Non Credo in Unum Deum: Religion in classical music

Next weekend I’ll be performing a concert with my group, Chorus Austin. We will be doing the Mozart Mass in C-Minor which is, in all honesty, a simply amazing piece of choral work. If you can make it, you ought to come. Schedule and details are here, and you can check out the nifty glossy flier here. If nothing else, you should see how I look in a tuxedo. :)

I’m taking a gamble by bringing eight year old Ben along. I expect he’ll pay attention to some of the music for twenty minutes and then hopefully read quietly during the rest. In order to get his interest up, I’ve been playing some movements for him on my iPod — I tried to get him into classical music early in life, and this video turned out to be a fascinating way to demonstrate how fugues work. (The beginning of that piece, the part that everyone has heard in scary movies, is the toccata. The fugue begins at the 2:50 mark. A fugue is like the instrumental version of singing a “round”, with a single theme that gets repeated by different voices, usually in different keys.)

Separating form from message
Of course I also had to explain the words, which are roughly the same as words that are in every mass. My chorus has sung a lot of masses (with Bach’s B-Minor being my all-time favorite) so I know the words pretty well. It is basically an abridged Latin translation of the entire story of Jesus. They all start out with “Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison” (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy”). Then they move on to “Gloria in exceslis Deo” (“Glory to God in the highest”). There is a statement of faith in the credo, which is referenced in the title of this post. (“Credo in Unum Deum” means “I believe in one God.” The “Non” was my own addition.)

Eventually they work up to introducing Jesus Christ (“Jesu Christe”) and how he was crucified (“Crucifixus”) after being betrayed by Pontius Pilate; then dead and buried (“sub Pontio Pilato passus, et sepultus est”) But then! Yay! He came back! (“Et resurrexit!”) And everything was all better, and finally we live happily ever after, or at least we hope so. (“Dona nobis pacem”, grant us peace.) There is also a bit in the about love for the one, true, holy Catholic church (“Et Unam Sanctam Catholicam et Apostolicam”), which you have to admit is an odd sentiment in the middle of Baptist country.

As a story, it’s not too terrible. I mean, obviously I don’t base my life around it, but you can look at it as a compelling superhero origin story. But it does get a little tedious when you consider the fact that it was virtually the only story expressed successfully through the song for several centuries in a row.

As I explained to Ben, not agreeing with the lyrics does not diminish the power of the music. The choral works of Bach and Mozart are among the greatest artistic achievements in human history, if I say so myself. Christians today are, of course, eager to take credit for this, saying that great art is made possible by the influence of God.

Secular Art
…Which is nonsense. One of my other favorite pieces of all time is “Carmina Burana,” which I believe is in the short list of pieces that our director plans to put on the agenda in future seasons. Carmina Burana is essentially a satire of religious liturgies, full of Latin lyrics in full on praise of drinkin’, gamblin’, overeatin’, and good old sexual frenzies. And it is a hell of a musical piece also.

As we’ve arrived in more modern times, there has been an explosion of creativity which for the first time in history is not mostly driven by the church. I’ll stack up The Beatles and Rush against the musical greats of centuries gone by, and even John Williams (composer for movies such as “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Harry Potter”) makes a pretty good secular showing with an orchestra.

Religion used to largely dominate the art profession. Why? Because religious institutions were the ones with piles of money, and you needed rich patrons to survive as a composer or painter or sculptor. Writing a mass or a requiem made good financial sense, not to mention the always present nebulous claims of the church that if you offer enough stuff to God then it will make it easier to get into heaven, back when the rules of entry were not so sharply defined as in a Jack Chick tract.

Rock me, obscene child
It’s kind of interesting, if you think about it, that religion no longer dominates popular art. I’m not going to pick on Christian rock. In fact, I’ve heard individual rock selections expressing sincere religious themes that I liked, musically, very much. (Don’t press me for examples, please. I cannot think of any off the top of my head, and if I remembered some then I’d probably embarrass myself by exposing my tastes.) But the point is, religion no longer dominates the music scene the way it did in the mid-to-late parts of the last millennium.

Likewise, I can think of very few movies that exist primarily to promote a religious message that have gotten much traction. There’s The Passion of the Christ, of course; that did very well. A handful of historical classics like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. But here, again, religious contributions are dwarfed by the very large number of excellent movies that have been made outside the umbrella of religion; and movies that do treat religious themes frequently take a critical or ambiguous view of the church. Was Casablanca a theatrical mass? Was Citizen Kane a liturgical requiem? I think not.

For a good example of the intersection of movies and classical music, there’s Amadeus, an Academy Award winner which presents an entertaining (though thoroughly fictionalized) account of Mozart’s life and work. A running theme throughout the movie is that Salieri, the villain/protagonist, worships a God who simply does not make any sense. Salieri initially believes that God loves great music and will reward his own religious fervor with the gift of great talent and success. Instead, he watches helplessly as great music is channeled through a Mozart who is portrayed as a “giggling, dirty creature” and an “obscene child.”

The whole story of his epic failure at life is told to a young and naive priest, whose look of complete shock and disillusionment at the end of the movie has to be seen and enjoyed. For me, the movie highlights the fact, not that the universe is malevolent, but that by all appearances it doesn’t actually care about your piety. Artistic messages are still in the eye of the beholder, and that’s just my interpretation. But unlike a Latin mass, Amadeus is great art that doesn’t directly praise and glorify God.

Sturgeon was right
The percentage of artistic works that portray a positive religious message has declined over time. This is a statement evangelists would agree with, and they’d use it as a sign of the moral decline of our times. I see it instead as an obvious resu
lt of the fact that religion is no longer the only game in town, which I hardly need to this audience say is a good thing.

You can partly credit this to Sturgeon’s Law, which states: “Ninety percent of everything is crud.” Most new music that is produced sucks. Most new art that is produced sucks. Most blog posts suck. We romanticize the past because most of the crud has been filtered out by disappearing from the public consciousness. Now we are left with the impression that every playwright of the past was Shakespeare, and every musician of the past was Bach, and every painter was Rembrandt, and every statesman was Jefferson. There are just as many new great works of art being produced now; perhaps even more, since we have so many more tools to make art accessible; but it’s buried under mountains of crud that hasn’t been filtered out yet.

However, the crud of the past that is no longer with us, was also in large part financed by the church. Reaching back in history, we have much more material to choose from that is religious because that’s just where artists went to get money.

I actually am kind of disappointed that so much of the art of the past has exactly the same lyrics. To my modern ear, it seems lazy (probably unjustly, given the circumstances). As I said, I’m not even saying that the gospels tell a bad story. It’s just not the ONLY story they could have chosen. It’s as if all movies had to be made about just one story. Maybe something from Shakespeare. Let’s pick Henry V as an example. I really like Henry V, especially the Kenneth Branagh film version… his delivery of that inspirational speech cements Henry in my mind as one of the greatest military badasses of literature.

But suppose every movie was just a retelling Henry V, and not only that, they were expected to recycle most of the dialogue from the original Shakespeare version. Wouldn’t that get boring?

I recognize, of course, that music is not a movie. The musical qualities of Mozart’s Mass in C-Minor are on a separate dimension from the words they are expressing. Mozart also wrote a lot of symphonies, and those don’t even have words. So you could argue that the lyrics don’t matter.

I kind of think they do matter, though, because they are another piece of the art that could be employed to supply great and unique new sentiments, and they kind of don’t. The music is influenced by the lyrics, so you can predict what kind of dynamic is called for at any point in a mass. Here’s the Crucifixus again, it’s all slow and somber like every Crucifixus. Then it gets loud and exultant with Et Resurrexit. Hosanna in Excelsis is joyful, etc. Now, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, they all wrote masses, and they all approached the subject with different sensibilities. They each have uniquely beautiful ways of capturing these emotions, but they’re still just telling the same story. And I don’t even think it’s all that great a story.

Credo in intelligentibus
I want to wrap this up, so here’s my credo. I believe that human beings are capable of producing massive amounts of crap and calling it art. I also believe that once in a while, some truly terrific stuff filters to the top which withstands the test of time. Sometimes the good stuff goes unrecognized and gets forgotten anyway. But I believe that people are sensitive enough that over time, a lot of great stuff has accumulated for all of us to share and enjoy.

I believe that people find inspiration in all different aspects of their lives. I believe that something doesn’t have to be true in order to inspire beauty, but that truth is inherently beautiful and preferable. I believe that we should seek to understand more of our world, not less; and we should look for art and inspiration in all of the universe, not just a story that we tell ourselves to pretend that we know more than we really do.