Sunday, July 19, 2015

They Sure Do Sing Pretty

Thomanerchor Leipzig
I have little use for religion.  Virtually none at all for organized religion.

The jury’s still out for me, however, when it comes to spirituality.

Let me tell you about my day listening to the voices of angels.

Ask most people to name a bird and they will come up with the robin.  Not the ostrich.  And certainly not the chicken.  Italian food? Spaghetti.  A French singer?  Edith Piaf.  Categories have their default representations.

When I think of religion, I think of the Taliban.  Or TV evangelists.  Fundamentalists who use religion to explain why they’re on the right track and you’re on the wrong one, why government should defend Israel and bomb Iran.  People who display astonishing gaps in their education, who claim America was founded by Christians and who couldn’t tell a deist from the Wizard of Oz.

If pressed, I can see the ostrich as a bird and corn as Italian.  And I can see that religion is also represented by the likes of Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.  And that religion can be approached either as an organized set of truth claims, or as a poetic approach to the challenges of living a life of consequence and meaning. 

I know those are not the only two ways to approach religion, but they are the two dominant ones.  The first way raises instant resistance in me.  I am conditioned to want to limit truth claims to the empirically verifiable.  But the second way still has a certain appeal.  I consider that, over time, to an ever greater degree I have settled the questions that plagued me as a youth.  I know my intellectual strengths and weaknesses, more or less.  I understand my sexual nature, at long last – that one took much longer than it should have.  I may not be as much in control over my emotions as I find desirable, but I know what is likely to make me angry, sad, sentimental, generous or thoughtful.  The one area of my personality I know to be most undeveloped, I think, is my spiritual side.  I am not talking about having a chat with the man in the sky.  I’m talking about the embrace of the transcendental.  Stopping to smell the roses.  Letting go of the unjust and the corrupt and relaxing into the poetic, into the concept of harmony and what is musical, the rhetorically uplifting.  Allowing myself to relax into the notion there are things beyond my capacity to understand and not assume we’re talking only about leprechauns and faeries.

Music does it for me better than poetry does.  Which is strange, given that I spend far more time with words than I do with melody.  I can sit through a barely comprehensible discussion by German politicians over what to do with the possible departure of Greece from the Eurozone, and justify the time.  But to just shut everything down and listen to Mozart’s Requiem – a piece of music that I know from experience will lift me into the world beyond, that’s less likely to happen, for some reason.  The obvious inconsistency there, my tendency to choose the intellectual over the transcendental, well, I attribute that to my lack of spirituality.

I remember a bull session I was part of many years ago on a religious retreat, where we took up the question of where spirituality ends and religion begins.  I’m not sure, but I believe that was when I first developed the notion that religion was the enemy of spirituality.  That one’s natural inclination toward the love of beauty, and all the positive virtues, kindness, generosity, compassion, could just as easily be subverted by religion as fostered by it.  Obviously, I was speaking of the dogmatic form of religion, not the inspirational, but I realized, even in my twenties when I was still a Christian, that I needed to be suspicious of the sanctimonious and the self-righteous.  I listened to my father when he explained he never wanted to go to church because that's where you're most apt to encounter hypocrites.

It was when I went to Germany, at the age of twenty, that my attachment to organized religion began to slip away.  I had been confirmed in the Lutheran Church and was excited to be in the land of Luther, as I so romantically conceived it at that age.  The Lutheran Church which I went to with my grandmother as a child and then later joined, with its bright red carpet down the center aisle and the glorious stained glass windows and the Bach music every Sunday, with people who drank beer and loved to dance and sing at the top of their lungs, that church faded away once I got to Germany.  The Lutheran Church I found in Germany felt like an ice-cold shower by comparison.  Cold stone.  Sour faces.  And a youth group horrified at my admission that I loved the Hofbräuhaus and that most of my friends were not religious and that was fine with me.  It came as a shock, but I realized early on that I had been defining religion on the basis of the way it manifested itself in the culture I grew up in. I could not keep it in my grasp once I saw it in a new and different cultural space.  Travel, as they say, is possibly the best teacher you’ll ever find.  The irony was not lost on me that it was the land of Luther that led me to leave the Lutheran Church.  In later years I would find a parallel phenomenon in Americans I knew who had become attracted to Zen Buddhism and then found they lost that attraction when confronted with the way Zen was practiced in Japan.  It's bound to be a rude awakening when you discover how you've been mistaking culture for religion.

I have wondered at times if my experience with the German Lutheran Church was colored by the fact that I encountered it in Munich, in what was then still very Catholic Bavaria.  Somebody suggested once, when I told this story of falling away, that it was probably that the Protestants in such a Catholic environment were feeling a kind of siege mentality and thus pulling in and getting stricter and more orthodox in order to keep the faith, and that's why you found them off-putting. I have no idea whether that idea holds water.  It wasn’t just that the people were not the same people I knew in America, and they weren’t unkind or hostile.  It was more that I had seen in my grandmother's church a way to be German, and once I got to Germany, it was of no further use.  I gradually realized that I had not really had any stake in the doctrinal claims.  If I could find a time machine, I'd go back to 1960 and find my twenty-year old self.  I'd hear myself saying, "The Catholics are silly with their "actual body and blood" claims.  We "know" that Christ comes to us "in, with and under" - i.e., "in, mit und unter," as Luther taught us.  Luther is an imperfect but great man for teaching us that, you know."   I'd put my arms around that twenty-year-old man, and smile.  You know that?  Sure you do! And I'd try to convince him I love him anyway, even though he had obviously drunk some awful Kool-Aid there somewhere and in time was going to need a laxative.

As time went by, and I got to travel and as I got drawn to anthropology and became aware of the arbitrariness of belief systems, and of how much they are geographically determined, I walked out and never looked back.  To this day, much as I can empathize with seekers on a human level, I find arguments for why I should give my nickels and dimes to Zoroaster and not Zeus an illustration of human folly.
Founding document from 1212

Jump a half century ahead to the present day.  I’ve just finished watching a marvelous documentary, which I can not speak highly enough of.  It is the story of the boys' choir of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.  St. Thomas Church (die Thomaskirche, in German) is where Johann Sebastian Bach was “cantor,” or “musical director” from 1723 until he died in 1750.  Another word for it came into vogue years later – Kapellmeister, but in Leipzig, he's still referred to as cantor (specifically Thomascantor in the case of St. Thomas)  The current cantor, Georg Christoph Biller, got to help his choir celebrate its 800th anniversary in 2012.  

J.S. Bach's burial site inside St. Thomas Church in Leipzig
Bach looms large over the work of this group of 92 boys aged 9 to 18 who live in the boarding school (die Thomasalumnat) and are known as “Thomaner” (and St. Thomas Choir, in German, is known as der Thomanerchor).  Much of their focus is on J.S. Bach and in the documentary you see the boys laying flowers on Bach’s grave, the location of which, down front and center, leaves no doubt about the church’s desire to claim him as their own. This claim extends to Leipzig itself, which holds a Bach festival every year which draws thousands from around the world.  

It’s a fascinating story.  It’s not like the Middle Ages, when boys were castrated to preserve their pure soprano voices.  But there is something mediaeval about taking young boys from their homes and placing them in a highly controlled environment all for the sake of music.  Even at Christmas time, when religious music plays a huge role in the German tradition and the boys are expected to be available for Christmas concerts, the boys stay at the boarding school instead of returning to be with their families.  There is one interview in which a boy now graduating reflects on how much he missed by not participating in the family goings-on.  How much, he wonders, might he have affected the way the family lives and relates to each other.  Another boy speaks of how he suffered bouts of homesickness, and how he worked it out with the aid of his comrades.  You can actually see how group solidarity is built on common experiences, and bonding takes place when things get rough.

boys of the Dresdner Kreuzchor
boys of the Dresdner Kreuzchor
No mention was made of what has to be a rival boys' choir in Dresden, Saxony’s other large city, The Dresden Kreuzchor. These guys only go back a mere 700 years.  And nobody reflected on the curious practice of using the voices of young boys much in the same way organs are used to provide the kind of atmosphere in which spirituality can flourish.  But it is clear that there is definitely something spiritual about a boys’ choir.  One cantor made a heroic reputation for himself arguing that his boys should not be drawn into Hitler’s army, “because it would damage their voices.”  It seemed, actually, to have worked, although I don’t have the statistics on how well and for how long.  Another cantor got into trouble during the days of the GDR when he, like so many, got entangled in working for the Stasi, a double disgrace considering the loftiness of boys' choirs for bringing out the best in us.  Today, about 80% of the people of Saxony claim no religious affiliation, and that means the Thomanerchor has to choose boys from non-churched families.

At one point, Georg Christoph Biller, the cantor, puts a positive face on that fact, and points out that this need not be a problem as long as there remains a critical mass of believers who make up the core.  And apparently, there are more than a few baptisms and confirmations along the way, as the boys get caught up in the religious features of the culture in which they live their daily lives.

As one of the boys put it – in perhaps the best articulation of how culture and religion can blend I’ve ever heard – “I never believed in God as somebody I could talk to and he would talk back to me.  But when I sing, it’s different.  I can feel it’s a kind of dialogue, and God comes to me in the music.”

Boy soprano voices are not for everybody.  I’ve met people who actively disliked them, a fact that mystifies me.  What can I say but different strokes?

I mentioned earlier that my spiritual side is the least developed side of my personality, in my view.  I’m still miles from being Saint Theresa, whose faith used to make her levitate and bump her head on the ceiling.  But I’m just a tiny bit closer to getting off the ground.  Don’t know if any of these links will do anything for you, but I offer them to you, just in case.

And if this rumination on the topic of spirituality is too much of a stretch, fine.  At least I trust you’ll agree with me that they sure do sing pretty.

1. A short history of the Thomanerchor: boys’ choir (subtitled in English)  

2. If you’d like to see an even better and more complete documentary on the Thomaner (in German):   And if you are really interested, the DVD is available with English subtitles, on Amazon, although I have not heard it, so I cannot guarantee the quality.  [Added, July 25: I ordered it and sat through it again.  The English translation is well-done and the DVD is worth the fifteen bucks.]

2. The building of the new organ in St. Thomas, built according to the specifications Bach would have liked.  It’s actually the organ Bach wishes he might have had to play on:

3. Bach's Passacaglia in C minor on the organ at St. Thomas, after its construction was completed:

4. Feast of the Reformation – first-rate Bach – until it is cut short, alas:

 photo credits:

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