Friday, February 12, 2010

Traditionalist Lutheran Happy Clappy Liturgical Dance...

Well, sort of.

This exuberant performance of Bach's Gigue Fugue by the incomparable Virgil Fox (1912-1980) would not be appropriate in church, but it does demonstrate the resilience, brilliance, and timeless beauty of Lutheranism's and Christendom's greatest composer and musical genius.

In spite of the current fad of playing pop music in church services - theologically shallow, generationally parochial, and virtually impossible to sing with - the dross will be burned away and the pure will always rise to the surface. Bach continues to hold his own among serious musicians, church hymnody, and even in contemporary popular tunes.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), who always signed his music "S.D.G." (Soli Deo Gloria - to God alone be the glory) simply has no equal.

Virgil Fox, with his mass appeal and faith in Bach to move even the radically jaded-against-tradition Woodstock crowd, turned a whole generation onto Bach and the magnificence of the pipe organ. Fox's work never disappoints. At least not me - and this is my blog after all. Mr. Fox's Heavy Organ CD is simply unlike anything else you will ever hear.

And a HT to Brother Latif for this post, which illustrates the genius behind Bach's intricate and intoxicating Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor in a mesmerizing visual way.


Phil said...

A Lutheran traditionalist would chuckle at Fox's concert persona. However, he then might well consider the work of Fox's rival, E. Power Biggs, an organist more concerned with fidelity to the historical performance of Bach. Biggs was largely responsible for the revival of tracker organs in America. Fox, on the other hand, accused Biggs of being dead "from the waist down." It is important to remember that the art stands on its own merits, but it may be relevant to note that Fox was openly gay.

For comparison:

I tend to think that Bach ought to be played with clarity.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Phil:

E. Power Biggs was wonderful! It's funny that the two organists had this long-running feud. You just don't picture classical musicians "trash talking." Fox also said that Biggs was "relegating the organ to a museum piece."

I like both of them.

In fact, my first exposure to Bach's organ music was some vinyl E. Power Biggs records from the library when I was about 12 years old or so. Breathtaking.

As far as Virgil Fox goes, to quote Dirty Harry: "If they could all shoot like that, I wouldn't care if the whole department was queer." Not in the moral and theological sense, of course. But in discussing the music of Bach as interpreted and performed by Fox, I'm not sure how the whole "gay" thing has any contextual value here. But whatever, I'm a free-speech kind of guy.

I'm in awe of organists. And whether you prefer Biggs or Fox - they were both remarkably gifted musicians who loved the work of Bach.

Phil said...

I mentioned that Virgil Fox was openly gay, not to set up a logical conclusion (Gay, ergo: bad at Bach), but to make the observation and to see what people think of it.

I don't see any evidence that Fox was, for example, a homosexual man who recognized homosexual desires and acts as sin against God. An article in the New Criterion notes that his tombstone is pink. Could Fox understand how Bach saw his own music? Perhaps, but it would have to be only in inconsistency.

I believe that two of the most outstanding characteristics of Bach's music are its clarity and its order. I am no Bach scholar. Yet if the Biblical witness testifies that homosexuality is one of the forms of disordered sexuality, it isn't irrelevant to ask whether Fox's own understanding of morality and order (Biblical or otherwise) allowed him to comprehend, with fidelity, Bach's own understanding of the Divine Order and God's Law, as embodied in Bach's own compositions, and to express it in his playing.

I don't think that music (including musical interpretation), or beauty in general, is morally neutral (to say nothing of whether all art is capable of bearing the Word). As the Estonian Eastern Orthodox composer Arvo Part said, "I think that sound is a very interesting phenomenon. Why are people so influenced by music? They don't know how strongly music influences us, good and bad. You can kill people with sound. And if you can kill, maybe there is also a sound which is the opposite of killing... and the distance between these two points is very big... In art, everything is possible, but not everything that is made is necessary."

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Phil:

You know, if I were to find out that E. Power Biggs were equally as much of a sinner as Virgil Fox, even publicly so, it really wouldn't change my view of the way he performs Bach any more than I'm going to chuck my Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament because Dr. Kittel was a Nazi.

As far as pink tombstones go, there are actually quite a few of them - including my straight (so far as I know) grandfather who sired ten children. I'm not so sure a pink tombstone is some kind of secret code of gayness so much as it is a natural color of granite.

Maybe you have a more sensitive "gaydar" than I do, but I honestly can't detect homosexuality from only hearing the music performed by a musician (now, visual clues like Liberace's cape and rings, now, that's a giveaway...). :-)

Furthermore, believe it or not, non-Lutherans and non-Christians are capable of interpreting Bach. A lot of Asians play Bach beautifully, and many of them are probably Buddhists. Heck, maybe some of them are even gay Buddhists with a drinking problem and kleptomania.

Phil said...

Fair enough. Everyone is a sinner, everyone is capable of playing Bach equally well and in all sorts of different ways (an emo-rock interpretation on a Hawaiian nose-harp included), Bach's music and its proper performance have nothing to do with Bach's faith and doctrine, morality and God's Word have nothing to do with order, and form has nothing to do with substance.

Or does it?

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Phil:

"Bach's music and its proper performance have nothing to do with Bach's faith and doctrine,"


"morality and God's Word have nothing to do with order, and form has nothing to do with substance."


Phil said...

What about someone playing Bach poorly? If someone played Bach badly enough, could it undermine Bach's doctrine? What about playing Bach so badly that one couldn't even tell whether it was Bach?

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Phil:

Indeed, I'm a Lutheran and as straight as an arrow. But about all I can do is plunk out a few bars of Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring with two fingers.

Virgil Fox puts me to shame.

I suspect there is many a Muslim, or Mormon that can out-Bach me at a keyboard (which, of course, wouldn't take much at all!). :-)

Phil said...

Don't get me wrong:

Different people have different talents. Some of the orthodox don't have much musical talent or skill. Some unbelievers and heterodox have magnificent talent and skill.

It's more than possible that someone might technically interpret Bach correctly (that is, as Bach wanted his music to be played) with a completely wrong understanding of why Bach wrote what he wrote. However, this would only be by accident.

I don't think that Bach was indifferent as to how his music would be played, especially given the wide range of contemporary "interpretations" of Bach's music. Not only are some contemporary renditions of Bach done by people who hold Bach's faith in contempt, some of them actually demonstrate, by how they interpret Bach, nothing but utter contempt for what Bach believed.

The issue is not whether anyone might possibly play Bach as if he knew why Bach wrote what he wrote, by accident. My question is whether this or that particular artist actually grasped why Bach's works are the way they are, and whether he allowed them to profess what they are by playing them as they ought to be.

I can't admit that Bach's faith and doctrine have no bearing on how he wrote music. As a small example, music can be fundamentally ordered or chaotic; God may not conform to a particular kind of order, but God, and God's good creation, is never ultimately chaotic. Gene Veith's book on art is quite good on this.