Summer Reading

Cut and pasted from the Facebook profile of an archaeologist: In the elder days of art Builders wrought with greatest care Each minute and unseen part For the Gods see everywhere.

This fits neatly with the central thesis of a book I just finished reading, Evenings in the Palace of Reason, by James R. Gaines—which seems to be, Why compose music? Gaines affects an entertaining tone, but is serious about his subject, which he presents through comparative biographies of J.S. Bach and Frederick the Great. Gaines sets up a contrast between the two men, as exemplars of medieval Christian mysticism on one hand, and Enlightenment reason and virtual atheism on the other. One point he makes very effectively, is, that Bach composed music to glorify God, while Frederick, a proponent of the newer galant style, asked of music only that it be immediately attractive and pleasing. I enjoyed the book; as a work of “creative nonfiction,” it memorably fleshes out the personalities and times of its protagonists, and probably doesn’t stray too far from its sources (which are carefully listed and annotated following the text). Gaines clearly has deep feeling and affinity for Bach and his music .

My usual procedure in preparing a major concert (such as Chorale’s upcoming B Minor Mass) is to read several books about the works and composers to be presented, to gain a feel for the context, the religious and emotional matrix out of which they spring. Gaines’ book alone would not give a sufficiently balanced background; but l have several more books to read before I am done.

Back to the verse with which I began: I wonder if Bach could even have existed, and his music ever have happened, if he were not motivated by deep, all-inclusive belief in an absolute eternal. Why else would one work so hard, pursue such astounding standards? And I find that Bach’s music is the standard and filter through which I evaluate and select other music I care about and perform. When it comes to church music specifically, I am left out completely by most of what I hear -- music which seems to say, let’s make both faith and worship sufficiently attractive that potential worshipers won’t be turned away. And though Chorale does not perform, specifically, music for worship, it does seek to present music which reflects the very best that human art and skill have to offer. The thesis that Bach, and the other composers upon whom we concentrate, are motivated in their efforts by something more profound than attractiveness and celebration of their own skill, makes perfect sense to me. At one point in his text, Gaines differentiates between the attractive and the beautiful in Bach’s work-- and I often find myself asking the same thing of music as I evaluate it and place it in different piles: will this become thin and cheap with time? Will I be embarrassed to have put so much effort into preparing something which finally hasn’t all that much substance? Will the expectations of my singers, and their audience, be lowered because I have chosen the pretty rather than the beautiful?

A few years ago, Helmuth Rilling conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, on short notice, in performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. I sang in the chorus; and after one of our performances I went out with him and his wife, Martina, to talk about the experience, and about the years I have enjoyed singing under him at the Oregon Bach Festival. He asked me, “Why do you return each year?” My answer was obvious and immediate—the repertoire. I want to be involved with great music; that involvement motivates my efforts. I have given that same answer at every point in my musical life—why learn to sing/play/conduct? Not because people are pleased with the result; but because there is great music, “wrought with greatest care in each minute and unseen part,” to be sung and played. I am compelled to do my best, in seeking it out, and in presenting it. And so far, at least, I have been able to drag Chorale along with me.