An opera about Katie Luther

Remember Lori Lewis, who used to be a frequent commenter on this blog?  She is a musician who used to be involved with the contemporary Christian music scene, discovered confessional Lutheranism, and became a critic of that genre.  Now she’s a professional opera singer (as well as the mind behind the online lifestyle and arts magazine Everyday Opera).  Her latest project:  an opera about Katharine von Bora, the fascinating wife of Martin Luther.

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Bach’s “Passion” as online meditation

Bach is among the very greatest of Christian artists, and his “St. Matthew Passion” is considered one of his greatest works.  It is an oratorio, something like an opera, that sets to music Matthew’s account of the crucifixion of Christ (Chapters 26-27), with soloists singing the lines of the various characters and magnificent choral music, all punctuated with Bach’s rendition of Lenten hymns (many of which we still sing today) and remarkable verse by Bach himself responding to Christ’s sacrifice.

My colleague Steve McCollum alerted me to an online resource that makes this masterpiece of musical devotion accessible online:  Oregon Bach Festival » Digital Bach Project » St. Matthew Passion.  It gives the English translation, as well as the Biblical sources and the dramatic script, for each line as the oratorio unfolds.  Click the link, then when you see the painting of St. Matthew, hit the play button.  It’s divided into five 30-minute segments, which makes it an excellent Holy Week devotion.  [Read more...]

Hollywood’s explicitly Christian movie

We saw Les Miserables, which has to be the most explicitly Christian film that I have seen come out of contemporary Hollywood.  There are more meaningful unembarrassed references–in dialogue, songs, and plot elements–to God, Jesus, salvation, grace, prayer, and Heaven than in most of the overtly Christian productions that I have seen lately.

The ex-convict Jean Valjean has received the forgiveness of Jesus, thanks to a priest who shows him an inexplicable grace.  In response to that forgiveness, Valjean lives a life of sacrificial service to others.  His good works are a direct fruit of the Gospel.

Inspector Javert speaks of God also, but, as he says of himself, “I am of the Law.”  He is all about personal righteousness, justice, and salvation by works.  He does not believe that sinners can or should be forgiven.

This all gets caught up in the wretched state of French society and with a revolutionary movement, led by idealistic students.  (This is not to be confused with the French Revolution of 1789.  France had several successful and unsuccessful revolutions in the 19th century.)  But pay special attention to the words of that final song.

The movie is intense and very moving.  It’s a musical, not just in the sense of  big musical numbers (though there are those) but in the sense of an opera, with virtually all of the dialog being sung.  The film is realistically shot–the battle at the barricade is tremendous–but that doesn’t necessarily go with the stylized singing.  I think it works better on the stage.  So see the movie, see the play, and, above all, read Victor Hugo’s novel, one of the greatest in literary history.

Death of a Christian jazzman

Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck died at age 92.  The man and his quartet showed sheer genius.  My old guitar teacher once sat in with him and it was one of the highlights of his life.  Brubeck was a Christian who composed a great deal of sacred music.  From David A. Anderson:

“I approached the composition as a prayer,” jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck said of his “To Hope! A Celebration,” a contemporary setting for the Roman Catholic Mass, “concentrating upon the phrases, trying to probe beneath the surface, hoping to translate into music the powerful words which have grown through the centuries.”

Probing beneath the surface marked all of Brubeck’s music, from the revolutionary 1959 polyrhythmic album “Time Out,” to his oratorio, “A Light in the Wilderness,” and his setting of Thomas Aquinas’ hymn, “Pange Lingua.”

Brubeck is best known in the secular jazz world for his startling compositions using different time signatures, such as 5/4 time in the classic “Take Five,” or the mixture of 9/8 time and the more traditional 4/4 rhythm of “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Both pieces are on the “Time Out” album, the first jazz album to sell 1 million copies and still one of the best-selling.

Religious faith, however, was never far from Brubeck’s creative mind. . . .

In a 2009 interview with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, Brubeck said his service in World War II convinced him “something should be done musically to strengthen man’s knowledge of God.”

That experience gave him the idea of an oratorio based on the Ten Commandments, particularly the “Thou shalt not kill” part.

But he did not act on the idea of writing sacred music until 1965, when he wrote a short piece, “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled,” to comfort his brother, Howard, whose son had died of a brain tumor at age 16.

That piece was incorporated into 1968’s “A Light in the Wilderness,” his first full-scale sacred composition.

That was followed by a series of pieces including 1969’s “The Gates of Justice,” a choral work using words from Martin Luther King, Jr.; “Truth is Fallen,” in 1971; “La Fiesta de la Posada” in 1975; and “Beloved Son,” in 1978.

“When I write a piece, a sacred piece, I’m looking hard and trying to discover what I’m about, and what my parents were about and the world is about,” he told Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Raised a Protestant although never baptized, Brubeck became a Roman Catholic in 1980 after completing “To Hope!”, a Mass setting commissioned by the Catholic periodical, Our Sunday Visitor.

via The sacred ran through jazz legend Dave Brubeck’s music – The Washington Post.

Brubeck shows that it’s certainly possible and desirable to have contemporary Christian music, even to have it used in worship–if it could only be rich and complex and artistic and in accord with the Christian sensibility, unlike much of what passes for that genre today.

Here is his “Celebration” Mass. It’s just over 10 minutes, but keep listening for the choral parts and for when his quartet breaks in (around the 4 minute mark).

Here is “Take Five,” Brubeck’s most famous piece.  (Pick out the 5/4 time.)  Brubeck right now is taking five before the Resurrection.

“In a struggle against all the musicians of the world”

The nation of Mali has Africa’s richest musical tradition and most vibrant musical talent.  But Muslim radicals have taken control of that country and are stamping out the music–destroying instruments, forbidding singing, and driving musicians out of the country.   The article, linked below, is worth reading in its entirety. But I was struck by this quotation:

“Music is against Islam,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the three extremist groups controlling the north. “Instead of singing, why don’t they read the Koran? Why don’t they subject themselves to God and pray? We are not only against the musicians in Mali. We are in a struggle against all the musicians of the world.”

via In northern Mali, music silenced as Islamists drive out artists – The Washington Post.

Does anyone know where this attitude comes from?  Does the Koran specifically forbid music?  (I understand how its iconoclasm restricts visual art, but music is art without images.)  What is it in the radical Islamic worldview that sets it against music?   And, conversely, what is it in the Christian worldview that has made it so open to music–more than that, so creative and  influential musically?

The Transfiguration of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has an interview in Rolling Stone that is confounding some people for bringing back that whole religion thing.  You can’t read it online without a subscription, but David Zahl at Mockingbird posts some highlights:

Do you ever worry that people interpreted your work in misguided ways? For example, some people still see “Rainy Day Women” as coded about getting high.

It doesn’t surprise me that some people would see it that way. But these are people that aren’t familiar with the Book of Acts…

People thought your music spoke to and reflected the 1960s. Do you feel that’s also the case with your music since 1997?

Sure, my music is always speaking to times that are recent. But let’s not forget human nature isn’t bound to any specific time in history. And it always starts with that. My songs are personal music; they’re not communal. I wouldn’t want people singing along with me. It would sound funny. I’m not playing campfire meetings. I don’t remember anyone singing along with Elvis, or Carl Perkins, or Little Richard. The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all. It’s a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has..

[When you talk about] transfiguration, you mean it in the sense of being transformed? Or do you mean transmigration, when a soul passes into a different body?

Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966… Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept. It’s happened throughout the ages. Nobody knows who it’s happened to, or why. But you get real proof of it here and there. It’s not like something you can dream up and think. It’s not like conjuring up a reality or like incarnation–or like when you might think you’re somebody from the past but have no proof. It’s not anything to do with the past or the future.

So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time…

So live performance is a purpose you find fulfilling?

If you’re not fulfilled in other ways, performing can never make you happy. Performing is something you have to learn how to do. You do it, you get better at it and you keep going. And if you don’t get better at it, you have to give it up. Is it a fulfilling way of life? Well, what kind of way of life is fulfilling? No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed…

You said that you originally wanted to make a more religious album this time–can you tell me more about that?

The songs on Tempest were worked out in rehearsals on stages during soundchecks before live shows. The religious songs maybe I felt were too similar to each other to release as an album. Someplace along the line, I had to go with one or the other, and Tempest is what I went with. I’m still not sure if it was the right decision.

When you say religious songs…

Newly written songs, but one that are traditionally motivated.

More like “Slow Train Coming”?

No. No. Not at all. They’re more like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”…

Has your sense of faith changed?

Certainly it has, o ye of little faith. Who’s to say that I even have any faith or what kind? I see God’s hand in everything. Every person, place and thing, every situation…

Clearly, the language of the Bible still provides imagery in your songs.

Of course, what else could there be? I believe in the Book of Revelation. I believe in disclosure, you know?

There is more at The Transfiguration of Robert Zimmerman, or Just a Closer Walk with Dylan | Mockingbird.

The interview has other revelations, or at least disclosures, about Dylan and his work.  For example, we see that he is still irked at the  folk purists who charged him with betrayal when he started playing an electric guitar:

These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified…

This comment about the relationship between the artist, emotion, and the audience is a revelation:

The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all. It’s a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has.

Exactly!  And this is what many would-be artists don’t realize.  Art of whatever kind is not about just vomiting up your inner emotions.  Music, poetry, fiction, acting, painting, film, and other art forms require intense discipline, concentration, and objectivity.  An artist can’t just go up and go berserk in front of an audience.  (Performers who seem to do that are just acting.)  Art does indeed involve emotion, but it isn’t primarily the artist’s.  What all of those objective techniques do “is make people [the audience, the listeners, the readers] feel their own emotions“!

Thanks also to David Zahl for appending this sampler from Dylan’s new album, Tempest:


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