26 Mar

Bach’s Passions in context

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/26/21

Calvin Stapert on the evolution of an ancient musical-liturgical tradition

“Bach’s Passions belong to a long musical-liturgical tradition. Musical renditions of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s final suffering and death have deep roots in Christian worship. Tangible evidence goes back as far as the fourth century, when a Spanish nun named Egeria, while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, described the chanting of the Passion story in Jerusalem during Holy Week. The practice of chanting the entire story directly from one of the Gospels spread throughout Christendom during the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, composers started to set the Passion story in simple harmonizations. Sometimes the entire story was in parts, but more usually the narrative continued to be chanted, and part-singing was reserved for the words spoken by the various groups of people and, sometimes, also for the words spoken by individuals.

“After the Reformation the Lutheran Church retained the ancient practice. Luther’s friend Johann Walter provided simple models for singing the Passion in which the narration and the words of individuals were chanted and the words of groups were sung to simple recitation formulas harmonized in four parts. This way of rendering the Passion story was still being used in Leipzig during Bach’s tenure.

“About the middle of the seventeenth century, musical settings of the Passion began to change both textually and musically. The words no longer came directly from the Bible. Instead the story was retold in newly written poetic verse called ‘madrigal’ texts. Under the influence of opera, chanting and simple part-singing were replaced by recitatives, arias, and choruses accompanied by instruments. They no longer maintained the ancient liturgical mooring in the exact words of the Bible; instead they were devotional concert music. Especially popular was a text by Barthold Heinrich Brockes that was set to music by Handel, Telemann, Matheson, and others.

“Bach’s Passions, however, were liturgical. They are more aptly called ‘oratorio Passions.’ Despite including madrigalian text, they retain the key ingredient of the ancient liturgical tradition: singing the words of the Passion narrative verbatim from one of the Gospels. In addition to the biblical text and madrigal poetry, they include chorales. The familiar texts and melodies of these congregational songs add to their liturgical fittingness. Both types of non-biblical text function as responses to the various scenes in the story. The madrigal poetry, sung as recitatives and arias by soloists, represents individual responses; the chorales, sung by the choir, represent communal responses. In both cases they draw the contemporary worshiper into the ancient story.

“In Leipzig the old style Passions, for example those of Johann Walter, were still sung in Bach’s time in the Good Friday morning Eucharist service. The elaborate new style Passions were performed in the Good Friday Vespers service, which began at 1:30 in the afternoon with the singing of a Passion chorale, ‘Da Jesu an den Kreuze stand’ (‘When Jesus hung on the cross’). The Passion and sermon followed. The Passion, divided into two parts like the larger cantatas, framed the sermon. The service concluded with a motet, the verse and a prayer called the collect, the benediction, and a final chorale.”

— from Calvin R. Stapert, J. S. Bach (Lion, 2009). Stapert has been a guest several times on the Journal, most recently on Volume 127 talking about the life and work of Joseph Haydn.

26 Mar

The rise of the “spiritual opera”

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/26/21

Richard Viladesau on the invention of the Passion oratorio

“The composer and scholar Johann Mattheson defines oratorio: ‘An oratorio is nothing other than sung poetry that represents a certain action or edifying occurrence in a dramatic way . . . an oratorio is a spiritual opera.’ Mattheson was one of the foremost music theoreticians of his time. His lengthy treatise Der vollkommene Capellmeister (‘The Perfect Music-Master’), published in 1739, remained influential into the early classical period. He writes that oratorio is a performance that ‘brings beautiful thoughts and events to light, not in bare speech, or in narrative alone, but in moving scenes of all kinds; spirits are raised to meditation and holy fear, as well as to compassion and other impulses, but primarily to the praise of God and to spiritual joy, through chorales, choruses, fugues, arias, recitatives, and the employment of the most skillful diversity, all with various instruments, as the occasion demands, cleverly and unpretentiously providing accompaniment.’ The primary example of oratorio, for Mattheson, is the performance of the Passion of Christ. (Although he notes that in some major churches, because of opposition of the clergy, the Passion genre is curtailed; in other churches it is performed ‘in true oratorio fashion.’)

“The first true Passion oratorio in Mattheson’s sense is considered to be Der blutige und sterbende Jesus (‘The Bloodied and Dying Jesus’) by the celebrated poet Christian Friedrich Hunold (known under the pen name ‘Menantes’), set to music by Reinhard Keiser in 1704. For the first time the role of the evangelist is eliminated. The scriptural texts are replaced by Hunold’s poetry, drawn freely from all four Gospels, and the characters address each other as though in an opera or a play, without a narrator. However, Hunold adds an allegorical figure, the ‘Daughter of Sion,’ to react emotionally to the events — somewhat in the manner of the ‘chorus’ in Greek drama. Hunold later explained that he did not use any ‘high poetic language’ in his writing, but had followed the spirit of the plain word of God; and in fact there are echoes of Luther’s translations of the Gospels in his text. Nevertheless, we know from a handwritten marginal note on the manuscript of the libretto in the Acta Hamburgensis that ‘many took offence or were even scandalized by it’ at the first performance in Hamburg. (Where it is likely that the young Handel was present as a violinist or clever symbolists.) . . .

“Both texts and music of the oratorio bespeak an effort to produce ‘compassion,’ not only for Jesus, but also for Mary, who has a lengthy lament. . . . [T]his was typical of Catholic spirituality; but it was something that Luther had said should be avoided in meditation on the cross. Like the change in musical form to a more emotional, subjective, and operatic form, it expresses the new devotional feelings that were arising in some Lutheran circles. Dialogues of the sinful and lamenting soul with God or with Jesus formed a significant part of the Neue Frömmigkeit (‘new piety’) that took hold in the Lutheran tradition during the seventeenth century, even outside the bounds of Pietism. The genre of colloquies between the soul and God often with the words on each side provided by scriptural texts, became common in German Lutheran devotional books and songs from the 1620s onward, and flourished in the mid-century. . . .

“Luther’s idea of true meditation on the passion centered on sin and its forgiveness. He favored a didactic portrayal of the crucifixion, in which the cross is shown primarily as the means of God’s triumph. We have also noted that the Pietist movement, while keeping this perspective, also reintroduced a strong affective devotion to the suffering Jesus, and complemented Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith with a new stress on the personal transformation that should be its result.”

— from Richard Viladesau, The Pathos of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts—The Baroque Era (Oxford University Press, 2014). Viladesau was interviewed on Volume 123 of the Journal. 

19 Mar

The Passion and compassion

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/19/21

Richard Viladesau on art, meditation, and the affections

“Sacred art . . . both reflects theology and is reflected by it. But the aesthetic medium also has criteria of its own, and these affect the message. Because of the way visual art presents data, it is necessarily more concrete than conceptual thought, since the artist must necessarily choose specific spatiotemporal objects to portray, and must locate them in a visual field. But in interpretation, visual art is less specific. This becomes increasingly true as art attempts to reproduce empirical experience, rather than serving as a symbolic medium for conveying ideas. This is of course exactly one of the transitions in the meaning of art that took place in the Renaissance. To the extent that a picture presents empirical data, the message that its viewer receives depends on what “interpretative baggage” the viewer brings to it. Of course, Renaissance art, as we have seen, is far from attempting photographic realism. The artist is still conveying ideas and messages, and still attempts to portray or to evoke of a level of beauty that is seldom encountered in concrete everyday experience. But the conceptual element is necessarily more vague as the naturalistic and decorative elements become more important. Moreover, Renaissance art explicitly appeals to the emotions; hence, as compared with medieval sacred art, it is more visual and visceral than conceptual.

“Another tension that increasingly comes to the fore in Renaissance sacred art and music concerns the purposes of art. Medieval sacred art already had a decorative purpose, and consciously sought beauty of form. Savonarola’s complaints about excessive artistry getting in the way of the message were not entirely new. Yet a number of factors in the Renaissance exacerbated the tension. We might mention a few: advances in technique; the use of pagan models and themes; the change in patronage from clerical to secular; the increasing presence of sacred art in private dwellings rather than churches, due to the wealth of princes and the bourgeoisie; the growing importance of purely secular art and music; a new empirical spirit of observation and depiction of nature. All of these factors led to the beginning of what Hans Belting has called ‘the era of art,’ that is, the modern situation in which the arts exist for their own sake, rather than simply as the conveyer of a religious message or as a medium of encounter with a supernatural presence.

“One might ask what effect the new tendencies in painting and sculpture toward naturalism and toward independent aesthetic values had on the religious message in sacred art. From one point of view, one might say that there was generally no discernable effect on the message, at least as far as content. Renaissance preachers took moral lessons from events in the Scriptures; Renaissance religious art did the same. We can recognize in the message of much Renaissance religious art the theological characteristics of the late Middle Ages, particularly of the devotio moderna: mistrust of intellect, and emphasis on emotion; stress on good works, including the feeling of compassion for the sufferings of Christ. The naturalistic portrayal of the events of the passion and of the grief of Mary, or the portrait-like representation of Christ, might more effectively evoke such a compassionate emotional response, leading to a corresponding response in the affects and will and ultimately in behavior. For many medieval thinkers, this was the very purpose of meditation on the passion. On the other hand, the humanistic and Platonic tendencies in some art might implicitly convey different messages: about the value of the world and the beauty and goodness of the human body; about ways of seeing, and the nature of representation itself; about society and its attitudes and values.”

— from Richard Viladesau’s The Triumph of the Cross: The Passion of Christian Theology and the Arts, from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2008). Viladesau was interviewed on Volume 123 of the Journal.

19 Mar

Peter wept

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/19/21

Poetry and music from the sixteenth century imagining the sorrow of St. Peter in recognizing his betrayal of Jesus 

“When noble Peter, who had sworn that
midst a thousand spears and a thousand swords
he would die beside his beloved Lord,
saw that, overcome by cowardice, his faith
had failed him in his great moment of need,
the grief and shame, and contrition
for his own failure and Christ’s suffering,
pierced his breast with a thousand darts.”

So opens the 42-stanza poem by Luigi Tansillo (1510–1568), Lagrime di San Pietro,“Tears of Saint Peter.” Originally published in 1560, portions of this eloquent expression of grief were set to music — in a set of 21 haunting “spiritual madrigals” — by Orlande de Lassus (1530–1594).

The moment at the center of the poem is an imagined one: what if Jesus had looked Peter in the eye immediately in the moment following the latter’s betrayal?

“Three times had he sworn
— to the bold, insistent maid, to the servant,
and to the cruel throng — that he had never been
a follower of his Lord, nor did he know him;
then the persistent rooster announced the day,
called to bear witness;
and now aware of his great failure,
Peter looked at Christ and their eyes met.”

The response to the accusation in the eyes of Jesus is a torrent of tears.

“Like a snowflake which, having lain frozen
and hidden in deep valleys all winter,
and then in springtime, warmed by the sun,
melts and flows into streams;
thus the fear which had lain like ice
in Peter’s heart and made him repress the truth,
now that Christ turned His eyes on him,
melted and was changed into tears.”

You can read the text to this work and listen to a performance of it on this page at Cantica sacra, the website I edit as part of my work as music director in my parish. I have also written about this work, and about some penetential Psalm settings by Lassus, for Touchstone. You may read that column — “Eloquent Lamentation” — here.

12 Mar

The novelty of “science” and “religion”

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/12/21

Peter Harrison on the contingency of boundaries that divide our lives

“So familiar are the concepts ‘science’ and ‘religion,’ and so central to Western culture have been the activities and achievements that are usually labeled ‘religious’ and ‘scientific,’ that it is natural to assume that they have been enduring features of the cultural landscape of the West. But this view is mistaken. To be sure, it is true that in the West from the sixth century BC attempts were made to describe the world systematically, to understand the fundamental principles behind natural phenomena, and to provide naturalistic accounts of the causes operating in the cosmos. Yet, as we shall see, these past practices bear only a remote resemblance to modern science. It is also true that almost from the beginning of recorded history many societies have engaged in acts of worship, set aside sacred spaces and times, and entertained beliefs about transcendental realities and proper conduct. But it is only in recent times that these beliefs and activities have been bounded by a common notion ‘religion,’ and have been set apart from the ‘nonreligious’ or secular domains of human existence.

“In pointing out that ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are concepts of relatively recent coinage, I intend to do more than make a historical claim about the anachronistic application of modern concepts to past errors. What I have in mind is not only to set out the story of how these categories ‘science’ and ‘religion’ emerge in Western consciousness, but also to show how the manner of their emergence can provide crucial insights into their present relations. In much the same way that we can make sense of certain contemporary international conflicts by attending to the historical processes through which national boundaries were carved out of a geographical territory, so too, with the respective territories of religion and the natural sciences. Just as the borders of nation-states are often more a consequence of imperial ambitions, political expediency, and historical contingencies than of a conscious attending to more ‘natural’ faultiness of geography, culture, and ethnicity — think in this context of the borders of the modern state of Israel — so the compartmentalization of modern Western culture that gave rise to these distinct notions ‘science’ and ‘religion’ resulted not from a rational or dispassionate consideration of how to divide cultural life along natural fracture lines, but to a significant degree has been to do with political power — broadly conceived — and the accidents of history.”

— from Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Peter Harrison taked about this book on Volume 131 of the Journal. Other excerpts from this book may be read here and here.