Sunday, May 13, 2007

Why do Protestants suck at classical music now?

I have been thinking recently about how in the 20th century the great innovators have been Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican (which is not quite Protestant as American evangelical Protestants identify the Anglican church). So my question of late is why we Protestants are so bad at being musical innovators? Sticking to just the Judeo-Christian side of things for now:

Schoenberg was Jewish, possibly a very secularist Jew but a Jew nonetheless.
Webern was Catholic
Stravinsky was Russian Orthodox
Copland was Jewish (though not really observant)
Gershwin was Jewish (though also not particularly observant)
Benjamin Britten was Anglican (I think), though old-school Anglicans wouldn't likely like him
Messiaen was Catholic
Penderecki was Catholic
Arvo Part is Orthodox
Steve Reich is Jewish
Dave Brubeck (just to pick an unusual case) is Catholic

Of course you get the more Buddhist strain in Cage and Glass and others but I'm not counting them partly because I'm not looking at the role of Eastern Asian religion as such, and because I don't like Cage and I don't like Glass! I also don't count John Tavener as Christian because I've read enough recent interviews with him that he doesn't seem to embrace anything fundamental to any variation of Christian thought. I suppose I could count Boulez, sort of, as having a Catholic background but he's more practically an atheist and here I am interested in considering the works of composers were actually participants in the religion they identified with. Messiaen almost represents an opposite of Boulez by being a child who became attracted to Catholicism in a far more nominal family whereas Boulez rejected the religion of his parents.

What I am wondering lately is who the Protestant innovators in classical music are. Perhaps i should suggest "orthodox" Protestants, that's to say composers whom evangelicals would identify as actually being Christian in life and doctrine (which is why they would discount Britten who was not only gay but had what may have had some tendency toward pedophilia).

So what Protestant composers have made substantial contributions to classical music whom the average evangelical Protestant could look to as having done something noticable? Um, John Rutter? Last I heard anything about him or written by him he seemed to describe himself as agnostic but who knows a good market for mainstream music when he sees one. Frank Martin "might" count if he weren't dead since around the time I was born; and if it weren't for his being so obscure no one knows about him who isn't keenly interested in choral music at some level.
And none of these possible candidates is exactly cutting edge.

So it seems, to risk a generalization, that atheists and Buddhists have their moments but that a lot of far-out classical music still got written by people from within the Christian fold. It doesn't seem to suffice to say that these were all guys rebelling against a particularly old-school church because the composers who did that just disassociated with their church to some level (like Rachmaninov). Stravinsky rejoined the Russian Orthodox Church; Messiaen never left the Catholic Church; Penderecki didn't write that giant Credo setting just to solve a musical problem; and secular Jews are still Jews in terms of heritage because unlike Christians and Christendom a person can often consider themselves Jewish by heritage even if they don't believe in any kind of God, an interesting subject in its own right that I won't get to here.

It just seems to me that Protestants haven't been on the leading edge of classical music since possibly Mendelssohn and Bach. That's a while back! Ours is an era where contemporary classical music is just not very popular compared to older stuff. I see concert halls filling up with more people to hear Beethoven or Brahms than Messiaen or even Bartok. I just can't quite get my head around why Orthodox and Catholic composers, despite seeming to be more parochial in doctrine to Protestants, or just not being "real" Christians to American Protestants, seem to be more capable of producing musical geniuses in classical music.

I don't think the explanation of rebellion against tradition makes sense. Stravinsky did compose Rite of Spring as an imagining of a pagan Russia but when he returned to the Russian Orthodox Church he was serious and he didn't just stop writing music that is now classic stuff. Penderecki writing the Passion According to St. Luke in a Soviet regime wasn't exactly a wimpy gesture, was it?

It's not that Catholics and Orthodox composers have a sense of history Protestants don't. Bach is indisputably the greatest composer the Western heritage has given to us (Beethoven's still a distant second). But what was it about the Lutheranism and German regions of Bach's time that enabled Bach to be Bach? It seems history as institutional memory doesn't explain everything. Family history could explain some aspects of Bach's genius, especially since multiple generations of the Bach family had been professional musicians and Bach had access to music ranging across Western Europe. My speculative guess is that Protestantism produced incredible classical music because it had, not to put too fine a point on it, a more catholic view of the musical legacy of the West in the past than it has now. Bach could assimilate the tonal and pre-tonal harmonic languages of the old and new styles available in the Baroque era.

I think this capability of composing within multiple styles may be some kind of key to a catholic grasp of Western musical culture. Stravinsky was a stylistic chameleon, so much so that Adorno disliked that aspect of his work. Messiaen assimilated such drastically heterogenous influences as Baroque music, late Romantic works, Asian music, bird-song, and the early modernjsts. Penderecki was similar. What enabled them to assimilate such wildly disparate cultural and historical periods of music into what we can now see as unusual but finally coherent musical voices? Well, I'd like to say their faith and I'd say that's true, but it seems Protestants have faith but DON'T accomplish this in classical music very well. I wonder if the problem may be that Protestant pay lip service to the idea that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. This would be a huge irony because Catholic and Orthodox churches aren't exactly as free-wheeling in practice about things like the ordination of women based on what little I know about them.

I suppose it may come down to what Chesterton wrote, that in Christianity the soldier and the pacifist both have their part and by not giving supremacy to either both are given their rightful time and place. Some Christians get this about music ... and some Christians don't. To some degree it seems that Protestant groups rose along nationalist lines. As a reaction to abuses and shortcomings in the Catholic Church's use of power and influence that's understandable but it may have, so to speak, swung too far the other way. And I guess that as the child of an inter-racial marriage I see no inherent value (personally) in being proud of one culture at the expensse of another, or really in seing any particularly huge value in either cultural legacy I got from my white and non-white ancestors. Not that I have no interest at all but to me it is not the essence of the Christian faith, which is that those distinctions we have traditionally divided over as humans don't have to be points of division in Christ.

4 comments:

Lindsay said...

Perhaps you might get a clue if you go into a typical protestant church? Composers steeped in Judaism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy or Anglicanism have been exposed to a religious milieu replete with symbols, liturgy and other aesthetic considerations, whilst protestant churches often are devoid of such symbols and in some cases even make a an immense effort to create an atmosphere as bland and plain as possible. Just a thought...

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I actually go to a somewhat typical Protestant church in most respects. The distinction between high and low liturgy explains some, but not all of the situation. Judaism's stress on the 2nd/3rd commandment gives that religious tradition a very different approach to symbolism and the arts.

And I would say that the best guess with regard to Protestantism and Judaism may be a cross-referencing of Reformed thought and Jewish thought, both of which have substantially adjusted aesthetics with a prohibition against graven images as a primary consideration prior to any aesthetic and liturgical use of symbols.

After all, Lutherans have excelled at music for centuries and retained a lot of symbols from the other liturgical traditions because there was no over-riding theological imperative not to. Conversely, the iconoclastic nature of Calvinism held that much art was idolatry and seemed to go even further than Judaism in removing anything that might be considered a graven image.

A further caveat I've considered is that I've visited a Catholic church and post-Vatican II services are actually as bad or worse than some Protestant services now.

A more common explanation for a decline in classical music I've seen proposed in British journalism is the decline of its incorporation into publicly funded education.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry that Lindsay's comment was not actually anything more than attack, though Lindsay tries to let himself or herself off the hook with her final phrase, "Just a thought . . . " Unfortunately, I didn't take it as just a thought. It was a rebuke and a backhand.

But WenatcheeTheHatchet, I have asked myself, and others, the same question. I attend a large Baptist church that once had a fine music program with a tradition of delving into many kinds of music. What classical music there was came from the Catholic tradition. (And I admit that the Bach tradition is a fine one.) When I have asked this question in Protestant and non-Catholic churches, the response has been stereotypical: Beethoven's Ninth, the respondents point to Messiah, the pseudo-symphonic arrangements of various hymns and other popular Christian music. And, of course, there is the always the ideas that Charles Wesley, Jr. was an organist. Beyond those few things, there doesn't seem to be much else. (And now, that large Baptist church has sunk into the chorus trap.) It is sad that We non-Catholic Christians must point to a musical heritage that has come to guitars, trap drums and a praise group that often tries to emulate popular. And don't get me started on Christian Hip-hop. Thank you for the 0pportunity to comment.

eric the fish said...

I believe that you are close to the point when you talk about the nationalistic mindset of some Protestant churches. I would contend that Catholics are in a better position to absorb more disparate influences, both geographically (Catholic being latin for universal afterall) and much more importantly, through the spectrum of time. As Chesterton put it, "It is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age".

I don't want to stir the pot here but I respectfully agree with Lindsays point. To me there is no question that Catholicism is an inherently beautiful religion, and one which places (at least historically) a large emphasis on aesthetics. Protestants seem to be so concerned about not being idoloters that the only aesthetic that gets promoted is blandness. I'm not trying to knock Protestants (I'm married to one) but I just don't get the same feeling/inspiration walking into a Protestant church as I get when I enter a big luscious Heavenly Cathedral with an alter and tabernacle, beautiful mosaics, paintings and angels in the architecture. And of course our very Lord and Saviour transubstantiated before my very eyes, (theres an issue that won't get resolved through blog comments:)

It makes me want to pray and then write some music and that I suppose summarizes my point!

God Bless you all
Eric