When I read program notes for Sunday’s concert, I recalled a recent trip to Jerusalem, where I found myself wandering almost by accident along a self-guided tour of the Via Dolorosa, stumbling upon each Station of the Cross in increasing amazement.
I was awed by the theatrical and historical imagination of those who had been making their “pilgrimages” here since the Byzantine era. Mostly, I was stunned by the audacity and conceptual complexity of staging such an act at the nerve center of three monotheistic cultures in conflict. Perhaps I was simply bowled over by the emotional and aesthetic intensity that is modern Jerusalem – an experience not unlike being in a concert hall or opera house during a performance of a historic masterwork. But I kept asking myself, what is the purpose of this “way of suffering” – what is being enacted, what is being professed, what is being claimed?
Above all, I returned to the ideas of historical continuity and the creation of community. I have never experienced a place so palpably alive to the whole of its past and its continuity with the present as Jerusalem. It struck me that this is one power effect music has, when approached with an alive historical imagination. The Passions of Demantius, Bach, Brahms, and Liszt are animated with this continuity.
What you need to know about Demantius was that his children were all victims of the Thirty Year’s War, which laid waste to Germany. Here was a man who composed religious music for choral societies, in a land where in many devastated villages the only livings creatures roaming the streets were wolves and wild boars. Bach’s generation participated in long reconstruction of Germany after these years of extraordinary hardship and suffering. Bach worked to maintain “high church” liturgical standards against the rising tide of Pietism which sought to purify traditional Lutheran Orthodoxy through inward spiritual renewal, group Bible study and prayer, and simple folk hymns. The cantatas, especially those setting the Passion, made his case for the value of large-scale complex and dramatic forms, performed in community of faith as profession of belief. Brahms paid homage Bach’s vision, imbuing this Lutheran Orthodox expression of the Passion with the Romantic era’s preoccupation with struggle and mystical transcendence (foregrounding Job’s confrontation with the Creator of the Universe). Liszt achieves a synthesis of sorts. His Via Crucis, inspired by the Catholic folk tradition of community staging of the Passion Plays enacting the Stations of the Cross, incorporates Lutheran chorales, and is composed in an almost modernist style marked by mystical inwardness.
Of course, all of the questions and conflicts inherent in confronting the Via Dolorosa are still being staged today; we can easily find ourselves in that great chain of being. Music is still composed, now as then, to manage religious and existential doubt, give meaning to suffering, inspire and impart hope, and to forge and reinforce the bonds of community. And yet one wonders if the postmodern era has broken a conceptual link to past. By that I mean the experience of being a member of a Jordan Hall audience, listening to masterworks of the Passion (composed by the usual suspects – dead white guys of the Western canon), is in many ways a radically different experience than before. Yet our need for community persists: we are still human. There is as much continuity as discontinuity, which is both a consolation and an anguish.
What do we hear in this ultimately human drama that causes us to gather? Is it something more than great virtuosity, pleasing form, or the consolations of the beautiful? For these composers, the answer was complex yet radically simple: Christ rose from the dead. For some of us, things are not so clear, except the desire to come together to ask the questions anew (some invited to speak for the first time), inspired by a form that still manages to elevate the discussion.