The lost art of being a creature – Haydn, Stephen Jay Gould and Steve Reich

‘Being a creature is in danger of becoming a lost art’ (Rowan Williams)

One of the main characteristics of this blog – which may intrigue, irritate or both – will be a penchant for linking topics which may at first sight be completely unrelated, but which on closer inspection emerge as being more akin to a ‘single reality, seen from different angles’, to use a telling phrase of Olivier Messiaen’s. So this post is going to put some apparently fairly disparate stuff in a musico-theological mixer and see what comes out.

Haydn’s Creation: ‘And God said: Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind’

Baron Gottfried van Swieten

Last Friday I tuned in to the webcast of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung from Naarden under John Nelson (which I very much encourage you to watch on while it is still available on public access – until August 24), still one of the best-loved pieces in the choral repertoire two hundred years after Haydn’s death in 1809. As we were made very much aware last year, that is also the date of the birth of Charles Darwin, who half a century later would publish a work, On the Origin of Species, which was and still is interpreted by many as the antithesis of the scenario so vividly and imaginatively painted by Haydn’s masterpiece. The apparent contradiction between the two surfaces most glaringly when considering the recitative in Part Two of the oratorio that follows the words of Raphael ‘And God said: Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind; cattle and creeping thing, and beasts of the earth after their kind’. I quote the English version of the libretto prepared by Baron Gottfried van Swieten for the first edition of the score (emphasis mine):

Straight opening her fertile womb,
the earth obey’d the word,
and teem’d creatures numberless,
in perfect forms and fully grown.

Cheerful, roaring, stands the tawny lion.
In sudden leaps the flexible tiger appears. The nimble stag
bears up his branching head. With flying mane
and fiery look, impatient neighs the sprightly steed.

The cattle in herds already seeks his food
on fields and meadows green.
And oe’r the ground, as plants, are spread
the fleecy, meek and bleating flock.
Unnumber’d as the sands in whirls arose
the host of insects. In long dimension
creeps with sinuous trace the worm.

Such a view (derived from Milton’s Paradise Lost rather than Genesis) appears delightfully quaint in the light of Darwin’s discoveries and was already being challenged in Haydn’s day by the French zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), who set out his version of evolutionary theory in a lecture at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris in 1800, the year of the publication of the oratorio. Indeed, it ought to be pointed out that many centuries earlier some of the greatest minds in the history of Christian theology had already proposed interpretations of Genesis far closer to contemporary scientific theory than Swieten’s libretto. Saint Augustine for example famously viewed creation in terms of a nebulous mass endowed with potentiality for future development in the form of ‘germinal principles’ (rationes seminales corresponding to the Greek notion of logoi spermatikoi) implanted in it by the Creator. St Thomas Aquinas likewise held in the thirteenth century to a concept of nature whose modernity is now being affirmed in much contemporary dialogue between theology and the natural sciences in discussions of the emergence of biological complexity and the self-evolving powers of nature. Thomas’s striking formulation seems to anticipate the resolution of the conflict between ‘creationists’ and ‘evolutionists’ before it even began:

“Nature is nothing other than a certain technology, namely, the skill of God, which is infused into things, and which is directed towards its determinate end by the things themselves.” […] “This is as though the builder of a ship could impart the capacity to the wood pieces of being moved from within themselves to bring forth the structure of the ship.”
This is clearly a far more sophisticated response to the Biblical words ‘Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind’ than that offered by Van Swieten’s admittedly charming ‘sudden leaps’ of the flexible tiger’; the comparison perhaps reveals the extent to which Biblical interpretation had become a naïvely rationalistic enterprise by the eighteenth century having little in common with the penetrating and spiritually acute discussions of a ‘pre-modern’ understanding whose richness and subtlety we are only now re-discovering.
Stephen Jay Gould – an unlikely fan?

Stephen Jay Gould, 1999

In his thought-provoking recent book Chance or Purpose? Creation, evolution and a rational faith, the current Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn (whose work alerted me to the passage from Aquinas quoted above) asks ‘whether people who are enthusiastic about The Creation, that marvelous oratorio by Joseph Haydn, are subscribing to “crude myths”? […] Is everyone who believes “a God created them” just a blind fanatic? Or is our deep pleasure in Haydn’s The Creation just a romantic surge of the spirit?’ (Chance and Purpose (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007), p. 36.)  It is perhaps surprising to find among the ranks of enthusiastic supporters of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung the famous evolutionary biologist (and agnostic) Stephen Jay Gould, who two years before his untimely death penned an article in the magazine Natural History entitled ‘The First Day of the Rest of our Life’ (Vol. 109/3, April 2000),  in which he made an explicit attempt to reconcile the final words of Darwin’s Origin, that ‘there is grandeur in this [evolutionary] view of life’ with the assertion of Psalm 19 that ‘the heavens are telling the glory of God’. Gould was a keen choral singer who had just taken part in a performance of Haydn’s oratorio by the Boston Cecilia on January 1, 2000; his article asserts that ‘art and science provide different and legitimate takes on the same set of saving subjects’, claiming that what is needed in the face of the urgent challenges of the contemporary world is an appreciation that the scientific search for explanations needs to be complemented by a quest for meaning that science alone cannot provide:

‘The difficulty of this task […] requires that all facets of human achievement be mobilized in the great work. We will also need, and with equal force, the moral guidance and ennobling capacities of religion, the humanities, and the arts, for otherwise the dark side of our personalities will win, and humanity may perish in war and recrimination on a blighted planet.’

It is of course not difficult to pick holes in Gould’s proposition for a benevolent truce, even a ‘loving concordat’ between science and religion, for which he coined the term ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ or NOMA. On the side of Christian theology, his suggestion has been politely but firmly rejected by the majority of participants in the conversation with science as superficially attractive but logically inadequate (for reasons outside the scope of this post). From the other side, it has been the object of not-so-polite derision on the part of the more aggressive scientific representatives of the ‘New Atheism’ (see Richard Dawkins’ demolition of NOMA in The God Delusion, pp. 54-61). However, Gould’s basic intuition that religion, and specifically works of religious art such as Haydn’s Creation, has a vital role to play in tempering the self-destructive excesses of Western technological society, remains a welcome one.

Steve Reich’s hermeneutic of danger

Just a few hours before tuning in to the Naarden performance I heard the voices of both Gould and Dawkins in an unexpected context: the third of Jewish composer Steve Reich’s and video artist Beryl Korot’s Three Tales, ‘Dolly’, an exploration of the ethical and spiritual issues thrown up by the cloning of a sheep in 1997. ‘Dolly’ is a powerful mix of Reich’s pulsating music with clips from interviews with scientists on the subject of contemporary genetics and artificial intelligence, set against the Biblical notion of creation. The fundamental contrast (the fascinating libretto of Three Tales can be found on Reich’s own website explored by Reich and Korot becomes apparent within the opening minute of the section entitled ‘Cloning’; first up are the computerized tones of Kismet, the cute ‘robot baby’ of Cynthia Breazeal, a researcher at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT.

Kismet robot, MIT. Photo Jared Benedict.

The robot sings a Biblical quote from Genesis 2:15, in which Adam is placed in the garden of Eden ‘to serve it and to keep it’. This is then followed immediately by a scientific description of the cloning process, culminating in a  statement by Richard Dawkins thrown down as a direct challenge to the concept of creation on which the thought of all the Abrahamic religions is predicated:

‘We, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes.’

Reich and Korot cut to the heart of the matter: who or what is the creator here? And what are the consequences for humanity and the planet unfolding from our answer to this most fundamental of questions? I will save a detailed consideration of Three Tales for a future post, but for the moment I would just like to point to one moment which struck me with particular force. You can find it by clicking on the second video link embedded in an interview with Reich and Korot available on-line at . At around 5:00 a fascinating Jewish story is related by Henri Atlan, professor emeritus of biophysics at the universities of Paris and Jerusalem (emphasis mine):

‘The Prophet Jeremiah decided to build an artificial man. He was perfect, was able to talk, immediately he talked to Jeremiah. And he ask [sic] him “What did you do?” “Well look, I have succeeded.” “No, no no, is not good. From now on when people will meet other people in the street they will not know whether you made them or G-d made them. Undo – me”. So that’s what Jeremiah did.’

Three Tales is certainly not without its comic moments, but the overall impression is one of a dire warning concerning the dangers of Western civilization’s use of technology. Not unlike Gould, Reich is fully aware that we are living in an age where our misuse of our seemingly godlike knowledge can destroy us. He had already touched on this theme twenty years earlier in an unforgettable and prophetic section of his Desert Music (still perhaps my favourite of all Reich’s works, together with his wonderful Psalm-settings Tehillim), a meditation on the deserts of New Mexico in which the first atom bombs were tested. Here Reich quotes a poem of William Carlos Williams:

‘Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish.’

This prophetic tone, directly inspired by the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, runs chillingly throughout Three Tales. Reich and Korot’s appeal to Genesis is the application of what might be termed a ‘hermeneutic of danger’, a term that Jewish-influenced Christian theologians Jürgen Moltmann and Johann Baptist Metz have adapted from the philosopher Walter Benjamin:

‘To articulate historically what is past does not mean knowing “what really happened”. It means taking possession of a memory as it flashes up in the moment of danger.’

(Walter Benjamin, Illuminationen, p. 270, quoted in Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), p. 23)

Prof. Jürgen Moltmann, American Church of Paris, 2010

It is precisely in this way that Reich and Korot recall the Biblical creation narrative in their work. Not in terms of scientific description of ‘what really happened’, but rather to assert a profound truth that, contrary to the declarations of the New Atheism, we are ‘creatures’ placed in this world by the Creator ‘to serve it and to keep it’. Our failure to recollect this call to humility and dependence on God in the moment of present ecological danger, in our intoxication with the power of knowledge used to dominate rather than serve, may be the undoing of us all.

This is where, I would like to argue, the application of a ‘hermeneutic of danger’ shows the contemporary relevance of Haydn’s Creation, as Cardinal Schönborn and Stephen Jay Gould both sense in their different ways, at a time when, as Rowan Williams reminds us, ‘being a creature is in danger of becoming a lost art.’ (On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p.77) The most basic truth of the oratorio is that we are created, not self-made. Our denial of this truth, grasping for knowledge aimed at self-sufficiency rather than patiently searching for wisdom in communion with God, can be read as humanity’s original sin. Baron van Swieten’s language may seem naïve, but ultimately his message is not; right at the end of the oratorio, following the idyllic duet between Adam and Eve (stunningly sung in the Naarden performance by Lucy Crowe and Jonathan Beyer), the tenor soloist addresses a somewhat laconic recitative to the Edenic couple, the words of which should not be forgotten once the applause following the ensuing chorus has died away:

“O happy pair, and always happy yet, if not, misled by false conceit, ye strive at more than granted is, and more to know than know ye should”.


One thought on “The lost art of being a creature – Haydn, Stephen Jay Gould and Steve Reich

  1. Pingback: The Meaning of Salzburg – Kugeln, Kitsch or Kultur? | Da stand das Meer

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