Well, it happened. It finally happened. And for me, the world is a different place as a result.
Twleve years ago when my professional aspirations consisted of wanting to become such an incredibly good jazz pianist that I was able to tour, record and the rest without breaking the Sabbath, I had written off any chance of ever becoming a serious conductor in the classical music world. Without exception, every Seventh-Day Adventist conductor I knew of had a more liberal approach to Sabbath-keeping than I did.
But I had grown up with certain recordings. My house was one where European aesthetic and cultural values were prioritised over those of diasporic black people – a phenomenon known in part as ‘neo-colonialism.’ This mindset is intrenched into most black people of a certain generation and older – it was literally beaten into them in some cases. Slavery may have ended, but mentally folk were still enslaved. However, the discussions on ‘post-colonial theory’ will need to wait for another time.
One of my mother’s favourite recordings whilst growing up was a Kiri Te Kanawa recording: Exsultate, Jubilate. It was a recording that featured the redoutable Dame Kiri singing that famous motet (if we can call it such) by Mozart for soprano and orchestra. But although the recording had Dame Kiri’s name and image as the primary marketing focus, in reality it was a collection of some of Mozart’s best church music. And the very first piece: Vesperae solennes de confessore (K339) – also known as the Solemn Vespers. And for any readers who are familiar with that work, a link can now be made to the title of this post.
Yes, I grew to love that recording too. We played it a lot. On cassette at first- for many years – and then finally my parents joined the 20th century and we started buying CDs. And sure enough, one day my mother saw a CD of the same album, and brought it home. The very first thing you hear on the recording is the opening movement of the Solemn Vespers – Dixit Dominus. What a powerful way to open a record! And while my mother was most drawn to the virtuoso solo vocal performance on Exsultate, Jubilate – the Solemn Vespers soon became the thing that I most cared about on that album. But I never once thought I’d get to actually conduct it. So, when I saw a vocal score for the piece as a choral conducting student in a second hand music store, I bought it thinking that it was a good thing to own and that one day I might get to ‘chorusmaster’ it for another conductor!
Then God called me to ministry, and I remember thinking how incredible that was, but at the same time how deflated I was that I might not ever get to realise certain dreams I had had for sacred European classical music. I have alluded to certain aspects of my journey elsewhere, but let me fast-forward: when I found myself actually conducting this piece of music for the first time ever three days ago – with my parents in the audience – it was an incredible moment. You see, the texts that Mozart used in the Solemn Vespers are a sequence of Psalms, beginning with 109 (if you follow the Vulgate numbering) or 110 if you use rather more ‘Protestant’ translations. Each one of those psalms is a powerful expression of praise to God – what, theologically speaking, we call ‘doxology.’ Now, one well-known theologian whose work I follow by the name of J.I. Packer has said, “the goal of theology is doxology…” – and this idea has remained with me since then.
For a believing Christian, life by definition is to be lived to the glory of God, in the service of God, whilst constantly praising God for who He is, even more than what he does! So as a preacher, this is what I strive for. As a conductor, my mission is very simply expressed – to follow the example of J.S. Bach and turn the podium into a pulpit. So, when I brought down the opening downbeat of Dixit, it was not a mere conducting gesture to facilitate music-making within the high European cultural vanguard – it was an act of praise.
Mozart’s own postion of confessional Christianity is a matter for speculation. As a servant of the Roman Catholic church and as a Freemason (simultaneously), it is entirely reasonable that we question the actual extent of his theological orthodoxy – but what we don’t know is greater than what we do know. I would argue (again, another post will follow on this subject) that to know what Mozart made of God as revealed in Scripture, we would need to look at how he set the biblical text to music. A composer’s music is the best guide to what they believe in the moment of writing the music. And the way in which Mozart set these psalms suggests that he found in the moment of writing a greater connection to the Almighty as revealed in Scripture than many, many contemporary practitioners of ‘praise and worship’ whose music of praise to God owes so much more to secular musical processing than to a vital personal spirituality that is both real AND biblically grounded.
Excited as I was to be conducting this Mozart, I was even more excited about the piece in the concert which followed it – a little Lutheran mass in A by J.S. Bach. This piece is one of the most extraordinary pieces of music I know, and some of my favourite Bach ever. Just three choral movements (Kyrie, Gloria and Magnificat) and three solo arias, each posing a ferocious musical and spiritual challenge.
The Kyrie is interesting, because unlike an archetypal Romantic Kyrie, it is in the major mode. Interestingly, some of Haydn’s masses have major-key Kyrie movements, but given the seriousness and profundity of the meaning of those words (‘Lord, have mercy’), it is extremely hard to see how such cheerful music can actually bring people to an actual place of contemplation regarding their sins and their need for the forgiveness and mercy of God. As far as I am concerned, this was what Stravinsky had in mind when he referred to certain mass settings of both baroque and classical eras as ‘rococco sweets’ – sweet music but with precious little real spiritual connection to the seriousness of the religious nature of the mass.
So how would it be the case that Bach of all people – understanding the gravity of ‘Kyrie eleison’ – should write a major-key Kyrie?
The answer, I believe, lies in one monumentally important word:
When a composer follows the Roman Catholic ethic within the Kyrie, there is rather more foreboding. There is an uncertainty, an absolute sense of uncertainty of where God is at – if He even exists at all. In earlier eras, people tended to be surer that God did exist than is the case today. So, if He existed, and a person had spent their whole life ignoring Him – how would that work?
But the theological concept of grace is one of the most incredible ideas we have the privilege of wrapping our minds around. And it is far too big, which is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about ‘cheap grace.’ Today as I type, I have been reflecting on the ways in which I too have taken the grace of God for granted at times, despite having a serious understanding of how it is that a believing Christian has no right whatsoever to take the grace of God for granted. This is the disease of the human condition that is most present in the Church today. The reality of my own failures has made me both sad and angry, but as ever, determined to push on and do better.
The opening of the Kyrie in the Bach is one of the most amazing things – but it is when the movement reaches the recit (in four parts) with ‘Christe, eleison’ that one recognises what Bach has done. The incredible opening melodic statement in the introduction is restated by the chorus, and from there Bach takes the variations-on-a-theme idea to a whole new level, with some quite astonishing modulations – and this whole progression is an offering of praise to a God who has already had mercy on us by sending us His Son – Jesus Christ. Bach has accepted Jesus as God, and the sacrifice of Jesus as the substition for his own, and so this reflection on the text is predicated on the reality of God having had mercy on us. But when the movement goes to ‘Christe eleison’- literally, “Christ have mercy” – Bach is reflecting on the fact that our salvation cost the dear Son of God His life – what kind of love is this, that God would do such a thing? And what does it mean that there was no other way for us to be redeemed other than by the sacrifice of a perfect man who never sinned?
Each time you and I do anything wrong – be it telling a little white lie, jumping on a train without buying a ticket, taking something from a shop without paying for it, plagiarising another person’s work in order to pass an assignment at school or college or university, not paying our taxes – even before we get to ‘biggies’ such cheating on our spouses, physical and/or psychological abuse of others, and murder – if Jesus had not died as a perfect person who did not deserve to die, God would not be able to have mercy on us. We would not even be here to keep on doing wrong things.
That is a love that words cannot explain. But amazingly, Bach’s music helps us to make better sense of it somehow – and so that Christe eleison is a thing of heart-stopping beauty. The whole movement has reduced me to tears more than once. The music itself had no real power to do that – it was what the music was pointing my heart towards that caused me to break down and acknowledge God anew.
This music is just too big. Because its subject matter is just too big. If you don’t know this work, I seriously advise you to check it out for yourself: Lutheran Mass in A, BWV 234.
The Kyrie goes into the Gloria – which is just – amazing. Praise at the heaviest of heavy levels. Gloria in excelsis Deo!
But there is one more Gloria which I need to mention before I end this post. We also did the enduringly popular Vivaldi Gloria in that concert, and I had previously thought that this work was pretty, but no more.
I was wrong. It may not be quite as profound, or maybe even exciting as other works in the canon of sacred European church music, but Vivaldi was a one-time priest, and a clearly inspirational music teacher, as well as a very gifted composer who clearly had some kind of faith. The music on the page seemed very ‘straight’ when I was studying the score – but when I began to work with the piece in rehearsal, I began to realise that there was more going on than met the eye. This, too was more than high European culture. This was definitely doxological in quality. So, having underestimated the spiritual portent of the Vivaldi before starting rehearsal – I learnt something that I had not expected to learn!
The dream is a reality. I have no idea what God plans next for my life, but I finally know for sure, for sure, for sure that faith CAN be shared in classical music – and I hereby dedicate myself to this cause along with all my other causes until God calls time.
Soli Deo Gloria!