Leave a comment

For RG

Sunday morning was a typical summer service at church: five hymns, a psalm, some service music and a couple of anthems for the cantor. It’s pretty laid back, as the choir isn’t in session and the rector is out of town for the month (like much of the congregation). One might say the church feels empty, but it doesn’t – in a sanctuary that only seats 200 or so, a congregation of 30 lends a sense of intimacy, rather than sparsity.

As usual my mind wandered during the sermon, my thoughts turning to one of the hymns which I had selected for the morning. “The God Abraham Praise” (tune name Leoni) has an interesting place in most Protestant hymnals, as it’s not “originally” a Christian hymn at all. The tune was supposedly transcribed by a minister named Thomas Olivers after attending a Sabbath service at the Duke’s Place Synagogue in London. “I have rendered it from the Hebrew, giving it, as far as I could, a Christian character, and I have called on Leoni [the cantor Lyon] who has given me a synagogue melody to suit it.” To an extent Olivers remained true to the tune’s original text also, loosely translating the words of the Yigdal Elohim (a Maimonidean statement of faith, if you will) and giving it a certain Christian “flavor.”

Screen shot 2017-07-19 at 15.42.11

For church musicians, it’s kind of the “go-to” hymns for any ecumenical service, lectionary reading on the covenant with Abraham or any and all references to Christianity’s self-proclaimed inheritance from Judaism. We whip it out on World Communion Sunday, when we hear about Abraham’s close encounter with infanticide, etc. More often than not, it’s rather crudely referred to as the “Jewish” hymn.

While I was in Berlin a couple of weeks back, my boyfriend took me along to the Terror Museum. Located just blocks from Checkpoint Charlie, the museum tends to offer exhibits on the grim nature of the penal and surveillance systems in the GDR and on the the everyday nature of violence under National Socialism. A visit usually follows somber stroll through the Holocaust memorial, and upon leaving there is the option to go and see a large preserved portion of the Berlin Wall before taking a 15 minute spin in a refurbished car manufactured in East Germany. What’s strange is the sense of normalcy of the material in the exhibit is such that it sits comfortably next to a block of shops, stalls and entertainment vendors all selling Ostalgie kitsch. It seamlessly goes from the grotesqueness of violence to the tasteless of consumerism, with no apparent cognitive dissonance or self-awareness.

The exhibit we saw however was not to do with the Stasi or the GDR police state, but on the place of Martin Luther within National Socialist ideology. While I’ve seen harsh exhibits on the nature of participatory terror in the Third Reich, what I saw was genuinely eye-opening. Somewhere along the way, I managed to miss the memo about the extent to which both the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches in Germany not only lent institutional support to the Nazi Party, but were emboldened to do so by the priests and parishioners who actively sought to implement Nazi ideology across every aspect of German life. I guess I also knew that Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke up and acted out, but not from a wave of silence – it was a from a sea of willing support for the Third Reich’s destruction of Europe’s Jews. Again I’ll fully admit to a sincere amount of naivety and ignorance, as the Christianity I was raised in didn’t have any particular stance on Jews, except to affirm their covenant as being equal to that of the Christian covenant and a tacet acknowledgment Israel’s legitimacy as a modern Jewish state. In this sense, I never grew up with any dichotomy between Old and New Testaments – I learned that the Bible is flawed and picking and choosing for the sake of tolerance was normal. I guess from the historical standpoint, I didn’t see Nazi antisemitism as emanating from anything devoutly religious; I was taught that it was a “perversion” of Christianity.

The reality of the exhibit was that the ideological stretch from much Christian theology into violent antisemitism wasn’t a stretch at all. In short, Lutheranism didn’t just fit well into Nazi ideology, but rather Nazi ideology fit squarely into a long history of Lutheran ideas about Jews. One didn’t need to alter or change the context of Luther’s words to justify the destruction of synagogues, the boycotting of Jewish businesses, or even killing Jews. I needn’t quote Martin Luther’s treatise On the Jews and Their Lies (1543) to illustrate – the title alone is fairly illustrative. In fairly thorough detail, the exhibit showed the manner in which both individuals and denominations not only stood by and watched, but actively partook in the solidification of National Socialism and the crimes of the Holocaust.

These days, my own level of religiosity is relatively low, even by an Episcopalian church musician’s standards. Yes, I am “in sympathy” with the the broad non-confessional message that the denomination offers (the general expectation for a church musician in the 21st Century), and I’m certainly a beneficiary of its tolerance of its welcoming stance towards sexual minorities and free thinkers. But until I saw this exhibit, I didn’t really think I had a skin in the game – the exhibit to an extent still felt displaced by time and physical distance. The last section of the exhibit however was the one that hit home. Pages from a Nazi hymnal were put on display, showing an amended version of Ein feste Burg, Martin Luther’s most famous hymn and the unofficial “theme tune” for the Protestant Reformation (which celebrates its 500th anniversary this year). The informational display went on to explain the manner in which hymns were edited or altered to remove any Hebrew words (including “Hallelujah,” “Zion,” “Sabaoth”) and any connection between the new and old testaments (names like Jacob or Moses).

When I got back to the hotel in Berlin, a quick look around the internet showed that hymns were not the only victims of textual violence in the Church’s campaign for Nazification. Recordings of Germany’s world famous boychoirs, many of which were integrated into the Hitler Youth from the mid-1930s onwards, reveal some chilling examples. For instance, The first studio recording of Mozart’s Requiem, recorded in 1944 by the Kittelchor in Berlin, changes the text of the Requiem to remove the words “Abraham” and “Israel.” In 1941, the Thomanerchor’s recording of Bach’s Magnificat with the Gewandhaus Orchestra does the same with “Abraham.”

Screen shot 2017-07-19 at 15.12.56

A notice board for the Thomanerchor in Leipzig, 1937

Screen shot 2017-07-19 at 15.14.29

Adolf Hitler with the Regensburger Domspatzen, 1938  (http://www.regensburg-digital.de/hitlers-liebster-knabenchor/22102012/)



After Sunday’s service, I went digging on the internet yet again to take a look at the history of Leoni. Having spent a few weeks ruminating about all this, I had a feeling that maybe the hymn wasn’t as “inter-faith” as I had previously assumed. In searching the web, the story was pretty much the same across countless Evangelical blogs and hymn-enthusiast websites: the hymn “born in the Synagogue” is just that. But a lone hymnologist in 1923 pointed out the background to the hymn, and the manner of its publication in a London Calvinist magazine in 1775. Apparently, accompanying the hymn was the story of “a young Jewess who had been baptized into the Christian faith, and in consequence was abandoned by her family. She fled to the home of the minister, poured out her heart to him, and as if to show that, after all, her joy in her new-found Saviour was greater than all her loss of home and family, she sang, The God of Abraham Praise.” In a way, it was as if the story had been lifted straight out of the The Merchant of Venice, and this was somehow Jessica’s lost song of triumph upon leaving her father. The context for the hymn seemingly changed, as the text was no longer just a Christian acknowledgement of the religion’s Jewish inheritance, but an act of differentiating the New from the Old covenants, with an explicit message as to which one is better.

While I’ve been told that a hymn like Leoni and an alteration of liturgical texts in the Third Reich aren’t really comparable, one can not ignore that they are rooted in the same impetus to negatively separate Christianity from Judaism. Try as we might, systematic Christian theology still has difficulty finding ways to repudiate the time-honored stereotype that Judaism is a religion of the Old Testament, concerned with laws and retribution, and not with grace or compassion. After all, look at our Easter Acclamation:

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us;
therefore let us keep the feast,

Not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Alleluia.

It’s all well and good for Christians to affirm the Apostle Paul’s assertion that the Abrahamic Covenant holds fast (despite the innumerable scriptural examples that indicate otherwise), but again and again in our liturgy and in our message of compassion and redemption, it’s all underpinned by a rather dark idea that prior to Christ’s resurrection, Judaism and the Old Testament had it wrong anyway. The message that comes through is that Christianity is “better than” rather than simply “divergent from” Judaism.

I suppose the exhibit in Germany made me uneasy because the place of church music in Nazism has not something I’ve ever remembered discussing or learning about in my church music training. Furthermore, in conferences and workshops across the country, musicians learn about both the history of church music and how to move it forward in terms of musical diversity and inclusivity. And yet there is virtual silence on the matter of antisemitism. In discussing this with a reformed Jewish friend, she simply laughed and said “this train is never late.”

The manifestation is not necessarily violent in any manner, and I don’t propose to accuse any of my colleagues of hate crimes or hate speech. But in Episcopal Churches across the United States, Christianity’s antisemitism problem rears its head in other ways. Though Episcopalians are instructed to pray for peace throughout the world, it is often the case that the State of Israel is never mentioned by name, but is called “The Holy Land” or “Jerusalem” or “The Middle East,” all the while countries such as Jordan, Egypt or Lebanon are mentioned by their names regardless of their reference to ancient geographical areas or modern states. I admit I grate my teeth, as very often when the word “Israel” comes up, the pronunciation of Israel (“Iz-rail”) is delineated from that of Israel mentioned in the scriptures (“Is-rah-el”), as if any active association between the two might just acknowledge the legitimacy of a Jewish State. Again, no other geographic territory in the bible really receives this treatment. But the desire of some of our clergy to be compassionate, loving and sensitive to global affairs (read: progressive) has the effect of maintaining the same double standard that several LGBT showcased this year: a desire in no way to avoid legitimizing the State of Israel’s existence or policies in the occupied territories through symbolic acts of distance. (I fully acknowledge that this is not Episcopal Church policy, but the frequency with which I’ve encountered it with both clergy and choirs has shown a fairly consistent trend.)

Far more extreme have been the use of slurs and attempts to ban Stars of David at Pride events this year (note: several Episcopal friends on Facebook active support for groups’ attempts to exclude Jewish symbols from parades).





My boyfriend is Jewish, and this the second long term relationship I’ve been in with a Jew. Topics such as these have come up again and again, and I admit a certain astonishment at the silence surrounding the issue of implicit antisemitism and progressive and progressive Christian values. To be blunt, as with other forms of progressivism, antisemitism always falls to the very bottom on the list of priorities.

(For my fellow Obies reading this, one need only see the activities of the Divest movement on campus, the slow pace of Joy Karega’s removal from her post, and removal of the Kosher-Halal Co-op from OSCA to see the extent to which antisemitism is alive and well at our nation’s [supposedly] most progressive liberal arts college.)



I admit to having gotten to point of having no answers when confronted with difficult questions about Christianity’s inconsistent stance on Judaism, and on a greater level, American progressives’ ever growing antisemitism problem. To a large degree I don’t even have those answers now. What worries me is the silence around the issue, and the assumption that good intentions and the sheen of religiosity somehow make unsightly prejudices or assumptions impossible. If anything, due to messages of universality that religions deliver, our liturgies and arts and music are just as susceptible (if not more so) to being used in tools on political bandwagons.

Young Caesar

Leave a comment

R and I took a couple of days to go and hear a rarely performed opera in L.A. Having never visited previously, the hour spent in traffic to get the Dixie Motel in West Hollywood (complete with an enormous painting of Lucille Ball on my door) made it feel like a “real” trip to Los Angeles. But the trip was a really lovely occasion, as director Yuval Sharon directed a performance of Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar which sold well over 2000 seats in Walt Disney Hall.

If you don’t know Lou Harrison or his music, a good starting place to trust your initial observation that it’s bananas and you should just roll with it. A west coast composer who was self-immersed in non-Western music, Harrison has come to occupy an uncomfortable territory of integrative genius on one hand and cultural appropriation on the other. Harrison is perhaps known for his works for Javanese Gamelan and South-Asian instruments, including a Suite for Violin and American Gamelan.

Young Caesar is no different in this respect. In Disney Hall, the orchestra pit was crammed with Japanese traditional instruments, a Gamelan, percussion, strings, a harp, a harmonium and a prepared piano. But while Harrison remained true to form in musical content, the dramatic content is what really sets the opera apart: the presentation of Julius Caesar as “gay.” Recently, sites like Opera Wire and others have heralded the dawn of gay operas in the last ten years, celebrating a performance of Timo Andres’ Angels in America at Lincoln Center and applauding the announcement that New York City Opera will be staging Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain next season. And yet prior to the performance of Young Caesar in L.A., there seems to have been little direct recognition of an opera about two men in love that wasn’t composed anytime recently, but in 1971.

In Harrison’s opera, Caesar is in late adolescence/early adulthood, starting his initial ascent into the imperial Roman hierarchy. Being sent to the kingdom of Bythinia to fetch ships and military supplies for the Roman Army, he starts an affair with the King, tragically cut off by Caesar’s sense of duty to the Empire and to greatness (and his mother?). The story is not totally ahistorical – sexual fluidity was more common among Roman men than it is among American politicians (unless, of course, it’s in airport bathrooms), but the story doesn’t conform to the norms of what we think of in history. In a way, what makes Young Caesar interesting is the fact that an opera about same-sex relationship is still marketed as a “gay” opera. Harrison himself was openly gay and a pretty vocal proponent of gay rights for sure, but the opera doesn’t really differ too greatly in dramatic content from many other historical dramas discussing love and duty.

In essence, there’s no “gay cause,” no instance of gay-bashing, a struggle with homophobia, etc. Similarly, there’s no real conjecture about the sexuality of Caesar and the King or an insertion of sexuality into an event that might not have such an element to it at all (the historian Suetonius makes the nature of the relationship very clear). It differs, say, from Max Klinger’s interpretation of Caesar’s assassination, which I saw in Leipzig just a few weeks back. On one level the painting is historical and academic (“realist” some might argue), showing the toga-clad politicians with Roman noses posing over Caesar’s cadaver. But the presentation in someways is phenomenally symbolist and even homoerotic, equating presentations of beauty with those of rightful vengeance. The assassins aren’t young in their faces, but the muscularity and definition of their bodies tell otherwise. On the other hand, Caesar, though freshly murdered, appears to be months into his decomposition. It’s not just just a triumph justice or will, but the supremacy of youth and beauty over age, a familiar theme in gay art.

Klinger, Death of Caesar, 1890

The opera is beautiful, and Yuval’s production was truly exquisite. What I ponder is whether the appeal of such on opera would stick. As many gay films and books focus on very real issues of disease, social alienation and violence, it was strange to see an opera where none of those elements were directly related to the presentation of sexuality on stage – I wasn’t sure I was consciously witnessing a “gay” opera, despite the manner in which was advertised and billed.


Image from a promotional video for the L.A. Performance (Joshua Lipton)

Does the opera occupy one edge of the spectrum for “gay” opera? Is it tame? Is it realstic? Was it even sanitized? Was the age discrepancy between Caesar (supposedly 16 or so) and the King (presumably middle-aged) down-played? Were it more explicit, would it engender negative attitudes towards the frequency of inter-generational gay relationships? Whence the time honored pathology of the worship of youth in gay life and homoerotic art for thousands of years? Is it more similar to Klinger than I thought? Or was this just a stab at one a more normative representation of gay life (be it with not-so-normal characters) on an opera stage?  I think only time will tell, but I hope to see another production of Young Caesar very soon.


comments 2

My boyfriend regularly tears out portions of newspapers and journals for me to read, particularly the travel section of the Sunday edition of the Times. (I admit I’ve gotten a bit behind on my reading, so having articles thrust in my face is a good way of culling the crap and seeing some of the better pieces.) After getting home from a service for Trinity Sunday, he handed a feature on Canterbury, England from last week’s edition. I’d visited before, but I chuckled at the piece which called the city a “miniature Rome.” I learned that one could get a sandwich at Pret a Manger (which I could do in NYC), go to a drop in exercise dance class (ditto), and even go see some theater (…). The article captured some of the historical sites, but didn’t really go into why Canterbury is so important.

“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Whether it was under the king’s orders or a vigilante operation, Thomas Becket was beheaded in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 for not swearing fealty to Henry II. A point of pilgrimage for centuries, the stone “on which the sword fell” remains on display for touristic and penitent alike to view. Of course, there are places of pilgrimage and relics all over Europe, but it’s really hard to overstate the size of the cult that arose around Becket in the decades after his death. Probably one of most famous cases of political martyrdom in history, one can go to any major art museum in the United States and find some reliquary box, bone carving, tapestry or painting relating to Becket’s martyrdom. It’s been the topic of books and plays, and even provides dark backdrop for Peter O’Toole’s performances in Becket and The Lion in Winter.

But so immediate was the impact of Becket’s assassination that a little known Christian holiday took off not in commemoration of his death, but his ordination as a priest. Trinity Sunday is really a non-holiday in a way, as it doesn’t actually commemorate a specific biblical event or story. It’s a actually a celebration of the most convoluted and inexplicable foundation of Christian doctrine: the Holy Trinity. To this day, systematic theologians have yet to succinctly agree upon how it is that Christians are in fact monotheistic when the big guy in the sky is at once three different entities. And yet, Becket received special dispensation to celebrate this realtively obscure Christian feast on the day he was to become a priest. By all accounts, Becket’s veneration of the Trinity represented more than just an idea, but a foundational principle in his assertion that a a priest, adherence to doctrine and ecclesiastical law was more important than keeping the nobility happy. While Becket is memorialized on the day of his death on December 29th, the attempts to model and mold the English Church based after his example gave rise to celebrating the first Sunday after Pentecost, not as a simple veneration of God, but of human belief and purpose.

But in 1974, upon the excavation and refurbishment of the Elizabethan funerary shrine at Canterbury Cathedral, a curious transaction took place – one which would bring a bit of Canterbury to New York. In exchange for a rather large donation, the Rev’d John G. B. Andrew managed to obtain a piece of the very stone upon which Becket was martyred. On December 29th, it was dedicated and placed in the chancel floor at St. Thomas Church, 5th Avenue.

In questioning Comey this week, Senator Angus King (I-ME) very pointed asked about President Donald Trump’s efforts to silence the F.B.I.’s investigation of Mike Flynn and general attempts to extract “loyalty” from the former F.B.I. Chief.

King: “Do you take that as a directive?”
Comey: “Yes, yes. It rings in my ears as kind of ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ ”
King: “I was just going to quote that.”

There’s little question as to the import of Comey’s testimony we all saw on Thursday. The only irony is that a piece of Becket’s martyrdom sits only three blocks from Trump Tower.

Bassani’s Quinceañera

Leave a comment

On West 121st Street, just behind Columbia’s main campus, stereo beats from of a Friday night party are floating up from the parish hall at Corpus Christi Church. While generally neither problematic or untypcial for a weekend in an Upper Manhattan, a large stereo and the screams of 150 teenagers can make a continuo rehearsal a bit more of a challenge.

In baroque ensemble music, the harpsichord, along with a couple of theorbos and a viola da gamba are, for lack of a better term, the rhythm section for a group. They establish the harmony and provide a rhythmic impetus, working from bass part upwards (not too different from an electric bass and drum set in a garage band). Harpsichords and theorbos can pack a punch to make themselves more forceful: they can add lower notes, build more notes on top in between beats and physically create more sound to increase intensity. And yet, in rehearsing Giovanni Battista’s Giona, they’ve proven to be no match for a well-equipped stereo. Within a few hours, as Jonah is inside the whale’s belly, the continuo section was being swallowed by the quinceañera downstairs.

Chi mi sveglia? Dove sono? Son in mar? E che farò?   (Who wakes me up? Where am I? Am I at sea? And what am I doing?)

Where am I, indeed? I’m on the Upper West Side.

Reading Flaubert in Prague

Leave a comment

Prague is nuts. The old city is one of a thousand spires, sure, but also a city of a thousand hen parties and stag do’s. The outlandish and garish ornamentation of the baroque churches and classical buildings is ironically matched by the alcoholic behavior of several dozen British and German grooms-to-be, staggering with their groupies from restaurant to bar, strip club to sex shop, gafawing at the resilience of their livers. It’s perhaps the trashiest, most beautiful tourist trap I’ve ever seen.

My vacation is nearly over. Sunday is Pentecost, one of the major feasts in the Church’s calendar. As such, I’m leaving early so I can head home and be present on Sunday morning. Though I only have 18 hours to be a tourist in Prague, I’ve managed to cram in the big important sites in a few hours. Like Paris or London, every location seemed to have inspired or be associated with some great work I had encountered. Walking from Wenceslas Square I remembered Milan Kundera’s reflections on 1968. As I crossed the old town center and over to the Charles Bridge, lined with the huge creepy statues, I thought of all the kitschy vampire films of the 1920s set in Central Europe. I saw the castle, which is in fact a not just a single structure, but a complex of palaces, churches and administrative buildings surrounded by a wall, much of it used for sets in Amadeus. I took a detour over to the Vyšehrad, finally seeing the inspiration for the famous harp cadenza in Smetana’s Ma Vlast. 

But as usual, I wore out after a few hours and decided just to wander until I found coffee and a place to read. I usually take books with me, and upon leaving NYC a week ago was in the mood to take something French and nihilistic about the human experience (after all, I had just finished a degree Juilliard). On the recommendation of a friend, I had picked up a copy of Flaubert’s Salammbo to take on the trip. It’s not what I signed up for in the least. Contrary to realist novels like Madame Bovary, Salammbo is an exercise in lavish ancient historical romanticism – think “sex and violence in ancient Carthage.” I made it only about 10 pages in, when the heroine appears, flanked by 12 eunuchs armed with harps. She sings a lament for Carthage, in all languages and none, conveying to the belligerent foreigners the desolation of her home, a sort of morbid Pentecostal episode. But she finishes her song and drops her harp. All falls silent. 

I admit I still haven’t touched my harp since my graduation recital a few weeks ago. It’s been almost a month, but harp-overload kind of set in towards the end of semester. I suppose I went on vacation to get away, but instead got a fresh perspective. Seeing the Vyšehrad gave a new context to my recital, having played a transcription of the Smetana’s Moldau, the culminating episode in Ma Vlast. Though supposedly about the river itself, at the end of the movement the harp’s theme returns: an apparent reminder of the greatness that lies not just with rivers, but with the cities and fortresses that line them. Smetana’s harp theme illustrating the Vyšehrad is inescapable, a constant in the work. Unlike Salammbo’s harp, it can’t be dropped or silenced. 

I’m at the train station now, waiting for my boyrfriend to join me for our last night together on vacation. I should be sad that vacation is over, but really Prague has made me want to start practicing again. The city is saturated with music, from the constant stream of concerts of Mozart to the names of the train lines in and out of the city. Richard will be arriving on the “Mozart” train from Vienna, and will be heading out on the “Brahms” train to Berlin in the morning. The train is arriving is arriving now, heralded by several bell chime arpeggios and the melody sol-do-si-sol. No, it’s not Mozart. It’s the Vyšehrad, naturally. 

Postcard from Germany: Berlin

Leave a comment

After seeing six operas in a week, trying to sum up the experiences at once can be somewhat of a challange. A compositional timespan of 250 years, a myriad of production schemes, totally different opera companies and sizes – there was so much variety, and yet a few things came to mind each time. 

The apparent normalcy of opera attendance has been at the front of my mind. I’m used to heading to the Met over the 65th street bridge from Juilliard, rushing in at the last minute with a host of smartly-dressed attendees many years my senior, coming in from work. Socializing is light; the sheer size of the Met can make running to see friends somewhat of a production. Drinks are expensive, and snacks even more so (not to mention, the queues are extensive). There’s a sense of seriousness about going to the Met, unsurprisingly as it attracts some of the worlds finest singers and conductors. But it’s an atmosphere not so much of enjoyment, as constant expectancy. After heading to the Berliner Staatsoper last night, I’m convinced that opera goers are of a different species in Germany. They arrive as much as 45 minutes early to enjoy a glass of wine or a pretzel as they socialize with a host of friends or familiar faces. They dress casually. They are teenagers bringing girlfriends, parents bringing young children, middle-aged married couples, clusters of students. They are mostly educated and middle class, like a large proportion of the German population. They might gaze at the essays in the programs, but don’t necessarily discuss what they are about to see with any form of expectation or severity. They act as if this isn’t a night at the opera, but a routine. 

But in looking at all the different productions, there’s an extent to which a reinterpretation of an opera isn’t feared. I saw productions in which the staging became a dramatic biography of the composers’ lives, or some where pop references were inserted rather surreptitiously – the chorus of Vampires in Der Vampyr were dressed as pop cutlure villains (Gollum from Lord of the Rings, Snape from Harry Potter, Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.) and danced using moves from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Some would argue that these are distractions or gimmicks, but seeing as my boyfriend the opera nerd didn’t pick up on the pop culture references and thought that the production was cute, I’d say the job was well done.  

But more broadly, I suppose I was impressed with the way in which a series of operas brought a host of issues to the front – as if opera was indeed art, and not artifact. Seeing as I can’t ever remember seeing a single thought-provoking production at the Met in NYC (you caught me, I’ve got it out for the Met, but I’m not alone!) – going to Germany was a breath of fresh air. While each show addressed gender, identity and even class divisions, the most striking item for me was the topic of violence. In Terry Gilliam’s production of Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust (Ok, yes, it’s technically an oratorio), Faust joins the Nazi party, but falls in love with a Jewish Marguerite. The scheme fit remarkably well on to the opera, as Faust’s supposed redemption through Mephisto’s help was at the same time Marguerite’s damnation, initially. At the end of the first half, she sings about how she wishes to be different, lighting candles and trying on a blonde mädchen’s wig – her desire to be an Aryan. The show takes you from Germany’s history, from the Franco-Prussian War, to WWI and WWII, all the way to the gates of Auschwitz where Faust attempts to retrieve Marguerite. But after his damntation, there is no apotheosis of Marguerite. She is redeemed, perhaps, but noone sees her. One only sees a pile of bodies on stages, with ashes floating down upon them. 

The discomfort at the end of Gilliam’s prodution highlighted the problem of redemption – it’s not so much that there is no redemption at the end of the opera, but that redemption comes at a price. Marguerite is spotless and memorialized, and yet we do not see her. At the same time, fascism is built upon a notion of redemptive violence; the pile of bodies represents the culmination of Nazi ideology in the destruction of European Jewry. It’s uncomfortable because Marguerite’s redemption in her death at Auschwitz is the same as that of Wehrmacht. Contrary to the ways we might want to wash our hands in thinking about the Holocaust, Gilliam’s production seemingly rejects Hannah Arendt’s or Primo Levi’s idea that there is such a thing as “meaningless violence.” Just as cause and effect aren’t separable, neither are act and intent.

Postcard from Germany: Leipzig

Leave a comment

In making travel arrangements and changing schedules at various points throughout the week, the patient customer service workers for Deutsche Bahn assured us that there wasn’t anything to see in Leipzig. Perhaps they’re right. It’s mainly a college town, and has a fairly East German bleak feel to the city once you get outside the city center. The art museum is modest, though notable for housing few excellent paintings by Max Klinger. The other museums and sights are small and perhaps a bit niche.  

Lucky for you (and me?), niche is my thing.  

Leipzig was home to none other than Johann Sebastian Bach for the last few decades of his life. In serving as Cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Bach made perhaps his most lasting musical impression on the world. After a series of crap jobs and even a stint in prison, Leipzig is where Bach arguably landed on his feet. There he composed over 150 Cantatas, the Goldberg Variations, the Partitas for Keyboard, got himself published, and raised a family of musicians who would go off on to even larger careers (though they are perhaps less well known).  

At the Thomaskirche, one can see Bach’s grave, moved to the front of the church just in front of the altar. Across the street, one can see his house, and learn about the context of his life and the instruments he composed for. One can go downstairs and consult the resident musicologists leading way in publishing Bach’s works in usable format while remaining true to his autograph scores.  

But more than that, one sees in Leipzig the sense of renewal, though not just of Bach. The Thomaskirche once was the office of Felix Mendelssohn, the man responsible for reviving Bach’s works and reintroducing them to the public consciousness. But just as Bach was restored, so was Mendelssohn. One can see the Mendelssohn window in the church, a symbol of recognition of Mendelssohn’s rightful place in the musical canon, despite the attempts of National Socialist ideology to remove him on the basis of his Jewish heritage. The orchestra in Leipzig is Europe’s first professional “orchestra” as we know it, having survived the revolutions of of the nineteenth century and the dissolution of the Weimar Republic. The Thomaskirche’s boychoir is just over 800 years old, a continuous institution that flourished under Bach and Mendelssohn, and survived the Second World War, a communist regime and the fall of GDR.  

Yes, to an extent these sights and sounds are niche, and perhaps overblown in our understanding of the history of classical music. But the city breathes music. Because of the attempts to revive and preserve music in cycles throughout Germany’s turbulent past, the musician’s Leipzig is not just a series of relics as much as a memorial to the endurance of music.