Here’s the question for today: How do you express your dearest doctrinal beliefs through the technical aspects of your art? How does your faith find direct, immediate expression in the arrangement of words, rhymes, meter, chord progression, melodic contour, instrumentation, modulations, light & shade, geometrical structure, repetition, focus & exposure, framing, choreography, chisel stroke, pan & zoom?
Friday afternoon I attended a lecture by Michael Marissen at Lehigh University in conjunction with the Bethlehem Bach Choir’s annual Bach festival. Then in the evening we attended a performance of one Missa Brevis and three cantatas—BWVs 76, 59 and 69. That’s a lot of Bach in one day!
The lecture was brilliant, and brought to the fore this issue that’s near the heart of my own artistic thought life. Without ever explicitly calling them such, the speaker emphasized the techniques by which Bach embodied his theology in his music. This is what I desire to do in my poetry, what the great artists have done forever. I think primarily of Michelangelo, Dante, Herbert, and the Inklings. (By listing these fellows thus, I am not making any claim to the equivalence of their greatness!) More on them below.
I’d like to summarize here some of the points of Marissen’s lecture in order to illustrate what I’m talking about. This will be rather music-technical, sorry. Skip to the bit on Dante if you’d rather read about literature. For his afternoon talk, Marissen chose to focus on Cantata BWV 75, with some briefer discussion of BWV 76. These are the first two works Bach composed when he took his job at Leipzig and truly began his career. They were, according to the speaker, conceived as a pair. They are much longer than Bach’s other cantatas, about twice as long, having 14 movements each (his cantatas usually range from 4 to 8 movements). No. 75 emphasizes justification by faith alone, without works—the central doctrine of Lutheranism. No. 76 focuses more on the good works that naturally follow a person’s conversion to Christ. Now, here is the first brilliant point Marissen made about how the text and music work together to express Bach’s theology through technical means.
The text of BWV 75 begins: “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; Those who seek Him will praise the Lord. Let your heart live forever!” This is Psalm 22:26. I have quoted from the NASB, but Bach would have used Luther’s German translation, which says “Your heart shall live forever.” Now, you might wonder how this text has anything to do with justification by faith in Christ’s work alone. Well, Psalm 22 contains the verses “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” and “I am poured out like water, And all my bones are out of joint,” which a good Protestant recognizes as having been fulfilled in Jesus’ passion. So, his listeners would have known this was a Christological psalm. But he did not leave it at that. While the choir sings those words, the instruments play a French overture setting, and here’s where it gets brilliant. The French overture was invented during the reign of King Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” and it was played when the king attended the opera. The first half of the overture is slow and stately, with a regal dotted rhythm. This would play while the king walked in and through the opera house to his seat, in all his glory. Then the second half of the overture is a fast fugue. This would begin when the royal backside sat on its royal chaise. Bach and Handel used this form of overture in their sacred music to refer to Christ, the true Sun/Son King! (Think of the overture to the Messiah) So while the words are about relief from affliction, the music is about Christ the King, thereby making the statement that it is Christ Who provides the deliverance from suffering.
Here’s another example. The 7th movement of this same cantata is “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan”—“What God does it for the best,” or “Whatever God does is right.” This uses a famous chorale tune, if I’m not mistaken. Then the 8th movement is a sinfonia—an instrumental piece. It claims, without text, that Christ has come to set things right, and that Christ Himself is God, therefore whatever He does is right. How does it do this without text? Well, in two ways. First, the opening interval is the same as the opening of the 1st movement of the cantata—the French overture hail-to-the-king style stuff. So an ideal listener would remember how the piece started and say, OK, this movement is also about Jesus the Son-King. Then there’s a trumpet solo over the rest of the instruments, and it’s playing the chorale tune “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan”—“Whatever God does is right.” This, then, states that He is God, and whatever He does is right, and what He is doing is feeding the afflicted (remember the text of movement one?) so that their hearts shall live forever, because His heart does live forever! Pretty good stuff.
This is what I mean by “embodied” theology. An artist believes something, some statement about God, himself, or the created order, and puts this belief into the actual stuff of his creation. It’s one with the notes, the paint, the stone, the pixels, the rhymes, the meter, the brushstrokes. And the result looks effortless, natural. Bach’s sinfonia sounds just like a gorgeous piece of music with a nice trumpet tune over a rich instrumental texture. The tune works with the other parts according to perfect mathematical principles of harmony and counterpoint. Yet the choice of each individual component was guided by a doctrine: Christ is God, Christ lives forever, Christ enables His people to live forever. Wow.
Dante, I think, has given us the most complete example of theology embodied or embedded in literature. His entire cosmology is theology in physical form. His poem follows a theological structure. The simplest technique Dante uses is the pattern of 3’s. The poem is in three volumes, yet is one—a microcosm of the Trinity. Each volume has 33 cantos—Christ’s traditional age at His death—except the last, which has 34 cantos to make up the ideal 100. The form of the verse itself, terza rima, is a pattern of interlocking rhymes in three lines: a-b-a b-c-b c-d-d etc. Even the Italian ending itself, Alan Mandelbaum points out, is typically vowel-consonant-vowel, another sort of a-b-a trinity. Of course, the geography of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven are physical expressions of his belief. There are others, such as the Celestial Rose—his supernatural social hierarchies are integral to the poetry and to his spiritual thought. I could go on with this, and perhaps will in future, but for now I’d like to tie it back up to the beginning.
Michelangelo expressed his faith in the physical, intellectual, and spiritual powers of man in the very chisel markings on his sculpture’s great muscles. Herbert wound his doubts, humility, and poetic pride into the wreaths of his verse. Lewis put his scintillating, weighty, realer-than-real harder-than-hard imagined heaven onto a plain of glory, the valley of the shadow of life outside of Deep Heaven.
How do you do it?