April 9, 2001
The Transcendence of Religious Music
-- Martin E. Marty
Religion in public life shows up not just in politics, but also in the concert hall. The week of Passover and Easter offers chances to assess it.
A close-up sighting: this Wednesday at the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel, the world-renowned Vermeer Quartet and seven of us Chicago-renowned homilists will team to "do" Haydn's "Seven Last Words of Christ." This string quartet-with-reflections will also be broadcast live, on Good Friday evening, on Chicago's (only remaining!) good music station.
So? So many in the audience/congregation will be Jews. The first violinist is Jewish. And a rabbi will reflect on one of the seven words from the center of Christian piety.
The violinist participates out of respect for the genius of Haydn, and no doubt also out of an awareness of how music at its height and faith at its depth interact. The rabbi gives up none of his Jewishness as he ponders Jesus the Jew, whose followers from gospel-writing times until today have created so many problems for Jews. When Christian meditations or symbols are imposed on Jews (and others) in public school classrooms or on the courthouse lawn, their only reaction can be resentment. In free circumstances, however, the faiths can, without compromise, celebrate each others' integrity.
A second sighting, a bit less close to home: the New Yorker and the New York Times join other reviewing media in reporting on ten-minute standing ovations in Stuttgart and Boston for -- can you believe this? -- NEW music. Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentine of Russian Jewish descent who now lives in Boston, had to borrow a New Testament to script his "La Pasion Segun San Marcos." We supped with this 39-year-old a year ago and hope to consult and conspire with him in the future. Our conversation led to pondering: what was it that made it possible for him to get interior to the meanings of the passion, as did Haydn, as will the Vermeer Quartet, as did James Levine who conducted in Boston? Let Golijov's music provide the answer where words cannot.
The New York Times (Feb. 18) notices a larger phenomenon at work: "How are we to explain the current explosion of musical Christianity: Masses, Passions and oratorios by God-obsessed composers, it would seem, from every continent? Where has all the worshipful rhetoric come from, given that its creators are in large part lapsed Christians, those with whom faith never took hold, or aggressive atheists?"
We can't answer that, but we can answer that what often holds back such God-obsessed artistic ventures is any attempt to impose God on publics. Let freedom ring, also in the concert hall. Alex Ross in the New Yorker (March 5) hears the Kaddish at the end of Golijov's work, "and the centuries have slipped away like sand."