little commentary. It speaks more eloquently than anything currently attracting attention in various denominations of the church and, significantly, in modern concert halls and theaters. While most churches are driven to pop music by market forces, and serious contemporary music is as dissonant as can be imagined, the music of Western standard practice speaks volumes by its enduring elegance, and there are important correlations between the music of the church and music in general. What we know as the classical tradition began in monasteries. This essay explores reasons for expanding church music programs to include non-liturgical concert music. It will also digress into some of the intellectual issues that frame great art music and why discussion of the historical and philosophical environment in which this music was created and performed can be useful in public relations for the church.

St. Bartholomew parish in New York claims that music has been the most effective method of public relations in the successful effort to bring St. Bart's back from near extinction. This New York parish sustains traditional music in worship and also manages to accommodate a few other styles. They have extra-liturgical concert programs that engage people from the community, some of whom come back to church through these contacts with the church and its people. In the greater Seattle area there are notable music programs in churches, such as St. James Cathedral, University Congregational Church, University Presbyterian Church, Bellevue First Presbyterian, and University Christian Church. All of these have high standards for music in both liturgy and in concert venues. University Christian Church employs the founder of Seattle Chamber Singers and Orchestra Seattle, as music director. Because extra-liturgical music offers cultural enrichment, it has generally been supported by Christians. Presenting historic masterpieces in churches steeped in the same civilized traditions that sustain classical music has been one of the gifts the church gives to the surrounding community. This used to be uncontroversial. Like most everything else, classical music is no longer uncontroversial. Mega-churches obliterate tradition with pop music. Feminists rage against Beethoven, claiming that listening to his music is like being abused by a man. Critics, like Theodore Adorno, argue that the Western musical canon perpetuates class oppression. This contempt for good music is being taken seriously, it seems.

About a year ago during a question-and-answer session of a speech by a visitor to our parish from New York, rector-emeritus what’s his name? …I asked how he thought the church should communicate in an era that has relegated Christianity to the sidelines. As I recall, he punted the question in good humor, saying something like, “Yeah, I’ve wondered… . Next question!” How the church can do public relations in the current environment is a question that, no doubt, many are pondering along with our friend from New York. The Decade of Evangelism for the Episcopal Church came with a flourish and went out as a non-starter at the end of the twentieth century. Nobody expects too much from Episcopalians with regard to evangelism. Evangelicals embarrass everybody by their excesses, but they continue to grow while old-line Protestant churches dwindle. Everybody is worried about the excesses, but the disturbing absence of churches that have not abandoned all decorum seems like it could be an opportunity. Why not brand a church as an institution that has grace, depth of spiritual community, and sensitivity in matters of liturgy and the arts? Some churches still maintain an ethos that succeeds in all of these areas. Promoting extra-liturgical events seems a good way for the church to grow as people in the larger community get acquainted with church members and experience the grace, depth of spiritual community, and dignity in worship that can be found. Musical events seem a natural outgrowth of everything else.

Extra-liturgical music as a part of community outreach can be delineated by controversies about music in evidence in the church. The pop music phenomenon accentuates departure from tradition. Its advocates claim that choruses or even edgy rock music, in worship and in outreach, are the best way to communicate in the postmodern era. On the other extreme, old-line Protestant denominations that support classical concerts often appreciate the music as an aesthetic artifact, a museum piece. A few places try to champion serious contemporary music, but the avante garde is mainly academic. St. Bart's New York promotes chamber music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with remarkable success. The music is has enduring nobility. Something about it is generaaly recognized as more than nostalgia, so people tend not to question its value. Vocal music is a little riskier and can be more controversial than instrumental music. The sentiments that turn up in art song recitals are sometimes maudlin. Opera selections dramatize themes from great literature, and as in academe, literature is a battleground of ideologies. Modern stagings of well known operas often turn Christian virtues on their head. Monumental Euro-trash productions have become so commonplace that nobody is surprised anymore when Wotan comes on stage wearing a pink tutu. Should the church invest time and money keeping historic music in the repertoire for the community at large or leave niche markets to subsist in academe and among the elites who appreciate such things? To argue for church involvement in great music, another question might be posed: why does historic "classical" music retain its artistic potency after many centuries while serious contemporary works seldom last beyond their premiers? New music disintegrates, as fast as it is written, to be superseded by another genre of grunge, sentimental schlock, or the next wave of experimental dissonance. The music preserved by the Western tradition has endured through countless generations. It has been improved by recurring cycles of study and innovation based on what has been learned. Like Renaissance scholars and artists, musicians in this tradition looked back to the past for proven artistic form instead of trying to invent music ex nihilo in every era. The virtue of this process can be compared to that which produced the elegant language of the Book of Common Prayer, the received theology of the church, and the scriptures. The Bible, of course, is the result of a canonical tradition. Also interesting is how entangled the history of Western Civilization is with the church. Separation of church and state is one of the highest achievements of the West. Separation of cult and culture is impossible.

That religion and culture engage peoples' most basic assumptions and core beliefs explains some of the clashes that can surface with new opera productions in European cities that have patronized opera for centuries. As was apparent during the attempted drafting of a constitution for the European Union, many citizens of Europe no longer wish to retain any legacy of their Christian past. Few people anywhere can attend a performance of the opera Faust by Charles Gounod without being struck by the antique cosmology on which Faust's contract with the devil and Margarita's apotheosis are premised. This opera made Charles Gounod the most famous musician in Paris in the year 1859. Remarkably, this is the same year as the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, which is now dogma, of sorts, in the materialistic cosmology of the modern era. Music has many such ironies and interesting juxtapositions. As is well known, the church has, at times, been on the wrong side of historic conflicts. The Grand Inquisitor of Verdi's opera Don Carlo is malignant religion personified. The plot of Don Carlo hinges on ferment in the Protestant Netherlands against oppression by a Spanish monarchy backed by the church. Freedom is the theme in this drama and church and state are united against it. Verdi's treatment of a play by Frederick Schiller is in accord with Schiller's conception of tragic art. It is an idealism that asserts freedom of the will against historical events and even death. Schiller’s philosophical piece, On the Sublime, contains his conception of freedom attained in a kind of rational transcendence against the injustices of human history and random forces of nature. The poet's aim is poetic truth that will inspire intellectual freedom in which patriots risk their lives in the fight for actual freedom.

From all this it is clear that music can have meaning. It can recapitulate events from the past and dramatize ideals that galvanized people in times of historic change. Mozart's Marriage of Figaro was an eloquent tract against the aristocracy of his time. Note the date of its composition, 1786, between the American and French revolutions, the same era as Schiller’s Don Carlo. Beethoven's Fidelio was first performed in 1805 while French troops were marching into and occupying Vienna. The premier was postponed a month while the producers tried to convince police censors that the script was not politically inflammatory. Of course the script was politically inflammatory. It can not help but inspire resistance against injustice, then and now. Because the heyday of operatic drama predates the modern attempt to demythologize culture, it is infused with religious images. Verdi didn't go to church for much of his adult lifetime—he was anticlerical—but it would be difficult to count the operatic arias he composed in which the singer is addressing God; the songs are, in fact, prayers. Wagner's operas contain both Christian and Teutonic legend. Lohengrin is a marvelous portrait of romantic chivalry. Its protagonist is a knight of the Holy Grail, which in the ethos of medieval chivalry is the sacred chalice Jesus shared with his disciples at the institution of the Eucharist. The conflict in the opera is clearly the moral kind. Frederic of Telramund and Ortrud, his sorceress wife, accuse Elsa of fratricide and trysting with an illicit lover. Their intent is to usurp headship of the Duchy of Brabant, which belongs to Elsa's brother, Gottfried, heir to Brabant's Christian dynasty. Gottfried is now strangely absent and presumed dead. Ortrud has progressively corrupted her husband by her lie that Elsa has murdered him. You couldn’t find a clearer case of false witness in the book of Leviticus. But an essay in the subscribers' booklet that circulated prior to Seattle Opera's 2004 production of Lohengrin, by an unnamed author, calls Ortrud a "rationalist". The writer asks, under the heading Wagner's Moral Complexities, "How do we know Ortrud is so wicked? If her tactics seem ruthless, remember that she truly believes the throne is rightfully hers, that it was usurped from her family by Elsa's.” This analysis is turning somersaults to evade a salient theme of medieval chivalry. At the heart of the Grail legend and the chivalric code is the idea of might for right. If Ortrud is fighting for what she thinks is rightfully hers, she has no compunction about destroying the innocent in her ambition. Despite the weight of postmodern ideology, there are moral truths, and there is some help to be found in virtuous acts. Wagner was in many ways a scoundrel, but any story his hearers would accept had to respect the ideals prevalent at the time.

Like many of the highest ideals of Western culture, musical drama engages Christian theology at critical points. This is one explanation for the power and the controversy that surrounds the music in our time, when materialism and secularism are ascendant. The church can avoid controversy in art, or it can embrace it. Dealing with these issues can provide reasons for hearts and minds engaged by a concert to long to return to the drama of the Eucharist. The church might be hospitable to artists for art’s sake, but art is not neutral in the modern world. It is often propaganda for postmodern ideas that are incompatible with Christianity. Engaging these challenges takes away the dread many Christians feel that their theology can not stand up to intellectual scrutiny. A dispassionate analysis of musical dramas can illuminate many modern conflicts without the deadly earnestness of religion in public life. C. S. Lewis, medieval literary scholar and philosopher of Christianity, famously observed that the gospel is the most inspiring myth ever recorded, and it has the marvelous advantage that it happens to be true. For the church to neglect engagement with the ideals evident in the Western musical tradition is to needlessly miss profound theological insights. The resonance of music with the liturgy of the church has overtones of hope that can give others some comprehension of the story the church has to tell.

Producing creditable events based on operatic and art song literature is not difficult or expensive when there are so many singers who have spent half their lives studying music and find too few opportunities to perform. Most singers will contribute their time just to participate because they have, long ago, resigned themselves to day-jobs and they are not dependent on music for their living. Churches are often great places for concerts. A fairly regular schedule of performances of art songs and opera selections can quickly put them on the map for vocal music in a given locale. The music is viable, as evidenced by very successful, low-budget productions that subsist when not everybody wants to spend $125 for a ticket to a major company opera production, and there are too few good ones. Student productions at music schools and universities are very well attended. It’s also worth noting that most singers are locked out of opportunities at opera company by agreements, contractual and otherwise, with artist-management agencies. Numerous singers have extensive repertoires ready to perform. All these resources need only the impetus of regular performance opportunities for the musicians. Such events become enjoyable social occasions that bring people into the greater community of the church. The financial costs incurred can be offset by contributions at the door. Employer matching funds can be applied in many cases. Many are willing to put energy and funds into making this happen, because they are among those who have already spent half their lives in this artistry.

--Mike Dodaro; September 23, 2005


Jason Silver said...

Some good points.

Obviously, classical music has a quality and intensity that soars above a lot of contemporary drivel. We should never forget classical music, we should continue to study it, to learn from the masters.

As a sidenote, let us not forget that during classical music's era, there were other strains of 'popular' music that are now lost. Folk music or wandering bard music was loved by common people. If I understand correctly, it was mainly the rich who enjoyed lush excess of classical orchestral pieces.

In our own century, even when popular music is no longer mainstream, there are still minorities who cling to it. The seventies had its share of schmuck, but there were still great works created by great artists. My parents fondly remember the good ol' days when music was silly in the 50's and 60's. But they also gave us the Beatles.

Who can argue with the amazing complexity and vitality of 40's Big Band? Even the sad dirgful "Spare a Dime" music in the dirty-thirties is worth remembering. A piano rag or some unusual metre or chordal jazz piece from the 20's will never be forgotten. They're as important to music history as Mozart or Bach.

You're obviously a well educated person. Your understanding of ancient Greek philosophers and current political issues gives your thought and logic prowess, no?
Wouldn't you agree the same is true for music? Being able to play in all of these music styles makes me that much better as a musician. I can't say any style is better than another, but I certainly appreciate each of them for their own unique qualities.

If I neglected to learn Bach, I would be missing important lessons in harmony. But Bach can't teach me everything I need to know, can he? **chuckle** Actually, now that I think about it-- maybe he could...


Ray said...

Jason, below you made this comment, "If not, then perhaps there is no place for me in the church and I need to go back to the bars?"

I don't want to assume anything, but that statement implies you came out of the bar scene. Whether or not you actually did is beside the point, but you imply the bar scene and church are diametrically opposed to each other. If true, why would you want to use music that historically has been associated with worldly pleasures in a worship setting? Shouldn't our worship music transcend the mere commmonplace? That does not mean we can only use 300 year old music and that we musicians cannot be creative, but we should be careful that our musical language is one that is God honoring.

Jason Silver said...

Hi Ray,

No, not out of the bar scene. Just trying to make a point of contrast.

When I teach music, I tell my students that music is a language of communication. Like any other language, it has syntax, idiom, etc.

You make a good point regarding the elevated sense of music for God. I want to give God the very best I have to offer, tainted though it is. He is a God deserving glory and honour, above all others. The music should certainly have a worshipful, glory-focused nature to it.

However, pushing a particular 'language' of music on a generation seems akin to preferring Latin in worship. There are many who prefer the lofty words but it also excludes a large group from entering into worship in a language that is their mother tongue.

What a great conversation you've got going here. Lovin' it. Thanks for the challenges!


Ray said...

Jason, time constraints do not allow me to go into much depth, so I can just throw out little tidbits at this point. I agree completely with your thoughts on music being a language.

I enjoy Bach and many other classicists. My kids consider me old, but I'm not 300 years old. I grew up in the 60s, remember seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. I learned to enjoy and appreciate Classical music and early hymnody through education. I have been pleasantly surprised to hear that there are many in my generation and from the X and Y generations that appreciate Classical music. And even listen to it along with other idioms.

When I read some of the lyrics being used by so-called Christian rap artists - overt profanity - I become further entrenched in my opinions. Some language may not be suitable for worship.