Religion has always been central to the functions of Western music. Yet considering the role of the Bible in Western religions, it is surprising how little use has been made of authentic biblical passages as texts for music, relative to other sources; most of the words frequently set are, at best, paraphrases. Aside from music to accompany ritual (which has its own texts), one reason for this may be the poor reputation traditionally enjoyed by musicians. Regarded as persons of dubious morals, and theatres-their habitats-as dens of vice, artists were viewed as inappropriate vehicles for the propagation of The Message.
But the Bible is rich in poetry. The Old Testament's Songs of Moses, of Deborah, of Hannah; the Book of Lamentations, the Song of Songs, and especially the Psalms; in the New Testament, such passages as the Beatitudes and the Our Father lend themselves so naturally to music that throughout the centuries there have always been composers who appropriate these texts-if nothing else, they are not protected by copyright-for their poetic value alone or as a universal way to express personal or communal sentiments.
We begin with Bach, who, as it happens, set few if any Bible texts directly. The B-minor Mass aside, he wrote functional music for specific occasions; his cantatas were commentaries on the readings for the day. But Bach is such a pillar of Western music that to omit him from our collection solely on account of the provenance of his texts would misrepresent our sources. The two Chorales are typical examples of his style, products of his Leipzig years of full maturity.
Schubert, dying young, never had a chance to attain such maturity. He composed his setting of the most popular of all Psalms in 1820 for a friend who was heading a new singing school in Vienna, using the German translation by Moses Mendelssohn (grandfather of Felix). The angelic voices of the women's choir may suggest images of Heaven, but the music's function was far more prosaic: this is an examination piece.
Arvo Pärt is a Schubert for our own time. The composer of Estonia's first twelve-tone works, his route out of the cul-de-sac of modernism was an exploration of medieval and Renaissance masters, and of acoustics, resulting in music he calls Tintinnabuli: "Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me... I build with the most primitive materials-with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of the triad are like bells. And that is why I called it tintinnabulation."
Pärt's Christianity is at the forefront of most of his recent music. In this he is similar to Bach and to many previous composers (but not to Schubert, who doubted). For Leonard Bernstein, Judaism was not only an integral part of the Self, it was part of the uniqueness, the Difference-in all things-that was crucial to his identity. His rejection of the advice of his mentor, Serge Koussevitzky (himself an apostate Jew), that he change his name to Leonard S. Burns as a way to get ahead in an anti-Semitic world was not only an assertion of pride in his origins but a rejection of the suburban normality that "Burns" (as opposed to Anything-stein) represented. And so when he received a commission in 1965 for a work to be sung by the combined choirs of Winchester, Salisbury and Chichester cathedrals in England, it was natural for him, though it may seem strange to us, to compose a setting of Psalms in their original Hebrew.
The American composer Jack Gottlieb spent a number of years as Bernstein's assistant and editor, absorbing some influences along the way but also discovering his own independence as a composer: less self-consciously different, less jazzy, more influenced by American vernacular music, by the Blues, and by Reform synagogue rituals. His setting of Psalm 23 (one of three that we perform this evening, in three languages) is excerpted from a larger, five-movement work entitled Psalmistry.
In Bach's Passion settings, the Chorale serves the purpose of conveying the community's response to events in the story. For Michael Tippett, composing a mid-twentieth-century equivalent to a Passion in which the One who suffers for our sins is He who fights Nazi tyranny, the search for a structural equivalent to Bach's chorales led to the American Negro spiritual: also a communal utterance born of pain, but containing a germ of optimism.
And so, in this evening's survey of Transitions-Baroque to Post-Modern, Old to New Testament, Old to New Worlds-to Leo? Janá?ek. A Moravian, born in the interstices between Czechs and Slovaks, his life spanned the dying Austro-Hungarian empire and the nascent Czechoslovak state just as his career fell between the death of musical common practice and the birth of twentieth-century eclecticism. Like Schubert he was a church-avoider whose sacred works tell us more about him than about religion. For Janá?ek the bread in the Our Father is indeed daily fare, not the consecrated wafer of the Eucharist. And thus he is a fitting candidate to close our concert of earthy music set to heavenly texts.
- Jerome Hoberman -