Naming the unnameable

American Cathedral, Paris

Today is Ash Wednesday.

A couple of weeks ago my friend Bill Tompson, Chair of Christian Education at the American Cathedral in Paris and general polymath, asked me to make a presentation at the end of this month on musical treatments of Christ’s Passion as part of a multi-disciplinary series of Lenten reflections entitled Expressing the Inexpressible. I don’t want to give the game away by writing too much about what I plan to say, but it strikes me as obvious that music by its very nature is particularly well-suited to the expression of what cannot be expressed in words because of its immediacy, its capacity to speak on a level that eludes discursive rational explanation. Music leaves us with the impression of something that is deeply meaningful but which cannot be tied down to any unequivocal semantic interpretation. This is obvious as regards purely instrumental music, but I would argue that it is even the case when there is a text, as our reception of words is never left unaffected by the music to which they are set as it unfolds in time. The view (often held in church circles) that music is a ‘neutral’ vehicle for sacred texts is naïve in the extreme, as it fails to take into account the profound ways in which sound impacts us psychoacoustically.

I would assert that it is crucially important when talking about music to consider its existence as an aural phenomenon, even when discussing composers whose scores demonstrably employ elaborate symbolic systems whereby words and concepts have close notational correlates (think of Bach’s symbolic use of the number 3 – as exemplified by the key of Eb major with its three flats – associated with the Trinity, or Olivier Messiaen’s invented musical ‘alphabet’, langage communicable, by means of which he transcribed whole passages from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae in his monumental organ cycle Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité). It is very easy for over-enthusiastic musicologists fixated by musical notation to think that by ‘decoding’ such symbolism they have fully unlocked the meaning of the music in such a way that it can be defined verbally with no remainder. In so doing they frequently forget to ask themselves the question of the extent to which this verbal meaning is reinforced, submerged or maybe even contradicted by aural experience. Put crudely, the composer may well think that the written score conveys one thing, whereas what is actually transmitted to the listener (even leaving aside considerations of the latter’s irreducible subjectivity) is quite another.

But how can we talk about meaning without using words? An obvious answer might seem to be to discuss ’emotional’ meanings. Tonal music from Monteverdi to Mahler certainly provide some fairly intelligible guidelines as to the emotions communicated by musical works. This is partly a question of historical associations (such as the equation of F major with ‘pastoral’ music, for example, as with Bach’s organ Pastorella BWV 590 or Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony), but I would argue that there is a deeper basis to the workings of tonality. Tonal works are largely organized around tensions and resolutions which are grounded objectively in the harmonic series and is not merely the result of the acceptance of socially-received traditions, as important as those are. To test this, try playing a few innocuous I-IV-V progressions at the piano and then suddenly throw in the opening chord of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; unless you are particularly de-sensitized, the dissonance will almost certainly jump out at you because of the contrast with what has preceded it. You do not need to know anything about Wagner or the story of Tristan to feel the shock. A tonal composer who has experienced this kind of psychoacoustic effect and knows how to generate it therefore has a powerful set of tools for communicating with the public without the need for words or programmatic explanations, because tonality creates a interpretative framework common to composer, performer and listener. In the absence of such a framework works of ‘pure’ music such as, say, a Dvorak Serenade, would be incomprehensible; even it is can be said that part of their intelligibility can be attributed to presentation within received forms, those forms work in synergy with the sounding properties of tonal harmony rather than being imposed on it arbitrarily.

However, move into the twentieth century and the waters become considerably more muddied; the increasing fragmentation of musical language in the Western ‘classical’ tradition over the last hundred years and or so has led to a situation in which the audience, hearing a piece for the first time in an idiom which may be completely unfamiliar, often has no clue as to how a given piece should be ‘deciphered’ – or indeed whether it is meant to be deciphered at all either ‘rationally’ or ’emotionally’. Listen to Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and it is pretty obvious ‘how’ the music is to be listened to, but try applying the same mode of listening to Webern’s Symphony Op. 21 and you will probably find yourself bewildered. In the case of music where the framework of tonal or modal tension has been jettisoned, and particularly where there is no text, the listener can often be left with the unsettling feeling of being unsure as to whether her cognitive or emotional experience corresponds in any way to the composer’s intention. What would sound like an strident dissonance in a tonal work may for example play a completely different rôle within the notated compositional structure of an atonal one: a phenomenon such as the appearance of a note which completes a twelve-tone row may for example correspond functionally to a V-I cadence in tonal music, despitely sounding totally unlike it.

This feeling of losing one’s bearings when hearing a piece of music (which I frequently have when listening to certain works of say, Birtwistle, Ferneyhough or Elliott Carter) might seem indicative of a major communication problem between composer and listener. However, I would contend that there are certain musico-dramatic situations in which contemporary music can justifiably take advantage of this state of affairs.  For conveying psychological states of confusion, metaphysical dread and nameless anguish, expressionist atonal music (which was of course born historically in Freud’s Vienna) can have overwhelming power, as long as it is somehow communicated to the listener that the music is intended to create such an emotional climate. I am thinking here of pieces such as Berg’s Wozzeck or the agonized orchestral prelude to the 7th tableau of Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise prior to St Francis’s bodily reception of the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion, where Messiaen briefly conjures up an atmosphere of existential terror by using the technique of ‘integral serialism’ (extending twelve-tone technique to musical parameters other than pitch).

It is extremely telling that Messiaen employs this dislocating and radically disturbing idiom at a mystically-charged moment in his opera, one associated with the Passion narrative. His point seems to be that we are dealing here with a depth of experience that our rational minds cannot plumb, before which all our theories and interpretative strategies fall mute. The essential mystery of Easter, the Mysterium Paschale, as Hans Urs von Balthasar (Messiaen’s favourite theologian) reminds us in his unforgettable book of the same name, concerns the very suffering of God and therefore cannot be domesticated or fully ‘understood’ by the human mind. The event of Cross and Resurrection is, to use a term of the French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, a saturated phenomenon whose significance can never be exhausted by human ‘explanation’ and which shatters our pretensions to understanding. [1] Which is perhaps why modern Christian composers working with ideas of aural ‘saturation’ (a particular feature of the ‘Polish school’, good examples being Penderecki’s Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima or the first movement of Gorecki’s ‘Copernican’ Symphony) seem particularly in phase with a theology of the Cross.

One conductor who seems to have understood this better than most is Helmuth Rilling – a member of SDG’s advisory board -, one of the greatest names in sacred choral music of recent decades.  Maestro Rilling has done more than perhaps any other European conductor to foster the creation of substantial new sacred works by contemporary composers of international stature. Pieces commissioned by him have included Arvo Pärt’s Litany, the multi-authored Requiem der Versöhnung (1995), Penderecki’s Credo (with Rilling’s Oregon Bach Festival recording winning a Grammy in 2001),  and Sven-David Sandström’s new full-length setting of the text to Handel’s Messiah in 2009. Steeped in Lutheran tradition both musically and theologically (being awarded an honorary doctorate in theology by the University of Tübingen in 1985), it is perhaps not surprising that Rilling’s most ambitious commissioning venture should have centered around the Passion. For the year 2000 he and the International Bach-Academy in Stuttgart commissioned no fewer than four new Passions from Sofia Gubaidulina, Wolfgang Rihm, Tan Dun and Osvaldo Golijov.

Although Rilling clearly had Bach’s Passions uppermost in his mind on the 250th anniversary of the Thomaskantor’s death, the Passion 2000 project had no liturgical ambitions. Indeed, of the four composers commissioned only Sofia Gubaidulina was writing from a straightforwardly Christian (Russian Orthodox) perspective, and even she was working outside her tradition to the extent that musical instruments are not used in Russian churches. Dun and Golijov (the latter even having to buy a New Testament specially in order to write his St Mark Passion!) were primarily interested engaging with the Biblical text from a broader human standpoint in dialogue with their own ethnicity – Chinese and Latin American/Jewish respectively -, with fascinating results. It is however Wolfgang Rihm, author of Deus Passus, who constituted perhaps the most ambivalent and therefore intriguing member of this quartet; coming from a Catholic background, he describes himself cryptically as one who does not pray, but speaks with God [‘Ich bin kein Beter, aber ich rede mit Gott‘] [2]

Rihm (b.1952) is certainly one of Europe’s most remarkable composers both for the sheer scope of his output (his page at Universal-Edition lists no fewer than 328 pieces!) and his mastery of a panoply of styles ranging from the visceral avant-garde exploration of his early works to the unashamedly post-Romantic lyrical beauty of more recent pieces such as his Lichtes Spiel for violin and orchestra (recently premièred by Anne-Sophie Mutter and the New York Philharmonic).  Amazingly for the author of a catalogue whose volume might suggest a latter-day Telemann privileging quantity over depth, Rihm’s music is consistently substantial, and Deus Passus is no exception. The work is clearly marked by the composer’s struggle to deal with the difficult issue of German and specifically Christian anti-Semitism in the light of the Holocaust. Hesitating for a long time before accepting the commission, Rihm eventually chose to work with the Lukan text on the grounds that ‘it would have been impossible for a German composer such as myself to use … one of the other Gospels’ [3] on account of the misuse of texts from the Gospels of Matthew and John in order to justify anti-Judaism on the part of the Church.

Paul Celan

There are two particularly striking illustrations of the way in which Rihm consistently tries to distance himself from the sinister legacy of Christian vilification of the Jews. Firstly, his treatment of Christ’s trial before Pilate follows the philosopher Hans Blumenberg’s controversial assertion that in calling upon the Roman Governor to free Barabbas the crowd were actually appealing for the release of Jesus (‘Bar-abbas’ meaning ‘Son of the Father’ in Aramaic), and that the idea of Barabbas as a separate figure is an editorial invention on the part of later Christians seeking accommodation with Rome by transferring guilt for Jesus’s crucifixion away from the Roman authority. Secondly, Rihm concludes Deus Passus with the poem Tenebrae by the Jewish poet Paul Celan (1920-1970), creating a thought-provoking and disturbing symmetry with the work’s opening words, taken from Luke 22, 19-20 (‘This is my body which is given for you’). In using Celan’s poem, Rihm equates the shed blood of Christ with that of the victims of the Shoah, commenting that ‘the blood in the formula of institution (with which the work begins) thus ‘meets’ the blood of slaughtered humanity’.

Celan and Rihm are both painfully aware of the deep ambiguity of such a parallel in the light of two thousand years of mainly tragic Christian-Jewish relations. They seem to affirm the intuition of theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann in The Crucified God that there is an intimate, if chilling connection between Golgotha and Auschwitz, yet they also sense how problematic making such a statement given the suffering so often inflicted by Christ’s supposed followers on the world:

‘In my opinion, the suffering God, the God who suffered, is the central figure of Christian thought. This is where Christianity differs from other religions. The Passion is the space in which this suffering occurs. However, the suffering that has been and still is being thrust into the world in the name of the Christian faith  must also be held to account from the vantage point of this space.’ [4]

After the last words of Celan’s Tenebrae Rihm’s work breaks off, a logical conclusion to the composer’s ‘attempt to give form to something […] unspeakable’. Rihm’s remarks on the limits of human understanding when confronted with the ultimate mystery of human as well as divine suffering (and the relationship between the two) are a perfect illustration of a felt link between the cutting edge of the contemporary arts and the ‘apophatic’ tradition of negative theology, which Rihm references directly:

‘Beyond detailed knowledge there ought to be a productive unknowing. That does not mean that one can dispense with detailed knowledge. One can only truly not know, when one has at least considered everything within reach that can be known. The person who simply does not know does not even know this. But I am in this case in favour of educated unknowing, ‘docta ignorantia’, as Nicholas of Cusa speaks of an educated ignorance. Through ever-increasing knowledge an insight can arise that applies precisely to music – that this knowledge only makes it all the more plain to the senses that what is happening is impossible to name.’ [5]

Trying to untangle this dense statement (which sounds clearer in German than I am able to render in English), Rihm seems to be advocating a ‘second naïveté’ which can only be attained by the person who has gone through the hard work of trying everything humanly possible to wrap one’s head around something, only to come to the realization that there are some things which pass creaturely understanding. There is no anti-intellectualism here – indeed, Deus Passus may well come across as cerebral to some listeners. According to Rihm, the work of rational analysis when getting to grips with difficult issues is indispensable for dispelling the suspicion that appeals to ‘mystery’ are merely a smokescreen for intellectual laziness; only after every effort at comprehension has been made can we speak of irresoluble paradox. Abandoning reason prior to this stage is tantamount to a failure to think things through properly.

Helmuth Rilling with Wolfgang Rihm, 2003. Photo: Norbert Bolin

Intellectual indolence is certainly not a charge that can be levelled at any of the four composers involved in Passion 2000, despite their huge stylistic disparities. Helmuth Rilling’s choice of collaborators may appear strange to those who assume that the principal criterion for participation in such a project ought to be theological conformity with a classical Christian understanding of the Gospels, but it seems obvious that the primary aim of Passion 2000 was not to provide new ‘settings’ of the text in the sense of doctrinal illustration, but to set up a creative confrontation between the scriptures and artists free of the interpretative baggage of Rilling’s own Protestant heritage, without script-writing the results. Seen in this light Passion 2000 can be said to have succeeded brilliantly; not only did the project generate music ranging from the directly and exhilaratingly populist (Golijov) to the intellectually rigourous (Rihm) and provocatively experimental (Tan Dun), but it also served to stimulate contemporary debate as to the relevance of the Passion for our own times. Rilling’s approach can be viewed as an act of faith stemming from a certain confidence in the Passion narrative, whose universal significance is such as not to require the imposition of a theological straightjacket upon serious artists who see it as their business to write challenging music and to ask sometimes uncomfortable philosophical questions while never being less than respectful of the great musical Passion tradition.

If the Gospel texts allow for and indeed invite a multiplicity of approaches from contemporary composers (to whom of course we could add other examples such as Arvo Pärt, James MacMillan and David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion) it is because the material of the Passion narratives is itself inexhaustible, a ‘saturated phenomenon’. It is surely true both artistically and theologically that the Easter event is ‘resistant to its interpretations’, to quote a salient point of Moltmann’s; dealing with the infinite mystery of suffering love, no finite interpretation or even combination of interpretative theories can exhaust its meaning. Even adding together the views of Anselm and Abelard, Luther and Calvin, Bonhoeffer, Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor or René Girard’s pioneering work on ‘scapegoating’, there is still a residue beyond our human comprehension that will remain so this side of eternity; the hermeneutical gap is not quantitative but qualitative. Rihm is surely right to speak of ‘docta ignorantia’, a principle that we forget at our peril (and a point that supposedly Christian bloggers hurling mutual anathemas at one another over their pet theories of the atonement would do well to remember [2]). This unknowing may of course lead in one of two directions – either honest skepticism (Rihm) or worship (Gubaidulina). Perhaps the dividing-line between the two is thinner than some people would have us believe. What is certain is that the side of the line on which one finds oneself depends on something other, more basic and deeper than intellectual understanding:

‘For who would want to understand the love of God in its folly and weakness? Or who […] would wish to lay claim to any other course of action than hanging on the lips of God, whose word remains inseparably connected with his historic Cross and Resurrection, and keeping silence before the ‘love … which surpasses knowledge’ (Ephesians 3, 19)[7]

Maestro Helmuth Rilling will lead the Chicago Symphony and Chorus in Mendelssohn’s Elijah this Friday March 11 at 8 p.m. in Symphony Hall, with SDG board member Johann Buis giving the pre-concert presentation at 7 p.m. in Grainger Ballroom.


[1] See Jean-Luc Marion, In excess: studies of saturated phenomena, translated Robyn Horner and Vincent Berraud (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), passim.. Balthasar makes the same point succinctly when discussing the inadequacy of human language in relation to the Resurrection:

‘Words, like (scenic) images remain of necessity ‘limit-expressions’ for a reality which – since it has absorbed in itself in a transcendent way the entire reality of the old aeon – overflows on all sides the latter’s receptive capacities‘ (Mysterium Paschale (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 246).

[2] Programme note to the Internationale Bachakademie performances on March 15 and 16, 2008, available online at ).

[3] Interview with Jürgen Kanold, quoted in booklet accompanying Deus Passus (Hänssler Classic 98397).

[4] Ibid. Moltmann’s inclusion in The Crucified God of Elie Wiesel’s famous concept of God in the bodies of young Jews hanging on the gallows in Buna concentration camp during the Holocaust is a case in point of the difficulty of such a recuperation on the part of (German) Christian theology. Moltmann certainly makes a powerful point when he says, following François Mauriac, that ‘it is true in a real, transferred sense, that God himself hung on the gallows, as E. Wiesel was able to say. If that is taken seriously, it must also be said that, like the cross of Christ, even Auschwitz is in God himself. Even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit.’ (The Crucified God (London: SCM Press, 2001). However, it is understandable that this interpretation should have been  sharply criticized in various quarters both as a mis-interpretation of Wiesel’s own conclusion – namely that God is dead – and as an illegitimate annexation of Jewish history (see Alice and Roy Eckardt, Long night’s journey into day: a revised retrospective on the Holocaust (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1982), 112-114). Given Moltmann’s important long-term commitment to Christian-Jewish reconciliation this is unfortunate, but the episode is indicative of the problems faced by post-Holocaust theology.

[5] ‘Am Ende des Detailwissens sollte ein produktives Nichtwissen stehen. Das heisst aber nicht, dass man das Detailwissen umgehen kann. Man kann erst dann richtig nichtwisse, wenn man vorher alles Erreichbare, das wissbar ist, zumindest erwogen hat. Der schlicht Nichtwissende weiss nicht einmal das. Aber ich bin in dem Fall für gelehrtes Nichtwissen, um mit Nikolaus von Kues zu sprechen: ‘docta ignorantia’, für eine belehrte Nichtwissenheit. Durch immer weiteres Wissen kann die gerade auf Musik bezogene Erkenntnis entstehen, dass dieses Wissen nur dazu beiträgt, die Nichtbennenbarkeit dessen, was da geschieht, um so krasser vor die Sinne zu stellen’ (2008 Internationale Bachakademie programme note).

[6] Here again Balthasar’s remarks on the Resurrection (quoting Gerhard Koch) are an object lesson in theological method:

‘In the event of the Resurrection all previous schemata come to their fulfilment and suffer their breakdown at one and the same time. They have to be used in preaching, but the very fact of their cumulative employment shows that each is powerless to contribute more than a fragment to a totality of a transcendent kind.  ‘What the disciples proclaimed goes beyond the limits of the thinkable’ (Mysterium Paschale, 198).

[7] Ibid., 82-83.


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