Britten’s titanic tears

Last week Benjamin Britten would have been one hundred years old, and quite rightly there have been a plethora of events internationally involving many of my friends and colleagues in honour of the anniversary. Although I have not been involved personally in the centenary celebrations, I guess I owe the composer of the War Requiem a blog post at the very least, as his works played a decisive role in my decision to become a professional musician. In 1980, four years after his death, I and a dozen teenage schoolfriends in Trinity School Boys’ Choir under its founder David Squibb (1935-2010) spent several months singing in two productions of Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, first at the Royal Academy of Music in London and then in residence at the mythical location of Snape Maltings, home to the Aldeburgh Festival. This was my first experience of opera, and it could scarcely have been a more absorbing, magical introduction to its multiple dimensions. In terms of becoming acquainted with the world of professional music and theatre, I look back on it as a truly formative time whose impact on my thinking as a composer and performer I can still feel today.

Snape Maltings

Snape Maltings concert hall (photo Jon Hopkins)

The part played by the boys’ chorus in the Aldeburgh production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was considerable not only in terms of singing but also movement, which in Christopher Renshaw’s staging meant spending many hours rehearsing on a somewhat intimidating triangular metal gantry which I got to know intimately as it slid back and forwards on rails onstage. In my mind’s eye I can still see the metal bar to which I clung ape-like during the opening bars (featuring Britten’s memorable double bass glissandi evoking a donkey’s braying) ready to spring into action for the first chorus ‘Over hill over dale’. If these acrobatics certainly provoked a stirring of my thirteen year-old blood, the most delicate moment however came in the third act, with a dance sequence (for which we were given instruction by a coach from the Ballet Rambert) which we had to perform seated near the top of the gantry, which I would perhaps have experienced as less vertiginous had I been allowed to wear my glasses on stage but which I found worryingly tall.

Various incidents remain in my mind from my time in Suffolk, including a variety of typical adolescent pranks (such as the choir drenching each other and their chorus master mercilessly in a water battle in kayaks on a mini-lake near Lowestoft, or a friend’s failed(!) attempt to wake me by blowing a trumpet full volume in my ear while I was asleep). This was a time when I was probably more concerned at my inability to sight-read the piano introduction to Rudy from Supertramp’s Crime of the Century – an album whose lasting influence on me probably shows up somewhere in my own works if you look hard enough –  than to memorize my part in the opera. What stays in my memory above all, however,  is the general atmosphere of Aldeburgh, the East Anglian landscape and the backdrop of the North Sea, in which I recall taking one brief freezing dip and which Britten evoked so unforgettably in the  Four Sea Interludes to Peter Grimes. During the production we were housed in a large house in Leiston, where I stayed in a room from which I could see the impressively grey mass of water extending unbroken to Friesland, Schleswig-Holstein and Scandinavia.  As I looked out in the evenings, scouring the horizon in search of the lights of passing ships, the view did not fail to catch my imagination just as it had once caught Britten’s (and other artists fascinated by this brooding seascape such as the nineteenth-century German writer Theodor Storm, who penned his haunting Schimmelreiter on its Eastern banks in Husum, ‘die graue Stadt am Meer’ – ‘the grey town by the sea’ – an epithet which could equally well describe Aldeburgh). There is a peculiar poetic quality to Northern European skies which is hard to capture in the space of a few words but which has left an indelible stamp on innumerable pieces of music, at least as I hear them, from the storm in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades or the existential loneliness of Sibelius’s tone-poems to the strangely hovering flute arabesques of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony or, changing genre slightly, a host of ECM jazz releases by Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Arild Andersen and others.

Given the Athenian setting of Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is obviously not one of Britten’s quintessentially East Anglian or maritime works, but its writing shares with them a powerfully evocative, often dream-like quality. I can still recall the sense of enchantment that I experienced when walking alone beneath the stage at the opening of Act III just before our entrance in order to listen to the orchestral prelude. Listening to this brief passage for strings again today, I am no less struck by its interiority and economy of line now than I was as a teenager. Britten was undoubtedly one of the twentieth-century’s greatest masters of ‘diatonic dissonance’ in terms of his control of the melodic/harmonic tension that can be generated by simply allowing tonal or modal lines to sound against one another or to float eerily over foreign pedal notes, even in the sparest of textures (think of the hypnotic meditation ‘Look, through the port comes the moonlight astray’ sung by the title character of Billy Budd prior to his execution). It is no secret to anyone familiar with his biography that Britten, who was able to convey a sense of malevolence as few other composers (The Rape of LucretiaThe Turn of the Screw…), was at times a tortured individual, yet there is also a great purity in his diatonic music, a yearning for lost innocence that was among the qualities that inspired Arvo Pärt to write his Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten on the latter’s death in 1976:

Why did the date of Benjamin Britten’s death – December 4, 1976 – touch such a chord in me? During this time I was obviously at the point where I could recognise the magnitude of such a loss. Inexplicable feelings of guilt, more than that even, arose in me. I had just discovered Britten for myself. Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music – I had had the impression of the same kind of purity in the ballads of Guillaume de Machaut. And besides, for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally – and now it would not come to that.'[1]

I too never met Benjamin Britten, although Sir Peter Pears did sign my programme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream backstage in Aldeburgh in 1980. A year later my voice had broken and I would not sing in the War Requiem alongside my classmates (although I did play the piano part in a performance at Snape Maltings many years later); my time singing Britten’s music as a boy treble was over. Yet my admiration for the composer has remained unchanged ever since, and writing from my continental European vantage-point it now seems clearer than ever that he alone of British musicians of the mid twentieth-century generated a compositional corpus endowed with sufficient universality to speak to international audiences in locations far removed from Britten’s own cultural hinterland.

Benjamin Britten 1968

Benjamin Britten, 1968

The War Requiem in particular has lost nothing of its relevance half a century after its first performance; like Shostakovich, Britten here is a chronicler of history who both recalls and warns. Like the perennial liturgical text and Wilfred Owen’s poetry which it sets, Britten’s music continues to speak in a world which is no less battle-scarred than it was at the time of the Requiem‘s première in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. A performance of the Offertorium remains a chilling experience; the logic of humanity’s terrible refusal to sacrifice the ‘Ram of Pride’ rather than ‘half the seed of Europe, one by one’ in 1914-1918 is tragically very much still with us. Both for this reason and in its inherent musico-poetic structure, the War Requiem remains in some sense an open-ended work (not unlike Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis),  whose unresolved tension eludes easy closure and prevents us from forgetting what in this world’s history has remained unreconciled.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at the end of the baritone solo ‘After the blast of lightning from the East’ following the Sanctus, concluding with Owen’s troubled words:

And when I hearken to the Earth, she saith:
“My fiery heart shrinks, aching. It is death.
Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,
Nor my titanic tears, the sea, be dried.”

Listening to the War Requiem as I write and thinking of Aldeburgh as I remember it three decades ago, it is that brooding grey expanse of titanic tears which comes before my mind’s eye.

Let us sleep now…

[1] Quoted in Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 101.


Le Roi des Instruments – Trocadéro 4.0 in Lyon

The question of whether progress is a valid concept in music is one over which much ink has been spilled by musical theorists and philosophers. On the level of expression and content the answer ought to be obvious: musical composition cannot be said to ‘advance’ in Hegelian fashion if that is taken as implying that later composers de facto write better music than earlier ones because of the cumulative acquisition of scientific knowledge during the intervening years. There are admittedly some domains of musical science in which to talk of advances in knowledge is legitimate (orchestration, for example, which is in some ways the most ‘technological’ of musical parameters, or investigations into the nature of timbre). But this does not make Strauss ‘superior’ to Mozart, Dutilleux to Dufay or Boulez to Bach simply because their scores are more complex, the notation more refined; to judge in such a fashion is to make a category mistake. The masterworks of the past have a perennial greatness to them which, like that of poetry, has little or nothing to do with their contribution to a supposed onward march of progress but everything to do with the perfect correspondence they demonstrate between artistic aims and the means employed.

A similar situation might be said to apply when it comes to building musical instruments. It cannot be disputed that we have never known more about the science of instrumental construction (including the techniques of past centuries) nor had access to such accurate tools of calibration as are available to us through precision engineering and computer modelling. There is no doubt that this scientific baggage is extremely useful,  yet when it comes to questions of tonal beauty rather than mechnical efficiency the technology is of secondary importance in comparison to the physical properties of the natural materials involved. As anyone who has been overwhelmed by the sound of a Stradivarius, vintage Bechstein grand piano or the collective vocal chords  (untouched by any machine) of a great choir will tell you. 

The world of organ-building is a good illustration of the benefits and limitations of instrumental progress. Technological advancement certainly has its plus points, and can on occasion act as a catalyst for musical inspiration. I guess that only a few diehard advocates of an extreme form of historically-informed performance would like to go back to the days of hand-pumped instruments (presumably with candlelit music desks), and it has to be said that just as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Ravel’s Daphnis are unthinkable without the rise of the modern orchestra, so organ works such as Olivier Messiaen’s Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité or Jean-Louis Florentz’s Debout sur le Soleil have technological innovation as their condition of possibility (e.g. the advent of modern consoles equipped with playing aids allowing for rapid changes of colour).

Moreover, although it may be heresy to say so in some circles, the truth is that computer sampling has now made surprisingly (and perhaps worryingly, depending on your point of view) realistic and low-maintenance electronic instruments available to churches and concert halls at a mere fraction of the cost of the pipe organs they simulate. At the same time, concerning these sampled sounds, it needs to be emphasized that the best aural results are arguably obtained when the sampled material is that of old pipework (or pipes newly constructed using old methods). Contemporary algorithms may be impressive in terms of their power of calculation and processing speed, but essentially they are simply building on what has stood the test of time.

Palais du Trocadéro (photo: collections Roger-Viollet)

Palais du Trocadéro (photo: collections Roger-Viollet)

It is this relationship with the past which constitutes one of the most astonishing things about the organ as an instrument whether physical or digital: the act of musical performance on an organ whose sounding material may be three or four centuries old blurs the boundary between past and present as the pipes (metal or virtual) of bygone eras make today’s air vibrate in real-time. This translation of the past into present aural reality  is particularly successful when modern technology has returned old instruments to their former glory, as was demonstrated last week with a series of concerts in the Auditorium de Lyon celebrating the restoration of one of France’s most legendary organs, constructed by the great builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll for the 5000-seat Palais du Trocadéro for the Exposition Universelle of 1878. Over the years, whether at the Trocadéro or the Palais de Chaillot where it was transferred in 1939 (with modifications by Victor and Fernand Gonzalez), this instrument has been intimately associated with some of the French organ’s finest moments: the first public performances of Widor’s Sixth Symphony and Franck’s Trois Pièces in the inaugural 1878 season, Marcel Dupré’s Chemin de la Croix in 1932, Messiaen’s Les Corps Glorieux (partially in 1941, complete in 1945) and the orchestral version of Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem in 1947.

Moved to the Auditorium de Lyon in 1977 after the transformation of the Palais de Chaillot into the Théatre National de Chaillot, by the 1990s the organ was already deemed in serious need of restoration. Its reinauguration this month after extensive work carried out by Michel Gaillard of the prestigious Bernard Aubertin firm of organbuilders sees the instrument – Trocadéro 4.0 – essentially restored to the combined colour palette of Cavaillé-Coll and V.&F. Gonzalez with the elimination of certain dubious changes brought about in 1977.[1]

Organ, Auditorium de Lyon (photo: Claire Delamarche)

Organ, Auditorium de Lyon (photo: Claire Delamarche)

How does the restored organ sound? Unfortunately I was not able to attend in person, but on the evidence of the broadcast of this Tuesday’s concert with the Orchestre National de Lyon under Leonard Slatkin on – a fantastic free streaming website which I wholeheartedly recommend – the results are pretty impressive. The limitations of any pipe organ in a dryish concert hall acoustic are obvious when trying  to convey the expressive content of music conceived for a resonant church, but the legendary 6,500-pipe instrument of the Auditorium more than makes up for it in terms of the power, brilliance and variety of its tonal resources.

Vincent Warnier Duruflé coverThe choice of Vincent Warnier as soloist for the evening, playing works by Saint-Saëns (his intriguing, if at times puzzling Cyprès et Lauriers, premièred at the Trocadéro in 1920 when the composer was 85) and Poulenc (Organ Concerto) could hardly have been more appropriate. As organiste titulaire of the church of St-Etienne du Mont in Paris (a post which he shares with Thierry Escaich, the Orchestre de Lyon’s resident composer from 2007 to 2010), he represents the musical inheritance of his predecessor Maurice Duruflé. The latter not only played the first performance of the Poulenc Concerto but assisted the composer – who had never written for the organ – with its registration as well as making an electrifying recording of the work with Georges Prêtre in St-Etienne du Mont in 1961. Vincent Warnier is a player of compelling physical and intellectual energy, as was evident not only in the Poulenc but also in an electric improvised encore on material from the concerto (start time 40:45). Watching him in action with Maestro Slatkin is also a particular pleasure for me personally as the two of us were both prizewinners at the international organ competition held in the legendary setting of Chartres Cathedral back in September 1992 (he for interpretation, I for improvisation) at the outset of his career. An event which brings back memories of evenings spent talking about everything and anything with Vincent over pizza while waiting for the final to arrive of a competition which in those days lasted a psychologically gruelling three weeks.

This was time of which I have two enduring recollections. One is having to re-heel my mouldy old organ shoes, which I still wear from time to time, after almost falling off the bench while trying [sic] to play a particularly tricky pedal passage in Messiaen’s L’Ascension during the semi-final. The second is attempting – not wholly successfully – to maintain my concentration in the cathedral organ loft during the final despite seeing another finalist (resident clown of the competition Mikael Wahlin, now one of Scandinavia’s finest concert organists) dressed in his nightgown, bottle of champagne in hand, letting off steam in an adjoining room full, somewhat surrealistically, of headless medieval statues.

Rose window, Chartres Cathedral

Rose window, Chartres Cathedral

Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto is to this date more or less the only work for organ and orchestra since Handel to have attained a lasting place in the concert repertoire. Its unique status is due in part to the undoubted paucity of concertos for organ by composers of international stature, but I would like to think that there are also deeper reasons for its continued success. Completed in 1938 but substantially finished by 1936, the tightly-organized 23 minutes of Poulenc’s Organ Concerto grip the audience attention right from the declamatory opening bars’ evocation of Bach’s G minor Fantasia BWV 542 by means of dramatic, abrupt contrasts which never allow interest to flag during the seven brief interlinked movements. The work can certainly be labelled as neo-classical, yet this is not the flippant neo-classicism of many of Poulenc’s early works but something altogether more austere. This is a ‘Poulenc on his way to the cloister’, nodding in the direction of the 15th century, as he put it in a letter to Claude Rostand; the Concerto combines moments of unresolved harmonic anguish and rhythmically trenchant orchestral writing with passages of tender expressive yearning, culminating in the elegiaic viola solo just before the concerto’s final peroration. The composer thought of the piece as related to his sacred music (its echoes can be heard in his post-war operatic masterpiece, Dialogues des Carmélites), and the kinship is obvious with his Litanies à la Vierge Noire composed in the wake of his conversion at Rocamadour in 1936.

Francis Poulenc with Wanda Landowska

Francis Poulenc with Wanda Landowska

If the Poulenc Concerto remains a ‘one-of-a-kind’ work, the adventurous integration by a major international orchestra and conductor of the organ into their symphonic programming raises some interesting questions about the future of the organ in the concert arena.[2] Surely there has to be space in the schedules of all those symphony halls on both sides of the Atlantic in which expensive and underused ranks of pipes form a backdrop to the orchestra for more concertos with organ which, like Poulenc’s, might in some way form a ‘para-liturgical’ repertoire in the same way as Messiaen’s works for piano and orchestra? And if so, can space be found in the schedules of the world’s great living composers to write them, perhaps with the help of a modern-day Duruflé to help those unfamiliar with the organ to unlock the technical secrets of le Roi des Instruments?

Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986)

Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986)

[1] Gonzalez is a much-maligned name in the history of the organ in France; while his neo-classical aesthetic may be contested, the retention of his modifications of the 1930s to the Trocadéro organ is an acknowledgement of Gonzalez’s considerable historical importance.

[2] For a thought-provoking reflection on this subject, see The Economist’s recent blog article entitled ‘King of Instruments, back on stage‘.

Quanto costa una preghiera? (What price a prayer?)

Well, I have to hand it to him. A real Italian pro at work. He slipped in, waited, selected his victim, checked that nobody was looking, then struck. Even though the closed circuit cameras caught sight of him as he took the bag, they didn’t catch his face as he disappeared through the back exit. A perfect crime.

Diocletian baths, now walls of the Santa Maria degli Angeli Basilica. Photo: Giovanni dall'Orto

Diocletian baths, now walls of the Santa Maria degli Angeli Basilica. Photo: Giovanni dall’Orto

An all-too-familiar story in Rome, of course, the sort of thing the guidebooks warn you about (the specialità romana being Vespa-riding thieves seizing handbags at intersections). Unfortunately for me, I was the unsuspecting victim, and in a surprising location – the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli located a stone’s throw from Opera Roma. I had strolled in having a few minutes to spare before catching my bus out to the airport, intrigued by its architectural origins as part of the huge Diocletian complex of baths, once the largest building of its type in the Roman world. Once inside, I sat down to pray, ruminating among other things upon the whole complex relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity. When I opened my eyes, my baggage only two inches away from me was gone (including my plane ticket and a computer with six years’ worth of files, though thankfully not my passport or credit card). As I remarked to the very helpful parish priest who watched the CCTV video with me to no avail, that was a pretty expensive prayer! But then again… the second before the thief made his getaway I had been thinking about the scourging of Jesus at the hands of Rome, and as I left the church for the bus, I imagined a voice saying: ‘they stripped me of everything, you know…’ So no point in complaining about a few lost electronic gadgets, although I would advise anyone headed for the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli (well-known to the local Carabinieri , it turns out) either to pray with their eyes open or else chain themselves to their valuables!

Basilica_santa_maria_degli_angeli_dei_martyt_2011_4It was an inauspicious end to what had nonetheless been a memorable day in the Eternal City. In the morning, I had joined a crowd of some 50,000+ in a pleasantly dry St Peter’s Square for Pope Francis’s General Audience, and I have to say that the atmosphere was electric. Somehow I have always found the Piazza when full a more moving sight than St Peter’s Basilica itself (excluding Michelangelo’s Pietà), perhaps because of the collective energy, the sensum fidelium represented by the massed pilgrims from around the whole world. On this occasion what impressed me was the sense of anticipation, the feeling as Pope Francis arrived and began to ride around the square to the delight of the crowd that this was not simply ‘business as usual’, but that something important was actually happening.  It is difficult to identify any one factor behind the buzz in St Peter’s Square: the Pope’s spontaneous manner and proximity to the crowds, the limpidity of his uncomplicated yet profound teaching, his roots in the Global South where the demographic centre of gravity of world Christianity is now located, the heartfelt longing of so many ordinary believers for the Church’s return to the simplicity of the Apostolic Age… all these contributed to creating an unforgettable event. The closest parallel in my own experience is probably the annual European Meetings of the Taizé Community that I attended some two decades ago in the years around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when there was a similar feeling among the crowds of being caught up in ‘history in the making’, that we were participating in something radically new , the Divine novum which cannot simply be extrapolated out of the past.

St Peter's square RomeThe same can be said of the ‘concert for peace’ at the Auditorium Conciliazione (formerly home to the Accademia di Santa Cecilia’s symphony concerts) the evening before, where Russian soprano Svetlana Kasyan certainly lived up to her billing  as a major talent. Although I tend to be wary of published comparisons of any artist with Maria Callas or any of the legends of the past, I have to say that in my years spent coaching lyric artists at the Opéra Bastille in Paris and elsewhere, I have rarely heard someone as young as Ms Kasyan capable of such vocal power (even if at times the usual problems of balance between even the most accomplished soloist and an onstage orchestra performing music written for an opera pit were in evidence). Her performance of arias by Verdi, Puccini and Catalani, delivered in a refreshingly unaffected and unpretentious manner, left no doubt as to her formidable expressive capabilities.

A no less remarkable feature of the concert, however, was the music and presence of Russian Orthodox bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, highlights being Svetlana Kasyan’s rendition of the plaintive Rachel’s Lament from his Christmas Oratorio (which also provided the evening’s encore) and a sombre, brooding song-cycle to texts by Federico Garcia Lorca. It might be argued that the setting – a hall whose heavy, uninspiring stage décor reminded me somewhat of the Salle Olivier Messiaen in Radio France – was not optimal for the more meditative moments of Metropolitan Hilarion’s music, and Italian orchestras such as the Rome Sinfonietta perhaps need an extra ounce of gravitas to convey its imposing solemnity. Yet this did nothing to diminish the success of the evening, and it would be hard to overestimate the symbolic significance of an event in which the bishop-composer found himself seated between Catholic Cardinals Gianfranco Ravasi (President of the Pontifical Council of Culture) and Kurt Koch (President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity), an intriguing additional ecumenical factor being the saturation of references in Bishop Hilarion’s works to the greatest ever Protestant musician – J.S. Bach. Here too, this was not merely a concert but a happening oriented not so much to the past as to a future of unprecedented conversations between Christian traditions that lies tantalizingly open. That it should have taken place in an auditorium on the Via della Conciliazione (the ‘Way of Reconciliation’) is surely more than a coincidence.

In the back of my mind as I walking back after the concert across an empty, moonlit St Peter’s Square and now as I write these words was the spiritual vision of one of the greatest modern pioneers of Christian Unity, Frère Roger of Taizé (1915-2005). Last December the ‘Pilgrimage of Trust’ organized by the Taizé Community filled the square in order to pray with Benedict XVI, from whose hand this Swiss Reformed pastor personally received communion in the last months of his life. Frère Roger’s overwhelming conviction was that the way forward for the Church lay in re-unifying the riches of the three Christian traditions within the one undivided Body of Christ- the Eucharist, devotion to the Mother of God and the role of the Pope as a visible universal pastor in Catholicism, the liturgical depth and connection with ancient Christian tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy,  the passion for the Scriptures of his own Protestant upbringing.  If there was much excitement around the time of the Second Vatican Council (at which he was an observer) that this vision might one day be realized, it has to be said that in recent decades it has seemed to have suffered a certain loss of impetus. But on the strength of my few days’ observation of goings-on in Rome, the time is ripe for its resurgence.

What price a prayer? Yes, my brief to the Italian capital turned out to be more expensive than anticipated, thanks largely to my brush with the professional services of the Roman branch of Organized Crime Inc. But a prayer for unity, in echo of the words of Jesus himself in John 17, is worth every last Euro. And if the thief happens to be reading this blog, in the bag you stole is a CD of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s St Matthew Passion given to me by the composer himself. Go ahead and take a listen – you might just learn something.


You can read Svetlana Kasyan’s own reflections on her meeting with Pope Francis in the latest instalment of the ‘Moynihan Letters’ here

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

Salus populi romani

It’s raining in Rome. The peculiarly melancholic quality of Italian rain (caught unforgettably in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Nostalghia) is something which I have experienced on at least two previous damp visits to the Peninsula. The first was when I played a recital in the Pollini Auditorium in Padova and then spent a murkily atmospheric weekend with friends in a half-submerged Venice. The other was a trip to play at the ‘Marzorganistico’ festival in Noale, an occasion of which I have two principal memories; the first was being taken by my hosts to a restaurant after my first rehearsal and trying not to laugh when they admonished the chef in all seriousness that I needed an ‘intense meal’. The second was a watery car journey back to the airport marked by some fairly laconic conversation along the lines of ‘E bella l’Italia’[several seconds’ silence] ‘anche quando c’è la pioggia’ [nodding of heads: one of the joys of Italian is the unparalleled opportunities it offers even those of limited vocabulary such as myself to express a great deal by means of intonation and gestures].

The 'salus populi romani' icon, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Cappella Paolina, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

By way of preparation for tonight’s ‘concert for peace’ at the Auditorium Conciliazione I decided to follow an intriguing trail laid by concert co-organizer Robert Moynihan in his biography of Pope Francis, Pray with me (written in the two weeks after his election, which is no mean a literary feat). One of the first surprises of what is turning out to be a Papacy based on the principle of ‘expect the unexpected’ was the Pope’s visit to the Cappella Paolina in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on the morning after he first appeared on the balcony in front of the cheering crowds. He went there to pray before the icon known as Salus populi romani (‘Safeguard of the Roman people’); I had been to the Basilica on a previous visit to the Italian capital a few years ago, but had somehow missed the icon, so I decided to go and investigate. What particularly interested me was its alleged paleo-Christian roots – like those of the Basilica itself, which are evident in its fifth-century architectural layout despite the ornate decoration of later periods -, of which I would not necessarily have been aware had I not read Pray with me. 

Basically, legend has it that the icon of Christ and his mother was painted by none other than St Luke on the top of a table made by Jesus himself, one of the handful of personal belongings that Mary took with her when going to live with the Beloved Disciple after Jesus’s Ascension. Not only this, but as Luke was painting she related the narrative that we have as Luke’s Gospel record of Jesus’s birth. Now this is of course an extraordinary claim, and one downplayed by the official description in the Basilica itself (the scholarly consensus dates the icon to the sixth or seventh century). But whatever the icon’s actual provenance, it is historically certain that the idea was already established relatively early in Christian history of Luke the painter, entrusted by the apostolic community with doing the documentary work of a photographer today – albeit working with a radically different concept of visual ‘realism’ – in preserving the earliest traditions about Jesus and the events of his life.

Think what you may about all this. For my part, the story is one that fires my imagination, not least because of the questions that this ancient narrative poses to modern New Testament scholarship. Contrary to scriptural interpretations built on principles of ‘form’ and ‘redaction’ criticism which basically see the Gospels as layered embellishments upon a foundation that is difficult if not impossible to establish, the evidence of tradition is that the Church as it evolved in continuity with the Apostolic and post-Apostolic eras clearly took a very different position from modern scholars. For Christians of the first millenium, that the Gospels were eyewitness testimony was beyond dispute.

Bauckham Eyewitnesses cover

To stress the rootedness of the Gospels in historical events may be unfashionable thing in many academic theological circles today, but it is currently making something of a comeback in the Anglo-Saxon world. This is due not least to the ground-breaking work of Richard Bauckham, whose recent Jesus and the Eyewitnesses sets out the case (which I personally find compelling) that the literary techniques employed in the Fourth Gospel, when compared to other sources of the period, hint at its origins in testimony of those who actually encountered Jesus and his disciples. If this is true for the Gospel of John – leaving aside the vexed question of just which John or Johannine community may be the Gospel’s primary author – then surely the question also arises for Luke, especially given the explicit claim at the outset of the Gospel:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilledamong us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that Luke, being a physician, was a man of science acquainted with interfacing with the world of events, phenomena (a major focus of the Acts of the Apostles, a work which is if anything harder for the form critics to deconstruct than the Gospels, given that the gap between the events related and their literary narration is smaller), not just texts. Somehow I imagine him today doing dissection duty in the medical academy rather than doing seminars on literary theory. So the notion that the infancy narratives in his Gospel are essentially the editor’s free improvisation on apocryphal traditions seems hard to square with the methodology set out in his words to Theophilus. This is not to say that there is no theological program at work here, of course, but acknowledging this is quite different from saying that this theological program generated the material of the Gospels irrespective of the reality of the events in question.

In relation to Luke’s infancy narratives, the question of their origin is essentially one of deductive logic. Given that they were almost certainly written down at a time when two of the protagonists of the events concerning the Holy Family (Jesus and Joseph) were no longer on earth, who could the source have been for the account of, say, the Annunciation? Unless you wish to indulge in some complex intellectual gymnastics to explain away Luke’s claim that his ‘orderly account’ is grounded in ‘testimony of handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word’, that leaves only one possibility: Jesus’s mother. As the great French Mariologist René Laurentin points out, writing 30 years ago very much against the historico-critical tide, this does not at all mean that the Gospels are not also the product of the Christian community’s reflection – we are not dealing with ‘nothing but the facts’, as a basic principle of hermeneutics is that there is no such thing as uninterpreted data. It is nonetheless reflection on lived experience, the two components existing in a ‘both-and’, not an ‘either-or’ relationship, as indeed Luke’s Gospel tells us itself if we read attentively – Laurentin’s contention is that what we have is the ponderings of Mary’s heart on the remarkable doings of God:

‘Is acknowledging the fundamental role of realistic reference to the Christ of history to devalue the role of the Holy Spirit?’ in guiding the interpretation of the believing community, Laurentin asks? ‘Not at all. It is this community which has become conscious of Christ, expressing him in its prayer and in the Eucharist. It is within this community and for this community that the Gospels were written, that their authors informed themselves, that they sought to understand this event – as brief as it is disturbing – and to make it understood. Mary pondered in her heart (Luke 2,19 and 51) what she had experienced concretely.’[1]

René Laurentin

René Laurentin

So did Luke write down what he heard from the Mother of God Incarnate while painting on the table made by Jesus? I have no idea, just as I have no idea what historical relationship the icon in Santa Maria Maggiore bears to the events of the first century C.E. But could there have been such a conversation, and such a table? I don’t see any convincing arguments to the contrary.

'Salus populi romani'

‘Salus populi romani’

The rain continued unabated as I came out of the Basilica and made my way back across Rome, pausing only to ask a Swiss Guard by St Peter’s for a ticket to Pope Francis’s General Audience tomorrow. Now that the extraordinary images of the Pope embracing a man suffering from terrible facial disfigurement at last week’s G.A. have gone viral on the internet, I’m anticipating a large crowd in the square in the morning. I’ll be packing my umbrella. Salus populi romani.

[1] René Laurentin, ‘Vérité des Evangiles de l’Enfance’ in Nouvelle Revue Théologique, 1984, 691-710:697. Translation and emphasis mine.

Opera seria in Rome?

Much virtual ink has been spilled over what must be one of the most-dissected interviews of recent months, the three-part conversation of Pope Francis with Antonio Spadaro, S.J. published in La Civiltà Cattolica and translated in outlets such as America Magazine at the end of September. It is regrettable, if sadly understandable given social media’s unfortunate tendency to diminish everything to soundbites that this wide-ranging 12,000-word dialogue has largely been reduced to a few albeit compelling sentences about questions of sexual ethics and the need for a re-appraisal of the role of women in the Church. The conversations with Spadaro are remarkable for their profusion of ideas, even if they surface at a rate such as to leave the reader a little breathless. Moreover, the Pope’s strikingly original turns of phrase are accompanied by a wealth of references pointing not only to the anchoring of his profound spirituality in a breadth of tradition but also – and this has perhaps come as a surprise to some – his formidable intellect and cultural awareness.Pope Francis soccer pennant

For example, if it has for some months now been public knowledge that the Pope, very much a man of the Argentinian people, is a long-time supporter of the San Lorenzo soccer team in Buenos Aires and a lover of tango, it is perhaps not so widely acknowledged that he is also no less a connoisseur of classical music than his predecessor:

Among musicians I love Mozart, of course. The ‘Et incarnatus est’ from his Mass in C minor is matchless; it lifts you to God! I love Mozart performed by Clara Haskil. Mozart fulfills me. But I cannot think about his music; I have to listen to it. I like listening to Beethoven, but in a Promethean way, and the most Promethean interpreter for me is Furtwängler. And then Bach’s Passions. The piece by Bach that I love so much is the ‘Erbarme Dich,’ the tears of Peter in the ‘St. Matthew Passion.’ Sublime. Then, at a different level, not intimate in the same way, I love Wagner. I like to listen to him, but not all the time. The performance of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ by Furtwängler at La Scala in Milan in 1950 is for me the best. But also the ‘Parsifal’ by Knappertsbusch in 1962.

It ought to be unsurprising that opera holds a special place in the Pope’s musical affections given his Italian parentage (in his preference for Furtwängler’s La Scala recordings the reader may detect a note of patriotism which is prepared to indulge the approximations of the Milanese pit orchestra!). What is striking, however, is the way in which he is unafraid to use examples from the secular operatic repertoire to make spiritual points, as if to emphasize that the whole of human culture is in some way a possible locus of the sacred (or at least not sealed off from it). Jorge Maria Bergoglio is an opera buff who hears in Puccini’s Turandot much more than Nessun dorma, bringing the famous (and electrifying) scena degli enigmi exchange between Turandot and Calaf into conversation with the New Testament’s view of hope:

[Spadaro]I ask: “Do we have to be optimistic? What are the signs of hope in today’s world? How can I be optimistic in a world in crisis?”

[Pope Francis]“I do not like to use the word optimism because that is about a psychological attitude,” the pope says. “I like to use the word hope instead, according to what we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, that I mentioned before. The fathers of the faith kept walking, facing difficulties. And hope does not disappoint, as we read in the Letter to the Romans. Think instead of the first riddle of Puccini’s opera ‘Turandot,’” the pope suggests.

[Spadaro]At that moment I recalled more or less by heart the verses of the riddle of the princess in that opera, to which the solution is hope: “In the gloomy night flies an iridescent ghost./ It rises and opens its wings/ on the infinite black humanity./ The whole world invokes it/ and the whole world implores it./ But the ghost disappears with the dawn/ to be reborn in the heart./ And every night it is born/ and every day it dies!” These are verses that reveal the desire for a hope. Yet here that hope is an iridescent ghost that disappears with the dawn.

“See,” says Pope Francis, “Christian hope is not a ghost and it does not deceive. It is a theological virtue and therefore, ultimately, a gift from God that cannot be reduced to optimism, which is only human. God does not mislead hope; God cannot deny himself. God is all promise.”

Poster for Puccini's 'Turandot', 1926

Poster for Puccini’s ‘Turandot’, 1926

Wagner, too, is the source for a provocative philosophical illustration about genius and delusion later in the course of the interview, from which it becomes plain that the Pope’s desire to remain close to the poor and his deep respect for popular piety in no way imply that he is anti-intellectual:

“Humans are in search of themselves, and, of course, in this search they can also make mistakes. The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.

“When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. The deceived thought can be depicted as Ulysses encountering the song of the Siren, or as Tannhäuser in an orgy surrounded by satyrs and bacchantes, or as Parsifal, in the second act of Wagner’s opera, in the palace of Klingsor. The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.”

All these operatic references bring me to the occasion for writing this present post. I am currently in Rome, where tomorrow evening the young Russian soprano Svetlana Kasyan will be giving a recital of arias with orchestra in the Auditorium Conciliazione, a ‘concert for peace’ in solidarity with victims of war throughout the world and in honour of Pope Francis (with whom, the soprano’s Facebook page proudly informs us, she had dinner last night). This concert is co-sponsored by the Urbi et Orbi Foundation for Christian – particular Catholic/Orthodox – unity established by Dr Robert Moynihan, hero of a post on this blog earlier this year, and will feature both Italian repertoire and the music of Russian Orthodox theologian, churchman and composer Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk. Barely out of the Moscow Conservatory and Bolshoi Theatre’s Young Singers’ Academy, Georgian-born Svetlana Kasyan has already been making considerable waves in the opera world, and on the strength of this RAI broadcast excerpt of her Elisabetta/Don Carlo duet with the peerless Ramon Vargas, it is not difficult to see why:

This concert comes at an intriguing time for East-West Christian relations, as Robert Moynihan has pointed out repeatedly in his ‘Moynihan Letters’ over the last few months, as well as in his recent biography of Pope Francis, Pray with me. Pope Francis’s unusual awareness of and deep respect for Eastern Christian tradition (in Buenos Aires he had responsibility for the archdiocese’s Eastern Rite Catholics) is no secret, while there are also signs of a new openness to collaboration with Rome on the part both of Constantinople (with Patriarch Bartholomew I breaking new ground in attending Pope Francis’s inauguration) and Moscow, as can be seen from Metropolitan Hilarion’s typically thought-provoking recent address to the World Council of Churches in Korea . To which must be added the intriguing prospect – whatever one may think of its possible motivation – of Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Vatican later this month.

In this context, rich with possible ramifications both theological and socio-political, a recital including music by an Eastern Orthodox Archbishop sung by a Russian diva in honour of an opera-loving Pontiff is potentially serious business. Watch this space as we report back.