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Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Yesterday evening, as I mentioned earlier, Susie and I attended a performance at UNC's Memorial Hall of Bach's B Minor Mass, splendidly sung and played by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir led by Ton Koopman.  For the two of us, it was very much a stroll down memory lane.  Two thirds of a century ago, as teen-agers, we fell in love while listening to the old Robert Shaw recording of the B-Minor Mass.  The hall was packed, mostly with UNC faculty, or so it looked.  Sitting next to me was the father of a young man who had been a member of the UNC Philosophy Department until he left to go to the CUNY graduate center.

The B-Minor Mass lasts for well over two hours, not counting an intermission about three-quarters of the way through.  I had brought Susie's pocket score -- the same one she used in college when she wrote a paper on the piece -- but the lights were too low to follow it, so I put it in my lap and allowed the music to wash over me.  The broad, expansive Kyrie gave way to the excited Gloria, with tympani banging and trumpets blaring.   The soprano and the tenor did an exquisite job of the Domine Deus, and the bass exhibited a big, rich voice in the Quoniam, although he did tend to bray a bit in the higher passages.  Then the chorus returned with the vigorous Cum Sancto Spiritu, bringing the first two parts of the Mass to a close.

By now, a bit more than an hour had passed, and the music was working its spell on me.  As the chorus launched into the Credo, something unexpected happened to me.  It started with the glorious opening line of the Credo.  The tenor section states the subject of the fugue boldly in whole and half notes --  Credo in unum deum -- I believe in one God  -- with a moving continuo underneath.  Then the basses, the altos, the first sopranos, and finally the second sopranos pick up the subject.  I have always loved that moment in the Mass, and I was in fact somewhat disappointed that Koopman chose to have the tenors introduce the subject meditatively rather than triumphantly.

This was followed by the mysterious Et incarnatus est -- and He was made flesh ["incarnated"], which gave way to the exquisitely painful, sad, brooding Crucifixus -- and He was crucified.  As the last notes of the Crucifixus died away [passus et supultus est -- suffered, and was buried], the chorus, without a moment's pause, erupted into the exultant cry Et resurrexit -- and He was resurrected.  The first trumpeter's face turned beet red as he blew the notes that announce the joyous news.

Et incarnatus est.  Crucifixus.  Et resurrexit.  Here, I thought, is the heart and soul of the extraordinary Christian message.  At a single irreplaceable moment in time, the omnipotent, eternal God became flesh.  The infinite broke into the finite world, lived and suffered as a mortal man, was scourged, despised, nailed on a cross and left to die; and then, miraculously, rose from the dead and lived again.  Just so, through His intermediation, shall we live, die, and yet live again.

I write, you understand, as a life-long atheist, an unbeliever, someone who has never been a communicant of any faith, and who will go to his grave without the consolations of faith.  And yet, through the transcendent beauty of Bach's music, I was able to feel the power of the Christian message.  A lifetime spent reading philosophical disquisitions about the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal, a lifetime reading Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Maimonides and Averroes, Luther, Calvin, Kant, and Kierkegaard, combined with a lifetime steeped in the music of Bach, to give me yet again a deep emotional appreciation of the mysteries and wonders of this message that I am utterly incapable of believing.

As I sat in that auditorium, the final sections of the Credo unfolding, a strange, vagrant thought entered my mind, a thought quite unworthy of the moment, and yet impossible to put aside.  This extraordinary message, I reflected, is presented to Rick Santorum in its impenetrable mystery, and yet all that impoverished, vulgar, cheap little man can think is that it is all about sex -- about who is giving pleasure to whom, and how, and where, with or without protection.  Offered a vision of eternal life, the dirty little mind of this wretched homunculus turns to "man on dog."

It occurred to me -- and I say this as a confirmed atheist -- that what is wrong with American politics is not that Christianists have brought religion into the public space.  What is wrong with American politics is the debased, diminished, soulless, conception of religion they have brought.  These are trivial men and women, vulgar, ignorant men and women, men and women who have never felt the least tingle of divinity and would not know what to do with it if they did.

Perhaps it is just as well that i do not listen to the B-Minor Mass too often.

1 comment:

Superfluous Man said...

This is not meant to give Santorum any credit, being a Pennsylvanian, we know the former Virginia Senator who attempted to govern our state from his position in the Senate quite well, but I would add that the well known European, Mr. Freud seemed to be of a similar character, oh how his theories have cause such deviations in mature thought regarding his speciality, more than a century the study and diagnosis of the most humblest of human frailties, those of human mind have suffered under his supposed expertise.

I don't know who to castigate more, the Viennese doctor or any number of our splendid examples of the classic American poseur, Mr. Santorum serving as fine an example as one might find of the archetypical American political dissembler.