Who are you calling a sheep? (Another classical music post)

It’s the holiday season, and my chorus last weekend performed a piece closely associated with the season, Handel’s Messiah. As I’ve often said before about choral music, atheists have to judge the artistic merits of a piece of music apart from the message being conveyed through the music. Presumably even the most hardened philistine is familiar with the great “Hallelujah” chorus of the piece, and there’s plenty else to love throughout the work. A few more of my favorites bits: “For Unto Us a Child is Born.” “And He Shall Purify.” And the Amens at the end. Great music.

Of course I could criticize the theology in all of it, but I want to focus specifically on this one piece in part 2. “All We Like Sheep.” In fact, it’s critical enough to this post that I’m going to embed it so you can watch it first. I think there’s a valuable insight into theology to be found.

(That’s not my chorus, by the way, it’s just some people on YouTube.)

Cute, isn’t it? Here are the words.

All we like sheep
Have gone astray
We have turned everyone
To his own way

And the Lord hath laid on him
The iniquities of us all!

Sometimes I imagined changing the lyrics to “We all like sheep,” which changes the message considerably.

Our director really emphasized the shift in tone at the final part. Up till then, everything is bouncy, cheerful, and silly. After that, it’s dark and scary. I like to envision all the little sheep frolicking around in a Pepe Le Pew style hopping trot. Then at the end, maybe a giant Monty Python foot comes down on them.

Who are the sheep? Us! All we! Maybe you’ve heard the Christian metaphor already that Christians are sheep and Christ is our loving shepherd. You might interpret it that way, but that’s not how Handel apparently thought of it… the consequence of being dumb, frolicking, self-willed sheep is implied in the dark, brooding, angry minor key of the last few bars.

That’s the perspective that Christianity seems to offer on humanity. Under all the cheerful, bouncy “I’m so happy I have a personal relationship with Christ!” vibe, I also detect a deep rooted contempt for all humankind. The image of sheep doesn’t seem to be used here to convey the idea of comfort at being taken care of, so much as scorn at whatever it is that people like doing that makes them go astray; and also an implied threat.

Maybe I’m exaggerating, but actually I think a lot of preachers would agree with me. “You’re just denying God because you want to sin,” they’d say. The idea of all non-Christians as stupid, clueless sheep lurching around without the shepherd to watch them is baked into the core message of the Bible.

The disagreement here is not that I want to “sin” for its own sake. It’s that I don’t agree with the Christian concept of what constitutes bad behavior. It doesn’t matter what the bad behavior is — whether it’s sex that isn’t sanctified by the church (as Darrel Ray and Matt discussed yesterday) or sleeping in on Sundays or scientific inquiry into the nature of the universe. What’s important in a religious context is that you feel generally uncomfortable with anything you do that the doesn’t involve religious devotion.

I understand that many people raised religious still feel that discomfort. What’s interesting is that if there is no God, the only place you’re getting information about the “going astray” behavior is from a group of individuals with a direct interest in keeping you coming back to church and donating money.

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.

Religious choral music

Kazim here. I know I’ve mentioned before that I sing in the Austin Community Chorus, and that we do a lot of religious music. I did a whole show about justified acknowledgment of religion in art and education a while back. The fact is that historically, MOST classical music (along with other forms of art) was sponsored by the church. So in general, if a song is much more than a hundred years old and has words, there’s a fairly high chance that it will have something to do with Jesus.

This doesn’t stop the music from being very uplifting and well written. A couple of years ago I was doing Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion,” which ranks high among the best music I’ve ever heard from any era. Of course, the words are in Latin, so it’s easy to just ignore what you’re saying unless you grew up Catholic, which I didn’t.

This season we’re doing a piece called Saint Paul by Felix Mendelssohn. I’m not familiar with very much Mendelssohn. I’ve heard the overture he wrote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it’s fine. Apparently, this upcoming performance is a fairly big deal. Mendelssohn originally wrote the piece in English but then later translated it back into his native German, and the German version became the standard while the English got lost to history.

Apparently some music historian dug up the original English lyrics and republished it. There have been other translations before, but our concert will feature the world debut of THESE PARTICULAR English lyrics, or something like that. Musicians get excited about the weirdest things.

Anyway, my point in writing this is that I don’t particularly like it. The music doesn’t really do it for me, but singing the English words just makes it generally much more unpleasant. The story is the most tedious kind of apologetics. It is all about how Saint Paul used to persecute Christians, then was blinded and visited by Jesus. He converted to Christianity and then went on to write most of the most awful sexually repressed parts of the Bible. (Okay, that last part isn’t in the piece, it’s just my spin.)

Probably my least favorite passage is when he’s condemning a Christian to death. The basses chant “Stone him to death!” and then the tenors (that’s me) join in “Stone him to death!” and then the altos and then the sopranos, and so everybody is yelling in unison. Frankly, it’s a little bit creepy and uncomfortable. Supposedly it’s about the Jewish power structure persecuting the Christians, but I can’t help flashing forward on the Spanish Inquisition and other acts of atrocity, as well as the modern reconstructionist movement, who ironically want to bring back exactly the punishment that is used to portray Paul as a bad guy. It kind of feels like being part of a lynch mob.

Much of the rest of the piece follows the kind of simpering glurginess that you often hear in praise of Christianity. It’s a lot of “Oh blessed are they who have endured” and even something that goes like (paraphrasing because I don’t have the score) “You are so grand and mysterious that you are beyond our comprehension.” Bleah.

Next season, though, we get Beethoven’s Ninth (Ode to Joy). Now that’s something worth sticking around for.