Have you heard the one about an atheist walking into a Messiah performance

As somebody who doesn’t believe in the Trinitarian God, the resurrection, and the Judgment Day, I’ve sometimes struggled to feel close to or give meaning to the texts of many of my favourite musical works (Mozart’s Mass in C minor and the Requiem, Faure’s Requiem, Bach’s Johannespassion, Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Berlioz’s Requiem, to name just the first few to come to mind). I look up the translations if it’s Latin or German, that’s not an issue, but the theology behind them is. Sometimes I succeed in understanding the words as directly relevant to my life today, sometimes I fail. When I fail, the music comes to the rescue: music is so bizarrely powerful over our emotions that it really doesn’t matter what the text is, music does its own text on you. And I am often one of the millions of unsophisticated listeners that make Adorno toss in his grave in agony, when we should know better. So for example I enjoy the dramatic anger of Mozart’s Dies Irae even though the notion of the omnipotent, omniscient God who will at one point divide the sheep from the goats means nothing to me. I do, there’s no other way to put it, often consume some of my favourite works of art kinda idiotically.

I wonder if the love that we—that I! I should stop using the nebulous we—have for these works is an expression of a nostalgia for faith? For a time and situations when Dies Irae really meant something? Did people who listened to Mozart’s Mass in C minor enjoy it as a theological work primarily? Who can even begin to tell. That’s an even worse kind of listening: escapist, mythologizing of the past, needy.

I wish that present-day conductors (institutions, program writers) doing these works today spoke about this question more. There’s a global audience for the sacred classical music canon today, consisting and potentially consisting of people of all kinds of non-Christian religions beside the atheists and agnostics. What more important is there for a conductor of a sacred work than this, to tell us why we should listen to these words, and therefore this work? Among the conductors that I follow, I’ve noticed Laurence Equilbey broaching the topic now and again, but still extremely rarely. There’s a quote in a magazine interview along the lines of some of these sacred works being about the celebration of creation, of the importance of something existing rather than nothing, of how glorious being alive can be, and I thought, okay, now we’re talking business. (The quote was frustratingly short.) In another radio interview she mentioned a potential collaboration with artist Philippe Quesne on The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross by Haydn and about the work being about something anybody can understand, the thirst for water, the need for air, the survival against all odds, and then too I stopped what I was doing and said, Go on, that’s interesting.

In moments like those I realize how badly I need these kinds of interpretations. We are taken for granted as an audience; we’re expected to keep showing up “because it’s the work X, Y, Z and the work X, Y, Z is important”.

Any of you reading this, have you encountered any other conductors addressing the issue of interpretation in this way?

These thoughts are actually prompted by last night’s performance of Handel’s Messiah (at the Metropolitan United on Church East, with Elmer Iseler Singers and Lydia Adams conducting). Bizarrely, I’ve become something of a Messiah fan, and even more bizarrely, I don’t have any problems finding its texts resonant. The music naturally oils the cogs, nothing new there, but the texts survive scrutiny even if I read them from the page, music-less. The Messiah text is a hodge-podge of snippets from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, a lot of it allegorical. I don’t know if it’s the poeticism of the King James translators or Handel’s genuinely populist music genius, but arias like:

Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain. (Isaiah XL, 5)

…are a bottomless pit of interpretive pleasure. Yes, ultimately this is indeed about the Judgment Day, but it can also be about the dream of the this-wordly justice, of those who tirelessly work for it and won’t give up the notion? Those distant ideals that seem to be receding but not disappearing, the betterment of the condition of the womankind, the democracy?

Or this much trickier chorus:

And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. (Malachi III 3)

What do we do when we ‘offer an offering in righteousness’? Is this about leading by example?

For we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned, ev’ry one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah LIII 6)

You don’t need to believe in The Redeemer to get the depth of how much like sheep we have gone astray, and in what ways. But how are the consequences of our own iniquity transferred to another?

He trusted in God that He would deliver Him, let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him. (Psalm XXII 8)

And where to even begin with this one: Christianity tangling itself into a knot of polytheism, in order to introduce the attribute of compassion to its god.

I mean, I could go on and on (“Let us break [the bonds of nations] asunder”, anyone?). But there it is. Sacred classical music as pop culture, where you know the lyrics, they mean something, you misremember and abuse them, want to sing and dance when they’re offered to you in much too solemn concerts. I’ll always prefer a whole slew of other sacred pieces to the Messiah—just about any of the named above–but there is some work ahead of us as a generation of classical music listeners and performers toward making them… come closer, put it that way.

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15 thoughts on “Have you heard the one about an atheist walking into a Messiah performance

  1. OK so I’m an atheist who listens to a lot of music that sets religious texts but I think I’m coming at them from a very different angle than you. I grew up in a culture where Protestant (more or less) Christianity was simply a social norm and I came to atheism by a long and tortuous route that included studying a lot of theology. My guess is that my knowledge of the Bible and especially the key theologians; Acquinas, Anselm, Kant and the like, is way better than most practicing Christians (not hard of course!). So what I find myself asking is “Why these texts?” and “Why this music for these texts?”. This is especially true with Messiah. Jennens had reasons for choosing the texts he did. No modern milquetoast United Church hymnal would use words like “And though the worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God”. I understand exactly what he is doing and how he sees Handel’s music reinforcing his point. So, bottom line, for me an intellectual exploration of the librettists choices is part of the fun.

    1. Quote: No modern milquetoast United Church hymnal would use words like “And though the worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God”.

      Yes, but the Catholics would and have been (Stabat Mater is all about the decomposing body, and strangely therefore rather… contemporary, I find).

      Worth pursuing for sure: what ends up and why as the acceptable text for the masses, reqs, stabats and oratorios.

      1. Catholics had/have a different relationship to text than Protestants; especially pre Vatican 2. It’s more like repeating a spell that has magic powers than a message that’s supposed to be understood and processed intellectually. I don’t know how far that’s still true but it surely was for a very long time.

  2. I’m an atheist (I grew up with pretty much zero religion), and I found myself asking similar questions after a performance of Bach’s B minor Mass. I loved the music, and at the points where I was enjoying it most, I could hear it as being about something deeper than the text, or having a meaning that operates independently of the religious context. Same with Claus Guth’s staged version of the Messiah, which seemed to me not necessarily specifically Christian. But it’s tricky to put into words exactly what those non-devotional meanings are, or how they work.

    I agree – I wish more conductors/directors would address these questions; I suspect non-religious types form a sizeable chunk of the audience for a lot of this music.

    1. Yah, I think that’s my first question now when I look at the programs for choral music concerts: why this, why now. Don’t presume that ‘because it’s in the classical canon?’ is good enough an answer, dear presenters and ADs.

  3. Welp, as my mom once said to me about Parsifal, “It may not affect you that way but you can see why it affects other people that way, right?” Which is not to say it didn’t affect me in some way. And for Bach and Handel, et al, — or Isaac Watts, for that matter — it’s arguable that they are also meant in some measure to be proselytizing, so there is a sense in which those of us who are non-believers or somewhere in between are exactly the target audience.

    Moreover, a lot of what you’re talking about is material lifted from the Old Testament, ie the Hebrew Scriptures, in which case it’s already been declared (rightly or wrongly) community cultural property, and it’s just a question of where you set the parameters of community.

    Perhaps there’s a reasonable analogy for Lit geeks: you can’t really do English Lit without a copy of the KJV within reach, whether you’re a believer or not (as I explained once to my Presbyterian deacon mother-out-law when I produced one at her very doubtful request).

  4. Great point about proselytizing: maybe they’re catching us unawares. I’ve certainly felt caught many a time, if only for brief periods. This also reminds me of Margaret Drabble saying something similar in an interview: When she’s listening to “I know that my redeemer liveth”, she starts to believe the music, that He must have. It lasts until the music lasts, she said, but still.

    (Mother-out-law, *that* I’m stealing)

  5. Funny you mention this: I think of it a lot, as a once “hairshirt” but long since lapsed Catholic. I think the flip side of belief is always disbelief, but choral music, especially ostensibly religious music, has a special following for athiests. For example, one of my best friends, reared in a Marxist athiest home in New Zealand, simply adores sacred Tudor music like nothing on earth, as well as modern celtic pseudo-religious music (most of which is awful, but some is good). Given that for many composers, writing church music was “part of the job” rather than an expression of their own faith, makes it easier. I have to agree on Messiah, though of course it has uniquely rich connotations here in Dublin given both its first performance here, as well as the connotations of using the much-resented King James texts of the colonial oppressors brutally imposed faith…

    1. Thank you for this perspective, it’s important. So the Messiah never took on in Ireland, never became a Christmas ritual as in the anglo-protestant countries, I presume?

      Valid point about the composers not being as religious — or the pieces themselves. In Orthodox Christianity there isn’t a tradition of the church commissioning composers comparable to that of Catholics and Protestants exactly for this reason: if the Mass is its own dazzling work of art, it’ll distract from worship. Service must always lead our thoughts toward God, and if that means monotonous chanting, so be it…

      1. Indeed, it is very strong in Protestant circles, but much less so in catholic circles. Hallelujah chorus of course loved, but much of the rest is largely unknown. Handel’s experiences in Ireland are very worthwhile, nut Dublin being considered an Anglo Protestant enclave in those years, gets less interest than it perhaps deserves.
        That’s an interesting point about orthodox traditions. I didn’t know they hadn’t the same traditions. I suppose it’s similar now with most Christian music being of the populist kind so as not to be “elitist.”

  6. i wanted to mention i quite enjoy JEG discussing about this in one of his rehearsal videos, the “secular” part. He said along the line of unlike many who sing Bach in (heavy) church context he learned them in non-religious settings and always wants to put the “swing” to the music and connect more with that secular context..

      1. same w/ messiah. last year when i heard it in Paris it was super enjoyable b/c you really enjoy the music and completely forgets about its content.. only here in the US i get super allergic to the religious content + blind singing + mass standing up (really bugs me every time.. just can’t seem to shake it..). That was the point NS mentioned in Detroit: she was very surprised to hear the lack of close attention to the actual music (and those who bickered with her because she wanted to do it, kept asking her why she’s shaping the music even though “it’s not written on the score” and she kept having to explain..)

        1. ps- i just saw this clip (from this blog post) and they talked about, among other things, a female conductor recent’s experience with an orchestra in the US where she faced resistance from other females members. am guessing words are getting around! (and it’s nice they’re paying close attention!)

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