Thursday, January 31, 2008

Religious choral music

Kazim here. I know I've mentioned before that I sing in the Austin Community Chorus, and that we do a lot of religious music. I did a whole show about justified acknowledgment of religion in art and education a while back. The fact is that historically, MOST classical music (along with other forms of art) was sponsored by the church. So in general, if a song is much more than a hundred years old and has words, there's a fairly high chance that it will have something to do with Jesus.

This doesn't stop the music from being very uplifting and well written. A couple of years ago I was doing Bach's "Saint Matthew Passion," which ranks high among the best music I've ever heard from any era. Of course, the words are in Latin, so it's easy to just ignore what you're saying unless you grew up Catholic, which I didn't.

This season we're doing a piece called Saint Paul by Felix Mendelssohn. I'm not familiar with very much Mendelssohn. I've heard the overture he wrote for A Midsummer Night's Dream and it's fine. Apparently, this upcoming performance is a fairly big deal. Mendelssohn originally wrote the piece in English but then later translated it back into his native German, and the German version became the standard while the English got lost to history.

Apparently some music historian dug up the original English lyrics and republished it. There have been other translations before, but our concert will feature the world debut of THESE PARTICULAR English lyrics, or something like that. Musicians get excited about the weirdest things.

Anyway, my point in writing this is that I don't particularly like it. The music doesn't really do it for me, but singing the English words just makes it generally much more unpleasant. The story is the most tedious kind of apologetics. It is all about how Saint Paul used to persecute Christians, then was blinded and visited by Jesus. He converted to Christianity and then went on to write most of the most awful sexually repressed parts of the Bible. (Okay, that last part isn't in the piece, it's just my spin.)

Probably my least favorite passage is when he's condemning a Christian to death. The basses chant "Stone him to death!" and then the tenors (that's me) join in "Stone him to death!" and then the altos and then the sopranos, and so everybody is yelling in unison. Frankly, it's a little bit creepy and uncomfortable. Supposedly it's about the Jewish power structure persecuting the Christians, but I can't help flashing forward on the Spanish Inquisition and other acts of atrocity, as well as the modern reconstructionist movement, who ironically want to bring back exactly the punishment that is used to portray Paul as a bad guy. It kind of feels like being part of a lynch mob.

Much of the rest of the piece follows the kind of simpering glurginess that you often hear in praise of Christianity. It's a lot of "Oh blessed are they who have endured" and even something that goes like (paraphrasing because I don't have the score) "You are so grand and mysterious that you are beyond our comprehension." Bleah.

Next season, though, we get Beethoven's Ninth (Ode to Joy). Now that's something worth sticking around for.


  1. Agreed. Beethoven's Ninth is nearly transcendental. And while it is religious, it isn't overtly Christian, either. More pagan/deistic, as I recall.

    "The best part of religion is their music."

  2. Brilliant post. I love listening to and performing the music without getting hung up on the message.

  3. Bach's "St. Matt" is in German, not Latin.



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