Monday, June 24, 2013

Reinventing Bach

Like Evening in the Palace of Reason, Paul Elie’s 2012 publication is an excellent bibliographic resource for my thesis, but not something I can cite directly. Compared to the Gaines book, there is less of immediate relevance to my topic. Still, it is a fascinating take on Bach, the man and the music and the legacy. The author’s unique approach is an exploration of the role of Bach’s music in the development of recording technology. The “inventions” of Reinventing Bach begin with Bach himself as a master organ designer (one of the main purposes of Bach’s various travels was to inspect and play new organs) and end with the iPod. Along the way, Elie weaves the Bach biography and compositions with the biographies and recorded performances of musicians at the forefront of modern technologies.

So, we have Bach and Albert Schweitzer, Bach and Pablo Casals, then Stokowski, Glenn Gould, and finally Yo-Yo Ma. Organ works on the earliest recording devices; the cello suites on 78s; Bach at the movies and on the radio, the Goldberg Variations in the recording studio; and Bach on the streets in casual performances and earbuds. Ultimately, Elie has given us a portrait of his introduction to, and growing obsession with, Bach and his music. By the time we realize that this is, in a sense, the main motivation for the book, it is too late. The author has captivated with these sprawling chapters that take us back and forth in time – very much the modern story-telling mode – weaving biographies and connecting histories and traditions to highlight the undisputed centrality of J. S. Bach in the canon of western music.

Pun intended, and apt.

The other nice touch is the way Elie teases out the musical meaning of the word, “invention,” by the end of the book. Namely, Bach’s compositions called “Inventions,” which Elie notes are exercises demonstrating contrapuntal techniques and designed for the education of others (notably his elder children) and patterns for them to work from. In that sense, Bach’s music served as a pattern for the exploration of twentieth-century recording technologies; each building on the previous and becoming successively more accessible to the non-musical consuming public.

I doubt there is any truly famous recording that is not touched upon in Reinventing Bach – from Schweitzer’s legendary wax cylinders to pervasive YouTube and iTunes downloads. Technical, biographical, historical – while musicologists will (rightly and understandably) argue about the merits of this contribution to “Bach studies,” it is hard to resist the sheer enjoyment Paul Elie takes in the music of Bach.

Which brings me to my final point: say what you will about the relevance of Bach to today’s world (and even to today’s church), Bach cannot be ignored. There is something about this music that people have to reckon with if they are going to be serious at all about western music. (One of the fun bits Elie brings out is the ways jazz and rock musicians have appreciated, incorporated, and co-opted Bach.) For Elie, as for many, there is a deeply personal and spiritual dimension to the music. There is a reason it is not “easy listening.” Much of it was forged during a time of changing tastes and styles and seems to be obscurantist. Though others read the same material differently, it is unavoidably the case that Bach wrote from a distinctively philosophical (and I argue, theological) framework that understood what was coming in the Enlightenment, knew how to use (or cater to) the new aesthetic, but did not lose his mooring in “the great tradition.” And so, since he did not reject the healthy aspects of the ancients, he remains vibrant and relevant to us post-moderns.

Reinventing Bach will interest (and may infuriate) Bach lovers.  Non-musicians, and worship music leaders who wouldn’t give the time of day to Bach, may read this with satisfaction if only to learn about a man who should not be ignored, and learn too about the technologies that cannot be avoided.

Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

P.S. This would make a great e-book, with links to recordings along the way.
P.P.S. special thanks to one of my reading children, who gave me this book for my last birthday.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A time of nonsense

In Robin Parry’s little book on the Trinity in worship, I picked up the title for Nick Page’s delightful exploration of a deplorable condition in modern worship songs. And hey, this is not the rant of a traditionalist dinosaur. Like Parry, Page is an English charismatic Christian who embraces the “worship song” ethos, and wants to see it live up to its potential. Published in 2004, one would like to think that Page’s diagnosis and cure have been accepted and applied. Sadly, in my observation, not as much as one would wish. A couple of years ago I pressed a fellow pastor about a particular song choice, wondering if it was incoherent. He didn’t see it that way; I think Nick Page would have.

The author of And now let’s move into a time of nonsense: Why Worship Songs are Failing theChurch, Nick Page is a free-lance author with a wide range of interests, many (though not all) connected to the church and Christian life. Think of DickLowden, with an English accent and Christian faith. The man is funny. And that lets him get intensely serious with an issue he cares deeply about. Maybe it’s because I come at this concern from the opposite side – I think worship songs have a complementary role, not a primary role, in congregational song – but through Page’s humor I find his observations and arguments compelling.

Page equates the writing of worship songs in our generation with the flowering of hymnody in the past. As with old hymns (most of which we no longer sing, for very good reasons) he assumes most of the new will fall away, leaving the best for the next generation(s). When I came to this realization myself, some years ago, I became much less anxious about dealing with new music. And much more eager to settle only for the songs with some lasting values: are the words true and meaningful? Do the melodies sound anything like what the words mean? Can a large inter-generational group sing them well? Well, enough about me, let’s get on to Why Worship Songs are Failing the Church. This book is directed toward song-writers, but in my view it should be read by those who select the songs (worship leaders and pastors) and by everyone who wants to have a voice in worship discussions.

When we equate music with worship, and worship with music (and really, why does this still happen?) we isolate worship from life. (24) Excellent point. Can someone who embraces the notion of “lifestyle” worship continue to use the word “worship” when they mean “singing,” or isolate “worship” from “preaching”?

Page presses for song-writing that uses every day vocabulary. He is ferocious on the use/abuse of church and Christian and yes, even biblical, clichés. And he urges songwriters to creatively explore metaphors, imagery, ideas that communicate biblical truth in common language. If the words we sing were more transparent, more concrete, more like the way we talk, then maybe our “lifestyle” worship and our sung worship would be more congruent. Someone once wrote, “When I became a Christian I stopped telling lies and started singing them.” (25) How much do we sing that we (a) don’t believe, (b) don’t understand, and/or (c) have no intention of actually living out? Ouch. (And yes, this is true also of hymn singing, isn’t it?)

A free-lance writer with wide-ranging interests had better have a love for words. Nick Page does. And he so obviously loves to sing. And is eager to be a genuine worshiper. His critique from within his own tradition is “friendly fire.” It ought to be read by all evangelicals, at least, and other Christians who look to that charismatic tradition for their worship songs. Page applauds those who are not writing nonsense, names some who are, and illustrates that nonsense with a series of songs by the fictitious Kevin Molecule, worship leader at the Stokes Poges Strict Tabernacle. In a series of letters to his music publisher, we get a look inside the head of the worst-case scenario . . . Which is to say, perhaps, the all-too-common. Incoherent? Honestly, Kevin’s songs are no worse than some you and I have heard, seen, and either been forced to sing or have refused to sing. Like this excellent viral video, Kevin’s songs can hardly serve as a parody for what is being sung in churches of all kinds.

Here is Kevin Molecule's first song:
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
We glorify the Lamb once slain
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
We enter into the land all over again.
Build a great big throne with our worship,
Help us live in resurrection power;
And you will reign
Like a bride ordained,
For our anointed consummating hour.
                (repeat) Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, etc.
(just before page 1)
Excuse me: this is what I meant about incoherent lyrics. Yes, all the words make sense, and we can even trace the sources of the ideas. But, really? The songs get better (or, not) throughout the book, and at the end (122) we learn that with only a very few (very obvious) exceptions, they were cobbled together from actual published worship songs.

So much for the words. But, seriously, if you can find this book, it is worth reading Kevin’s songs. And asking, “haven’t I sung this one?” Page also addresses song-writing, and has an excellent description of the pop song as the model for worship songs. (36-39) Remember, this is from a friend of the concept. He calls the model “the spiritual equivalent of the paper plate.” (39) “So much of worship is turning in on itself,” (42) which of course is its pop song legacy and the unintended consequence of worship as entertainment (44f) – his critique, not mine! To make up for the innate lack of qualities, because the words and melody can’t quite sell some songs, we press for greater performance forces (bigger bands). Friends and fellow worship leaders: If our pastors and churches are pressing for more people on the “stage” to “lead worship,” we need to be asking some questions. Are we too close to the entertainment roots of our worship music; and are our songs inherently dependent upon volume to “work?” These are not my questions today – they come from Nick Page.

Page is not all critique. He provides some excellent advice to would-be song-writers. Read poetry; study excellent songwriters of all genres; ask others to evaluate your lyrics; be an artist; take time. His fifth chapter (52-81) denies that sincerity is enough; here is a charismatic arguing for the importance of technique. His model is Newton’s “Amazing Grace;” he urges writers to write from their own experiences. “They [your song lyrics] should not be rehashes of other people’s experiences or rewrites of other lyrics.” Ironic, since Newton’s best-loved, most genre-crossing hymn is also the most-cribbed genre-crossing hymn ever written.

Time and space prohibit me from going into Page’s excellent critique of cliché. Perhaps we should demand of our song-writers some evidence that they have successfully completed a course in English composition. And that they keep Strunk & White on their desk or music stand. Readers may be uncomfortable with Page’s argument against using biblical imagery. I know that I was at first, and have lingering doubts about how far to extend his critique. But I will say that the most incoherent worship songs I’ve ever seen on a screen were full of biblical vocabulary, metaphors, images, and quotations. So, um, maybe we should also demand of our song-writers some evidence of biblical and theological competency. Finally, and to this point, Page proposes that if worship songs are to become the best they can be, the genre may need to take the words out of the guitar players' hands, and put them into the hands of poets and pastors. Interestingly – and I don’t think the irony is lost on Nick Page – that partnership produced most of the most-lasting hymns.

Nick Page, And now let’s move into a time of nonsense: why Worship Songs are Failing the Church
(Milton Keynes, UK: Authentic Media, 2004)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


Here's a book that could have been an important addition to my thesis bibliography. It is well researched, addresses some of the issues I need to deal with, and (perhaps most importantly) it confirms what I'd like to say about Bach. But it is written at a popular level, with a tone that almost begs not to be taken seriously. That's too bad.

Evening in the Palace of Reason by James R. Gaines turns out to be an account of changing cultural and philosophical assumptions. The vehicle for his comparison, the conflict in changing times, is the famous meeting of Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. “Gentlemen, old Bach is here.” (It’s a meeting, and a famous quotation,  that I have already used in my thesis.) Bach represents a world view which took traditional religion seriously and composed according to philosophical principles that can be traced back to Pythagoras and Boethius. Frederick is presented as Europe’s first “enlightened” monarch, or at least as one given to the Enlightenment values. (In Germany, this era was called “Erklärung” – or a time of clarity, elucidation. It is the age of reason.)

C. P. E. Bach (Carl) was one of Frederick’s musicians. Like his brother W. Friedemann Bach, Carl was composing in the  new style, the gallant style, the Empfindsamer Stil. Music was no longer to carry meaning, but to entertain, to amuse. So when Bach arrived at Frederick’s hall, he was “old Bach” the father of Carl, and “old Bach” the fussy old-school contrapuntalist who composed as if the music actually mattered; as if by composing some meaning could be transmitted to the hearers.

There is a lot of speculation in the book, which is one reason it is not suitable as a thesis reference. But to be fair, Bach was so old school that he left very little information about himself. Every Bach biography has to make informed guesses. The main question for Gaines concerns Frederick’s motive for setting a supposedly impossible challenge to Bach, and who actually wrote the challenging theme. Regardless, the facts of the case are these: Frederick sat at a pianoforte in his palace, and played a longish, meandering, chromatic melody, then asked Bach to improvise a three-part fugue on that theme. Gaines works from the assumption that this was to stymie – that is, humiliate – the great contrapuntalist and improviser. To the astonishment of all (the room was filled with dignitaries and musicians), Bach pulled it off. Frederick then asked for a six-part fugue; Bach demurred, saying he could not do justice to the “Royal Theme.” 

You can see the theme here, with some information about the "Offering." And a YouTube here, though for my money it is easier to hear in one of the many settings for instruments.

Two weeks after Bach’s return to Leipzig, however, he had finished composing that six-part challenge, which we now know as the Ricercar from the “Musical Offering.” As well as writing out the 3-part improvisation, a four-movement sonata based on the theme, and ten canons which incorporate and play with the insidious theme. He had them engraved, bound, and sent to Frederick as a gift. And (I love the plausible notion which Gaines promotes) not only a gift, but a poke in the royal eye.

Twilight in the Palace of Reason traces the biographies of Frederick and Bach (who was roughly the age of Frederick’s father). Does he get the biographies correct? With Bach, it is always difficult to say. It seems to me, from what I’ve read, that he has the main features and that he makes no more conjectures than any other biographer. But a word of caution: I caught Gaines out on a couple of little details, which just made me keep grains of salt nearly as I read. [About Martin Luther, Gaines writes that while in hiding in the Wartburg Luther spent his days “teaching himself Greek and writing his world-shifting German translation of the New Testament.” (16) Well, I’m pretty sure that Luther already knew his Greek very well long before he posted his 95 Theses. Maybe he was teaching himself how to translate the Greek into German, but this unfortunate statement early in the book served to make me cautious about the facts of the case. Exhibit A in why I can’t use this in my bibliography!]

What Gaines does well is bring together two historical characters who really did meet, really did exchange words, really were from different worlds, and shaped not only their worlds but ours. It is a brilliant example of accessibly addressing history, philosophy and art. And I have to say that I think he really got Bach. The messages in the Musical Offering were “simply another declaration of faith in a lifetime of such declarations . . . Bach could not have cared whether Frederick like the Musical Offering or not, and . . . [his] indifference to Frederick’s opinion was not stubborn or arrogant but rooted in his character too deeply even to be considered a matter of principle.” (239) “Most importantly, [the Musical Offering] is a work of incomprehensibly comprehensive intellectual and sensual beauty . . . a feast of inexpressibly delicious delights.” Gaines addresses the challenge of explaining Bach’s music: “what is greatest about Bach’s work is literally impossible to talk about, a characteristic that perhaps more than any other distinguishes his music from the galant.” (240) He quotes Isaiah Berlin (from The Roots of Romanticism), who notes that works of art that are beautiful without being profound, one can describe and explain how and why they give pleasure: “But in the case of works which are profound, the more I say the more remains to be said.” (240)

And that is a fair warning as I write this thesis dealing with Bach’s music!

Within a generation of Bach’s death, and then Frederick’s, the Enlightenment project was already being rethought in light of the earthquake/tidal wave that destroyed Lisbon  and later the French Revolution. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Romantics pressed forward from Reason to Feeling, but also looked back, and brought “old Bach” along with them into the modern world. Where he still challenges listeners and performers, still intrigues with his steadfast religious and philosophical worldview that took composition seriously. Here is a man who believed music means something, and whose music makes us believe that it can.
Evening in the Palace of Reason, James R. Gaines
(New York: Harper Collins, 2005)