Sound Thinking

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.

12 Mar

Shrinking sources of causality

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

David Bentley Hart on the loss of a recognition of inherent meaning in the natural world 

“For the philosophers and scientists of premodern times, stretching back to the beginning of philosophical and scientific thought in the West, no absolute division could be drawn between physical and metaphysical explanations of the cosmos, or at least between material and ‘spiritual’ causes. The universe was shaped and sustained by an intricate interweaving of immanent and transcendent agencies and powers. It was the effect of an inseparable union of what Daniel Dennett likes to call ‘cranes’ and ‘sky-hooks’: that is, both causes that rise up from below, so to speak, and causes that descend from above. The principal way in which late antique and medieval thinkers understood the order of nature was in terms of Aristotle’s four categories of causation: the material, formal, efficient, and final. The first of these is simply the underlying matter from which any given thing is formed — say, the marble upon which a sculptor works or the glass from which a bottle is made — the lowest and most ubiquitous level of which is ‘prime matter,’ the substrate of all physical things, so absolutely indeterminate as to be nothing in itself but pure potentiality, with no actuality independent of the forms that give it substance and shape. The formal cause is what makes a particular substance the kind of thing it is — say, a statue or bottle — along with all the attributes proper to that kind of substance, such as cold, static solidity, and representational form, or such as fragility, translucency, and fluid capacity. The efficient cause is the fashioning or prompting agency that brings form and matter together in a single substance — say, the sculptor or glass blower, along with the instruments of his craft. And the final cause is the ultimate aim or purpose or effect of the thing, the use for which it is intended or the good that it serves or the consequence to which it is innately (even if unconsciously) directed, which in a sense draws efficient causality toward itself — say, commemoration of a great event or evocation of aesthetic delight, or the storage and transport of wine or whisky. Perhaps, however, I ought not to choose only human artifacts for my example, since in the classical view all finite things are produced by the workings of these four kinds of causality: elephants, mountains, and stars no less than statues or bottles. And then, beyond all these four, at least in the Christian period, there was another kind of causality, not always explicitly delineated from the others as it should have been but far more exorbitantly different from them than they were from one another. This we might call the ‘ontological’ cause, which alone has the power not only to make, but to create from nothing: that infinite source of being which donates existence to every contingent thing, and to the universe as a whole, without which nothing — not even the barest possibilities of things — could exist.

“We are not much in the habit today, of course, of thinking of ‘form’ or ‘finality’ as causes at all, especially not outside the realm of human fabrication. As a rule, we think of physical realities as caused exclusively by other physical realities, operating as prior and external forces and simply transferring energy from themselves to their effects. We may grant that, where a rational agent is involved, purposes and plans also may act as causes in an analogous or metaphorical sense; but nature we tend to see as a mindless physical process, matter in motion, from which form and purpose emerge accidentally, as consequences rather than causes. This is in large part because the intellectual world in which we have been reared is one whose master discourses — its sciences, philosophies, and ideologies — evolved in the aftermath of the displacement of the ‘Aristotelian’ world by the ‘mechanical philosophy,’ as well as by the more inductive and empirical scientific method that began to take shape in late scholastic thought and that achieved a kind of coherent synthesis in the early modern period. . . .

“It is not true, strictly speaking, that the rapid and constant progress of scientific understanding and achievement in the modern age has been the result solely of simple unadorned empirical research, but very little of it would have come about apart from the revision of scientific thinking that the new empirical approach demanded. This makes it all the more poignantly sad that, as was probably inevitable, the new anti-metaphysical method soon hypertrophied into a metaphysics of its own. Over the course of a very short time, relatively speaking (a few generations at most), the heuristic metaphor of a purely mechanical cosmos became a kind of ontology, a picture of reality as such. The reasons for this were many — scientific, social, ideological, even theological — but the result was fairly uniform: Western persons quickly acquired the habit of seeing the universe not simply as something that can be investigated according to a mechanistic paradigm, but as in fact a machine. They came to see nature not as a reality guided and unified from within by higher or more spiritual causes like formality and finality, but as something merely factitiously assembled and arranged from without by some combination of efficient forces, and perhaps by one supreme external efficient cause — a divine designer and maker, a demiurge, the God of the machine, whom even many pious Christians began to think of as God.”

— from David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press, 2013). Hart discussed this book on Volume 122 of the Journal. Another excerpt from his book is here.