Music: Annno Domini 2000

I was considering a lovely invitation to the Flanders Music Festival in Belguim this fall, wondering whether its extraordinarily broad and ambitious program could have any connection to the general interests of our readers. Pondering the scores of concerts over several months’ time, I almost gave up. What could possibly tether this welter of riches to a general theme? Then, in the very last piece of literature I received, I saw it. The announcement said that a select number of concerts would be organized around the theme Anno Domini 2000 and Christianity’s impact on European culture, a topic worthy of the millennium.

The proposition is fascinating. The promotional literature stated that “even though it may not look like it these days, Christianity’s impact on our history has been momentous. Art and culture would have looked differently without Christianity. The same goes for music.” Of course, this understates the case. Every culture is based on a cult. The cult of European culture, even in its secular form, is Christianity. There is nothing there for Christianity to have an impact on since it is the culture: no cult, no culture. The fact that it may not look like it these days simply means that Europe is losing its culture. Ironically, these musical “museum” visits, to what Christian culture produced when it was vibrant, may help it return to health by reminding it what the millennium is really about. So, I was off and running to Ghent and Brussels for several days of concerts, most of which related to this theme.

Unfortunately, my four-day visit could not encompass performances of Gregorian chant, Hildegard von Bingen’s seraphic music, Heinrich von Biber’s Missa Bruxellensis, or Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, all of which were offered before or after my sojourn. But to my mind, the central event of the trip was to be my last concert, on September 19, of Bach cantatas. It is, of course, the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death, and he would have to be the heart and soul of any group of concerts pretending to the title Anno Domini 2000, because Bach is the composer of the millennium.

My first full day began with an early music group, Capella Pratensis, under Rebecca Stewart, performing Pierre de la Rue’s Missa Puer natus est nobis in the Ghent city hall. Arvo Part’s music has reminded us of how moving and expressive early Church polyphony of very chaste means can be. This proved to be the case with this jewel of late 15th-century liturgical music. De la Rue, a pupil of Ockeghem, was a Flemish composer in the service of Charles V, who was crowned duke of Flanders in a room only a floor away from where the concert was held.

In the late Renaissance, polyphony degenerated into mannerism. In de la Rue’s work, however, polyphony is still pristine (though already two centuries removed from its early 13th-century origins), captured as it emerges from the earlier monophonic chant, exfoliating into its expressive potential. With crystal clarity, the exquisite performance by the Capella Pratensis showed how the interweaving polyphonic lines reinforce each other and impart a certain fervency that monophony cannot convey.

De la Rue’s Mass showed how polyphony can grasp the complexity of experience. Polyphony has the means to depict the resolution of otherwise conflicting forces in harmonic unity. Since we are always struggling with the world or within ourselves, the presentation of simultaneous melodic lines seems to mirror reality more accurately. The harmonization of these different lines conveys the sense of a larger harmony to which all contribute, of which all are a part. It is the sound of reconciliation. Ultimately, it expresses the harmony of the soul with God. De la Rue’s Mass achieved, particularly in the Sanctus, a kind of objective joy (meaning a joy that exists independent of how we feel). The Mass was sung with fervency, without affectation, and with beautifully blended tone. It was a revelation.

A revelation of a different sort awaited me at the Ghent Cathedral in an evening concert that began with an ancient Ethiopian liturgy, a work somewhat outside the confines of what we consider European culture. Yet Ethiopia has one of the oldest continuous Christian churches in the world, and the liturgy I heard has its roots in the fourth century.

Dressed in white tunics with white headdresses, eight male and female performers faced each other in two lines of four each, moving toward and away from each other, and once forming a moving circle, as they sang. Occasionally, they opened their hands to each other as if they were offering something. In between them was a drummer who kept the time. The singing was a monophonic, melismatic kind of chant, swelling and subsiding, punctuated by drumbeats and a lovely kind of tintinnabulation from metal rattles that sounded as the singers rhythmically moved their hands from side to side. The texts were almost all from the gospels and, in the space of an hour, took us from the annunciation to the crucifixion.

The performance by the Rama Ecclesiastical Musicians of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church produced a mesmerizing, if not highly variegated, effect. I suspect that this kind of chanted liturgy functions within the Ethiopian church much as Gregorian chant did within the western church. I later learned that the service I heard is performed once a year in Ethiopia and that the staffs carried by each performer were not emblems of pilgrimage but practical supports for weary singers.

The second half of the program was a performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vespers, or All-Night Vigil, performed by the King’s Choir Cambridge, under Stephen Cleobury. Rachmaninov is not my favorite composer. Hove the Symphonic Dances and a few other works but find his symphonies and concertos inflated by the usual Romantic afflatus. Constrained by the rigid demands of the Russian Orthodox liturgy, however, Rachmaninov produced one of the most exquisite choral pieces in the Russian or any other liturgical tradition. It is hard to think of another work that so beautifully exploits the full range of the human voice in praise of God’s salvation. At the same time, it is a priceless example of how the otherwise very limiting confines of a musical tradition can be the very thing that provokes an expression of heartbreaking beauty. Vespers is quintessentially Russian and should ideally be heard with a Russian choir, but Stephen Cleobury and his young singers from England were able to convey the sheer beauty of this piece, if not its full spirit. The King’s Choir sang with extraordinary discipline and refinement.

After three concerts in one day, Sunday was to be my day off, and I took a quick trip to Paris. I went to my favorite church, St. Etienne du Mont, to check on the evening Mass schedule and found myself at the very start of a performance of Charles Gounod’s The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, performed by the Atelier Choral de Vendee, directed by Remi Gousseau. Though it is a little-known fact to opera lovers, Gounod wrote almost as much liturgical music as he did operatic. This a capella work, alternating between monophony and polyphony, was written in both a learned and simple style. In all parts, it was moving and charged with religious conviction. Particularly heart-rending were Gounod’s settings of “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” and “Sitio.” How can something this fine not be performed more often?

Back in Belgium on Monday, I attended my one evening of secular music at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. Though the program was outside the Anno Domini 2000 series, I was eager to take advantage of the opportunity to hear the Russian National Orchestra, under conductor Vladimir Spivakov, in a program of all Russian music. The Suite from Serge Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was played in a straightforward, somewhat rhythmically square way that took few expressive liberties. Peter Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra is much lighter in spirit and texture than his hysterical symphonic works. This lovely piece brings to mind Tchaikovsky’s love of Mozart. So did the exquisite performance by cellist Pieter Wispelwey, who played it from the heart, with able support from Spivakov and the Russian orchestra. Spivakov’s interpretive approach to Dimitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was not to have one. The playing of the orchestra was gorgeous, but all Spivakov seemed interested in saying was: Listen to how beautiful this is. And indeed, the Shostakovich was remarkably beautiful, especially the completely mesmerizing Romanza movement. The orchestra also proved itself capable of playing up a storm when necessary, but it was a storm observed from the outside. Spivakov’s objective perspective has something to be said for it, but I prefer an approach that is more inside the music.

My next and last night in Brussels featured the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, under director John Eliot Gardiner. They performed three Bach cantatas, BWV 33, 77, and 164, and one motet, the very moving Komm, Jesu, Komm, BWV 229. Gardiner is on what he calls a “Bach cantata pilgrimage” to perform all 200 sacred cantatas. In the space of six years, Bach composed four complete cycles of about 60 cantatas each, and may well have written another cycle after that. Two-fifths of his output in this genre has been lost. The cantatas were sung on Sundays as musical com-mentaries on biblical texts used in Lutheran services. They contain recita¬tives and arias, dramatic choruses and chorales. Gardiner and his forces, who have already recorded a number of the cantatas, lived up to their reputation for clarity, precision, and conviction, though occasionally the performance seemed just a bit too reverential.

Gardiner’s approach to Bach was also revealed in a moving declaration printed in the program notes that led me to reflect on the significance of Bach’s extraordinary accomplishment and his central place within any understanding of Anno Domini 2000. “I believe,” Gardiner wrote, “that Bach’s music carries a universal message of hope and faith which can touch anybody, irrespective of their culture, religion or musical knowledge.”

This has proven true in, of all places, Japan, where thousands of people are converting to Christianity after listening to Bach’s cantatas. The head of Japan’s National Christian Council, Yoshikazu Tokuzen, calls Bach “a vehicle of the Holy Spirit.” One of the greatest exponents of Bach today is the Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki, who is recording the complete cantatas for the BIS label. Preempting the charge that he may be trespassing on European cultural territory, Suzuki asks, “Who can be said to approach more nearly the spirit of Bach: a European who does not attend church and carries his cultural heritage mostly on a subconscious level, or an Asian who is active in his faith, although the influence of Christianity on his national culture is small?”

Here is the fascinating anomaly. The Japanese are not converting to European culture but to Christianity. Yet European culture (i.e., Bach) is the medium through which Christianity is conveyed to them. It is a tribute to Bach that he could express Christian truths in so universal a way that they are, as Gardiner points out, apprehensible to those in another and very foreign culture. It seems that the closer the culture is to the cult, the more powerful it is in expressing itself even to those outside of it. Perhaps, through their performances and recordings, Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan will now become a force in re-Christianizing Europe.

Bach’s universal appeal is one reason why he is the composer of the millennium, but there is another one. Bach is the Thomas Aquinas of music, and his Summa is the Art of the Fugue. Like Aquinas, he considered every aspect of experience and reality, and did so for the greater glory of God: “Soli Deo Gloria,” as he wrote on his manuscripts. What Aquinas did for Aristotle—nature perfected by grace— Bach revealed in the realm of music— sound sanctified. Like the arguments in the Summa, Bach’s fugues go on until the potential of the material is fully exhausted and a sense of completion is reached. Bach’s latest biographer, Christoph Wolff, even suggests that the ultimate goal of Bach’s musical science was perhaps to find “an argument for the existence of God.” Bach’s first biographer, J.N. Forkel, wrote that Bach “considered his parts as if they were persons who conversed together in a select company. If there were three, each could sometimes be silent and listen to the others till it again had something to the purpose to say.” This is indeed the impression his extraordinary fugues create, but what are these persons conversing about? That committed non-Christian, Goethe, came closest to the matter when he said of Bach’s music: “It is as though the eternal harmony has a conversation with itself.” Thanks to the Flanders Music Festival, I was able to listen to some of that conversation.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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