1. Litany and Mass; Song and Soul
In this lesson, we will discuss Leonard Bernstein’s 1971 composition titled Mass as well as my 2007 wind quintet titled Litany. By illustrating the relationship of Bernstein’s work to my own (as well as illustrating the relationship of other works to his) I will illustrate the processes of artistic “influence” in a concrete and simple fashion. It is my hope that some explanation of these communions between spirits will dispel some of the more mysterious theories which I have found to often shroud discussions of inspiration in art. The reader will find that the issues explored in this lesson will touch at the core of the current crises of trust and faith which I have been observing in examples throughout the present book.
In 2017, I attended the premiere a work which of mine called Azan at The Manchester International Festival. The Festival described the work as follows:
“Mohammed Fairouz, hailed as ‘one of the most talented composers of his generation’ by the BBC, has created Azan, a composition intended to cut through the noise of our day-to-day lives.”
That description of my intent is accurate and is taken from an interview in which I spoke of Azan. But my engagement with the Azan goes back as far as I can remember. My compositional engagement with the Azan, however, can be placed firmly to 2006 when I began a work called Litany. The reader who researches the “Azan” will find it described as the “call to prayer” (أذان).
The critic Andrew Ford described the work as follows in a review titled “Musical Alchemy.” The “alchemy” in question refers to the work of another composer reviewed in the same essay but is, unfortunately, applied to that work as a compliment by Mr. Ford. Here is the review:
“The young American, Mohammed Fairouz, is resourceful in a different way. The first sounds on the CD of his music, Critical Models (Sono Luminus DSL-92146), immediately put me in mind of middle-period Schoenberg, specifically the Wind Quintet. I dare say the instrumentation helped – Litany, the piece in question, is for wind quartet and double bass – but the contrapuntal neoclassicism did the rest. It is, to be sure, an old-fashioned sound, and the first time I listened I was completely distracted from the Islamic call to prayer that the composer’s program note later informed me was the inspiration and source material for the piece. For the record, the adhan is perfectly audible when you are properly attentive!”
The review continues as follows (I have cut nothing out). The reader will note that Mr. Ford has applied a genre to my work which I did not intend or describe (he calls it “neo-classical” and, at another point “middle-period Schoenberg”; two invented categorizations that manage to also be mutually exclusive). Note that Mr. Ford admits his distraction above (“I was completely distracted from the Islamic call to prayer that the composer’s program note later informed me was the inspiration and source material for the piece”) and then proceeds to redefine his own distraction as himself being mislead by the “sound world” of Litany:
“In fact the sound world of Litany is also misleading in another way. Fairouz’s music is full of variety – in his Four Critical Models alone, the individual movements are approached along contrasting stylistic paths. Because he is still in his mid twenties, there is every chance a more individual voice will emerge, but what is there already – and it is not to be sneezed at – is a commitment to the fundamentals, and this is nowhere more in evidence than in his string quartet, Lamentation and Satire (played by the Lydian Quartet). Eschewing instrumental effect and turning his back on the philosopher’s stone of sonic innovation, Fairouz, for all his playing with musical styles, emerges as one devoted to the traditional substance of music – pitch and duration. And that is refreshing.”
Mr. Ford’s review was gratifying to read at the time. This was not because of it’s positivity but rather because the fact that he admits to hearing what is intended when he paid attention to it. I was also pleased to be described as “eschewing instrumental effect.” Mr Ford also said the following of me: “[Fairouz is] turning his back on the philosopher’s stone of sonic innovation.”
May it always be so.
Discovering the real “substance” of Litany is much more interesting as it involves learning what this work reveals in terms of my “tradition” (and, in turn, the works that fall within it). For that we should start by taking a look at some documents from the 10th Century like the one above. These works are notations of the words and were used to realize communal songs in praise of God. The words are all written down. The gestures above the words indicate inflections for the voices and durations of how long a note might be held.
This is very simple to illustrate. For the purposes of demonstration, the reader will look at the following example titled Jubilate Dei Universa Terra (Rejoice in God all Earthly Lands):
The text which appears above is from the Psalms (65 in the Latin Vulgate). I have transcribed it as follows:
Jubilate Deo universa terra,
psalmum dicite nomini eius.
Venite et audite, et narrabo vobis omnis qui timetis Deum quanta fecit Dominus animae meae.
Here is the translation:
O be joyful in God, all ye lands:
sing praises unto the honor of his Name:
O come hither, and hearken, all ye that fear God: I will tell you what he hath done for my soul
The last word, Alleluia, is preserved from the Hebrew original in the Pslams (הללו יה) as an invocation of the name of God in praise.
In addition to the length and general “shape” of the singing, the notation also indicates places where the singers would weave out their song together more freely and floridly. This is a natural way of elongating the vowels and enjoying the act of singing these open vowels.
In the example below the reader will find that I have highlighted two examples of this from the Jubilate Deo Universa Terra. The first example, which I have highlighted in red, is an extension of the “a” vowel which begins the word “animae” (soul). The following example is a longer extension on the “ae” vowel in the middle of the word “Alleluia.” I have highlighted this in green as follows:
Beyond this, much was left to the ear and mouth as well as gestures of hand and general communication among the assembled worshippers and singers. Singing music in this context was communal and, as such, required the congregants to listen to one another as well as teach and learn from one another. This is an aural and oral act of communion. It is most beautifully captured in Leonard Bernstein’s Simple Song from his 1971 Theater Piece for Singers Actors and Dancers which is titled Mass. Here are Bernstein’s lyrics:
Sing God a simple song
Make it up as you go along
Sing like you like to sing
God loves all simple things
For God is the simplest of all.
The three lines “Sing God a simple song,” “Make it up as you go along,” and “Sing like you like to Sing” capture the essence of simple songs of thanks and praise which can be traced back for millennia. From the Psalms in Hebrew to the Canonical Hours and the Azan, the marking of time as well as the call and response. This is initiated through someone raising their voice in song is one of the most common traits of humanity.
Considering this, the reader might be surprised to learn that this practice is also the source of a copious amount of confounded scholarship. Beyond historical interest or attempts at “reconstruction,” many words have been lavished on trying to somehow codify a practice of people simply coming together and singing together (with much of this singing learned by ear and directed by communication among these people).
The simplest of these songs was done without accompaniment. Here, I refer to the human voice singing one line of melody without the distraction of excessive ornament and without instrumental accompaniment.
“Plain chant,” “Plain song,” “Gregorian chant” or any other names which the reader might find to describe this practice are convoluted in their thought and strangely so. The expression simply describes a person singing and singing in a comprehensible way. Nothing more; nothing less. This singing is done by the human voice alone; no instruments required. Neither are any form of accompaniment or any work from a composer or song-writer needed for this task. This singing is not new. It is exactly what David describes in the Psalms and what the person in the minaret does when he recites the Azan. Every human being on every corner of this planet should understand what this activity is and recognize it easily.
Many simple observations can easily be made. For example, if one looks at The Collect for Easter and reads the text and symbols, one will find that it is made up of of 127 syllables. One can also see that 131 “pitches” are notated (by looking at the gestures). If one then applies the mode (scale) and works out where the gestures fall in relation to one another, one can find that 108 pitches are produced by reciting the note “A” while the other 23 pitches vary but none is lower than “G”). “A” is the easiest note to tune to and is what orchestra’s use as their point of reference for tuning.
This is one reason why I begin and end my work Litany with a sing note “A.” This note is played, at start and close, as a harmonic on the double bass.” When ending the work, I designed the smoothest possible transition back into that same note. At the start everyone diverges from “A”:
And the work closes when all the instruments return to the same note.
The double bass is the only string instrument in this composition and the only instrument which plays this “A” as a harmonic (giving the tone a “pure” sound). After all that happens between the opening and the closing of the work, this is written out as a concord (a unison “Amen”) as I illustrate in the following example:
The Azan is a “call” but it is also, crucially, intoned to inform those who hear it of several things. The most prominent of these might be that the Azan relays information about five points in the daily cycle which are as follows: dawn, noon, . The Canonical hours are the same as the Jewish prayer hours and the Canon (Arabic for “law; that which is ordained”) is what the Azan calls human beings to attend to.
In Roman cities, time was kept by a bell which rang in the forum. It sounded at the beginning of the business day (six o’clock in the morning which was also known as the “Prime”, or “first hour”). The bell then noted the day’s progress by striking again around nine o’clock in the morning (this was known as “Terce,” or the “third hour”). It then tolled for a break from work at noon (known as “Sext,” or the “sixth hour”). The people heard the bell again at about three o’clock in the afternoon and, upon hearing this chime would return to work (this was known as “Nones” or the “ninth hour”). The final ringing of the bell marked the close of business for the day. This happened around six o’clock in the evening (the time for evening prayer). The opening of Matthew 20 is a Biblical example of these temporal references:
“FOR the kingdom of heaven is like a man who is a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
He bargained with the laborers for a penny a day, and sent them to his vineyard.
And he went out at the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the market place.
And he said to them, You also go to the vineyard, and I will give you what is right. And they went.
And he went out again at the sixth and at the ninth hour, and did the same.”
In Catholicism, the Canonical Hours divide the day into periods of fixed ritual prayers:
The Midmorning prayer (Terce)
Midday prayer (Sext)
Mid-afternoon prayer (None)
Evening prayer (Vespers), major hour
Night Prayer (Compline)
The Azan is heard marking the times of daily ritual prayers for Muslims which are as follows:
Dawn prayer (صلاة الفجر)
Midday prayer (صلاة الظهر)
Mid-afternoon prayer (صلاة العصر)
Evening prayer (صلاة المغرب)
Night Prayer (صلاة العشاء)
The word “Amen” shares it’s source with Aramiac and Arabic. “Alleluia” comes from Hebrew and involves singing joyfully on the last syllable in palmistry as well as in songs of worship. The word Al-lah is similarly raised by the voice in expression of the same open vowels that imbue every Azan with the breath of life. Another wonderful example of this is the Gloria from J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor which I have always loved for the way it made me imitate laughter when singing it.
In Bernstein’s Mass, the “Sanctus” (“which means “holy”) is sung three parts. It is the same as the three-part “kadosh” (which also means “holy”) from the Jewish Prayer Kedushah.
This is why Bernstein structures the Sanctus of Mass as one section in three parts. He makes the indivisibility of this three-part structure clear in the smallest details. Here is the opening of Bernstein’s Sanctus. One will immediately notice the time signature of (3/4) which, in a purely technical sense, means that we have three beats in a measure. But beyond the technical, this time signature also evokes dance music and jubilation.
Though no Pope ever claimed to have invented singing, it was Pope Gregory I who made revisions to the order (canon) of the Mass (what the scholars call the “Pre-Tridentine Mass”). John the Deacon writes that Gregory “removed many things, changed a few and added some”. In his letters, Pope Gregory himself speaks of moving the Pater Noster (Our Father) to immediately after the Mass and immediately before the Fraction.
At first, the Celebrant strikes the Sanctus Bell three times to coincide with the word “Holy!” which is exclaimed three times as the reader will find illustrated below.
The three strikes of the bell are highlighted in yellow, green and red respectively and the exclamations are noted. This is accomplished by the composer without using any musical notes. Musical notes could have easily been used to denote rhythm without needing to specify a pitch. Bernstein opts instead for a the placement of the exclamations in a way that is akin to the communal notations of simple song from the past. This placement is perfectly clear. The performer (Celebrant) exclaims these three iterations of the word “Holy!” intuitively. Bernstein has composed the passage in such a way that makes this so clear that the performer would hardly need to think about it:
The orchestra then mimics the three notes which have been sounded from the Sanctus Bell in “meter.” This means that, while the Sanctus Bell is sounded (as seen above) on the first beat of each musical measure, the notes in the orchestra, by comparison, occupy a defined number of beats (three beats). This is as opposed to the Sanctus Bell which is sounded and then rings on. Here are the three imitations in the orchestra which I have also highlighted in yellow, green and red:
Let’s take a closer look at a couple of details. Here, first, is the Sanctus Bell:
The bell, of course, will not ring forever but rather it will fade away (as we know from attending to nature and as we explain through the study of physics). Here is the third time that the orchestra “rings” in imitation of the Sanctus Bell. The reader will note that the natural fading away of sound (what some also call the “decay” of sound). The fade-out of sound is mimicked by the orchestra through the use of a hairpin symbol (>) which composers use to indicate a lessening of volume. The reader will also note that Bernstein does not indicate that the volume should decrease to a certain level (the starting volume as well as the ending volume is usually indicated by a composer when using this symbol):
It is at this point that the boys rush to the stage and join the Celebrant. The reader will note that this rush of movement is the first time that the meter (3/4) is really brought to life (because the durations of the notes are really felt):
The word “Sanctus” is first sung by the first choir of boys (marked Boy’s Choir I below). I have shown the three enunciations in yellow, green and red respectively:
While the first choir of boys sing this passage they are accompanied by the bells (in green below). The reader will note that Bernstein marks the third note that the bell sounds with the “ringing on” symbol which was present in the bells when they sounded at the opening of the Sanctus. Here are the bells ringing again upon the entry of the boys:
At the end of the phrase, the boys in choir 1 imitate the “ringing on” of the bells. This is clear imitation. Voices cannot “ring on” and then “fade out.” Had Bernstein wished for a simple fading out of volume, he would have opted to use the hairpin (>) symbol (as he did just a few seconds earlier in the orchestral imitation). Here is the imitation in question with bells first (red) and then the Boys Choir I (green):
In the following passage, a second Boys’ choir follows the first boy’s choir. Bernstein opted to have two choirs of boys here rather than one which would have been an easy approach. The first line above is the sung by Boys Choir I and the second line above is sung by Boys Choir II.
The two choirs do not sing together at the same time (as one can see from the passage) and, so, Bernstein could have had one choir sing the two passages one passage after the other. He chose to divide the boys into two choirs because of the fact that it allows one group of boys to imitate the other:
Both boy choirs are also divided into two singing parts. Once again, it would have been easy for Bernstein to opt for a three part division rather than a two part division. He elected for the latter because fo the special significance of 2 (the father and son) and 3 (adding the holy spirit). The boys sing in musical intervals of thirds. Two vocal parts singing a third apart in yet another expression of 2s and 3s.
This also is designed into the phrase structure. We have a steady alternation of duple time (4/4) followed by three measures in triple time (3/4). I will add that musicians define meters such as (4/4) in terms of being “simple duple time” and the meter of (3/4) as simple triple.
The division of each choir of boys into two singing parts is far from the only design choice that Bernstein makes to communicate an interplay of “twos” and “threes” to be found here. The passage itself is made up of one duple measure (4/4) followed by three triple measures (3/4) which then simply bring us back to duple because they combine to form a four measure phrase.
Understanding this is as easy as understanding that Two + Two = Four. Here is a visual demonstration of how the phrases work:
But that’s not all. This passage, in itself combines into two four measure phrases consisting of the First choir of boys followed by the second (4+4).
This all serves to bring us right back to two. The two phrases combine into an eight measure phrase because 4+4=8. This is an eight measure phrase of perfect symmetry. It is one which also contains the inherent asymmetry that comes with juxtaposing 3 and 2:
Bernstein now takes the four measure phrase above and doubles it creating an 8 measure phrase which looks like this when laid out:
Let us now look at the entire fragment of music from the start of the Sanctus to the end of the section we have just seen above. When I add the opening of the Sanctus, the reader should appreciate that the first phrase is made up of three measures + three measures (6 measures total). This phrase is entirely in triple time (3/4). When placed together with the first line sung by the boys in choir 1 and then the second line sung by the boys in choir 2 it results in two phrases that look like this:
I will now express the two lines above in terms of numbers. Here is how the symmetry is worked out among all three phrases:
Phrase 1) 3 + 3 (in which the second 3 is orchestra imitating bells)
Phrases 2 and 3) 4 (2+2) + 4(2+2) (in which Boys Choir II imitates Boys Choir I)
And so we are right back at three! What the reader sees above is three phrases which are made up entirely of the simplest combinatorics and which are built entirely on imitation. The imitation is composed into a technically and emotionally dazzling expression of the interplay of “trinity” to express not division or “threeness” but, rather, the indivisibility of God (“Unum Deum”). 3 measures followed by 3 measures make up the first phrase which is symmetrically divided into two parts then 2 choirs of boys each singing a phrase in intervals of 3rds. The 2 phrases each alternate between a duple meter of 4/4 (the four beats of the measure are built from a symmetrical 2 beats +2 beats). This is followed by 3 measures in 3/4 and then and then an entirely new imitation of the phrase we have just heard from the first choir of boys by the second choir leading to a natural (because heard and imitated) symmetry.
Here are 3 phrases of 2 symmetrical parts each in which 3s and 2s interweave cyclically. 2 leads to 3 leads to 2 leads to 3…
This play of triples and doubles will continue to operate on the microscopic (phrase and measure) level which we have just been examining as well as on every other level all the way to the macroscopic three part structure of the Sanctus itself and, on a larger level, the entirety of Mass.
That is 18 seconds of music from the perspective of the composer’s work (and even now we are capturing only a glimpse of what goes into work such as that which a composer creates). There is a ceaseless wealth of musical brilliance to discuss in every page of Mass.
I am speaking here of objective brilliance; that of the type I have been demonstrating and not the speculative perception of brilliance based on the caprices and whims of someone or another’s “taste” or their claim to such a thing.
Please keep in mind that every single moment and every single page of Mass is built to sustain the whole. Bernstein doesn’t simply design his creation with the kind of fluency which I have demonstrated above. He keeps up this standard of excellence to the end of creating a coherent and comprehensible experience for the audience attending the nearly two hour-long Mass in the theater.
By showing how this compound structure is designed, my intent is for the reader to understand how, in compositions made by the hands of artists like Bernstein, much of the material one hears can be traced back to the simplest figures. A sublime simpleness is at the core of structures which seem to be made up of a variety of parts.
Bearing in mind that art is imitation, this is also a passage in which imitation begets imitation (mimesis) which the reader will understand to be characteristic of a composer’s work. The best, like Bernstein, manage to create complex systems out of the simplest elements. This is, in order words, a sort of artistic mitosis or, to put it bluntly, this is the way that we composers approach the commandment in Genesis: “be fruitful and multiply.”
The tempo marking which we see at the start of Bernstein’s Sanctus is essential to understanding how pivotal a moment this is in the work. He marks it “Allegretto con anima.” Once again, the composer could easily have opted to use a simple metronome marking. In fact, he does as can be clearly seen:
The word “anima” invokes the soul directly. In Latin, Anima is that which sets things into motion. It is “a current of air, wind, air, breath, the vital principle.” In the Catholic context of the Mass, it is the soul. Bernstein sets the words of the vulgate which agree with the 146th Psalm:
lauda anima mea Dominum
laudabo Dominum in vita mea cantabo
Deo meo quamdiu sum nolite confidere in principibus
Praise the Lord, O my soul; while I live will I praise the Lord: yea, as long as I have any being,
I will sing praises unto my God.
O put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man: for there is no help in them.
Bernstein will eventually lead the audience to the culmination of his Sanctus. This is a bringing together of the two elements at mass (“me and my soul”) which Bernstein will accomplish using three elements:
1) קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ ה’ צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ
Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh Adonai Tz’vaot M’lo Khol Ha’aretz K’vodo
This passage consists of three iterations of Kadosh as follows: ”Holy, Holy, Holy, The Lord of Hosts, The entire world is filled with His Glory” (this is Isaiah 6:3)
2) בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד ה’ מִמְּקוֹמוֹ
Baruch K’vod Adonai Mim’komo
Which is the following passage from Ezekiel (3:12): ”Blessed is the Glory of the Lord in Its Place.”
3) יִמְלֹךְ ה’ לְעוֹלָם. אֱלֹהַיִךְ צִיּוֹן לְדֹר וָדֹר. הַלְלוּיָהּ
Yimloch Adonai L’Olam, Elohayich Tziyon L’dor Vador Hall’luyah
The last word of the previous sentence is one which the reader will recognize immediately. This passage illustrates the moving connection between the celebrant and the boys at the opening of the Sanctus (as well as the father and the son; the flesh and the soul etc throughout Mass) “The Lord shall reign forever, Your God, O Zion, from generation to generation, Hallelujah” which is from the book of Psalms (146:10)
This brings us to the close of the Kaddosh.
At the start of Bernstein’s sanctus, the boys are imitating one another. The orchestra is imitating the Sanctus bells, the phrases are imitating one another etc. The sounds could be described as an echo or imitation in which we have an initial something (a passage; a prayer; a phoneme etc) followed by a responding sound which follows it (an antiphon).
Here we should return to the Azan. The Azan can be understood, as it is most commonly defined, as a “call to worship.” The clergy-less nature of Islam means that the response to the call cannot be codified; indeed, there would be no religious authority which could be appointed to codify anything in Islam (at least not one which is mandated by the Qu’ran which, together with the remainder of the Scripture (Torah; Gospel) remains the explicit source of authority as God’s Word).
The root of the word is ʾadhina (أَذِنَ) meaning “to listen, to hear, to be informed.”
It was Pope Gregory I who also established the nine utterances of “Kyrie Eleison: and “Christe Eleison” as the devotions before Mass. He placed these where the Litany originally took place (at the beginning of Mass). He also reduced the role of deacons in the Roman Liturgy. Both things were done because the Litany (from Greek λιτανεία —litaneía, and λιτή —litê— meaning “prayer” or “supplication” were corrupted into a series of requests and petitions by the attendant “prayerful” crowds. They would direct their requests to the Deacons. This is why my first evocation of the Azan (the sole human voice in the minaret, or lighthouse, calling and recalling the praise and prayer of Allah) is called “Litany.”
Another layer to Litany emerges from the scenario of a person making petitions to God in a mosque or other place of congregation where Muslims gather. In such a case, the “requests” would simply be met with heavenly “silence” since there is no clergy or representative of intercession between God and man in Islam.
In the fourth scene from my ballet titled Sadat, a sounding shofar marks the main character’s arrival in Jerusalem, (the scene depicts the start of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1979 journey to Israel in which he addressed the Knesset and sought to finally bring decades of war between the Arabs and Israelis to an end). The Jewish shofar intermingles with the sounds of Jerusalem’s church bells and finally the mosque’s Azan (which the reader will remember is defined as the call to prayer). The sounds of these three iterations of faith (in musical order that resembles the order of their revelation to the world) form a tapestry of counterpoint. At first we have two horns imitating Shofars:
A few seconds later, the shofar are joined with one performer sounding church bells (marked below):
Finally, these instruments are joined by the strings and winds in which Azan imitates Azan. This passage once again uses the same notes that I used to invoke the Azan in Litany:
One can clearly see the way in which each cell is woven into the whole through a process of imitation. By presenting the Judaism, Christianity and Islam as three different religions that come on the scene one by one (and in order) I am able to the stage for Sadat’s climatic moment by building tension. Each sound enters and makes a claim on the land. Jerusalem is depicted as a place of competing sounds and, at the same time, it is clear that the sounds have no regard for artificial human barriers or categories. They imitate among themselves as well as imitate one another. The “decentralized” nature of a clergy less Islam is why it is represented as a pluralistic sound (chorus of winds/chorus of strings) rather than a local one (two horn players as with the “shofar”; one percussionist as with the “church bells”).
Bearing this in mind we can listen to the confounded sounds which we hear at the opening of Bernstein’s Mass. The confusion of it is not simply an expression of the pre-programmed “voices” or minds. Bernstein evokes the rote, unthinking and rehearsed sounds of those who utter credos blindly by using four tracks on recording. There is no “making it up as we go along here.”
These voices compete in the darkness; they are the voices of those who do not feel the spirit of their faith but simply repeat tropes without ever having heard the word. This idea is akin to Pirandello’s play called Six Characters in Search of an Author. Here, however, is a mass of human beings who are in search of their creator.
Bernstein’s idea of beginning with a response from pre-programed voices who have never heard the source of their (supposed) enlightenment has always struck me as one of the most inspired strokes in a work of consistent genius.
The ambiguity is between a devotional prayer on the one hand and a repose on the other. In either case, beginning with a “pre-recorded antiphon” is confounded even if it is part of the scheduled devotions. What is worse than the ambiguity is the more likely scenario: that Mass begins with a response without a call (or a calling).
This is an “antiphon in search of a phon.” Here is Bernstein’s title (I. Antiphon: Kyrie Eleison) to describe the Devotions before Mass:
What are these pre-programmed voices responding to? An echo or imitation should follow the initial sound itself just as we have seen the boy choirs do in relationship to one another and also as we have seen the orchestra do in relationship to the bells. In order to imitate a song, one has to first listen.
It is in this way that the opening of Bernstein’s Mass inspired the following passage from the first song of Furia, a song cycle which I completed in 2010. The passage describes the “litany of the muezzins and their monotonous prayers:
This is a section of the song titled The Birth of Light. It describes events that occurred in Iran during the “Green Revolution” of 2009. I set the following poem by Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna which was translated by Lloyd Schwartz:
Over the starlit rooftops, in Iran,
echoes the agonized voice
of those who only want
to say something.
Not the litany of the muezzins
and their monotonous prayers,
asking no questions, insisting on the same answers.
It’s the green song tearing
off the black cloth of the ayatollahs
as if from high above the houses
it would be possible to anticipate
the birth of light
that bloodies the dawn.
— Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna (Translated by Lloyd Schwartz)
The reader will now consider the following highlighted figure from the beginning of Litany (2007) once again:
It is not difficult to see that the very same figure and the very same notes (A,A,B,A,A,B,A,A,G#) are now used to describe the “litany of the muezzins” (highlighted below):
This musical figure is used once again a few moments later (in the same song) to underscore the words “Asking no questions; insisting on the same answers.” One will find it’s most forceful iteration highlighted below (“asking no questions/insisting on the same answers).
Back in Tenth Century Arezzo, a Benedictine monk named Guido developed a complicated hexachordal (meaning 6 note) system that was intended to ensure that music was performed as prescribed and not “made up as you go along.” It was in this way that attempts were made to enforce the rules which were created by scholars and theologians. Needless to say, this did not succeed. Music was written down and yet the rules were not always followed. A system of complex additions was developed that allowed those singing the music of others to add ornaments and additional notes (to be known as “accidentals”) to the creations of others in order to maintain the rules that were mandated.
These additions came to be known as Musica Ficta or “Fake Music.”
Guido is better remembered for popularizing the note-naming system which can be seen below (Do/Re/Mi/Fa/Sol/La and it’s mirror):
Bernstein enjoys toying with this system to great and moving effect in Mass.
The reader will recall the word “anima” which Bernstein used at the tempo (time) indication at the start of his Sanctus. Anima is that which sets things into motion. It is “a current of air, wind, air, breath, the vital principle.” In Mass, it is the soul. Bernstein uses this beautiful connection between the vulgate and the Kedusha to link the human to the soul at the end of his Sanctus:
lauda anima mea Dominum
laudabo Dominum in vita mea cantabo
Deo meo quamdiu sum nolite confidere in principibus
Praise the Lord, O my soul; while I live will I praise the Lord: yea, as long as I have any being,
I will sing praises unto my God.
O put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man: for there is no help in them.
Here, the note “Mi” (E) is used to form a song. This is accomplished when the Celebrant combines the note with the note “Sol” (G) as follows
The coincidence of “Sol” and “G” being the same note (“Sol” resembles “soul” and “G” stands for “God”) allows Bernstein to reach upward to the highest note (“G”) that the celebrant sings on the word “Soul” (highlighted in blue). We then have the three iterations of “Kadosh” (“Holy”) with which the final part of Bernstein’s Sanctus (Kedusha) begins (red, yellow and green):
Litany begins and ends on an “A” which is heard in unison between all the instruments and returns to the very same “A” equally united and pure.
I selected “A” because of the reason relating to tuning which Stravinsky observed so beautifully:
“The tuning of an instrument, of a piano for example, requires that the entire musical range available to the instrument should be ordered according to chromatic steps. Such tuning prompts us to observe that all these sounds converge towards a center which is the a above middle c.”
I also composed the convergence upon “A” as a way to evoke the word “Allah” which is a word for “God.” This word, more than any other, invokes everything about the inhalation (in its first syllable) and exhalation (in it’s second) that is the essence of the breath of life and of man as a living soul.
Bernstein uses this breath of life, in the flute, to reanimate us at the end of Mass following a “sustained silence.” “Then:” writes the composer…
A flute is reactivated with the breath of life.
“Me” and “soul”; God and humanity are in sympathetic harmonic vibration with one another. The meter is free again and the breath of life is back. Bernstein marks the presence of the flute “on stage.” This makes it clear for all to see that the sound is coming from a place which the audience can clearly identify. This detail was the inspiration for the end of Litany in which I mark the flute to play “as if offstage” (highlighted in blue). The flute was the first instrument to diverge from “A” at the opening of Litany and, now, it is the last instrument to finally come back and rejoin the unison on “A.” I have also marked the symmetries within the final two notes of Litany and the reader will see how they form an “Amen” which relates the “A” of my work to the “D” which closes Bernstein’s Mass. They are harmonically kindred and exist a perfect fifth apart; the closest relationship on the harmonic series after the “self-same” note (the octave).
In the second lesson, the reader observed that each note is also a symphony of notes due to the infinite harmonic vibrations within the note itself. That is why “mi alone” is not “only me” and it is also why there is no such thing as “monophonic music.”
With that in mind, we are able to appreciate the final cadence which ends Bernstein’s entire Mass. The chorus is united on one note which sounds in octaves: “D”. This note is the same note which which Beethoven closes his 9th Symphony, bringing his Ode to Joy and plea for universal brotherhood to a shimmering cadence. The note also invokes the word “Deo” which is the Latin word for “God.”
And with that, a voice is heard which Bernstein marks “on tape” (rather than “pre-recorded”). This voice is the first solo voice which we hear on tape (as opposed to choral parts which are pre-recorded. It is a single clear voice which we hear and which comes to us without a human “body” that that delivers it in the room. This disembodied voice is what the pre-recorded voices of the antiphon which started Mass respond to or what they should have been responding to. It says: “The Mass is ended; go in peace.”
Plain chant comes from the Latin cantus planus which means “singing plain. One way of explaining what this means is, if I may attempt a definition, “singing in an unornamented and clearly understood way so that one can be clearly understood by others and also so that one can sing with other people rather than show off through ornament or obscure one’s inability or unwillingness to sing through the same.”
For the reader to truly understand the opening of Bernstein’s Mass (as well as the work as a whole and many of the works and anti-works discussed through this book) we must look at some disturbing and (indeed often incomprehensible) things.
Everyone knows what singing is. Everyone can recognize singing. Everyone can sing while walking down the street or if unaccompanied, anyone can sing anywhere that person might like to sing. The reader is about to bear witness to the work of scholars who imagine that they are making advancements into the history of people singing simple tunes and, even when they do make historical “discoveries,” imagine that these “discoveries” are things that would be news to anyone. I do not expect the reader to try to make sense of the words which we are about to survey. I cannot make sense of their intent and often find their meanings drive at finding complex and folded ways of saying the most obvious and intuitive things that nobody with any sense would need to have explained to them. The reader will bear the expedition at hand and is assured that a small dose of experience in reading this will serve to enhance the readers feeling for the issues at the heart of Mass and of definition itself. The present exposure will not harm the reader. In fact, they may be thought of as a sort of inoculation that will protect the reader from much harm in future exposures.
We begin our safari on singing with the following descriptions of “schools of thought.” The reference is, I assure the reader, attempting to apply “schools of thought” to simple song:
“One school of thought, including Wagner, Jammers, and Lipphardt, advocated imposing rhythmic meters on chants, although they disagreed on how that should be done. An opposing interpretation, represented by Pothier and Mocquereau, supported a free rhythm of equal note values, although some notes are lengthened for textual emphasis or musical effect. The modern Solesmes editions of Gregorian chant follow this interpretation. Mocquereau divided melodies into two- and three-note phrases, each beginning with an ictus, akin to a beat, notated in chantbooks as a small vertical mark. These basic melodic units combined into larger phrases through a complex system expressed by cheironomic hand-gestures. This approach prevailed during the twentieth century, propagated by Justine Ward’s program of music education for children, until the liturgical role of chant was diminished after the liturgical reforms of Paul VI, and new scholarship “essentially discredited” Mocquereau’s rhythmic theories.”
We are told not simply of “common practice” but of “common modern practice”:
“Common modern practice favors performing Gregorian chant with no beat or regular metric accent, largely for aesthetic reasons. The text determines the accent while the melodic contour determines the phrasing. The note lengthenings recommended by the Solesmes school remain influential, though not prescriptive.”
“The text determines the accent while the melodic contour determines the phrasing” could also have been written as follows: “people stress certain words and syllables when they speak and people also speak in certain tones.”
When the scholars write of a “variety in notation” which “must have served a practical purpose and therefore a musical significance” they are correct in some ways. The “practical purpose” was communal in nature. People, it is documented, sing together and, it is presumed, find pleasure in doing so. Beyond this, people like to coordinate their pitches (this is “singing in tune”) and also coordinate their rhythms (this is “singing together”).
It continues and here I remind the reader that the current exercise will end shortly. We are now introduced to things like the “Graduale Triplex” and speaks of “huge steps forward”:
“Dom Eugene Cardine, (1905–1988) monk from Solesmes, published his ‘Semiologie Gregorienne’ in 1970 in which he clearly explains the musical significance of the neumes of the early chant manuscripts. Cardine shows the great diversity of neumes and graphic variations of the basic shape of a particular neume, which can not be expressed in the square notation. This variety in notation must have served a practical purpose and therefore a musical significance. Nine years later, the Graduale Triplex was published, in which the Roman Gradual, containing all the chants for Mass in a Year’s cycle, appeared with the neumes of the two most important manuscripts copied under and over the 4-line staff of the square notation. The Graduale Triplex made widely accessible the original notation of Sankt Gallen and Laon (compiled after 930 AD) in a single chantbook and was a huge step forward. Dom Cardine had many students who have each in their own way continued their semiological studies, some of whom also started experimenting in applying the newly understood principles in performance practice.
“started experimenting in applying the newly understood principles in performance practice” implies re-construction where no re-construction is needed. Simply sing. List of unimportant people.
The studies of Cardine and his students (Godehard Joppich, Luigi Augustoni, Johannes B. Göschl, Marie-Noël Colette, Rupert Fischer, Marie-Claire Billecocq, Alexander M. Schweitzer to name a few) have clearly demonstrated that rhythm in Gregorian chant as notated in the 10th century rhythmic manuscripts (notably Skt. Gallen and Laon) manifest such rhythmic diversity and melodic – rhythmic ornamentations for which there is hardly a living performance tradition in the Western world. Contemporary groups that endeavour to sing according to the manuscript traditions have evolved after 1975. Some practising researchers favour a closer look at non Western (liturgical) traditions, in such cultures where the tradition of modal monophony was never abandoned.”
We are here told that some researchers favor “a closer look” at “Non Western (liturgical traditions) in such cultures where the tradition of monophony was never abandoned.’ This means that they are considering a look at “cultures” where, apparently, the “tradition” of singing was never abandoned. By using the, again invented genre, “monophonic,” they mean to describe people singing unaccompanied by any instrument. This is something all human beings are born with the capacity to do and which all human beings do. When we sing with others, we coordinate with others.
Simple things aside, we are now introduced of “mensuralists” and “proportionalists” who have still more disputes to bring to this cluttered arena (a “different view”):
“Another group with different views are the mensuralists or the proportionalists, who maintain that rhythm has to be interpreted proportionately, where shorts are exactly half the longs. This school of interpretation claims the support of historical authorities such as St Augustine, Remigius, Guido and Aribo. This view is advocated by John Blackley and his ‘Schola Antiqua New York’.”
Now a person named Dr. Dirk van Kampen’s efforts are mentioned. He is interested in getting the “authentic rhythm of “Gregorian Chant.” How? The reader is told of “statistical methods.” We are then introduced to host of new words like “semiology” and “correlational analysis” and “multiple regression analysis.” Here I will take the opportunity to remind the reader that we are talking about singing. Simple singing, nothing more, nothing less. Onward:
“Recent research in the Netherlands by Dr. Dirk van Kampen has indicated that the authentic rhythm of Gregorian chant in the 10th century includes both proportional elements and elements that are in agreement with semiology. Starting with the expectation that the rhythm of Gregorian chant (and thus the duration of the individual notes) anyway adds to the expressivity of the sacred Latin texts, several word-related variables were studied for their relationship with several neume-related variables, exploring these relationships in a sample of introit chants using such statistical methods as correlational analysis and multiple regression analysis.”
We are now told how syllables are measured and, essentially, offered a convoluted theory of how human beings speak and how human beings elongate syllables (ratios included):
Beside the length of the syllables (measured in tenths of seconds), each text syllable was evaluated in terms of its position within the word to which it belongs, defining such variables as “the syllable has or has not the main accent”, “the syllable is or is not at the end of a word”, etc., and in terms of the particular sounds produced (for instance, the syllable contains the vowel “i”). The various neume elements were evaluated by attaching different duration values to them, both in terms of semiological propositions (nuanced durations according to the manner of neume writing in Chris Hakkennes’ Graduale Lagal), and in terms of fixed duration values that were based on mensuralistic notions, however with ratios between short and long notes ranging from 1 : 1, via 1 : 1.2, 1 : 1.4, etc. to 1 : 3. To distinguish short and long notes, tables were consulted that were established by Van Kampen in an unpublished comparative study regarding the neume notations according to St Gallen and Laon codices. With some exceptions, these tables confirm the short vs. long distinctions in Cardine’s ‘Semiologie Gregorienne’.
“Contextual variables” are now introduced as well as not simply mathematics but decimal mathematics that attempt to divine how these people sang. I’ve underlined my favorite sentence below:
The lengths of the neumes were given values by adding up the duration values for the separate neume elements, each time following a particular hypothesis concerning the rhythm of Gregorian chant. Both the syllable lengths and the neume lengths were also expressed in relation to the total duration of the syllables, resp. neumes for a word (contextual variables). Correlating the various word and neume variables, substantial correlations were found for the word variables ‘accented syllable’ and ‘contextual syllable duration’. Moreover, it could be established that the multiple correlation (R) between the two types of variables reaches its maximum (R is about 0.80) if the neumatic elements are evaluated according to the following rules of duration: (a) neume elements that represent short notes in neumes consisting of at least two notes have duration values of 1 time; (b) neume elements that represent long notes in neumes consisting of at least two notes have duration values of 2 times; (c) neumes consisting of only one note are characterized by flexible duration values (with an average value of 2 times), which take over the duration values of the syllables to match.
“Meter and rhythm” are introduced even though these concepts are obvious to anybody with a heart beat and need no explanation. I could go on but I promised to spare the reader and I now will make good on that promise after being allowed one final indulgence. This last paragraph contains the following words:
“Given the fact that Chant was learned in an oral tradition in which the texts and melodies were sung from memory, this was obviously not necessary.”
From this, it would seem that “scholars of chant” are aware of the fact that people sing tunes. They also seem aware of the ability that other people have to sing tunes that are new and also tp sing the same tunes that someone else has sung before them. People listen and people sing. My favorite words in the following paragraph (and that which I have quoted from it above) are the following five: “this was obviously not necessary.”
Despite this, we are introduced to still more category and genre defining words; words like “ekphonetic” and “cheironomic” and “neumatic” (the last one just means that people used hand gestures to signal whether they would sing a higher or lower or longer or shorter note). Here it is:
It is interesting that the distinction between the first two rules and the latter rule can also be found in early treatises on music, introducing the terms metrum and rhythmus. As it could also be demonstrated by Van Kampen that melodic peaks often coincide with the word accent, the conclusion seems warranted that the Gregorian melodies enhance the expressiveness of the Latin words by mimicking to some extent both the accentuation of the sacred words (pitch differences between neumes) and the relative duration of the word syllables (by paying attention to well-defined length differences between the individual notes of a neume).
A brief interruption to say that these “well-defined length differences” are “defined” by these self-same scholars in ill-defined and “decimally precise” ways. It continues:
The earliest notated sources of Gregorian chant (written ca. 950) used symbols called nuemes (Gr. sign, of the hand) to indicate tone-movements and relative duration within each syllable. A sort of musical stenography that seems to focus on gestures and tone-movements but not the specific pitches of individual notes, nor the relative starting pitches of each neume. Given the fact that Chant was learned in an oral tradition in which the texts and melodies were sung from memory, this was obviously not necessary. The neumatic manuscripts display great sophistication and precision in notation and a wealth of graphic signs to indicate the musical gesture and proper pronunciation of the text. Scholars postulate that this practice may have been derived from cheironomic hand-gestures, the ekphonetic notation of Byzantine Chant, punctuation marks, or diacritical accents. Later adaptations and innovations included the use of a dry-scratched line or an inked line or two lines, marked C or F showing the relative pitches between neumes. Consistent relative heightening first developed in the Aquitaine region, particularly at St. Martial de Limoges, in the first half of the eleventh century. Many German-speaking areas, however, continued to use unpitched neumes into the twelfth century.”
We are just talking about singing. That is all. Neither Pope Gregory I nor Pope Gregory II “invented” this notion. Neither Pope claimed to invent song. Pope Gregory I did not give his name to “plain chant,” “plain song,” or “singing” as it is understood (or misunderstood) by any other name.
Despite this, scholars have invented (and use) the term “Gregorian chant” to describe a category of singing which these same scholars also happen to have invented. They now ascribe their invented category (“Gregorian Chant”) to having it’s origins in the 10th Century. This would place it three centuries after Gregory I’s death. But this piece of categorization has also creates confusion. Which “Pope Gregory” might they be referring to? Gregory I or Gregory II? Even the genre which was invented (“Gregorian chant”) is a synthesis of two other invented genres (which they call “Roman chant” and “Gallican chant”).
Even the words “Gregorian chant” manage to confound two languages through their very utterance.
“Equally degrading,” says the composer, “is the vanity of snobs who boast of an embarrassing familiarity with the world of the incomprehensible and who delightedly confess that they find themselves in good company. It is riot music they seek, but rather the effect of shock, the sensation that befuddles understanding. So 1 confess that I am completely insensitive to the prestige of revolution. All the noise it may make will not call forth the slightest echo in me. For revolution is one thing, innovation another. And even innovation, when not presented in an excessive form, is not always recognized by its contemporaries.”
“It is a rare piece of music — any kind of music — that can bolster good as well as evil intentions. One classical work in particular has an uncanny, seductive power to become exactly what its fans want it to be.
When the Canadian Opera Company opened the doors to its new opera house in 2006, the gala concert included “Ode to Joy,” the last movement from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
Music director Peter Oundjian has chosen the whole, 75-minute-long composition to cap and celebrate his 14 years with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on June 28, 29 and 30.
Adolf Hitler adored the Ninth Symphony. Musicians waiting for their deaths in Nazi concentration camps were ordered to play it, metaphorically twisting its closing call to universal brotherhood and joy into a terrifying, sneering parody of all that strives for light in a human soul.
More than four decades later, Leonard Bernstein conducted several performances to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, substituting the word “freedom” for “joy” in Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem to which Beethoven’s movement was set. And Emmanuel Macron chose this music as the backdrop for his victory speech after winning the French presidential election last year.
Western (attempts to lock it up in a geographic zone) classical (the same but with time) music usually thinks of itself (music does not think) as being apolitical (politics is politics; music is music. Quite different— but no seriously… they serve different functions—-one cannot do the function of the other). But the Ninth is political (whose politics and of which age? Up to him…) Beethoven saw it as political when he wrote it in the early 1820s. (blatant historical inaccuracy) And his fellow Germans (Beethoven from Rhineland), looking for a sense of identity, embraced it with fervour.
“The use of folk music by the composers of cultivated or so-called art music has been an important factor in the history of music. Composers have usually felt closer to, and more familiar with, folk music than have the historians of cultivated music, and, indeed, virtually all our knowledge of folk music before the nineteenth century comes directly from sources of cultivated music rather than from theoretical and historical writing. In the early epochs of Western history, folk and cultivated music were probably more similar in style and more clearly related in function than they are today. There was evidently a time in European culture when there was no essential distinction between the two types; the increasing degree of differentiation may have come about simply through the growing professionalism and specialization among composers.”
Beethoven’s Ninth became the musical flag of Germanness (this is not a word; dont you mean “teutonic”? ) at a time when nationalism was a growing force in all of Europe (this is not and has never been true of the ninth symphony; this was, however true of the fifth symphony —- that work was misused for all sorts of purposes; it was the Austro-Hungarian “cry of resistance to French occupation of napoleon. In the 20th century, the 5th became the “cry of resistance” for the French against German occupation… but none of that is in the music) … It also became a Romantic monument to the artist (Beethoven, in this case) as a special creature worthy of special treatment (what special treatment is that? Being written about by the likes of you?) (Stravinsky quote on Beethoven)
Franco-Argentine scholar Esteban Buch analyzed these intersections and the good-evil paradox in an insightful book, Beethoven’s Ninth: A Political History. Buch argued that the Ninth was the right piece of music at the right time — socially, politically and aesthetically.
But from today’s perspective we know that unilateral calls to world brotherhood in joy have a flip side, which is tyranny. We appreciate now more than ever that joy is accessible to everyone only if some people are taking antidepressants.
We live in a time no more peaceful than Beethoven’s. Our conflicts today pit the great traditions and ways of thinking of the 19th century against a (hopefully) freer, more spontaneous, more shared, more inclusive 21st century.
We have the 19th-century ideal of strength in unity — expressed in the “Ode to Joy” — scraping up uneasily against a 21st-century ideal of strength in diversity (we have the pluribus; and you skipped the 20th Century if you’re talking about adjacent centuries “scraping up uneasily against” one another). The change in perspective makes some people afraid and angry. It makes others hopeful and optimistic. (Many of us don’t see the increased perception of diversity as something which must be pitted against an appreciation of unity. I speak for myself when I say that I find this age to be exhilarating and beautiful in it’s diversity but also that, in an age where we all have an increased appreciation of the diversity of our world and our universe, the statement of simple truths which unite humanity are more precious than ever before. I suspect the Symphony will only continue to become more and more precious as time goes on. What you’re missing is the word “universal.” Another thing that is universal is people’s dislike of tools. I also suspect that my perspective will resonate with other people).
Until we see whether we can achieve a paradigm shift or whether we fall back into something like the genocidal chaos of the mid-20th century, I think we should press pause on Beethoven’s Ninth. (why “press pause” on works which evoke hope in the hearts of many and please many people in general? Why, especially, deprive people of these joys during period of history when joy is most needed and when the affirmation of the human spirit is so welcome an oasis in the deserts of destruction? Just because you dont like it? That’s fine. Nobody is forcing you to listen. Why impose on others? Leave it alone if you are not actually bent on destruction yourself. You, of course, demonstrate that you are bent on destruction. You went out of your way to write and publish this instead of spending that time promoting that which you claim to want to champion)
I, personally, would be satisfied to never hear it again. (who cares? Nobody really does. That’s the worst part of this article. You are fully aware that this argument will not stop a single performance of the Symphony nor will it encourage people to listen to something else. You would have recommended (or even named) a single other work if you wanted people to listen to another work or pay attention to something else. If you were so passionate about something being overlooked, you would have been moved to compose your essay on those things that you feel are overlooked rather than compose it about a work which you slander. You didn’t write this essay to affirm. You wrote it to negate. And since you cannot reasonably expect these words to influence programming choices (you even admit to their inflexibility) or direct people to works (which you have not named) or critique the craft of a composer who has been dead and accepted as great for over two centuries, that means that you wrote this acrid piece of personal airing of grief for one reason and one reason alone: to harm the feelings of those men and women who love this work (and perhaps bolster your own ego through this act of bullying.)
Am I saying we should destroy an icon? Of course not. (Then why even bring up the question if not to suggest it? Certainly not to ask the question. You provide the answer “Of course not.”) We should treat it as any other piece of fine art — and take time to appreciate how difficult it actually is to parse (the reader should now try singing the ode to joy with the attached audio file and see how long it takes one to learn (and remember) the anthem).
Besides, shouldn’t we be encouraging — and showcasing — Canadian composers who might be able to galvanize us into attention with something homegrown?
Beethoven’s Ninth has three long movements before the “Ode to Joy” finale, each filled with contrasts (only of the most inevitable and “fresh” (in the truest and best sense of that word) variety) and discontinuities (there aren’t any). The Ode itself shouts its message at us unrelentingly, insistently, sometimes more as a taunt than an exhortation (it is neither—- the text and music make this fact obvious).
Don’t we (who is we?) have enough shouts and taunts in our world (I’m not sure which world you refer to when you say ‘our’ world but I am certain that we are not hearing the same symphony)? Let’s stash Beethoven’s musical rant down back up in the pantheon of musical treasures and give other works some ear time instead.”
Which other works are you referring to here? Why would you suggest “other works” or “Canadian composers” if none are named? The appearance of positivity is not positivity. Truly positive argument would identify what the author is passionate about rather than what he is not passionate about (or passionate about silencing).
“These concerts are not just concerts—not even in terms of the millions who view them at home. They are, in some way, the quintessence of all I try to do as a conductor, as a performing musician. There is a lurking didactic streak in me that turns every program I make into a discourse, whether I utter a word or not; my performing impulse has always been to share my feelings, or knowledge, or speculations about music—to provoke thought, suggest historical perspective, encourage the intersection of musical lines. And from this point of view, the Young People’s Concerts are a dream come true, especially since the sharing is done with young people—that is, people who are eager, unprejudiced, curious, open, and enthusiastic. What more could an old incorrigible pedagogue ask for? I hope I shall never have to give these concerts up; they keep me young.”
“Being a critic, in this case, is a disadvantage. Had I only seen one or two concerts instead of 10, I might feel different.” … “Admittedly, I was motivated as much by curiosity as by obligation.”
Ms. Midgette defines herself as “being a critic.” One might reasonably expect this professional (and now self-proclaimed) designation to work in Ms. Midgette’s an advantage had she chosen to embrace such a role. This for then the reader could gain insight into the works which were heard instead of being made privy to the private thoughts and personal feelings of Ms Midgette and to the assumptions regarding form and technique which she attempts to project upon composers such as myself. Ms. Midgette had the opportunity to examine the multitude of works that have been left for us by a composer who should be examined seriously in his own right rather than through proclamations about his role as a bequeather of property. Ms. Midgette’s efforts are akin to the practice of an executor tending to a dead man’s estate. They do not resemble any form of critical engagement.
Embodying the role of a critic, had she chosen to accept such a role, would have allowed Ms. Midgette to build on a unique opportunity to illuminate relationships among the works of Bernstein’s compositional works (reviews of his conducting and other performing roles are limited to reviews of recordings). This is an important place in historic scholarship that has been left void thanks to these sorts of practices by Ms. Midgette and her colleagues.
In my twenty two years of active engagement on Bernstein’s Mass, for example, the only scholarly work that I have found despite my vast surveys of media and academic output is one dissertation titled A Comparison Between A Descriptive Analysis of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass and the Musical Implications of the Critical Evaluations Thereof by Gary de Sesa. This is something I found online and which has not, to my knowledge, been published. That dissertation is the only work of scholarship in which I have found a compliment of analytical knowledge beyond that which I have studied in the score of the work and through my own performance of the work. It is the only scholarly work which describes the music of Mass rather than the private feelings of a critic or scholar which remain the private feelings of one audience member. And, to the extent that many of these works have been strange, these private feelings have been perfectly useless to anyone beyond the immediate circle of those who are familiar with the feelings of the critic and scholar in questions. De Sesa also contrasts the objective material contained within the score of Mass with the critical reactions to it. The results are illuminating. It is because of this section that I recommend de Sesa’s dissertation to people who would find limited use in (or otherwise dream of reading) a dissertation which primarily concerns itself with the mechanical elements of musical composition and form. This analysis should be read by anyone concerned with the state of the species.
Ms. Midgette then solicits the perspective of a conductor named Leonard Slatkin. She recounts the email exchange which is to be found transcribed into her article in The Washington Post:
“He always bristled” says Mr. Slatkin, “when people wanted to talk about ‘West Side Story,’ ” conductor Leonard Slatkin says. “But when you write a work that virtually reshapes an entire genre, and is beloved by the world, you cannot escape.”
Ms. Midgette’s appraisal continues as follows:
Slatkin has certainly championed Bernstein’s serious concert pieces, and in November, he’ll return to the National Symphony Orchestra, where he was music director for 12 years, to lead “Songfest,” which the NSO commissioned for the Bicentennial. “Songfest” aims to reflect the American spirit by setting the words of 13 poets from different epochs of American history. Even in these works, Bernstein couldn’t, Slatkin thinks, escape his fundamental attachment to narrative.
Ms. Midgette is not content to define Bernstein’s concert music as “concert music.” Instead she refers to “serious” concert pieces which goes the extra mile (to write one word less would have been easier for Ms. Middette). This term is not simply invented; it is derogatory to both “serious” musicians and “commercial” or “popular.” It tells the composer of symphonic and operatic concert music that he cannot be popular and it also tells the songwriters who are marketed as “popular” that he cannot be intelligent and endure. This is why these persons stand in the way of composers reaching a broader audience and also why those “popular” artists who achieve popularity are all-too-often discarded in a matter of years until the next “flavor dejoure” is found. And those decisions, I must emphasize, are made by persons who are convinced that they know more about music than musicians do.
meant to separate The reader is not told what a “fundamental attachment to narrative” can possibly mean in music. But Slatkin gives us an idea that, whatever this might be, it is personal:
“For me,” Slatkin wrote in an email exchange, “the five works add up to a summation of Bernstein’s life. ‘Jeremiah’ is the nod to his Jewish heritage and . . . finds the composer still looking for his voice, the one that will please his parents. ‘Age of Anxiety’ [the second symphony] is all about alienation, with Bernstein trying to come to grips with why he is different from pretty much everyone else around him”
Jeremiah is Bernstein’s First Symphony. The work is instrumental until the final movement which sets the opening of The Book of Lamentations which was written by the Prophet Jeremiah some millennia ago. Slatkin starts his commentary with the optimization of private feelings (I have underlined this above) and then goes on to inform us of the composer’s intentions on behalf of the now-departed composer. Ms. Midgette also does not identify the “five works” that have made the final cut of Mr. Slatkin’s pageant. This leads one to wonder why Ms. Midgette would retain the mention of “five works” in her elipses-driven edit which she presumably conducted upon transference of Mr. Slatkin’s email from her inbox and into the present article. The Age of Anxiety is the only other work that is mentioned in this paragraph. Slatkin tells us, on Bernstein’s private behalf, that this symphony “is is all about alienation, with Bernstein trying to come to grips with why he is different from pretty much everyone else around him.” Anything other than this would be helpful to include. If, for example, Slatkin or Midgette informed the reader that the Symphony shares it’s title with W. H. Auden’s poem, this would count as imparting a useful fact. Such a thing could be helpful to those who do not know either one work or the other as well as to those who do not know of either work.
Those are prospective readers who might find pleasure in experiencing both Bernstein’s Symphony and Auden’s poem as well as in exploring the connection between them.
Surely there are easier ways to please one’s parents; writing a symphony is an awfully difficult and laborious way to go about this task. In fact, Bernstein could have pleased his father by not composing any Symphonies and not going into a life of music at all in the first place, It is an historical fact, despite Slatkin writing of Bernstein’s intent to please his father without knowing this or having any rational recourse to knowing it, that Bernstein’s father did not approve of his son embarking upon a life in music. Such a fact is one which Mr. Slatkin could have looked up and which, failing that, Ms. Midgette or her editors could have corrected had she thought of doing the same before publishing it in the Washington Post.
As far as characterizing the symphony as “a nod to his Jewish heritage” is concerned, I will allow the reader to contemplate the following scenario. Alberto Ginerestera, a composer who is as South American and Christian as they come, wrote a choral setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. The present writer could describe that work as a “nod to Ginestera’s Jewish heritage” or, I could just as easily characterize my own Third Symphony (“Kaddish”) as a “nod to my own Jewish heritage.”
But I would not attempt either venture let alone publish either one in the paper. The recourse to common sense and objective truth would not allow that unless I had some concept of myself as being able to speak on behalf of the inner thoughts and feelings of others (including, if not especially, the dead). This is in addition to the fact that I would also be admitting an inability to sift between the definitions of words like “heritage” and “religion.” The apocalyptic prophecy of the latter, rather than the familial and local connotations of the former (which we use when describing Jewish communities as opposed to the religion itself) present another opportunity to clarify Bernstein’s enunciation of the “artist as deliverer of prophecy.” One would also be furnished with the advantage of being able to turn to Bernstein himself as a source. It would give Ms. Midgette the opportunity to print words, such as those from Bernstein’s 1973 Norton Lectures on Poetics, in which he movingly expressed his artistic outlook himself.
I have used the word “prophecy” which is as central an expression of the spirit of Bernstein’s works as the word “ritual” was employed by Nabokov to understanding a central tenet of Stravinsky’s output. Mr. Slatkin, for his part, might have reassured the reader of his familiarity with the works of this man whom he is speaking about as one whose works he would “champion” More importantly, this is a composer whom Mr. Slatkin does not simply speak about in the abstract but whose works he actually conducts on a regular basis. To this, Mr. Slatkin adds the following stunning admission:
“I used to try and find a more symphonic and structural coherence” when conducting these pieces, Slatkin says. “Now, I think they must reflect Bernstein the man, with as much stylistic contrast as possible.”
The coherence of Bernstein’s works are demonstrable to anyone who listens. By this I mean anybody from the person who has nothing to do with musical practice as a performer or composer to a composer such as myself who is engaged with Bernstein’s compositions as hugely informative to the spirit and structure on which my own body of works has been built. Moreover, his methods of communicating that coherence is not simply impeccable but masterful and, in the best sense, inventive. If they were not coherent, I would not be able to understand, let alone engage with Bernstein’s work at all. Mr. Slatkin tells us that he “used to try and find” those structural coherences that hold Mr. Bernstein’s work as one of our highest standards. He assumes that coherence is not there simply because he cannot find it.
Having told us, in print, that he does not understand the structure of the symphonic works employed by composer at hand (remember this is elementary knowledge), Mr. Slatkin rises to the podium and stands before orchestras like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra or the National Symphony and attempts to conduct their performance of the very same work in which he can find no coherence. The audience is also treated to this performance.
“Given his huge effect on the field, it’s notable that Bernstein, as a composer, has no clear musical heir. Some composers cross between musicals and opera, at least, but few have his gleeful, in-your-face mastery of so many styles and forms. Complicating the issue is that Bernstein’s relationship to the American vernacular tradition was somewhat compromised by the rise of rock, which was much less his world.”
Ms. Midgette cannot surmise that the fact of her finding “no clear” musical “heir” to Bernstein does not mean that she should print such a thing. Clarity comes with understanding. Nothing will be clear to Ms. Midgette until she understands that genres and values invented by the likes of her and her colleagues in the marketing and academic departments of capitalizing on human construction have no bearing on the practice of music or on it’s validity.
Ms. Midgette then informs us that “young composers today who dabble in popular forms tend to draw from that musical world.” Ms. Midgette does not inform the reader who these “young composers” might (or might not) be. Her vagueness allows me to take the opportunity the construe her words as inviting an answer from anyone who might fit that bill. Since I am a composer who is often still described as “young” (something that I find curious in my thirty second year), and who has also been described as “popular” (something which leads me to understand that my forms must be since those who describe me as such do not know me in any other way), I will take the opportunity to address her misconceptions more specifically. This is (partially) in order that the reader may surmise how deeply rooted the delusion of knowledge is to persons who do not make allowances for the possibility that they themselves might have much to learn about a topic before they would presume to write about it or take on the pretense of “educating” others.
At the outset, I must inform the reader of the fact that my body of work owes a part of it’s existence to the body of work which Leonard Bernstein left behind. What I am about to show is engagement and not “dabbling” which, until reading Midgette’s words above, I would have reserved for those who practice musical composition as a hobby rather than in the practice of serious composers who have the time and reason to be engaged in Bernstein’s work as part of building their own.
“If Bernstein has a successor,” says Midgette, “it’s his onetime collaborator Stephen Sondheim, who has stayed as resolutely away from the institutions and forms of classical music as Bernstein was inexorably drawn to them.”
The genres and categories which are invented by the likes of Ms. Midgette should not be assumed to be real things (outside of the minds of those who invent them). Ms. Midgette goes further than this in that she informs us of the invented feelings (and invented desires) that speak of an attitude to these invented categorizations.
But when we (who is “we?) think of Bernstein’s legacy, we (who is “we”?) tend to think of the many conductors he championed — conductors who, for the most part, work primarily in the concert hall (how does one conductor “champion” another conductor other than through word of mouth?). And the distinctive features of Bernstein’s legacy (tell us what you imagine to be “Bernstein’s legacy on the podium” or, better, what such a thing could even be before speaking of “distinctive features”) on the podium are not as much an embrace of musicals as they are physical features — an active, athletic approach (this is known as “conducting” and is not “athletic” The main takeaway should be sonic and not visual), talking to the audience and introducing pieces before playing them (many of us do this when given the opportunity). The musicians who came after Bernstein watched him make his own, tortured, sui generis (what does this even mean?) way in the compositions he wrote (his compositions are clear and easy to understand unless one does not want to do so). But they experienced firsthand the warmth, generosity and encouragement of a man who, rather than sitting in stony judgment on a young conductor leading his music, embraced him in a headlock (who is being evoked here? Why does it matter to anybody?).
“‘I hate music! But I love to sing’ is the title work in a cycle by Leonard Bernstein of ‘Five Kid Songs’ It’s meant to be silly and childish and a little bit profound. These days, it sums up the way I feel about its creator” says Ms. Midgette as though she knows “it’s creator” and is writing to a family friend who also knows Bernstein not simply in a personal capacity but in an intimate one.
Ms. Midgette continues her rumination in a paragraph that could have come from a pen-pal. “For most of my life,” she writes (remember this is in the newspaper), “at least until 2017 — I had a documented affection for American music’s favorite crazy uncle. Bernstein, we all know, is brilliant and maddening and embarrassing and lovable. You roll your eyes, and chuckle, but however much he annoys you, he’s so great you just can’t stop coming back for more.”
“Embarrassing” is a word which I have seen on many occasions as associated with Bernstein’s music and deployed by writers who do not know it and cannot or will not focus on it so that they might know it. Knowing it might be especially valuable to these persons. It is these individuals such as Ms. Midgette, Mr. Slatkin and the others in this lesson who obscure the clarity and use of everything in their respective fields by ignoring the field or object of discussion at hand. They instead opt for a “personal approach.” They are unable to bring themselves to comprehend that their “personal” approach is inappropriate and, at the best times, of minimal use if it is of any use at all. They cannot understand that the words “Bernstein the man” do not actually mean anything and that those words are a weak substitute for meaning.
The words of those who do not know what to think about a composer’s work can be revealing. Bernstein was a composer who observed such behavior with such precision of tone and exactness of purpose that his work has made it easier for me to examine much of the same folded and complex behavior in my own. They might consider the source of why they find themselves describing Bernstein’s music as “irritating” or “embarrassing.”
Here I would like to introduce the reader (or the many readers who have not yet “met” him) to Leonard Bernstein himself. Here are his words which he spoke to a gathering of young artists following a terrorist attack. Since the words of Mr. Slatkin and Ms. Midgette (as well as the others in this lesson and book) are printed and printed often and copiously, I will ask the reader’s indulgence in reading a sizable number of words from a composer who spoke truth in his work and whose legacy lives on through my own work as well as the work of others like me who have found use in the truth.
“That was exactly one week ago tonight, and when they all had left around 2 A.M. I sat and mused on words, and the decline of language. Love, Peace, War. So overused we barely know what they mean anymore; like love: Is love a concept from the Gospels, from Plato, or that impossibly repetitive word in any pop song? “All you need is love, love, love…” Meaningless. Religion: are we talking about prayer, charity, faith, or militant fundamentalism? Enemy: that old word we can’t live without. We can all conceive of a personal enemy; a jealous lover, a bitter rival, and so on; but that big-concept word—THE ENEMY—is it not invented and constantly re-invented to give us something against which to fight? Could we have a thriving economy, or even a modest affluent society, without this perennial reason to build our arsenals? Would we be in space without an enemy to beat there?
Another word, truth. Truth? Well, one almost gives up. Since I’ve come home a noble man named Bernie Kalb quit his job as official spokesman at the State Department, on the grounds that he could no longer lie, officially lie. What was the defensive response from Foggy Bottom? The following worse-than-foggy quote from Churchill: “In time of war, the truth is so precious, it must be carefully attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Now that was a glorious sentence when Churchill said it, but to use it in the current context of planned disinformation is simply obscene. Note the not insignificant modifier “in time of war.” Is this time now, this moment, a time of war? Is this a period for Alien and Sedition Acts, counterrevolutionary measures, saving the world for democracy, yet a third time? Hardly. Only when convenient for the powers-that-be to say so. How often, and how gladly those same powers pronounce this a time of peace, in fact, when convenient. “Look at our nuclear arsenal,” they speechify proudly. “Has it not kept the world at peace for 40 years?” When it serves their purpose. Good Lord, we even have a missile called a Peacekeeper. How sly and crafty we are, and stupid too, as we go on debasing the language, honoring ambiguity in prose instead of in poetry, maundering, mindlessly preachifying. Love. War. Hate. Peace. God. Patriotism. Rambo. Way back before the First World War, specifically the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire and Company, certain visionaries saw the debacle coming, Kafka, von Hofmannsthal, Karl Kraus; they perceived it through the degradation of language, the hypocrisy of official speech. Are we doing the same? This is a deep question to ask ourselves in this period of self-reflection and forgiveness.”
As for the intent of “prophecy” in his work, Bernstein concludes his remarks as follows:
There is a charming legend about this penitential period: It is said that on Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day, the golden Book of Life up there in the sky is inscribed with the name of every single human being, along with his or her destiny for the year: who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water, who will prosper and who will not. But there are 10 days within which one can change that inscription for the better—by prayer and the practice of good deeds. Charity and faith can avert the evil decree (you see, it’s all just another version of Corinthians, chapter 13). In other words, it’s now or never, because on the 10th day, Yom Kippur, the big book is closed and sealed for the year. Sorry folks, that’s it.
So here we are on the eighth night, and I want to make my own public confession of faith, hope, and charity. You see, a couple of years ago I had a bit of a falling-out with my esteemed and well-loved friend Derek Bok. I won’t bore you with the story, but the rumpus was basically about a book written and published at Harvard and blessed with a sizable preface by President Bok. I read and hated this book and became quite exercised about the preface, which didn’t exactly endorse the book, but the presence of which, up front and center, by so distinguished a thinker, gave the book a certain cachet I didn’t think it deserved. Dare I mention its name? Living with Nuclear Weapons—the title alone was discouraging enough. Well, I got real mad and, in a self-righteous huff, stopped further contributions to the Harvard scholarship fund I had established years before. I was wrong to do so; and even though Derek and I have never debated the matter publicly or privately—never even had that lunch we promised each other—nevertheless I have sinned, I re-examine, I re-evaluate, and I hereby return the withheld funds. There is no enemy; there is the American principle of free debate; fighting against an invented enemy is wasteful; fighting for ourselves and one another is constructive, is sharing—otherwise known as love.
Let me leave you with the thought that we all have until Monday night to meditate, rectify, re-assess, and get that celestial inscription changed. Try it, it’s worth it. And, as we say, shana tovah, a good year, and hatimah tovah, a good inscription. Bless you.
If the court is between Leonard Bernstein on the one hand and his detractors on the other, then I can now leave the case in the hands of the reader. In cases such as these, the most important task that could fall upon a living artist such as myself is the duty of presenting the views of those dead men and women with whom one breaks bread in the arch of influence. In this case, I hope that I have presented Leonard Bernstein and his detractors clearly and I know that I have presented them through their own words.
Having fulfilled that task, I must now leave it up to the reader to decide, in the only way one can decide, whose thoughts are better and more properly to be read as “irritating” and “embarrassing.”
The question, raised by one critic at the time of Mass’ premiere in 1971, is the starting point for our final considerations regarding Mass and anti-poetics. This critic posited to ask why Bernstein’s work was (and remains) so evidently abrasive (personally abrasive) to so many of the “critics” who attacked a work that was so thoroughly embraced by audiences in general.
We must turn to a review of Mass from November of 2014 which was written by Zachary Woolfe, a “critic” at the New York Times.
The review, in which Mr. Woolfe labels a completed work (one which is being performed decades after it’s premiere and decades after the death of it’s composer) an “effort,” begins as follows:
“Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers” begins with a 12-tone Kyrie played from the four corners of the theater. A guitar-strumming Celebrant enters in street clothes, then there’s a jazzy “Alleluia,” like a 1950s radio jingle. A marching band enters, flanked by a chorus, dancers, a children’s choir and another choir, backed by a full symphony orchestra — and that’s just in the first 15 minutes, before the rock band, the blues band and, near the two-hour mark, a climactic mad scene.”
Mr. Woolfe says that the work begins with a “12-tone Kyrie played from the four corners of the theater.” This is the first sentence of his review and, already it contains two major and obvious objective errors. By “12-tone,” Mr. Woolfe is referring to a technique of composition which is very specific: one composes using twelve tones in a certain prearranged order without repeating a single one of those tones until all of the remaining tones in the series are used.
But one does not need to understand the specific compositional technique at play here in order to grasp the issue at hand nor does one need to understand the specific compositional technique at play in twelve-tone music in order to appreciate it, enjoy it or hear it as such. The issue at hand is that Mr. Woolfe is in blatant and obvious error about something which is objective to the student of music as well as the average concert goer. One is, as I said, able to hear the effect of the technique when composers work with pitches using a twelve-tone technique.
The Kyrie does not use a 12-tone at all or anything close to a 12-tone technique. It doesn’t sound twelve-tone; far from it.
Worst of all, Mr. Woolfe’s error is not simply blatant but also unoriginal. The mistake, as committed by Woolfe in 2014, has been made many times before Mr. Woolfe by “critics” and “scholars” like him.
In 1971, following the world premiere of Mass, a writer named Cheryl A. Forbes wrote a review of the work’s premiere for Christianity Today. Her review, titled “Bernstein’s “Mass”: No Word From the Lord.” describes the music of the opening: “Kyrie Eleison, a pre-recorded twelve-tone soprano duet.”
These anti-critics and anti-scholars have been corrected time and again by critics and scholars and yet they persist in their error. Gary DeSesa, in his dissertation on Mass (the only scholarly or critical work which I have found to engage Mass on a musical basis corrected the error in the following (definitively clear) terms (the dissertation is dated from 1984-85 and has been available to Mr Woolfe and others for decades now):
Mr. De Sesa’s statement (“One must wonder from where Forbes gets this— certainly not from the score or aurally”) contains an important observation: namely, that the score to Mass is not needed in order to realize that the opening is not “twelve-tone” nor does it resemble music written which uses twelve-tone technique to the ear. Mr. De Sesa’s correction contains an important statement if read positively (in terms of what the listener can get from the music rather than what the “critic” divined and which is not in the music): it would be a simple matter for someone to understand that the Kyrie is not “twelve-tone” aurally (by simply listening to the work):
In a 2016 textbook titled A History of Western Choral Music the reader will note the ambitious and ambiguous use of the word “Western” in the title —this word leaves the geographic area to be covered in the text book open to the whims of the author. It serves no obvious function and yet, unfortunately, it damages the text in more immediately tangible ways. The “geographic” exclusivity excuses the writer of the text from meeting any need or requirement to discuss important choral composers like Tour Takemitsu, Halim El Dabh, Tan Dun and many others (including many composers from all parts of the world including Europe and the Americas) whom the author decides to regard to not qualify as “Western” by his own apparently private and, in any case, never-defined “definition”). In the immediate sense, the result is a text which is fractured and far less of a useful resource than it could be. In a broader sense, I trust that the true motive behind the use of ambiguous and deceptive language is becoming more apparent to the reader; it will continue to be demonstrated until the summation of this book.
How does this particular point relate to the matter at hand in Bernstein’s Mass?
The author of the History of Western Classical Music, a man named Chester L. Alwes, introduces Leonard Bernstein’s body of work (or choral work if the scope of the book is to be taken as a defining indicator) like this:
This “introduction” is a collection of objective errors. The form in which the errors are presented is informative. The first two sentences manage to commit many mistakes and conflations which make very little sense and serve equally little function as far as aiding in the understanding of the musical works mentioned. All of these conflations and mistakes can be “gotten away with” even though they obscure the works being discussed precisely because of the “ambiguous and ambitious nature” which produces the aforementioned obscuring of the works which are mentioned.
It is in the third sentence, as the author explicitly contends with a single specific example of music that he falters explicitly. He falters immediately following his very first attempt at examining Bernstein’s music itself. Mr. Alwes contends that Bernstein’s work (Mass) demonstrates a “populist facility with twelve-tone technique in the work’s Kyrie.”
This book is published by Oxford University Press. This publisher and many music publishers like them who are constantly lamenting decline and doom in the music publishing “business” would do well to consider their practices. If they would only think of their readers and provide them with a useful and clear text like Mr. DeSesa’s (still unpublished) dissertation, they might find the success that they so desire (and which, by their own accounts, continue to elude them) in “the marketplace.”
Before turning back to the case which Mr. Woolfe raises, I would like to examine a page which I have picked at random from the second section of Mr. DeSesa’s dissertation. This excerpt examines the example of a critic named Paul Hume (in this excerpt, his writing as it appeared in the Washington Post is examined). This page, like all the others and many which one can find by simply picking out a certain line of thinking at random, put one another’s comments into context.
“Paul Hume in The Washington Post
The author of the greatest numbers of articles on MASS was Paul Hume. His first article, covering the Washington premiere, emphasized the philosophical and religious aspect of the work and neglected the musical ones. Explaining this imbalance in an article one month later, Hume says:
The impact of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” is so strong when experienced as total theater—which is what Bernstein himself calls it in the subtitle—that it’s easy to discuss its theological, social and political meanings at length.
And because the work moves so strongly in each of those areas, the early comments about “Mass” tended to slight its purely musical content.
Hume, not above reviewing his own material and providing supplemental enhancement, further realized the musical sense upon which some of the analysis in Chapter III is based:
But in a minute study of the score demonstrates, in a long line of meticulously considered details, the wealth of musical ideas upon which the entire work is constructed, and the subtle marvels of interwoven thematic materials that form its astonishingly rich fabric.
Hume describes the contrast between the opening “Kyrie” and the “Simple Song” as “One of the first and loveliest inspirations…” He analyzes the music of this section:
Following the elaborate “Kyrie,” and “Christe eleison” sung by four voices on tape, which mounts in contrapuntal confusion as tenor, alto, and bass follow the soprano, each on his own line, the voice of the Celebrant is heard for the first time. Not only does he call for men to “Sing God a simple song,” but when the [sic] reaches the line, “For God is the simplest of all,” he is supported by the simplest of chords, the C-major triad.
Cheryl Forbes in Christianity Today
Forbes describes the same music as:
Kyrie eleison, a pre-recorded twelve-tone soprano duet…
One must wonder from where Forbes gets this—certainly not from the score or aurally. It is not twelve-tone, and it is most definitely not a duet. (It is pre-recorded.) The bass solo entrance immediately following the soprano solo could not possibly have been mistaken for anything else except by someone who has no concept of voice ranges, in which case it should not enter into their discussion of the work. If Forbes had checked the score or the libretto, she would have seen the voice entrances in the “Kyrie” clearly marked. One would assume that Forbes had access to a score or libretto, since in discussing the “Agnus Dei,” she quotes what she claims is:
Bernstein’s stage directions to be ‘menacing, wild, barbaric, and relentless’ express exactly the the congregation’s attitude.
The inaccuracy of Forbes review does not end here. She says:
The priest tries to praise God, but the choirboys take him from his task with stunts and acrobatics while they continue to sing the gloria patri. The symbolism is apparent. The children vie for the celebrant’s favor and attention with look-at-me hand motions just as human beings, Bernstein seems to say, vie for God’s favor.
The “priest” is not praising God when the children appear. He is completing a meditation following the mentally challenging “Confiteor” in which, for the first time, he is unable to provide sustenance for his congregation’s doubts, questions and fears. The children don’t “take him from his task,” he welcomes them with “joyous excitement” when they present him with a set of bongos. It is he who initiates the music of the “Gloria tiki” (not the gloria patri, as Forbes entitles it). If any symbolism is “apparent,” it is that a child or children represent innocence, purity, and joyfulness, not selfishness as Forbes’ interpretation would imply. Six movements later in Mass, when the Celebrant has been disillusioned even further by his people during the dance in the “Offertory,” Hume comments that:
Only the choir boys with their loyal, innocent affection sustain the Celebrant at this point.
Forbes continues with a description of the “Agnus Dei” which she says is:
… suggestive of the Israelites in the golden calf orgy, with Moses holding the twelve tablets and looking down on the people from the mountain top.
This episode epitomizes the charge made by New York Times critic Harold Schonberg that the show is “vulgar…pretentious and thin, as thin as the watery liberalism that dominates the message of his work.”
Forbes, from the beginning of her review, seems to have a problem in providing accurate information. She continues this trend with “Moses holding the twelve tablets” instead of the correct number, two. She goes on the misquote and misunderstand Schonberg. The order of Forbes’ quotation implies that the comment “vulgar” precedes “pretentious and thin…,” etc. in which case it is referring to paragraph two, where Schonberg himself does not call the show vulgar, but says”
There were those who dismissed the Mass out of hand as vulgar trash…”
The reviews go on. The comparisons and analysis are illuminating.
The points which are raised in this dissertation should, as I have said, be examined by readers who are curious about Bernstein’s work itself as well as those who are interested in problems regarding human perception in general.
I would now like to ask the reader to consider the remainder of Mr. Woolfe’s 2014 New York Times review of Mass. Following this, we will be able to proceed with a final inquiry in which I will demonstrate the link between a present failure of perception on the one hand and a disorder-crisis in belief and believability for which Mr Woolfe provides an excellent case-study on the other.
Here, first, is the remainder of the review:
“Perhaps more than any other Bernstein work, the jam-packed “Mass,” commissioned for the 1971 inauguration of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, and rarely performed these days, encapsulates its composer: his ambitions, his charm, his quaint liberal pieties, his desire to bridge classical and popular culture, his craftsmanship, his grandiosity.
It’s alternately stirring and embarrassing, a work so teeming that it needs to be approached with utter clarity if it’s not to seem simply messy. An enthusiastic but untidy performance on Sunday afternoon at the Kupferberg Center for the Arts at Queens College, presented by the college’s Aaron Copland School of Music and conducted by Maurice Peress, who led the 1971 premiere, suggested its considerable strengths while emphasizing its risible flaws.
Prominent among those strengths, as always with Bernstein, is the songwriting. Interweaving the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy with the lightly sketched story of a charismatic leader who gains and then loses the support of a restive, doubting community clamoring for peace, “Mass” alternates brooding Modernist interludes with infectious numbers recalling the best of Bernstein’s Broadway work.
“Thank You” is a guileless aria for soprano, “Easy” a flamboyantly swinging crowd pleaser. Days after a performance of “Mass” you may still be singing to yourself the line “Lauda, lauda, laudē,” in Bernstein’s serenely simple melody.
The performers on Sunday, particularly the sweet-voiced young tenor Victor Starsky, as the Celebrant, dived into the work with gusto. But while their emotions were strong, they weren’t always lucid: the relationship between Celebrant and community was vague at the start, so the conflicts that racked it lacked impact. The enormous musical forces weren’t always deployed with precision, and amplification — always difficult to calibrate — muddied some textures.
The work itself still inspires as much doubt as faith. While the crushing blues of the Agnus Dei are effective, the integration of rock into a theatrical structure was more skillfully handled, in the years immediately before “Mass,” by the Who’s “Tommy” and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which also anticipated (and, arguably, was better than) Bernstein’s capacious eclecticism here.
And “Mass” does feel mired in a certain era. At least in this performance, its gently anti-establishment liberalism came off a bit mild for the time of Occupy Wall Street. Its theological skepticism is sourly flavored with hippie narcissism: “I believe in God, but does God believe in me?”
For all these reservations, the final, calm chorus of praise is a highlight. It is possible to leave the work feeling overwhelmed and amused, yet not uninspired.”
It is in a 2018 review of Mass by the Mr Woolfe that the same critic writing about the same work nevertheless allows us to glimpse into the very heart of those issues which Bernstein places at the heart of Mass.
I have taken the time to fashion a proper response to Mr. Woolfe’s 2018 review because a proper response is in order given the content of his review itself as well as what light it sheds upon Mr. Woolfe’s earlier review of Mass as well as the general “critical” attitude which surrounds this work.
Mr. Woolfe, in 2018, wrote a review that is more complex and folded than it seems; his style is deployed to cover up the content rather than bring it to the surface. Over the course of this section, I hope to demonstrate the meanings of his words and demonstrate their anti-poetic structure at work. It is my conviction that artists and lovers of art should be acutely aware of the attitude that lies just under the surface of the review.
In an email to me, the director of the production of Mass which Mr. Woolfe reviews, a lady by the name of Elkhana Pulitzer, wrote that she found the responses to her production of Mass were “polarizing.” I agreed with her but I would also like to add that these responses should be considered stark rather than simply polarizing. Before going any further, I wish to state (in clear and certain terms) that Ms. Pulitzer is not a friend of mine but simply a professional acquaintance. I hold no interests or stakes (professionally or otherwise) in Ms. Pulitzer’s work and declare no “conflicts of interest” though I cannot see a way in which assuming a perspective on Ms. Pulitzer’s production would lead to counterproductive results.
In addition to all of this, I also intend to refrain from commenting on Ms. Pulitzer’s production of Mass nor will I share any personal opinions regarding her production as I intend to refrain from any discussion of the production altogether in order to focus on the work and its relationship to Mr. Woolfe as I analyze the “anti-critical” through demonstration. I believe this matter at hand to be important enough to warrant the various assurances which I have given to the reader here (assurances which are above-and-beyond affecting the actual discussion of the matter at hand and which I offer as an indication of the vitality of approaching the truth in this situation with an unclouded vision).
The line between those persons who see what is there (positively) and accept it’s reality on the one hand and those who see what is there but insist on their own negation and despair on the other hand is clear. Subjectivity is not the matter at hand. I wish for limitless innovation and creation.
There’s room for the creative and constructive call and it should exist wherever human beings exist. In fact, there’s so much room for innovation and creation in the world that one is forced to wonder why anybody would feel the need to take anything away through attitudes of negation and negativity. The words from Mr. Woolfe in 2018 are written in the tone of people who desperately want to add their contribution and even save the world. That’s all nice. Perhaps we do even call it affirming. But without anything to contribute, we can (and should see) the desperate cry of negation. This is a review that presumes to ask why a work even needs to exist. That is a destructive thesis embodied by the destructive words that come out of the depths of Mr. Woolfe’s “criticism”:
““The moral? Radicals should submit to the system; peace is more important than change. For all its counterculture trappings, then, ‘Mass’ is fundamentally, boringly conservative.”
Mr. Woolfe’s words are clear. They can be rewritten for further (i.e. explicit) clarification as follows:
“MASS is didactic to the point of containing a moral which I will sum up here. If you are an original thinker with something to contribute then you should reject peace and be careful to not budge an inch with regards to what you perceive to be absolutely true. Hold to your subjective vision and personal opinions even if this means that destruction will follow. If you favor peace then you are weak and boring.”
Woolfe is telling us that we can accept a perspective that holds personal validation as paramount. He says that it’s more important to stick by one’s subjective preference than to enjoin in the simple Dharma of preserving the world.”
The implications here are clear. This is not only coherently portrayed in Mass but also in Bernstein’s work as a whole. In the third symphony he writes a scherzo in which the speaker narrates the words from a star of regret where man is “free to play with his newfound fire. Avid for death; complete, voluptuous and final death.” In his Norton Lectures, he warns against the destruction of a new holocaust in which we will experience the fires of “the angel of planetary death.” In his Kaddish Symphony, the speaker yells at God: “Magnified and Sanctified be the great name of MAN” and, just like in Mass, commands god to “believe in me.”
I can attest from experience that many people, myself included, understand the world differently.
Those of us who do want to survive and live or, as Bernstein himself writes into the voice of the narrator in his Kaddish Symphony, “suffer and recreate each other” understand the need for what the Jews call Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). Bhuddists speak of Dharma. Muslims find solace in the human embrace our nature as reasoning beings who embrace reality and leave the rest to Allah as we do the best we can in human terms. Still many other people do not abide by any religion and find no trouble embracing free thought and decent behavior. I have heard people simply say “try to be a gentleman” or “be a true lady” or even, informally, “I’m going try to keep my negative traits to a minimum today.”
Whatever one calls it, the attitude I am writing about is one which simply embraces life and allows for life and creativity in others. Each of us can co-exist and thrive; each of us can contribute and love in our own ways.
Many things in the 2018 production (in Mass itself) affected Mr. Woolfe profoundly enough for him to have written a statement which calls for us to face his words and to be clear-eyed about what he is communicating to us through his prose.
This is the revealing comment:
“Indeed, he enlisted Stephen Schwartz, the creator of “Godspell,” to collaborate with him on a text that crowds the traditional Catholic liturgy with hippie-era nostrums. (‘I believe in God,’ goes one passage that does resonate in our equally self-absorbed times, ‘but does God believe in me?’)”
I know exactly what I have contributed as a composer; it is ludicrous to imply that an artist does not know what he might be doing and that our discipline is reliant on the “judgement” of “critics” like Mr Woolfe. What we do is apparent to any true critic.
Mr Woolfe is not simply questioning the order of value in Bernstein’s work. His questions operate on the order of whether things are meant to survive or to perish.
How true and functional the artwork is and how true and functional it stays are the determining factors in the survival of any work. Neither Mr. Woolfe, nor anyone else can claim a monopoly on that sort of decision-making. But there are many who are better equipped to make objective observations about the function and excellence of a work than Mr. Woolfe demonstrates himself to be.
There’s a lot of objective material to consider before anybody should reach the point of subjective analyses involving the Composer and his intent. Those subjective things are the realm of specialists want to actually study the life of a composer. If the artist of the future or anyone for that matter wants to correct me in order to build on my work that’s fine. I make every allowance imaginable for that and I am grateful for their correction. But the intent reveals itself in the calls to tear down all that I’ve worked so hard to make for no other reason than some validation of personal feeling then I think it is worth correcting that position now.
Simply put, Woolfe writes that human beings should be willing to condone the notion of setting this world on fire. He tells the reader that he cannot understand the work but instead of admitting that he simply cannot fathom what the work at hand is about, he says it like this:
“Overall, it is simply hard to discern what “Mass” can mean to us in 2018…”
Phrasing his misunderstanding in this way is more difficult than simply saying “I don’t understand this work.” He went out of his way to craft the paragraph in that way because it absolves him of having to admit his inability to comprehend. By wondering what Mass “can mean to us,” he deflects the blame of having misconceived this work and passes it onto the reader.
He then goes on to say that:
“If the staging’s vigor seemed too strenuously achieved, that may be Bernstein’s fault more than Ms. Pulitzer’s or the performers’. Overall, it is simply hard to discern what “Mass” can mean to us in 2018 — why we should perform it at all — other than as a relic.”
Any definition of the word “vigor” one finds will connote ideas of “life” or “good health.” His characterization of your efforts through the word “strenuously” follows naturally to any reasonable person. It means that you had to work hard to resurrect something that should be dead; that, if taken on it’s own, MASS doesn’t have a reason to survive and resonate across the decades. Any art that survives on it’s own merits is an admission of the innate self-evident truths that it contains. Woolfe goes to great lengths to negate that idea. If MASS does survive (something he cannot deny since this is his second review of the work), it survives as a relic. That means that people dig this work up as one would dig up an artifact from a dead and alien civilization. Rather than performing MASS because the merits of it’s truth are resonant to humanity, he explains the fact of his own witnessing of performances by boiling the relevance of the work to mere curiosity. If you did not perform MASS out of sheer sentimentality or curiosity over a dead object then I would be happy to speak out with you in a productive way.I believe that it is vital to challenge the dark undercurrents of this review.
Woolfe writes of “finding it hard to discern what Mass can mean to us in 2018.” Since he speaks in the plural “us,” (referring to the readership “us,”) I would like to define it. I define it for those of us who would like to evade destruction and abuse in our lives and in the world that we inhabit.
The culmination of MASS depicts a clear scenario. Different people in anger and moved to confusion and fear by lack of communication and too many ornaments that obscure the Simple Song at the heart of the work are finally moved to join. They are frightened and despairing. Assigning politics to this finale is spurious on many grounds. The masses of people all come together and demand a sense of direction and peace. Their distrust is fueled by the discovery of a wealth of lies under he ornament and say that they will “set this world on fire.”
There’s a constant effort on the part of Woolfe that, throughout the review, betrays the determination with which he seeks to cast MASS as dead (“untrue” in artistic terms) and as dishonest. The words which I have underlined below define fake-ness:
“They gave the old-fashioned Mass a theatrical spin, grafting a loose plot onto the Kyrie, Confession, Agnus Dei and so on. Our main character is the Celebrant, a priestlike figure with an acoustic-guitar-carrying, youth-group-leader vibe. The church fills; there’s a chorus, dancers, a children’s choir, another choir, a marching band, pretaped sounds.”
Bernstein takes something “old-fashioned” and gives it a new “spin” which, in itself, is described as “theatrical.” It is unnecessary to define something as “theatrical” if we are seeing it play out in the theater. The italicization of the word “another” is Woolfe’s own. He tells the reader that MASS is a mess of bloated excess; something he has already said earlier in the review:
Bloated, bombastic, cloying, quaint and smug — and occasionally, it must be said, very pretty — “Mass” (1971) now exists mainly as a stale memento of the aftermath of the liberalizations in Catholic ritual inspired by the Second Vatican Council. A strained union of high and low culture written for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, it was Bernstein’s grand effort to match the counterculture-fueled energy of recent hits like “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Godspell” and “Hair.”
Even Woolfe’s attempt at a compliment (that the work is occasionally “very pretty”) checks off more than one box in the meaning department that betray his attitude:
PRETTY: 1) Neat; elegant; pleasing without surprise or elevation
2) Beautiful without grandeur or dignity
3) It is used in a kind of diminutive contempt in poetry, and in conversation
4) Not very small
Woolfe spends a lot of time depicting this art-work as the result of a grandiose effort on the part of an ego-driven composer who, in attempting to philosophize about an ideal, failed to show essential truth in his work. Further depicting Bernstein’s intentions as an attempt to mimic the politically relevant energy of “recent hits” is unnecessary. The only reason to depict MASS as an “effort to match the counterculture-fueled energy of recent hits like “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Godspell” and ‘Hair’” is to communicate an idea: Bernstein did not see truth as an artist but was driven by greed and ego to write MASS and craft it in such a way that emulates the money and fame that come with box-office blockbusters and bestsellers. The simple fact that Bernstein had already achieved world-wide fame, celebration and lived in financial comfort by the time that he composed MASS makes this an unconvincing argument.
“Blues and rock (or, more accurately, “blues” and “rock”) singers enter the picture. Looking, in Elkhanah Pulitzer’s game but dull staging, like a touring company of “Rent” in their faux-bohemian street clothes, these folks gradually express their frustration with God, and with old rituals and maxims.”
The use of quotations express Bernstein’s alleged fake-ness (“blues,” “rock,”) while words like “faux-bohemian” are deployed to reinforce the conviction that MASS is (and must be) a lie. There is no other reason for the use of this prefix. MASS is a work of art and the critic heard it in the theater. It is known that things are false. Interestingly, the word “maxim” reinforces the charge that MASS is a proposition rather than a work of art as well as the idea that Woolfe is promoting regarding it’s bloated size:
maxime, from medieval Latin (propositio) maxima ‘largest or most important ‘proposition’.
The most destructive admission that Woolfe makes in his desire to tell us that MASS is bloated and incomprehensible is that he reveals an ironic unawareness of the eternal truths expressed in MASS. Throughout the work, musical techniques (like “twice triple canons” are written to express the incomprehensible effect that comes with listening to someone speak a language that nobody understands or can understand. Bernstein writes this effect in order to contrast this needless complexity with that which is simple.
The “unneeded” ornaments are not only written with great intent by Bernstein. The ornaments are vital to expressing a source of tension in Mass between the simple and the complex. This is a source that Woolfe chooses to overlook in his review. It is also possible that he simply does not appreciate it’s presence in order to communicate them.
The huge and hugely complex structures in mass are always thwarted by plainly spoken expression. At the start of the work, a countrapuntal antiphony of tapes (coming at the audience from four different directions) is distilled into one voice and one direction. Simple Song, lightly scored, tells us to sing a simple song and that God loves a simple thing because “God is the simplest of all”:
The review’s description of the Second Vatican Council lends an insight into the negation and despair that pervades the outlook of this review:
“Bloated, bombastic, cloying, quaint and smug — and occasionally, it must be said, very pretty — “Mass” (1971) now exists mainly as a stale memento of the aftermath of the liberalizations in Catholic ritual inspired by the Second Vatican Council.”
Woolfe’s mention of the Second Vatican Council is unnecessary to the discussion of MASS and seems like a diversion. Mass is described in terms that connote illness and death (“stale”, “memento”) while the Council is described only second-hand. The council is mentioned as an “inspiration” rather than concretely. It is discussed through the lens of Woolfe’s appraisal of MASS and also through the mention of policies such as “liberalizations” which are described as having an “aftermath.” Since the Council is clearly unneeded, we should ask why Woolfe chose to bring it up at all. The Church, like art, is imbued by Woolfe with political connotations (“liberalizations”) and the results of this alleged political experiment is described as having an “aftermath” (translated as the “consequences following from an unpleasant event”).
What was this “unpleasant event” that Woolfe is drawn to assaulting. These lines from Pope John XXIII’s Address on October 11, 1962 at the Opening of Vatican Council II should give us an indication about the nature of the Council:
“In the daily exercise of Our pastoral office, it sometimes happens that We hear certain opinions which disturb Us—opinions expressed by people who, though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient prudence and judgment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church’s rightful liberty were concerned.”
Woolfe’s entire irritation is founded in his need to contribute and to be correct. Being discovered as zealous but “lacking in sufficient prudence and judgement” is exactly what this reviewer and many like him are attempting to avoid at any cost (even the endorsement of tearing the human house down). The Pope speaks of their repetitive style (“They say over and over…”) and also points out that they have misunderstood their history (“had taught them nothing.”) This is an admonition that hurts those who rely on their subjectivity and personal feelings for survival as well as relevance. If I was in Woolfe’s position, I would react to the Pope’s words with the same need to decry them. In addition to admonishing their position, the Pope shows us how to find the tone that is the signature of the prophets of negativity. “They can see” says Pope John XXIII “nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world.”
“We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom,” said the Pope, “who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand.”
The denigration of form and glorification of destruction that Mr. Woolfe advocates for in his review is not the expression of all that bothers Mr. Woolfe in this moment. He is only speaking of the Council as a secondary subject. His primary target is MASS which exists as a “memento” of the “liberalizations in Catholic ritual inspired by the Second Vatican Council.” The word “ritual” is defined as:
- a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order: the role of ritual in religion | the ancient rituals of Christian worship.
- the prescribed order of performing a ceremony, especially one characteristic of a particular religion or church.
- a series of actions or type of behavior regularly and invariably followed by someone: her visits to Joy became a ritual.
A Ritual is a prescribed and defined order and practice. MASS is composed in such a way that it must be performed as a ceremony or set of rituals. This is problematic for anyone who would write the following words (and these are words on which much of Woolfe’s argument relies). “Overall,” he says “it is simply hard to discern what “Mass” can mean to us in 2018…”
This statement then allows him to ask his most destructive question “— why we should perform it at all — other than as a relic.”
A relic is “an object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical or sentimental interest.” The use of that word reinforces Woolfe’s premise that MASS is dead and was revived because of sentimental interest (thus deflecting his own subjectivity onto those of us who find value in the work). Interestingly, the word relic is also defined as “a part of a deceased holy person’s body or belongings kept as an object of reverence.”
Giving up a recourse to the certainties of ritual would be an abortive exercise. In his Poetics of Music, Stravinsky spoke to his students about the need for them to lower their shields and accept dogma as part of their practice. He started out by clearing up a temporal flaw common to human perception.
“I am fully aware that the words dogma and dogmatic, however sparingly one may apply them to aesthetic matters or even to spiritual matters, never fail to offend—even to shock—certain mentalities more rich in sincerity than strong in certitudes” says Stravinsky. He characterizes the danger of developing a richness of sincere subjectivity when it is untempered by knowledge (certitudes).
“For that very reason” he told his students, “I insist all the more that you accept these terms to the full extent of their legitimate meaning, and I would advise you to recognize their validity and become familiar with them; and would hope that you will come to develop a taste for them. If I speak of the legitimate meaning of these terms, it is to emphasize the normal and natural use of the dogmatic element in any field of activity in which it becomes categorical and truly essential.”
Stravinsky points out that the dogmatic element is essential to any artist’s arrival at formal clarity and an ability to create works that communicate order and truth sincerely but also clearly. He also points out a fact that makes any dissent pointless: that we cannot even perceive the creative phenomenon without perceiving the form of that creation. This is true of natural creation (of which we are a part) as well as artistic creation:
“In fact, we cannot observe the creative phenomenon independently of the form in which it is made manifest. Every formal process proceeds from a principle, and the study of this principle requires precisely what we call dogma. In other words, the need that we feel to bring order out of chaos, to extricate the straight line of our operation from the tangle of possibilities and the indecision of vague thoughts, presupposes the necessity of some sort of dogmatism. I use the words dogma and dogmatic, then, only insofar as they designate an element essential to safeguarding the integrity of art and mind, and I maintain that in this context they do not usurp their function.”
Stravinsky was also careful to point out that dogma follows order. We do not create order out of dogma. Dogma is often misrepresented as arbitrary order of rules and rituals that are created in order to make others conform to a certain practice or behavior. This misuse of dogma relies on people’s misunderstanding of the timeline in which order precedes dogma. The world existed before we could perceive it and order it in such a way that made it comprehensible to humanity. The fact that we have dogma is evidence of humanity’s recourse to order; we must have order as a prerequisite to creating dogma.
“The very fact that we have recourse to what we call order —that order which permits us to dogmatize in the field we are considering—not only develops our taste for dogmatism: it also incites us to place our own creative activity under the aegis of dogmatism. That is why I should like to see you accept the term. Throughout my course and on every hand I shall call upon your feeling and your taste for order and discipline. For they—fed, informed, and sustained by positive concepts—form the basis of what is called dogma.”
Pope John XXIII offered a clear insight into what any audience member who attends MASS should have no trouble seeing. I have underlined the passage of his closing remarks at the Council; words that bear clear connection to Bernstein in this composition. It would have been simple enough to draw this parallel into a review. It is straightforward and enhances the critical appraisal of Bernstein’s work and it’s intent:
“Men will realize that the council devoted its attention not so much to divine truths, but rather, and principally, to the Church—her nature and composition, her ecumenical vocation, her apostolic and missionary activity. This secular religious society, which is the Church, has endeavored to carry out an act of reflection about herself, to know herself better, to define herself better and, in consequence, to set aright what she feels and what she commands. So much is true. But this introspection has not been an end in itself, has not been simply an exercise of human understanding or of a merely worldly culture. The Church has gathered herself together in deep spiritual awareness, not to produce a learned analysis of religious psychology, or an account of her own experiences, not even to devote herself to reaffirming her rights and explaining her laws. Rather, it was to find in herself, active and alive, the Holy Spirit, the word of Christ; and to probe more deeply still the mystery, the plan and the presence of God above and within herself; to revitalize in herself that faith which is the secret of her confidence and of her wisdom, and that love which impels her to sing without ceasing the praises of God. ‘Cantare amantis est’ (Song is the expression of a lover), says St. Augustine (Serm. 336; P. L. 38, 1472).”
It’s worth addressing the question: “can art change the world?” Leonard Bernstein’s comments to the Los Angeles Times in 1972 provide a valuable insight. When asking these kinds of questions, we should always remember that Bernstein was a composer. That means that his work is artistic.
“The point is,” Bernstein said, that “art never stopped a war and never got anybody a job. That was never its function. Art cannot change events. But it can change people. It can affect people so that they are changed…because people are changed by art – enriched, ennobled, encouraged – they then act in a way that may affect the course of events…by the way they vote, they behave, the way they think.”
If Artists embark on missions to solve problems or (literally) change the politics of the world they are embarking on that mission in addition to the function of their art. If it has happened that an artist has directly changed the political current of the day-to-day news of his/her time through their art, I am unaware of the example. But one rule we must adhere to whether we like it or not is the search for truth. An artwork must seek to express truth as the artist who is creating that work sees the truth. The artist must then make the truth self-evident and demonstrable by creating an artistic object that demonstrates it without the need for overly discursive explanation.
This involves uncovering the truth (or connections between known truths) that lay hidden in plain sight rather simply doing whatever we please. Artists can do whatever we please but it is wise to remember that the truth we perceive must resonate with other human beings in order for us to have an audience.
Bernstein illuminated the truth as he saw it. The fact that it resonates with so many people across the world and continues to move new audiences in new productions and recordings is a testament to it’s fundamental beauty.
That I have been referring to Mass (as well as Bernstein’s other works) as a useful and relevant vantage point for crafting new works is evidence of the work’s continued life and viability.
If there was a “solution” it would be clear. The show-off attempts of overblown musical devices seem like an egoist’s task to impress God rather than to preserve his creation in the simplest way possible. This letter is long because Woolfe managed to create a lot of complication in this review. My conviction is that he is doing this unconsciously because his negation is so adamant and consistent and also because he had hours (rather than days) to write and file his review. He offered us his most immediate thoughts.
The misunderstanding or perversion of simplicity words is the subject of Mass. It resonates because . This is not a new truth. In his 66th Sonnet, Shakepeare creates a list of “tired” things that would make death seem restful:
“And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly—doctor-like—controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity”
Shakespeare’s words were published in 1609 and they remain true as I write these words. They will remain true for as long as we remain human beings. Woolfe is miscalling and misrepresenting Mass in many different ways. His review is complicated and rife with folded negations. Mass depicts a celebrant groping in the dark for simple truth. He finds it in plainchant. This new plainchant.
The fact that Bernstein managed to depict the Celebrant as “finding” the same plain and simple song that monks created in the 6th Century (and the fact that he depicts that moment as credible) is another moment of the success in terms of the situational believability and, thus, artistic truth contained in Mass. Bernstein gives the audience no information in Mass that would have the audience believe the celebrant studied the works that were created in the early days of Christianity and that Pope Gregory urged a return to. is a testament to the enduring power of saying it plain. Here is the Celebrant, left alone and picking out a melody on the piano with his finger, making a simple song (what the scholars call “plainchant”):
Remember that Woolfe described the words of MASS in this paragraph:
“Indeed, he enlisted Stephen Schwartz, the creator of “Godspell,” to collaborate with him on a text that crowds the traditional Catholic liturgy with hippie-era nostrums. (“I believe in God,” goes one passage that does resonate in our equally self-absorbed times, “but does God believe in me?”)”
He is telling us that MASS should not have survived and should not survive into the future. This is a drastic statement that requires backup on the part of Woolfe. A vital observation for his “proof” lies in the use of the word “nostrumus” which is defined as “a medicine not yet made public, but remaining in some single hand.”
In order to the notion that Bernstein somehow “failed,” Woolfe needs backup. This is because of the drastic nature of such a judgement but also because Woolfe needs to explain why he is contending with Mass in 2018. If the work is as stale as he would like to believe, would it not have been put to rest decades ago? Wouldn’t it stop resonating with audiences at the very least?
Woolfe knows that his conviction contravenes the convictions of many other people including those who put work and effort into mounting a new production. But the many people who attend performances and continue to learn the work through live engagement and on recordings are the main concern. There is an audience for Mass that is engaged with the work in many different ways. The numerous ways of engagement are not relevant. The fact that people deemed it possible to have a perspective on the work is enough to prove that the work means something and addresses common subjects (this is how we are able to talk about it). Even the most negative type of engagement proves this fact. It is in this ironic way that Mr. Woolfe is part of the proof in support of Mass as an enduring and true work of art.
This last fact makes it even more urgent for Mr. Woolfe to discredit the validity of Mass. For him, the tactic is clear. Mr Woolfe’s argument can be summed up as follows.
He tells us that, should we want to examine evidence of Mass’ failings, we should simply take a look at our current society and moment in history. We will then realize that the social problems which were present at the moment in history in which Bernstein wrote MASS are still problems today. Mr. Woolfe describes that decade of the 1970s as a “hippie-era.” He also explicitly draws a parallel to the present moment when he writes of the continued resonance of the lyric in question when he talks about our “equally self-absorbed times.” Mr. Woolfe’s attempt to draw a parallel between the troubles of the 1970s and the troubles of 2018 is explicit.
It is by that measure that Mr. Woolfe can conclude that the medicine (“nostrumus”) didn’t “work” and, ergo, Bernstein’s MASS is a sham. The “disease” is still with us.
Bernstein’s Mass is a work of art; not a form of “social medicine.” As a matter of course, artists do not concern themselves with changing the world but rather with expressing the truths that others can also perceive. That is the way in which the word “relevance” can be understood as it applies to the arts.
The demonstration of artistic relevance is simple. It is defined by the prerequisite which dictates that any form of truth which an artist might find must then also resonate as true with an audience and be self-evidently true to that audience.
The “audience” I have just referred should be taken to mean “the assembled audience of the artist’s contemporaries” or “ those who attend the work during the lifetime of an artist.”
That is how we define the relevance of an artist in his own time. Beyond that, the endurance of relevance is determined by the ability of an artwork to remain immediately persuasive to audiences who will experience it beyond the artist’s time and in places both near and far from the artist’s geographical locality.
Woolfe’s entire “proof” hinges on the idea that MASS is a failure in the theater because it does not solve maladies in the “real” world. The basic error is a lack of distinction between art and reality.
But even this approach (attempting to show that MASS is sham) is unnecessary. Woolfe has just attended a performance of the work and it resonated with many including, evidently, him. “We all know,” Picasso pointed out, “that Art is not truth. Art is make-believe that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his conceit.”
Woolfe’s concerted attempt to uncover something that artists have already established as the basis of their relationship with our various audiences (that art isn’t “real”) leads us to the ultimate irony.
The failure of this medicine (“nostromus”; Mass) to cure political ills is “proof” of it’s failure. But the malady described by Woolfe is a human one rather than a political one. Mass is an example in failure as a nostromus because it is not a nostrumus. It is a work art.
What malady exactly was it supposed to cure? Here, Mr. Woolfe perspective is clear: Mass should have targeted self-absorbtion. That, after all, is the explicit comparison to the 1970s which Woolfe draws in 2018 when he writes of our “equally self-absorbed age.”
The political problems of 1971 and those of 2018 are functionally different in a purely political sense. They share common ground in a diverse array human behaviors that an artist may find to be wide-spread among his fellow human beings.
This brings us to a basic question which I have encountered from audiences throughout the world. “How do you write music as a composer?” I hope to answer this question in a way that applies to the creation of most of the works that an audience is likely to encounter in a concert hall: that of artists who create art to be used for the recreation of the mind as opposed to art which is used for a specific function. Here, the question is one artistic intent and, following that, the process of artistic creation itself.
I am happy to guide the audience through a glimpse at artistic creation but some points, which I will now make, should be borne in mind.
The process I am about to discuss (with Bernstein’s Mass as an example) is not a process that pertains to craft. The questions raised about whether someone is fluent in construction as well as questions as to whether an artist is able to carry out the work at hand or whether he has the ability to design the work of art that he has in mind are often asked by those who do not make objects of art themselves. There are three main questions here which I will address one by one.
The artist’s ability to carry out the work at hand is determined by the artist through the definition of an intended goal of construction and a methodology of how to reach that goal. The path is navigated through design choices which the artist makes. These choices are either determined through sketches, improvisation, convention or in the actual process of creating the work in question. I will also note that I have found this process to be true of songwriting and composition. I have found this through the creation of over a hundred musical works of my own as well as through the study of thousands of works by other composers, songwriters in addition to the study of the traditional musics of many cultures.
The question of whether or not the artist has the ability to design a work which will effectively perform the functions that that the artist requires of his work is a strange one. This is simply not a question that can reasonably be asked after the work itself has already been completed and is ready for presentation and performance to an audience or, in the case of the functional arts, for use. At that point, the design of the work is self evident in the body of the artwork itself. This body exists before the audience and is apparent and welcoming of their examination.
Finally, the reader should be assured that issues of fluency are not things that an artist will contend with unless he is an amateur or a student.
Human behaviors seem infinitely diverse. They manifest themselves in many ways. It is the artist that sees the common link between many different events and actions and draws the common link between them. Bernstein’s sensitivity allowed him to understand a wide diversity of actions and events that occurred during this time and draw the common links between them. He then traces their common roots in self-absorption, exaltation of ego, prideful overreach and insecurity.
The artist can then work through the links and find the path among the various strands so that his work can be charted and designed to be given a clear form. Only following this sensitive and careful perception of reality can an artist draw together the strands towards a common root. Bernstein does this in Mass by pointing to a crisis in the ability of his fellow human beings to believe in themselves, one another, the human spirit, the soul and the Creative Spirit.
This process of artistic creation is not an easy one. The perception of widespread things is often a painful one for the truly sensitive artist. And that is just the beginning. The process of designing and crafting a work of art and then building that work has not even commenced yet. The artist can take years before his perceptions and thoughts are at the point where he deems it correct to commencing the work in question. These years of perception and observation pass by while the artist works on other things for which he has gone through the very same processes. This is true of all artworks that are “true” although some works will be most extensive than others. Note that my use of the word “extensive” has nothing to do with the size or length of a work but rather with the extent to which several other artistic works lead up to the current “summing up” in a work of art.
These are not limited to works by the artist himself but can also include the work of contemporaries as well as those of the past generations. In the case of the latter, the artist has the results of many thousands of years of work to be drawn upon.
The artist then earnestly hopes that his fellow man will perceive what he has shown them and also perceive it to be comprehensible and “true.” This “truth” is not speculative and the consequences for regarding it as such are dire. By the time that artistic works are ready to be premiered, unveiled or used their “truth” is truth of function and truth of fact. A water jug, urn or, carpet or coffin must function as intended. A work presented on the concert stage or in the theater must be recognizable to the senses and resonant. This is true no matter how abstract the work may be.
Bernstein had already affirmed that his interest is in the resonance of his work with people rather than the prescription of it to the politics of his time. “Art cannot change events. But it can change people”. The human behavior that Bernstein observed affected the politics of his time. These have been known behaviors to all of humanity for a long time before Bernstein. Mass continues to resonate decades after his death and, as I suspect that human beings will remain prone to hubris and self-destruction, Mass will continue to hold true for as long as our basic nature remains human.
This is not to say that the uncovering of truth and the presentation of it by artists is done for no reason. The artist’s need to tell the truth is rooted in our nature as human beings. Our need to share truths with our fellow human beings is a need and should be understood as a need.
Our hope that our fellow human beings appreciate that which we perceive is rooted in a desire for shared reality and a common experience of the world which we all experience differently as a product of our individuality. Our individuality does not negate our common experience but rather enriches it. There is a lot of material (subjects as well as objects) that may be shared. In order for sharing to happen, the observation at hand must be made material and expressed. This material must be recognizable and evident to people as well as to the artist himself.
In the second lesson, we examined the following line from Auden’s Elegy for W.B. Yeats
“For poetry makes nothing happen.”
This is, of course, true. Poetry makes nothing happen. Science makes nothing happen. Politics makes nothing happen. People make things happen.
“Poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do, but with extending our knowledge” said Auden, “perhaps making the necessity for action more urgent and its nature more clear, but only leading us to the point where it is possible for us to make a rational and moral choice.”
Bernstein is similarly clear about his intent and about the function of art. “The point is, art never stopped a war and never got anybody a job. That was never its function. Art cannot change events. But it can change people. It can affect people so that they are changed… because people are changed by art – enriched, ennobled, encouraged – they then act in a way that may affect the course of events… by the way they vote, they behave, the way they think.”
Woolfe fails in his attempt to differentiate between artistic truth on the one hand and political concerns on the other. Similarities in human behavior are what guides them and this is where Woolfe leads his argument to it’s own demise. His drive to assert his own highly subjective understanding of a personally-tinged opinion betrays Woolfe’s defense of his own ego. If he is determined that he will not be “discovered” to be misguided or seen to have misunderstood, this is terribly rich. It is by admitting of this “one passage that does resonate in our equally self-absorbed times” Mr. Woolfe tells his readers that Mass resonates with him (and, it would seen, resonates profoundly). In that ironic way, Mr. Woolfe has demonstrated to me one of the most powerful affirmations of MASS that I have ever read.
The fact that audiences today continue to learn about and engage with Mass should be taken together with many other exhibits of evidence. These include the fact that Woolfe himself has reviewed Mass on more than one occasion in the theatre and that live performances such as the ones that Mr. Woolfe reviewed and which I sang as a student, take place despite the large forces and technical demands that MASS makes of it’s performers are further demonstrative evidence of the truth of Bernstein’s work in Mass.
Just a short while before the Celebrant sings his lament (“how easily things get broken”) the confused and incandescent crowds sing the following charge to God:
“You worked six days and rested on Sunday
We can tear the whole mess down in one day”
As a young composer, I one made the choice to devote myself to the creative labor of making things. Two decades later, I am even more acutely aware of how difficult it is to make anything; to construct; to create. I’m also profoundly sensitive to the fact that it is much easier to destroy things than to build anything.
W.H. Auden summed the vitality of artistic truth in A Certain World: A Commonplace Book:
“When, later, I began to write poetry, I found that, for me at least, the same obligation was binding. That is to say, I cannot accept the doctrine that in poetry there is a “suspension of belief.” A poet must never make a statement simply because it sounds poetically exciting; he must also believe it to be true. This does not mean, of course, that one can only appreciate a poet whose beliefs happen to coincide with one’s own. It does mean, however, that one must be convinced that the poet really believes what he say, however odd the belief may seem to oneself.
What the poet has to convey is not “self-expression,” but a view of a reality common to all, seen from a unique perspective, which it is his duty as well as his pleasure to share with others. To small truths as well as great, St. Augustine’s words apply.
‘The truth is neither mine nor his nor another’s; but belongs to us all whom Thou called to partake of it, warning us terribly, not to account it private to ourselves, lest we be deprived of it.’
Any human being can and should express himself. This right of individual expression is the right of every man and their natural behavior of human beings everywhere. The work of the artist is differentiated from the
When anyone condones attitudes of destruction, they should do so only with full knowledge that they are allowing a dangerous equivalence between destruction and creation an endangering their grip on reality. Artists should not be expected to simply accept an abusive rhetoric which foments an insidious environment for art. By allowing abuse to parade as criticism or be presented to audiences as information, one is allowing the artist to be turned into an alien and incomprehensible monster.
Artists can allow abuse to join with positive discourse and we can even refer to the negations as a regular part of the spectrum of discourse and creativity. But we must realize that if we choose this path then we are admitting petulant destruction a place on the same spectrum where we insist on holding our own work the highest standards of artistic rigor and truths.
The destructive attitude is nothing new and there is nothing to be done about destructive intent. Woolfe is entitled to write anything he wants no matter how incendiary, abusive or irresponsible his words might be. The rest is up to us.
If we allow for this attitude to continue unchecked and unrecognized then we only have ourselves to blame as artists. Rather than condone this convoluted glorification of subjectivity and the drive to “tear the whole mess down,” we should recognize it and oppose it with positive explanations. Woolfe wants to tear down what he cannot understand as far as objective artistic merit is concerned. By making allowances for that, we would be discrediting everything we artists have worked to establish as the foundation of our diverse array of practices. Artists would be permitting Woolfe and the many voices like his who are assaulting the arts in the name of their feelings and place in the world, to intervene between the creations we make and the audiences who could derive so much joy from our labor. Some of those audiences dare not approach any art because they are told that the arts are filled with products that are opaque and incomprehensible.
Earlier I wrote that, following the delivery of one’s work, “the artist earnestly hopes that his fellow man will perceive that which he has shared with them and also perceive it to be comprehensible and “true.” To that I will add that this perception involves the audience recognizing the truths contained within the work of art as fact and experience and not merely as theory or data. “This ‘truth”, I said, “is not speculative and the consequences for regarding it as such are dire.”
I will now be very explicit about the ramifications of treating art as fictitious, as a luxury, as incomprehensible or as an unneeded frill. This is not simply a condemnation of the practice of alienateing artists from our fellow human beings being distasteful and vindictive.
The recognition of Artistic truth indicates a recognition of common reality. The audience cannot experience artistic truth without saying “I’ve been there too” or “this artist also has thought these thoughts” or even “this building makes me feel comfortable” or “this movie scares me very much.” This can be understood as a recognition of one another and the world in which we live. That is why the artist works so hard to demonstrate all that he aims to express and demonstrate it clearly. We are all alone on some level. We are trapped in the prison of our own mind and our own skull locked out in that isolation from the sense of ourselves and the world around us. We then begin to imitate as young children and thus we start to learn. We learn to speak. We discover that we have much in common with other human beings.
Having learned to speak we, eventually, learn how to read and write. We experience our first kiss and we write it down in a diary which we then remember two decades later. We hear a piece of music at the symphony and feel a multitude of things in the patterns and in the volume, in the proportions and in the harmony which lead us to be happy that another human being has arranged these sounds in this way for us and, therefore, that human being experienced something in them as well. We play Super Mario Bros and learn how to navigate level 1-1 only to find, to our delight, that our friends have learned to jump over that very same goomba just as we had learned to do at the start of the game. We remember this detail almost four decades later and, while playing Super Mario Odyssey and we realize that it was in that moment that we experienced Mario’s very first jump. We make friends and form lifelong relationships. We learn about ourselves and one another and we realize the richness and diversity of the world in which we live and we stare in wonder and awe at the universe that remains undiscovered. This is what artistic truth means. This is what a recognition of our fellow human beings and a recognition of our world means. It is a recognition and acknowledgment of everything that we perceive and everything we imagine; of everything we fear and everything we hold dear.
It is, in fact, everything we have.
Mr. Woolfe and the New York Times attempt nothing new in his 2018 review of Mass. The very same paper volleyed their first destructive words against Mass (words which included personal attacks against the composer as well as repeated slurs that attempted to smear his basic competence and question his intentions) at the time that the work first appeared to the public in 1971.
It was in an article that was printed on September 1st, 1971 that they also recorded some facts which place the abusive tone of the paper’s “experts” at stark odds with their fellow human beings. Here is the reaction of the public to Mass which the paper prints despite the fact that these words discredit the perspective of their chief music critic (at the time):
“Mr. Bernstein wept during tumultuous ovations and some members of the audience were also moved to tears during the performance… the first preview was for the general public, and they applauded and cheered thunderously for 20 minutes…”
Criticism is also a sort of artistic expression in that it is certainly taught rather than found in nature. It must also be counted as such because of the understood intent.
In this way, criticism can be distinguished from journalism where the intent is to keep a daily journal of events. The reader understands that, when a critic writes his review, he is expressing his own perspective on something that he has experienced. This intent is not hidden and should be understood because of the fact that some critics seem confused by the appearance of their words in a journalistic enterprise and take it to endow their opinions with the authority of “setting the record.” That should be the intent of the reporting which we read in the paper. Setting the record of reality is not the intent of the opinion columns, essays or any other subjective publication which might appear in a newspaper or journalistic outfit. It should also be the understanding of the reader that “the record” of news that chronicles a community or country’s shared daily reality is not subject to the the whim of an opinion columnist no matter how insightful they might be.
And so it follows that any reviewer should be subjected to the same set of expectations as anyone else who is expressing their own perspectives and putting those perspectives before a public. Reviewers can write their thoughts and feelings. They should then let the chips fall where they may by leaving it to the readers to decide whether their perspective holds any truth in the mind of the reader. By telling us of the wide-spread warmth at the premiere and writing of the 20-minute ovation with which the public welcomed Mass into the world, the Times ensured that they were not simply delivering the verdict of the paper’s critic. They also, wittingly or unwittingly, added the verdict on that verdict.
This was an extra piece of information that edifies in it’s irony. But they did not need to provide it in order to affirm what we already have learned through the continued life and engagement with Mass. In art, the verdict will always favor that which holds true as the common experience. The lie is that which will always fail since reality will always assert itself.
The facts are as follows. An artist is aware of what he is creating. We are equally aware of how to go about doing our work. These things are not usually stated because the works that we create are left to be demonstrated before our fellow human beings. It is then up to them as to whether they recognize truth in our work. If we have demonstrated truth successfully, the audience will know this without examination of the work beyond the surface. Further study will only reveal more about the work’s content and construction. For people who happen to be interested in any given work at hand, this can be a rewarding experience as well as a moving communion with one’s fellow human beings.
Bernstein’s work is true. That is why we continue to experience it long after the political matters of it’s day have faded away into the obscurities and minutiae of an historical moment. Those issues gave up their presence and relevance to the natural passage of time. Leonard Bernstein’s body of work remains. That is why I can point to concrete examples in my own work in which his works (including MASS) are my “footprints in the sands of time.” Mass has joined the objects and can be counted, in the words of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, as a “friend to man.”
I would like to end this lesson on “belief and believability” with a few words to those readers who happen to belong to my own generation (though I do not think that they will be useless to others).
The patriarchs and matriarchs which Bernstein and I both invoke contributed something that is not purely metaphysical or theological but vital to any creative person.Consider the following account in the Quran (from the Sura titled The Prophets).
Any reading with a full acceptance of the context of time, space and human culture will reveal the radical (by which I mean “going back to the roots”) use of reason on the part of Abraham in this moment:
“And We had certainly given Abraham his sound judgement before, and We were of him well-Knowing
When he said to his father and his people, “What are these statues to which you are devoted?”
They said, ‘We found our fathers worshippers of them.’
He said, ‘You were certainly, you and your fathers, in manifest error.’
They said, ‘Have you come to us with truth, or are you of those who jest?’
And by the unseen force, I will surely plan against your idols after you have turned and gone away.
So he made them into fragments, except a large one among them, that they might return to it and question.”
Abraham challenged the presumed beliefs of his idol-worshiping tribe. He flatly rejected the popular false logic and inability to reason that answered “why are you worshiping useless rocks?” with “we saw our fathers worshipping them”. This is one of our patriarchs refusing to allow the circus of clinging onto blind faith to ever assume that it would act as a substitute for critical thought. But it’s still so much more than that.
The gods of Abraham’s day were figurative (in shape) and symbolic (of literal reality in action and form). Each idol in his father’s shop symbolized an animal, plant or natural element literally. And the tribe was limited by the outer edges of their field of vision. They could only represent what they saw. That made their blind faith evolve into widespread ignorance: the fake news of their day. Fake as it was, it was the mainstream and widespread norm: Nimrod posited to Abraham that the tribe should worship fire… Abraham responded with the elemental force of water that could extinguish fire.
There was one sense that cannot not be extinguished by flame or water: the spirit, the soul and the creative being. Abraham was demonstrating what the assassinated Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto would articulate succinctly millennia later: “You can imprison a man, but not an idea. You can exile a man, but not an idea. You can kill a man, but not an idea.”
The moment Abraham took his axe to the idols, he began a journey of the conceptual but not, crucially, of the merely conceptual. He was asking that his people believe in something highly abstract (to them) and very much beyond their field of vision. But that was only the first step. Abraham infused the future (everything which came after him) with a paradigm: an age of ideas. He did this by asking that his tribe believe in what seemed to them an infinitely complex abstraction. This wasn’t a god of stone: it was beyond sex and transcended quantification; it was at once omnipresent and eternally absent from any physical representation. He didn’t ask for blind faith. His was a method of reason and demonstration that utilized the very elements that we have to contend with on a daily basis.
Once human beings believe in their innately granted capacity for reason and try it out for themselves, they quickly find just how simple and beautiful it is to have the ability to reason. One could, in fact, argue (if one needed to do such a thing) that Abraham’s “abstract” and “conceptual” thought was the most concrete and demonstrable. Conversely, one could argue (if one needed to do such a thing) that the many “real” objects made in stone and worshipped ornately were the most complicated and convoluted things to be contemplated in this episode; even though one could touch and “see” them. One doesn’t need to embark on such arguments. They have been demonstrated.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this was the same episode of human civilization that wrapped the collective head of humanity around an abstraction as grandly ambitious as the Alameen and yet here we are a few short millennia later exploring the Alameen.
There simply is no “going back” nor would any serious thinker desire such a reversion to prehistory. One simply cannot kill ideas.
My motivation in pointing this out is not pride. I would like to think that, with works of my own to take pride in, I would not be so indecent as to take pride in the works of other human beings; works that I have no claim over other than as a student of them. My desire is born, rather, of a solid conviction that humanity benefits when we build rather than attempt to destroy or replace. My earnest desire is to build on the cumulative contributions of all civilized human beings as well as enjoy the fruits of their labor. These are fruits which they so generously created and left for us and that other generations preserved for us in the meantime. These are fruits that nobody was obliged to make but, inspiringly, human beings chose to make them and contribute to the works and learning of humanity.
As I said, there simply is no “going back.” One cannot kill ideas. But that doesn’t mean that Benazir Bhutto is wrong. One can kill men. One can exile men. One can imprison men. One can delay the development of learning and peace. One cannot kill ideas but that does not mean that one cannot do an awful lot of damage to living and breathing human beings who yearn to nurture their spirit and to make genuine contributions of their own. I find this evident from my studies of history: It is to humanity’s benefit as well as the responsibility of all civilized persons to protect and nurture human growth and civilization. This is not a moral or ethical issue. Being civilized and adhering to basic notions of peace and development should not be seen as a mountaintop by sentient beings who would like to be called human.
There are a few universals in Islam (all of them to be found in the Quran). Here is one. Regardless of sect or geography, all Islamic prayers begin with an invocation of thankfulness. In times of particular stress, many Muslims repeat these lines of gratitude to themselves, facing tribulation with an expression of appreciation for all that is good in the world and taking joy in the force that guides the alameen: the multiple worlds, cosmos, universes, and dimensions; the spirit world as well as the physical one; the world of human beings, jinn, angels, and all creatures of earth, light, and fire.
The statement, Al-hamdu lillahi rabbil ‘alamin (الحمد لله ربّ العالمين) meets trial with grace while also acknowledging that there are forces at work that are bigger than us and beyond the scope of our ever-widening field of vision. It also makes us face our humanity squarely.
It was the shining examples of that same creative corner of civilization that reached beyond the figuratively-bound arithmetic of objects and into the bold abstractions of numbers and, eventually, even Algebra. If any contributions to human civilization were obscured in the murky oceans of ambiguity contained within private “worlds” such as “Islamic World” or “The West,” we risk losing track of the role that actual human contribution and work has played in shaping the world which we take for granted. That would be beyond disastrous. Ideas would survive but who is to say how many new ideas would be sacrificed in the confusion and ambiguity of depicting true human enterprise (learning and making) as mystical and unusual behavior?
Many would miss out on the very thrust of creativity and learning which makes us human. This means the exclusion of many minds who are desirous of learning from the anthology of humanity’s cumulative contributions and, by extension, it means delaying new contributions that could further enrich our existence on planet Earth (and beyond). It means keeping people out and frightening them away from experiencing the aggregate of our great discourse. It means denying people access to the arch human of human genius itself.
Every flame that sustains that immortal and grand arch of ideas must find its first spark in the likes of us; mortal, fragile human beings. How do we contend with the often daunting anxiety of facing down and navigating Isaac Newton’s vast ocean of truth? It takes courage and commitment. What sort of commitment am I talking about? Commitment to our humanity and to our selves.
Why not just pack up into a jaded mess (even if such an option was still or ever existentially viable)? The last option, if something so existentially unviable can be called an “option”, was best addressed by Maya Angelou’s portrait of the dizzying emptiness at the heart of our age of narcissism. “There is nothing so pitiful as a young cynic,” said Angelou, “because he has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”
Pursuing one’s dreams and recognizing one’s humanity takes courage. But it also takes an approach to humanity (one’s own as well as the humanity of others) that is based in gratitude.
This is a figure:
This is also a figure:
There is much unseen and much to be learned in and through the engagement with both figures.
The words that you are reading are also figures. Each individual letter is a figure. In order to figure out what I’m getting at, we must look at the world “figure” in two forms. Here is an etymology.
c. 1200, “numeral;” mid-13c., “visible appearance of a person;” late 14c., “visible and tangible form of anything,” from Old French figure “shape, body; form of a word; figure of speech; symbol, allegory” (10c),
The word “figure” comes from the Latin figura which means “a shape, form, figure; quality, kind, style; figure of speech.” In Late Latin, it meant “a sketch, drawing,” from PIE root *dheigh- “to form, build.” That leads me to want to transform the noun “figure” into the verb “figure.”
late 14c., “to represent” (in painting or sculpture), “make a likeness,” also “to have a certain shape or appearance,” from Old French figurer, from Latin figurare “to form, shape” (from PIE root *dheigh- “to form, build”). Meaning “to shape into” is c. 1400; from mid-15c. as “to cover or adorn with figures.” Meaning “to picture in the mind” is from c. 1600. Intransitive meaning “make an appearance, make a figure, show oneself” is from c. 1600. Meaning “work out a sum” (by means of arithmetical figures) is from 1833, American English; hence colloquial sense “to calculate upon, expect” (1837).
See how much richness a verb can get us? And so we must express our gratitude for the Being which gave us the men and women who contributed and left so much for us to learn from and build on as well as the human makers who guide us through the sands of time. That is another meaning of Al-hamdu lillahi rabbil ‘alamin (الحمد لله ربّ العالمين) :
“Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the universes”
“All Gratitude to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the universes”
This means, as Bernstein puts it in Mass, singing a simple song of “ Lauda, Laudē.” Or, put another way, it means reclaiming “this glorious feeling of thank you and… Thank you…”