Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Monday, 20 December 2010

Sing along with Old Bach

In the West Riding of Yorkshire where if tha does owt for nowt, do it for thisen (If you ever do anything without cash reward, only do it for yourself) Messiah was big around Christmas. Yet Handel devotes only six airs, choruses and recitatives out of 50-plus to this festival. There is nothing Christmassy about “All they that see him, laugh him to scorn.” and “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?”

For wall-to-wall Christmas we need ace professional, master recycler J. S. Bach and his Christmas Oratorio, cobbled together from six cantatas intended for separate days – New Year’s Day and the Sunday after, among others. It’s amazing it works and yet, in another sense, it isn’t. Bach fed the public demand for new music and though capable of standalone masterpieces (the Goldberg, the Brandenburgs) he didn’t bust his ass every weekend.

To spare his inventive powers he craftily eased his second-hand secular music into sacred works. Christmas Oratorio contains bits from Hercules at the Crossroads, and Strike the Drums, Sound the Trumpets, both non-religious cantatas.

My Bach has a dream cast (Elly Ameling, Janet Baker, Robert Tear, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, King’s College Choir) and they make a fine racket. But it’s the Colin Davies Messiah that is the greater musical event. For one thing the soloists (Heather Harper, Helen Watts, John Wakefield and John Shirley-Quirk) are required to improvise curlicues; for another the choir is far smaller and better throated than was usual at the time of the recording (1966).

BIG QUESTION So, why does an atheist (presently considering a switch to rationalism or humanism, given a declining capacity for intellectual rigour) listen to this God stuff? Well, it’s simply not true the Devil has all the best tunes.


DuchessOmnium said...

That's a very Good Answer to the Big Question.

Hattie said...

I, too, am a sucker for sacred music (and art) in spite of having been an athiest since age six.

Avus said...

Agreed that one does not need a god to find religious works beautiful, BB.
I follow the humanist path (see:http://www.humanism.org.uk/humanism ) which is so much more positive than bare atheism.
Yet passages from the KJ Bible can move me to tears and good translations of certain chapters of the Koran, too, have a beauty. Music and art likewise.

Lucy said...

It would be a pretty dour kind of atheistic fundamentalism that would deny oneself all the beauty that sacred art and music and architecture and poetry and the rest can show you, not something I'd want any truck with.

Yes, good word 'truck'. I'll pass up the atheist bus with its supremely crass and patronising 'there is probably no god, so relax and enjoy your day', and wait for the agnostic truck!

Mind you, some religious painting is reassuringly hideous and disgusting...

Barrett Bonden said...

DO: Normally I eschew wandering capitals but here you've legitimised the practice.

Hattie: As I recall you were brought up in California, the US state that noisily proclaims: In my Father's house there are many mansions.

Avus: Surely atheism can be nothing but bare: it is the absence of faith, rather than a replacement for it. For atheists the subject doesn't come up, unless raised by someone else. It is not a proselytising state of mind although given Richard Dawkins' ubiquity you might think otherwise. I'll try out the link once I'm finished here.

Lucy: Is agnosticism (arriving in whatever vehicle) another word for the philosophy of science, doubt being the scientist's most valuable tool? As to Christian art I have already experienced my Damascene moment, courtesy of the saintly Neil MacGregor. He laid his hands upon my stubbornly blind eyes and, lo, I awoke unto light.

FigMince said...

I know I'm late here, but it's always fascinated me that JS Bach, arguably the Papa of classical music, was in fact a journeyman pumping out a weekly work quota for a pay packet.

I derive a certain satisfaction from pointing this out to luvvies whenever a conversation turns to government subsidies for the arts.

Re the Messiah: Should an atheistic anti-royalist stand for the Hallelujah chorus, or stand for his/her principles by remaining seated?

Barrett Bonden said...

FigMince: On the three occasions we have attended live performances of the Messiah, Mrs BB and I have retained our seats. Neither of us cares to make things difficult for Christians but we are less fastidious about monarchists. Besides which the reasons for this observance are so "English" as to be parodic; why should we maintain a tradition based on a mistake?

Plutarch said...

A theory which I am currently working out is that many of the things in which atheists don't believe, may find a level of validity in the structures of myth and imagination, which generations have created and in which generations have believed to be true. There are two truths then. The truth of what actually happened in history or possibly happened. And the truth which a people or a culture has made up through speculation, hope, and fear,and fervently believed in for so long, that it has come to exist in its own right, a mental structure, like a mental cathedral or a mental city, with its own rules and customs. We atheists can look upon such structures as we do upon the universe as described by science with similar admiration and objectivity.

Barrett Bonden said...

Plutarch: I accept that division of reality and can take it a stage further. I find the behaviour of certain Christians as Christians admirable in a way that traverses my view of the world - notably Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I think this thesis works when these structures are contemplated from afar, I am less comfortable when they are mediated by believers. At the back of my mind is the thought that much of what is presented could have been arrived at via rational thought processes without recourse to the supernatural. Not all atheists can command the rigour of Dawkins and Hitchens and fear of the unknown (ie, the scientifically unknown) may undermine personal resolve. But it's what happens thereafter that creates the difference: the atheist tries to move ahead or subdue his fear from his own imperfect resources, the believer discards his greatest asset (the power of thought) and hands his fate over to mysticism. I think your structures idea is perfectly viable when there is time for contemplation, but may be tested when things turn nasty.

I am conscious I haven't thought all this through and this is why I recently admitted that I lack the intellectual equipment to defend an atheistic stance to the bitter end and am looking around for something else that provides a softer cop-out. I find sheer indolence tempting, garnished by Peter Cook's defence: I'd have got much further if I'd had the Latin.

FigMince said...

Re atheism: I'm not aware of atheists anywhere wanting to kill anyone elsewhere purely because of the killee's atheism.

Re people standing for the Hallelujah Chorus:

Barrett Bonden said...

FigMince: Under the sign of Famous Wok and of New York Fries... I have to say I didn't actually sit down and weep but I was moved. The singing was excellent and the mainly young choir enjoyed what they were doing. What's more the people who don't normally give a toss about music were made to look uneasy.

On top of which is the comforting internationalism of music: a group of Swedes singing stuff in English by a German composer. Thanks Fig (I think we've now reached the Oz equivalent of du and tu, haven't we) I appreciated that.