Solo Deo Gloria? (October, 2006) It doesn’t look like a foreclosure notice. On the cover the orchestra and choir in front of the cathedral’s crossing (the choir’s blue robes glowing sapphire like before the darkness of the apse), on the back the earth tones of a page in Bach’s own hand of his St. Matthew Passion sparked with his
It doesn’t look like a foreclosure notice. On the cover the orchestra and choir in front of the cathedral’s crossing (the choir’s blue robes glowing sapphire like before the darkness of the apse), on the back the earth tones of a page in Bach’s own hand of his St. Matthew Passion sparked with his red ink lettering of the gospel text, the brochure unfolding to appeals in French and English about the project, enthusiastic endorsements by the minister of culture, the city’s mayor and cardinal, a full length portrait of the conductor, and even a DVD decorated with one of the cathedral’s rose windows, all of this on oversized extra heavy shiny card stock—it’s all quite splendid. But it takes cash
to raise cash and the pricy PR packet is probably justified by the two million dollars the Chicago area organization “Soli Deo Gloria” is trying to raise for its latest project: the filming, broadcast and commercial distribution by EMI/Virgin Classics of both Bach’s great passions and his B minor Mass performed in Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral. This Christmas the European channel ARTE will broadcast a performance of the mass taped last March by SDG artistic director John Nelson conducting the Ensemble orchestral de Paris and choir of Notre Dame. If SDG is successful in raising the necessary funds, broadcast performances and commercial DVD’s of the St. John and St. Matthew Passions will follow in 2007 and 2008.
Nelson is one of America’s premier conductors. Born in Costa Rica of Protestant missionary parents, he attended Wheaton College (Illinois) and Juilliard and came to national attention in 1974 when he replaced the indisposed Rafael Kubelic in a performance of Berlioz’ Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera. He went on to become the music director of the Indianapolis Symphony and the Caramoor Festival in New York and for the last decade and a half has made his home in France where he directs the highly regarded forty member L’Ensemble Orchestral de Paris.
Sensing a lack of 20th century sacred works, in 1993 Nelson founded the non-profit organization Soli Deo Gloria (the motto “alone to God glory” derives from a flourish Bach added to many of his manuscripts). Its purpose, as described on its web site, is to facilitate the creation of “sacred classical music in the Biblical tradition” through “sponsorship of sacred music concerts around the world, sponsorship of recordings of
sacred music, and commissions for new sacred music from the world's leading composers.”
Although SDG never clarifies what it means by “sacred classical music in the Biblical tradition”, when looking at the kinds of things the organization has supported it becomes clear that SDG interprets the charge to mean music with Jewish or Christian themes performed in concerts by professional musicians (and for our purposes here “classical music” is defined as music that is as satisfying to the intellect as to the emotions). Although not specifically Christian, the organization has a decidedly evangelical character with half of its board members Wheaton graduates and, with the exception of one Catholic priest. the rest Protestants. SDG has commissioned and premiered works by Paul Schoenfield, George Arasimowicz, Augusta Read Thomas, Daniel Kellogg, and Gil Shohat. British composers Paul Ayres and Peter Bannister are now working on projects commissioned by SDG. To honor the bicentenary of the birth of Berlioz, SDG has commissioned a ninety-minute requiem for double chorus, children’s choir, baritone soloist, and large orchestra from Pulitzer prize winner Christopher Rouse. It will be premiered next spring at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Hall. SDG underwrote the first performance in China of Brahms’s German Requiem in 1996 and in 2003 sponsored a performance of the Berlioz requiem in Ukraine and in 2005 the Verdi requiem in Russia. With the combined choruses of Chicago’s Lyric Opera and Symphony, Nelson recorded Górecki’s “Miserere” in 1994 (released on the Electra/Nonesuch label) and in 2001 EMI/Virgin Classics released his recording of Berlioz’s Te Deum. The Bach tapings at Notre Dame are SDG’s most ambitious projects to date.
Notre Dame, ParisWestern facade
But foreclosure? Sublime music, a great conductor, gothic vaulting, the support of politicians and clergy, production and distribution by a major music house, a non-profit organization selflessly dedicated to making music soli deo gloria, how possibly could any of this suggest closing up shop? Unfortunately, it all does. All three levels of SDG’s workings—its commissioning projects, its performing projects, and even its
recording projects—both testify to near exhaustion of “sacred music in the Biblical tradition” and corrode what little of the tradition struggles on. Although generously well intended, SDG is woefully and fundamentally wrong headed.
I use the word “exhaustion” purposefully. Like a worked out mine, Christianity, at least the Christianity of the west, no longer appears capable of supporting a vibrant and thoughtful musical culture. The twelve hundred year tradition of Hucbald, Perotin, Josquin, Palestrina, Schuetz, Bach, Tallis, Mozart, Mason, Bruckner, Poulenc and Messiaen (and hundreds and hundreds of others) looks like it’s played out.
Two recent examples can help us see this. Each year the New York Times fills several pages of newsprint with the music that some of the city’s most prominent churches will feature during Holy Week and Easter. Last year, the twenty-two churches on the Times list performed nearly one hundred and twenty pieces on Easter Sunday alone. Although Randall Thompson’s 1940 “Alleluia” appeared several times, the vast majority of the Easter music was at least two hundred years old. Not one church performed a new piece. Of course a few dozen churches on a Times list is hardly a representative sample of much of anything, but somewhere in what is probably America’s richest and most self-consciously sophisticated cluster of zip codes we might think that one parish might premiere a piece on the faith’s holiest day. Nope, nada. Not one. But it gets worse. If only in terms a world-wide audience apparently numbering in the billions (and many of those viewers participating as congregants), the funeral mass of John Paul II can be argued to be most significant liturgy in the history of the church. Catholics around the world were joined in sorrow by Protestants, Orthodox, and Copts while Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics watched what was for many of them their first Christian service. Yet, although the pontiff literally lie within a stone’s throw from where Gregory the Great began to assemble chants into a liturgy—chants out of which the whole edifice of western art music grew-- and where a thousand years later Palestrina gave the world his radiant masses and motets, not a single note of new music sounded, and this in spite of the pontiff’s personal friendship with a number of distinguished Catholic composers and his own eloquent letter of Easter 1999 to artists (where he urged them to pass on to generations still to come works of such beauty that these future generations “would be stirred to wonder”). The music was old. All of it--and it wasn’t as if the Pope’s death took the Vatican by surprise. He had been ill for a long time; there had been plenty of time to commission at least one new piece.
It’s axiomatic that a thriving culture, like a thriving economy, produces. A dieing culture, like a dieing economy, consumes. Both in the relatively small business of Easter Sundays in New York and the much bigger affair of a papal funeral, Christian culture is sustaining itself by cannibalizing its past. Even Benedict XVI, a sophisticated musician himself, played to this pessimism when last June he issued a widely reported complaint against guitars at the mass, urging parishes to return to medieval chant and renaissance polyphony.
But if Christian culture, at least the classical Christian music part of it, is about to tack up the Gone Bust sign, what possibly could be wrong with SDG’s projects? Performing the great works of the “Biblical tradition” and commissioning “the world’s leading composers” to write new ones, isn’t this exactly what is needed, and needed badly? And how can the broadcast of some of the most beautiful music ever written by a Christian, performed in one of the masterpieces of Christian architecture, be anything but laudable? How can any of this be wrong headed?
For one thing, it’s hard to imagine a performance space less congenial to Bach’s choral works than Notre Dame. The Leipzig churches for which Bach intended his music are substantially smaller than the Paris cathedral with drier acoustics. In spaces with fairly long reverberation times, such as Notre Dame, Bach’s counterpoint tends to be pureed into an incoherent mush. Besides, Bach’s intended placement of the divided choirs and orchestras in the St. Matthew Passion—crucial for his theological purpose (one in front of the congregants and the other behind them), is impossible at Notre Dame because of its size. Besides, there’s no pressing need for these recordings. There pieces are hardly unrecorded: on DVD alone there are three performances of both of the passions and five of the B minor mass (two of which were taped on Bach’s own church in Leipzig). But there are problems much greater than logistics and market over-kill.
Consider a Muslim attending SDG’s performance of the B minor mass at Notre Dame. Like many Muslims in France, he is thoughtful and devout; he has even gone on hajji. When he daily faces Mecca and humbles himself in prayer, his mind recalls the arcades ringing the Kaaba and his body remembers the joy of circumventing the shrine with his fellow pilgrims, a swirling whirlpool of white robed devotion. And as he walks across
Notre Dame, ParisInterior, nave looking east
the plaza to the cathedral he looks forward to the day when all France will submit to the joys of the true faith.
He enters Notre Dame and, as he finds his seat, is awed by the nave’s majesty. The crowd quiets. A Christian cleric says a few words of welcome. The cameras begin to hum. The conductor enters. Applause. The music begins. And assuming both that the cathedral’s acoustics don’t whip Bach’s counterpoint into an unintelligible sonic mist and that our friend’s twenty-first century attention span can listen to the two hour work in a language he (and almost no one else in the cathedral) can understand, our Muslim visitor hears one of the great works of western music. It ends. People clap. Then they go home.
But our Muslim friend does not go home. He has been moved. Elbowing his way up to the cathedral’s front, he seeks the cleric who gave the greeting. Finding him, politely, but urgently, he takes his sleeve.
“Forgive me good sir, buyt please tell me why this great church was built? It is beautiful almost beyond anything that I have seen.”
Smiling, the cleric explains, “Many generations of Parisians gave of their wealth to raise this cathedral to celebrate the rite of the gift of the Body and Blood of the Son of God shed for the salvation of the world. We call this the Eucharist, or more simply the mass”.
The Muslim is impressed. “And this music,” he falters, it’s hard for him find the right words, “this music, I have never heard anything like it! Why was it written?”
“Hundreds of years this cathedral was finished the great Johann Sebastian Bach wrote this music to adorn the words of the mass. It is the greatest music ever written.” The cleric’s voice trembles a bit, so moved is he by the memory of the sublime music in the great church.
More urgently now, our Muslim friend presses the cleric, “Yes, I think I understand, this magnificent church and, and… this great music, for the gift that God gave the world in this thing called the mass, it is most marvelous! But today, this thing we heard, this is what you call the ‘mass,’ this was the “Eucharist’?”
“No, no”, the cleric quickly answers, growing a bit tired of the man’s questions and annoyed by his ignorance. “There was no Eucharist. This was a concert performance, only the music today. No mass. And anyway, performing this music with the rite of the Eucharist would take far too long. We don’t have time.”
“Ah, yes” the Muslim says, his eyes cloud slightly. “This ‘mass’ as you call it, it is no longer necessary. One time was needed to inspire the masons and the musicians, but now, today, no more. The architecture and the beautiful sounds are enough.”
The cleric stutters protests, but our friend thanks him courtesy. And walking out into the Parisian night, he grieves for the Christians who think that the gifts of God are given through music and stone. Oh that France might know the truth of God the All Merciful.
The gifts of God for the people of God. Nearly alone, impoverished, the mass celebrated by the most humble priest in the poorest of the poor arrondissments of Paris is more glorious than the sum of all of humanity’s works since Adam and Eve had their fig leaf sewing bee. It is not art that gives meaning to the liturgy; it is liturgy celebrated by God’s people in faith that gives life to art. The music isn’t important. The liturgy is. God’s gift of salvation or a peoples’ offering of themselves in worship cannot be more than it is, a composer cannot enhance it. But what a composer can do is exegete the liturgy, explain it to his listeners who already know the basic text, and by ‘text’ I do not mean just the words of the service, but instead those words as they take meaning lived in the life of faith, listeners who know the feel of knees on hard stone and sound of confessions choked by sobs.
But our Muslim friend does not know that life of faith. And neither do the most of the millions of secularized Europeans who might watch the broadcast. To them, a cathedral is one more museum with admission charges (and rather bad lighting) and the mass a tribal curiosity, rather like Morris dancing. And hearing the music of the mass sung in a cathedral in the presence of a cardinal without the celebration of the sacrament itself can only confirm their suspicion that the life of faith, the faith which gave rise to the building and life to the music, is superfluous even to professing Christians. If the mass were important, then it would be celebrated. It’s not important, so it’s omitted. Apparently
reverencing the Bread of Life Broken for You is passé; it’s the goose bumps you get from the four-three suspensions and the really loud trumpets that are required. Almost as if to clarify the nature of the project, SGD’s brochure includes an endorsement by France’s Minister of Culture and Communication Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres. The minister ends his enthusiastic comments by approvingly quoting the writer Emil Cioran: “If there is anyone who owes everything to Bach, it must be God.”
Emil Cioran (1911-1995)
De Vabres’ enthusiastic repetition of Cioran’s blasphemy is stunning. Its citation by SDG is, at best, incomprehensible. And while such impiety certainly is not SDG’s intention, it does capture their project’s tone. Paraphrasing James Carville, “it’s the music, stupid.”
Oh, but it’s not. Bach’s mass and passions are liturgical works that have their place within the life of worshipping communities. The passions are worship services intended for no other time than Good Friday afternoon, services including a sermon between their two parts. The liturgical history of the B minor mass is more complex. Although parts of the work were included in liturgies in 1724 and 1733, Bach assembled the complete piece only during his final two years, apparently intending the mass to be a kind of summa along with “The Art of the Fugue” and the third volume of the “Clavier-Uebung.” The complete piece was first performed in Leipzig in 1859 as a concert work and has had parallel lives in churches and concert halls ever since.
These pieces of music, as in the case of all works of art, make best sense when placed in their appropriate contexts. And while one wouldn’t expect secularists to honor these works by placing them their liturgical settings, certainly we would think that Christians, especially Christians who make a public fuss about being Christians, would. But SDG doesn’t, and by choosing not to do so offers liturgies that are presented as entertaining diversions performed—not celebrated—in a church that is treated not as a church but as a
music hall. SDG’s Notre Dame projects thus desiccate Bach’s music and the cathedral itself of their Christian content, making them into aesthetic shells testifying to an ancient faith which once filled them and a present faith that is thoughtless and puerile. At a time when Christians are complaining about the European constitution ignoring the Christian roots of European civilization, it’s disconcerting for Christians themselves to be secularizing their own heritage. Indeed, the only substantive difference between the SDG presentations and those at the local State U choral society—which at least officially doesn’t care much about God at all--is the gothic venue, and of course the two million dollar price tag.
SDG’s performing projects are no less troublesome. In the face of bloody persecution at the hands of Tartars, Turks, Russians, Bolsheviks, and Nazis, the Ukrainians have nurtured a sacred music in “the Biblical tradition” for a thousand years. When SDG financed a performance of two of Mendelssohn’s symphonies in Kiev, one has to wonder what the folks from Chicago expected the music of an extraordinarily privileged Prussian
St. Andrew’s Church in Kiev, UkraineMemorializing the traditional site of the founding of Christianity in Ukraine by St. Andrew
was going to teach the Ukrainians about the “Biblical tradition.” SDG returned to Ukraine to perform Berlioz’s Requiem and sponsored performances of Verdi’s Requiem in Russia and Brahms’ in China. But these are very odd works for an organization like SDG to champion. At the end of his life, Brahms wrote, “Neither when I wrote my Requiem did I, nor do I now, believe in the immortality of the soul.” In cobbling together his text, Brahms was scrupulous to make the work as un-Christian as possible and in the 19th century it was understood as so obviously agnostic that church performances were sometimes forbidden unless Handel’s aria “I know that my redeemer liveth” (from Messiah) was included too. Although Berlioz and Verdi did not alter their liturgical texts, they didn’t believe them either. Berlioz was blunt about his religious beliefs, mocking the creed on his deathbed, sneering, “I believe nothing.” Verdi was publicly contemptuous of religion and his wife privately confessed that she thought he was an atheist. One would almost have to think that for SDG a significant characteristic of music in the “Biblical tradition” was a kind of artistic fraud perpetrated by cynics and poseurs. And this is the core of the problem with SDG. The organization profoundly both misunderstands what “classical music in the Biblical tradition” means and even the nature of excellence in artistic creation itself. The second matter first.
Artists create for any number of reasons, to pay the rent, to gratify ego, even out of habit.But for an artist to create his best work he must engage what the American composer Lukas Foss has called the “rule of risk” and the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn the “rule of the final inch”.
Lukas Foss (1922-2009)
This is Foss’s “rule of risk” (which I talked about with Foss). Like an athlete, an artist is at his best when he exerts himself to his utmost. Sprinters, even on their bad days, run faster than just about anybody else. But a sprinter won’t exert himself to his utmost, straining himself beyond anything he has achieved, enduring pain and risking serious injury, for any race. He will train hard, even brutally. He will develop a habit of keen focus and tremendous exertion so that even his ordinary races are fast, even very fast.
Yet that final blast of energy, that last, explosive push, that risk of his all--that cannot not done daily; it is reserved for those races of supreme importance. A world record isn’t generally broken in a qualifying heat. And it’s never broken unless the athlete risks his all to break it. Nothing great is achieved without risk, and only the greatest task, that task of supreme importance, merits the greatest risks.
Solzhenitsyn’s rule of the final inch is found in his novel The First Circle.
And now listen: The rule of the Final Inch! The realm of the Final Inch! In the Language of Maximum Clarity it is immediately clear what that is. The work has been almost completed, the goal almost attained, everything seems completely right and the difficulties overcome. But the quality of the thing is not quite right. Finishing touches are needed, maybe still more research. In that moment of fatigue and self-satisfaction it is especially tempting to leave the work without having attained the apex of quality. Work in the area of the Final Inch is very, very complex and also especially valuable, because it is executed by the most perfected means. In fact, the rule of the Final Inch consists in this: not to shirk this crucial work. Not to postpone it, for the thoughts of the person performing the task will then stray from the realm of the Final Inch. And not to mind the time spent on it, knowing that one’s purpose lies not in completing things faster but in the attainment of perfection. (The First Circle, p. 139)
An artist must risk all to produce his best art and that risk must push through to the very completion of the task, its “final inch.” And an artist will only take that risk and endure that discipline on projects that are of the greatest possible importance to him. Just as any sprinter can run, and run fast, any artist worth his salt has enough craft to create a decent work of art pretty much on demand--Vivaldi wrote several hundred concerti that way. And like those concerti, those works will be decent and well crafted and even masterful. But usually they will not be the composer’s best works. There must be something about the project at hand that resonates with the artist’s deepest sense of himself, something
more than merely a fee or raw ego that compels him to move beyond even his own high level of accomplishment, something that forces him to risk his all in perfecting the work. Those works, where everything is risked, are our culture’s greatest artist treasures. In Christian culture, those kinds of pieces are among our greatest works of faith.
And that is what a work “in the Biblical tradition” is. It is a work of faith. And it isn’t a generalized faith in the broad goodness of humanity or watery-eyed hopes for a better tomorrow—laudable as those sentiments might be. It is faith in the mercy of God given through Christ Jesus celebrated in the fellowship of his church. Not like an actor’s costume that he’s paid to put on and then strip off when the play’s done—something that is adopted for a particular role, this faith is the desperate core of the artist’s being. A work “in the Biblical tradition” is a work that is planted within an artist by faith, nurtured and prodded and matured by faith, and finally given by the artist to the church for the purposes of faith. Not a work for hire nor an exercise in aesthetic self-indulgence, it is a work that has already been bought by a price far greater than gold and is offered in obedience to the command “feed my sheep.” It is written within a community of faith for the community of faith by one of the faithful.
Simply put, “sacred classical music in the Biblical tradition” is written by a composer living in that “Biblical tradition.” And that composer doesn’t just set religious words to music or is inspired by a religious story, that “Biblical tradition” compels him to produce his very best art--risking all--to make music that strengthens and edifies his fellow believers to the purpose that God might be glorified. But this isn’t SDG’s brief. Pretty much in the same way that you can go to Home Depot and order wallpaper, SDG operates as if this kind of work can be bought. Raise the funds, hire the “world’s leading composers” (the benediction apparently conferred by a couple or reviewers for New York Times, or committees working for the Guggenheim or Fromm foundations, or the NEA), rent the hall, and presto, you have a new Messiah.
No, you don’t, and you can’t. And it goes back to those rules of risk and final inch. Great art requires great risk and maximum effort. In this context, an artist not committed to the “Biblical tradition” will not risk his all to serve it. He can produce a decently crafted piece, and like the sprinter who wins almost every race simply because of his natural gifts, the composer’s work can pass as masterful, but it won’t be his best piece and nor can it compare with pieces by artists who in similar situations were compelled to stretch themselves to their utmost, making their greatest music. Thrilling though parts of it may be, Verdi’s Requiem pales in comparison to Don Carlo and La Traviata and nowhere does it approach the heights of Bach’s passions or even Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. And compared to Brahms’ symphonies, piano concerti, intermezzi and even choral waltzes, many of the passages of his German Requiem are forced. They are unpersuasive (but of course they are unpersuasive: they failed to even persuade Brahms himself).
Because its criterion for awarding commissions is recognition by the culture’s secular elite, it’s predictable that the works SDG has bought do not particularly illuminate that
“Biblical tradition.” Israeli composer Paul Schoenfield’s use of African-American gospel music in his oratorio D’vorah has entertaining moments but uncomfortably verges on minstrel show parody. Augusta Reed Thomas’ “Daylight Divine” for children’s choir and chamber orchestra is colorful and pleasant but inconsequential. Both of these artists are thoroughly professional composers and they can hardly be faulted if their music does not seem to represent core of their lives. George Arasimowicz, on the other hand, is a dean at Wheaton College. His orchestral tone poem “Window Rock: Peter’s Dawn” might be expected to be different. It’s no better or worse than recent orchestral works by any one of several dozen contemporary composers but, most importantly, Arasimowicz’s piece is primarily distinguished by the complete opaqueness of the relationship between the apostle’s biography and the composer’s score. It isn’t at all clear what one has to do with the other, and for all the theological illumination Arasimowicz’s music provides it might as well be entitled “Twenty Minutes for Orchestra” or “Fragments from the Clouds of Saturn.” While the piece’s secular self-indulgence is disappointing, it is not unexpected. Despite his Wheaton appointment, Arasimowicz appears oddly attenuated from the tradition of the Christian composer; in a thirty-year work list of over one hundred compositions (and numerous grants and awards) he surprisingly has not written even one hymn.
But it isn’t just Arasimowicz whose relationship with the Christian tradition is attenuated, it is SDG itself. Its workings and results are fundamentally materialistic and deeply distanced from Christianity. Christopher Rouse was not asked to write a requiem because of his often-expressed passion to serve the people of God with his music, but because of his Pulitzer Prize and job at Juilliard. And SDG isn’t interested in commissioning a real requiem, one to be sung in a church around a corpse, but instead a pretend one to be heard in a concert hall. Doubtlessly Rouse--because he is a skilled and inventive artist--will produce a piece that is full of thunder and comment on the human condition and perhaps even the nature of the Divine One, and doubtlessly it will be enthusiastically received—but it won’t be a piece of “classical music in the Biblical tradition.” It can’t be because Rouse isn’t a composer in the Biblical tradition and the piece isn’t written for a people living within the Biblical tradition. It will just be one more concert work, bought and paid for, based on a distant myth the audience vaguely remembers.
But our children’s funerals aren’t myths. And people of faith don’t need pretend rites where an audience goes clappy-clappy when the music stops. What we need are requiems sung in our parishes that, being called to mind in the weeks and years following the burial and heard again in the funerals of our friends, can give us strength by reminding us of the hope that lies within us. And we need communities of faith that nurture the artists already in them, and artists whose faith compels them to perfect their art in requiems that lift up the faithful as they sing them—not in seats bought in the local music hall--but on their knees in church. And it is out of this community that just not art, but life “in the Biblical tradition” grows and flourishes.
Pope Benedict is right to complain about the puerility of parish music, and SDG is right to want to encourage the composition of significant new works. And the problem they
both intuit with Christian culture is shared with western culture at large: exhaustion. It is startling to realize that no music by an Italian has captured our musical imagination since Puccini lay down his pen on Turandot in 1926 and Copland’s 1944 Appalachian Spring was the last piece of art music by an American anybody really wants to hear (Bernstein’s overture to Candide is a possible challenge). The whole civilization is tired and has grown timid. But the pope’s wish to re-impose chant is simply sifting through the slag and SDG’s program to buy composers is salting the mine; both won’t work. The foreclosure sign will stay up because the ore is gone. The mine is played out. Like Virginia City, Nevada and the Comstock Lode, the best that can be done is to invite folks in and show-off the relics of a dead past, theme-park style.
Virginia City, NevadaTourist stage
But the past isn’t dead, it lives in us. And of course the ore isn’t gone. It’s just rare, and you’ve got to have the nerve to dig for it and the grit to smelt it. There are composers and communities where this is being done, but they are struggling. In mega-churches they are struggling against an ill-informed leadership that esteems the market driven and ephemeral music of the Dove Awards. In liturgical churches they are struggling against a mindset that relegates all significant music to concert performances, either in the church building or a secular music hall. And they are struggling against SDG, which through the character of its commissions and fundraising deprecates music as a part of Christian worship and mocks the faithful artist. It is high irony that an organization that has such apparent distain for Christian worship adopts as its motto the flourish of the greatest worship musician who ever lived.
A case can be made that the western world is the product of classical antiquity refracted through the prism of medieval Christianity. I think we can be more specific than that. I think we can say that the prism was Christian worship. And just as generations of worshipping Christians transmuted the world of the Arch of Titus to that of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, it isn’t unreasonable that worshipping Christians can again revitalize a culture much more godless than even Caesar’s. This is already happening in China where Xiao Min’s remarkably hymnody (known collectively as the “Canaan Hymns”) is a dynamic part of that country’s evangelization. And apparently it’s in the hope of revitalizing our culture that Cardinal Ratzinger chose to minister as pope under the name of the saint who founded the monastic order that midwifed the West’s birth.
SDG can be part an important part of this transformation, but not by exporting Brahms to China, broadcasting concert performances of Bach across Europe, or stupidly hiring composers to write more music to give folks little aesthetic thrills. Instead of raising two million dollars to support three performances of 18th century music in Paris (and of course giving John Nelson a lot of face time on DVD), think what the affect would be if SDG raised that amount to support the performance of new worship music in parishes here (nothing against the French, I’m just suggesting that American donations be used for American projects)? Offer one hundred churches, two in each state, $15,000 each to support the composition of pieces to be performed as part of the Easter Sunday worship of 2007, 2008, and 2009 with the only requirement that the composers and many of the performers be members of the parish (three years so that the performance of new music on Easter has the chance of becoming an expectation). With the residue, SDG provides funds for recording the performances and they are all made freely available on the organization’s web page. Three hundred new works, not bought from hirelings but composed by parish artists and performed by their friends; music growing out of communities of faith testifying to the vitality of that faith. The chances are slim that any
of the works will rise to the level Bach’s passions or the B minor mass, but this is a big country with lots of talent and you can never tell. But even if none does, the music will still be the fruit of a vibrant community—not trucked in or taken out of moth balls--and it will show that there’s still ore in that mine to be extracted and refined and shaped and hallowed. And certainly no need for that foreclosure notice, not now or ever. That would really be Soli Deo Gloria
Monument to Johannn Sebastian BachStanding at the side of the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, Germany
SDG 2010 Update
Nelson’s Notre Dame performance of the B Minor Mass was released on DVD by Virgin Classics in 2007. SDG is still raising money for a DVD release of the St. Matthew Passion as well as Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Haydn’s Creation. George Arasimowicz, who is no longer associated with Wheaton College, has been commissioned to write a second orchestral work. Christopher Rouse’s Requiem was performed in Los Angeles in March 2007. Neal Harnly has been commissioned to write a work for children’s chorus and chamber orchestra on a libretto written by Alisa Bair based upon the parable of the Prodigal Son.
SDG hosts cruises. This February SDG enthusiasts can spend a week in Lisbon in a four star hotel and attend a dress rehearsal and a performance of the Missa Solemnis conducted by John Nelson. Cost is a little over two thousand dollars (not including air fare to and from Portugal).
Chicago composer Jacob Bancks was commissioned to write a mass for choir, soloists, and chorus called Mass for All the Saints. The mass was premiered on Sunday, September 20, 2009 at St. John Berchman’s Church in Chicago in a concert that also included the Mozart Requiem. Tickets were twenty five dollars at the door.
--Another concert piece from Arasimowicz since the first one was so good? Luke’s parable is appropriate for a children’s chorus (with a new libretto, apparently Luke’s text can be improved on)? A week in a four star hotel—won’t a three star be good enough For the Glory of God Alone? And finally, a “mass” with no eucharist, for “all the saints” but only the ones who pay can get in? And all this produced by an outfit that steals from Bach his “Solo Deo Gloria” motto. Some things you just can’t make up.