MARCH 29, 2002
A (Sacrilegious) Musical Offering
-- Richard Young
It is not unusual for classical music compositions to be adapted to serve purposes other than those originally intended by the composers. Madison Avenue and Hollywood do it all the time, often very effectively. Few were bothered when they heard Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz in the movie 2001, or Barber's Adagio for Strings in Platoon. No one is offended when they hear Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue as a United Airlines 747 sweeps across their television screen, or when they see Olympic figure skaters perform triple axels to Bizet's Carmen. But certain pieces should be handled with uncommon sensitivity.
Imagine using Shostakovich's 8th string quartet which was written "in memory of the victims of fascism and war" for a propaganda film that glorifies Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. Imagine a performance of Copland's Lincoln Portrait that instead quotes the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Imagine an oratorio about the horrors of the Holocaust that scraps its original text in favor of one that advances the theory that the Holocaust never occurred.
Now imagine a performance of Franz Joseph Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ, a Good Friday work whose seven main sections of music are preceded by spoken meditations. But instead of basing these meditations on the final utterances of Jesus (as Haydn enjoined), imagine meditations that are not just secular, but which are tone-deaf to the sensibilities of the faithful due to their non-theistic tone and content. Such a performance occurred last month at the University of Chicago's Mandel Hall.
One can appreciate the motivation of concert performers and presenters who strive to reach a broader audience by making classical music more accessible. One can relate to the idealistic motivation of those whose hope is for music to somehow"transcend" its original boundaries. One understands even the commercial motivation of those who feel the urge to find "contemporary" (and sometimes provocative) ways to present certain repertoire that they fear may be showing its age. But particularly with compositions that are closely identified with war victims, ethnicity, and religion, the motivation that should transcend all others is respect, in this case for the composers' own spiritual motivation, and for those listeners whose personal convictions mirror this motivation. Just as Americans take great care to be respectful of their neighbors' religious icons, they should be just as careful and respectful of musical representations of these very same icons. Failure to do so can betray not just shockingly poor taste, but can be deeply offensive and hurtful to those who cherish these manifestations of religious conviction.
The hypothetical examples described above and the actual Mandel Hall performance go beyond insensitivity. They enter the realm of sacrilege, which is defined as "the desecration, profanation, misuse, or theft of something sacred." Are there any words more sacred to Christians than Jesus' final utterances from the cross? For these believers, what music could possibly be more sacred than music that is based (both generally and specifically) on these words? Unlike generally "spiritual" music that can suit various occasions, music whose identity and integrity are derived from its umbilical-like connection to a sacred text is not just misused, but is desecrated and profaned when this life-sustaining connection is severed, then reattached to something altogether foreign. Like Siamese twins who share the same vital organs, sacred music and the sacred texts upon which it is based cannot be separated from each other without risking serious harm to one, the other, or both.
Though hard to believe, professional musicians and concert presenters who abuse sacred music may simply be unaware of the depth of the offense they cause, oblivious to the consequences of their own shallow zeal. If their transgression stems from ignorance rather than intent, how should offended persons respond? One possibility might be to take a cue from the second movement of Haydn's Good Friday masterpiece and "forgive them for they know not what they do."
-- Richard Young is the violist of the Vermeer String Quartet, a group that performs world-wide and is based in Chicago.