Saturday, January 3, 2015

Music in the Castle of Heaven

I am not the fastest reader you will meet. Then again, John Eliot Gardiner's biography of Bach is not meant to be rushed. Still, last year's Christmas gift from my Karen has been my companion for the better part of the past year (and I do mean the better part). It is with some regret that I came to the end yesterday.

J. S. Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven was much anticipated last year. It was published and released whilst I was working away at my theology thesis on Bach. I worried that it would come out soon enough that I would have to take it into account at the 11th hour. Then I worried that if I started reading it during the editing process, I would lose heart. So I (wisely? cravenly?) chose not to begin reading it until I had submitted my own to my readers.

Wisely, I think. (And yes, cravenly, too, alas.) There are a number of points, ideas, and illustrations that would have served me nicely in the thesis. Indeed, the chapter, "Collision and Collusion," addresses the main point of my thesis - the relationship of Bach's musical choices to articulate meaning. Sure, I'll use that whenever I talk about my thesis!

But the most personal response I take away from this excellent, magisterial work, is the cheek - the sheer gall - that I would attempt a thesis on the master and his work. Albert Schweitzer, in his landmark two-volume work on Bach, famously said (vol.2, p. 52) "No one can conduct one cantata properly unless he knows them all." Well, and now in our day there is John Eliot Gardiner, among the tiny elite who can be said to truly qualify. He is our day's Schweitzer; our generation's appropriate biographer.

Like Schweitzer, he may be proved wrong on certain points. Astonishingly, there are still documents and artifacts that surface related to Bach. But also like Schweitzer, this work will be read a century hence.

More to say later. For now, it is good enough for me that I finished this book during Christmas, during the season of contemplation of the Incarnation. Gardiner (no traditional Christian believer, by his own admission) concludes the book thus: But it is Bach, making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God - in human form. He is the one who blazes a trail, showing us how to overcome our imperfections through the perfections of his music: to make divine things human and human things divine. (558)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A feast for the soul

I won't even try to re-do the post from January 1, 2014. Every year it's the same . . . and this year it's different.

January 1, the 8th day of Christmas: the day (if not the date) when the baby, Jesus, was formally named. Though we don't know what day/date Jesus was born, the Bible is very specific about when he was named. And no normal "name day," either! Mary and Joseph named him under divine orders, and the witnesses were saints and prophets in the place God established for "God's name" to dwell. Here is a truly Evangelical Feast.

So, Happy New Year, and enjoy the football games, and make your resolutions. Me? I'm working on a low-key New Years Day which will probably involve a little bit of all that. But I can't shake the Festival aspect that the Church teaches me to stop and listen to. In these days of reflecting on Incarnation, I am thankful that the God who took on flesh was given a name both human and divine. A name above all names. A name before which all heaven and earth will bow. "Jesus" - the Lord God saves.

Oh, what a Wonderful Child!

For a good playlist, look back at last year's post. But for the song going through my head today, check this out. It is from a New York production of Langston Hughes' "Black Nativity." A little hotter than our Minnesota memories, but the closest I can find online.

And then there's this classic, obviously the model for the version we love from Penumbra Theater's production.