Truth is symphonic (vi) – Just say yes?

Herbert Blomstedt with Jan Katzschke (right) and Peter Bannister

After my last post on the metaphor of God as the ‘Divine Attractor’ composing a cosmic symphony, my intention had been to close these reflections on analogies between orchestral music-making and the spiritual life. That was until I was unexpectedly invited in mid-September by pastor and theologian Beat Rink, international director of Crescendo, to interview Maestro Herbert Blomstedt at the ‘Being Salt and Light in Culture’ conference in Dresden at the end of the month. A member of SDG’s advisory board, Herbert Blomstedt is a former music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Dresden Staatskapelle and San Francisco Symphony orchestras, among others. His comments were so lucid and thought-provoking that it persuaded me to add the present postscript to this series on ‘symphonic truth’.

First a few words about the maestro for all those of you who thought that Karajan was the only great conductor named Herbert. Born in the US of Swedish parents in 1927 but spending his childhood in Scandinavia, Herbert Blomstedt’s career has been long and extremely distinguished; if he is not a household name, this can largely be attributed to the fact that his music-making is based on values antithetical to the media circus and the insatiable thirst for spectacle that seems increasingly to power the classical music ‘industry’. With Blomstedt there is no clearly marketable visual product – no theatrical stage manner, baton pyrotechnics or carefully groomed external image. As an experiment, try watching a YouTube video clip of his conducting (a good example would be the ZDFTheater television broadcast of the Leipzig Gewandhaus playing the finale of Brahms’ First Symphony: without the sound. At first you may be underwhelmed if your main interest is in staring at the podium, but Herbert Blomstedt is living musical proof that appearances can be extremely deceptive (I have yet to see him live, but what I’m saying here is not only based on recorded audio and video: I have also heard extraordinary reports from performers such as pianist Martin Helmchen, who recently played Mendelssohn’s Second Concerto and Beethoven’s Triple with the Berlin Philharmonic under his direction). Look at the physical commitment coming from the orchestra and you’ll begin to understand what I mean; what we have here is the opposite of the frequent scenario in which a conductor flails widely in front of disinterested and apathetic players – here is rather a maestro who evidently believes that energy should principally be directed to where it properly belongs, i.e. into the hands of the people who actually translate the composer’s score (the higher point of reference) into living sound, not focused on the conductor’s baton.  His task is to release their energy as efficiently and simply as possible, offering logical direction without interfering or attracting undue attention to his own person. This is not to abdicate leadership, but rather to provide a coherent interpretational framework within which the musicians can express themselves freely.

Now turn on the sound and you’ll get some inkling as to why Herbert Blomstedt has held long and successful tenures with some of the world’s most eminent orchestras. Like his benchmarking recordings of the Nielsen symphonies with the San Francisco Symphony, Blomstedt’s Brahms displays a rhythmic drive which is hugely powerful without sounding forced; his interpretation exhibits an impeccable sense of structural proportion derived from a clear understanding of the music’s inner motivic coherence, delivered with a spacious, open orchestral sonority coupling breadth with great alertness and linear clarity. Neo-classical interpretation in the best sense of the word.

Our panel discussion in Dresden took as its starting-point an extended interview given by Herbert Blomstedt in a recent book by Beat Rink and Franz Mohr (former head piano technician for Steinway & Sons) entitled Mich umgibt ein grosser Klang, a fascinating volume which also includes contributions from Sofia Gubaidulina, Masaaki Suzuki and SDG’s own artistic director John Nelson, among others. It would be impossible to summarize our hour-long conversation, but the general tone was set by Herbert Blomstedt’s very first remark. Gone, he claimed, is the time when, to quote Molly Bloom’s final words at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses , it seemed that the essence of life was to be found unambiguously in the words ‘say yes’! This was of course a justifiable reaction to the nay-saying and Victorian pruderie of the nineteenth century, but Blomstedt argued that today’s world now presents the opposite problem. For the first time in history, human progress actually depends on our ability to say ‘no’ in certain situations, both as individuals and as a society.

In our times one of the principal reasons why this has become a challenge is the loss of rootedness in contemporary Western culture. In Mich umgibt ein grosser Klang , Blomstedt points to a modern malaise deriving from collective amnesia, the loss of a sense of a memory central both to music and to the overarching narrative of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures:

‘Now music and faith have this in common, that they build on memories. This in no way means that they are therefore conservative and set in stone. They rather refer to a pool of experiences which are now taken up and worked through. They build on rock rather than on sand.’ […] ‘Good music relies on memories which always appear in a new light. Now faith is also impossible without memories. The English Bible puts it beautifully: “Remember …”, “Never forget it!” – “Tell your children what God has done for you! Bind the words on your hand and on your forehead! Always think of them and act accordingly!”‘ (1)

(‘Die Musik und der Glaube haben nun gemeinsam, dass sie auf Erinnerungen bauen. Das bedeutet keineswegs, dass sie deswegen schon konservativ und versteinert wären. Sie beziehen sich vielmehr auf einen Fundus von Erlebnissen, der nun aufgegriffen und verarbeitet wird. Sie bauen auf Felsen statt auf Sand.’ […] gute Musik setzt auf Erinnerungen, die sie immer wieder in ein neues Licht rückt. Nun ist auch der Glaube unmöglich ohne Erinnerung. In der englischen Bibel heißt es so schön: «Remember …», also «Vergiss es nie!» – «Erzähle deinen Kindern, was Gott für dich getan hat! Binde die Worte auf deine Hand und auf deine Stirn! Denke immer daran, handle danach!»’)

This remembrance has nothing to do with fundamentalism or ultra-conservatism, whether religious or artistic (from his early studies with John Cage in Darmstadt to his 2005 Leipzig recording of Sven-David Sandström’s epic High Mass, Blomstedt has always demonstrated a keen interest in modern music). It nonetheless prevents the person with roots from losing her core identity by being blown in all directions by passing fashion. Memory is crucial to exercising the power of moral decision, which inevitably includes a capacity to refuse as well as to embrace possible courses of action.

In a world of seemingly endless distractions where we are bombarded on every side by conflicting voices clamouring for our attention as consumers, we can only return to our roots via a rejection of the superfluous in order to concentrate on the essential (a recurring motif in the thought of Arvo Pärt, I noted, having the Estonian composer’s 75th birthday uppermost in my mind after my meeting with him earlier in the month). While Blomstedt admitted that living in Stockholm rather than in Dresden during his time with the Staatskapelle (1975-1985) sheltered him from the many downsides of the former East Germany, he nonetheless expressed a certain nostalgia for the (enforced) simplicity of lifestyle in the DDR in this respect.

On a musical level, this means saying ‘no’ to the prevailing culture of individualistic self-absorption – an especial temptation in conducting (‘a very dangerous profession’, spiritually speaking, where the lure of status, glamour and financial reward seems so powerful), but a yes to humility, to modesty, to the recognition that performers are subservient to the composer and even more so to the Creator.

This of course an intensely counter-cultural message which cannot simply be made credible by word alone but needs to be lived out on a consistent if unspectacular daily basis. Although his devout Christian faith is no secret in the musical world, Blomstedt made it plain that he is allergic to religious rhetoric. On one hand he expressed deep respect not only for colleagues of other faith traditions,  but also for others such as Japanese musicians, who may have no overt religious beliefs but nonetheless display extremely high ethical standards (something he regards as connected with vestiges of their Buddhist heritage). On the other hand, he made the sobering claim that some of the weakest musicians in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra were actually professing Christians who somehow imagined that God would magically solve all their technical problems without the need for them to take their artistic responsibilities seriously through sheer hard work and self-criticism. Sincerity of religious convictions can never be a substitute for musical excellence.

One aspect of Herbert Blomstedt’s career on which we didn’t touch, but which was certainly in the background to our whole discussion, was the fact that as a Seventh-Day-Adventist, he has made it a long-term policy of his not to rehearse or study on Saturdays. For me it is this unfashionable commitment to Sabbath which is at the heart of what he was trying to convey in Dresden when referring to the contemporary importance of saying ‘no’. In a consumer society in which the reduction of all things (and people) to quantifiable commodities exerts a seemingly inexorable pressure, the message of the Sabbath is that human beings are structured so as to function within certain limits. A recognition of our finitude and dependency on a source outside ourselves is fundamental to our existence as creatures. There has to be a space where the human striving for achievement and economic production is set aside and put in proper perspective. Not only in order to prevent us from driving ourselves relentlessly towards exhaustion in pursuit of ultimately meaningless goals, but so that a block should be put on our merciless exploitation of the earth and its poor. When read in a context of ecological crisis and massive social injustice threatening to engulf us all, Blomstedt’s statement that, for the first time in history, progress will only be possible by saying ‘no’, acquires particular urgency and relevance.

It is however intriguing and significant that Herbert Blomstedt has never seen a problem with performing concerts on Saturdays, which presumably means that he does not perceive them as work (it would be interesting to hear whether orchestral musicians share his opinion!). Indeed, he regards concerts as highly appropriate to the Sabbath in that the act of collective performance has a quality of gift to it, an act of thanksgiving in the celebratory presentation of the fruits of human labour which one might in some way call Eucharistic. Furthermore, there is a solid theological tradition which sees an eschatological dimension to collective music as sheer gratuitous play, a pointer to the endless joy of God’s eternal Sabbath.This idea of the ultimate gratituity of God’s being is memorably expressed by the great contemporary Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson. ‘God is beauty; to be God is to be enjoyable’ (2). This beauty has a ‘musical’ quality to it, being characterised by the ‘perfect harmony of the triune life.’ And it is precisely this harmony in which humanity is called to participate; in the words of Jonathan Edwards quoted by Jenson in the final page of his two-volume Systematic Theology headed Telos, ‘When I would form an idea of a society in the highest degree happy, I think of them … sweetly singing to each other’. Jenson then concludes:

‘The enlivening Telos of the Kingdom’s own life […] is perfect harmony between the conversation of the redeemed and the conversation that God is. In the conversation that God is, meaning and melody are one.
The end is music.’ (3)

1. Mich umgibt ein grosser Klang, ch. 2. Translation mine. The association of music, memory and theology is a tradition going back to Augustine’s philosophy of time (most famously explored in Book 11 of the Confessions with its notion of the ‘threefold present’ binding past, present and future as memory, attention and expectation). In language, we cannot hear any even a syllable ‘unless memory helps us so that, at the moment when not the beginning but the end of the syllable sounds, that motion remains in the mind which was produced when the beginning sounded’ (De Musica 6.5.10 – see Roland Teske, ‘Augustine’s philosophy of memory’ in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, ed. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann (Cambridge: CUP, 2001), pp. 154-155).

2. Robert W. Jenson Systematic Theology vol. 1 (New York: OUP, 1997), p.234.

3. Jenson, Systematic Theology vol. 2, p. 369.


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