David’s revenge (iii) With a sling and a stone

As I said in the previous section of this post, this is the point at which we change registers from art to economics. What prevents this from being a total non-sequitur is that the thoughts in this concluding part of our reflections on the theme of King David are largely based on a presentation that I gave three weeks ago on the subject of the worldwide economic situation and its implications for artists. Those interested can find it here in French or in an English version in which the artistic question is less developed than the theological dimension.

Let me say at the outset that I make no claim to any particular financial expertise;  I am primarily observing current economic debates as a theologian who is inevitably reliant on the technical analyses of others and conversations with better-informed friends with specialist knowledge of the field. In the course of the last few months it has however become clear even to someone whose knowledge of economic concepts is as sketchy as mine that all is not well in the house of international banking, to put it mildly. Whereas a few years ago critique of contemporary banking practices may have been largely confined to finance professionals, the ‘Occupy’ movement and readers of alternative media websites, a series of high-profile public investigations/prosecutions by bodies responsible for regulating the financial sector should by now have alerted the general public to patterns of chronic systemic malpractice and market manipulation involving the ‘too big to fail’ banks. Given the ongoing international sovereign debt crisis, chaos and currency collapse in a number of emerging economies, talk of debt ceilings in America and elsewhere,  together with nervous speculation over the imminent ‘tapering’ of the US Federal Reserve’s ‘quantitative easing’ stimulus package (reduced yesterday to ‘only’ $75 billion per month), an increasing number of commentators are predicting stormy waters ahead economically in 2014.

All this, you may say, is of course nothing new. Economic crises come and go cyclically, after all. I would nonetheless like to argue that there is indeed something unusual and new about the financial watershed that we seem to be approaching with alarming rapidity. I am not merely speaking of the possibility that, if a number of well-known commentators are to be believed, the dénouement of the present crisis may well be a the global financial ‘reset’ as in 1944 with the installation of the Bretton Woods exchange system or in 1971 with its termination. What haunts me is something different as I listen to an increasing number of critical analysts and investors speaking through sites such as http://www.kingworldnews.com who are asking searching questions of the current economic system and finding it badly wanting. For some reason, as if out of nowhere, these secular analysts have lately begun to couch their calls for a wholesale reform of global financial institutions in Biblical language of judgment. Scriptural metaphors are being appropriated in order to describe what they see as the grim endgame to the industrialized nations’ love affair with debt, as our increasingly desperate attempts to finance our unaffordable lifestyle over several decades finally reap a bitter harvest of insolvency. Furthermore, for anyone prepared to countenance the admittedly controversial idea that prophecy in the Biblical sense did not terminate with the end of the age of the Apostles, what makes the warnings of these secular financial commentators doubly uncanny is their strange convergence with those of voices within the Churches across the denominational spectrum who have also been saying that the ‘writing is on the wall’. The phenomenon that I find to be one which is genuinely new (in the modern age, that is) and which requires some explanation is the current fusion of the economic and the prophetic, whether on the part of religious believers who sense a theological resonance in economics or economists who feel the need to resort to religious vocabulary to illustrate their financial concepts.

Rembrandt, 'Belshazzar's Feast'

Rembrandt, ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’

There are of course examples of critics of the present system who make an overt attempt to couple economic and theological readings of contemporary events. Of these, it should be acknowledged that some such as Steve Quayle, ‘V’ the Guerrilla Economist’ or ‘Brotherjohnf’ basically appeal to an ‘alternative’ popular audience looking for sensationalist rhetoric, but there are also less incendiary commentators whose references are somewhat more sophisticated. One such is the author of the intriguing ‘Jesse’s Café Américain’ blog which mixes COMEX gold statistics and complex graphs with quotes from Charles Péguy, Léon Bloy and Rembrandt’s unforgettable depiction of Belshazzar’s Feast overlaid with the words ‘stand and deliver’. Less directly theological but no less moralizing are the conclusions of perhaps the most eminent contemporary economic Jeremiah, former US Budget Director David Stockman, author of the New York times bestseller The Great Deformation: the Corruption of Capitalism in America , whose background as a former Harvard Divinity School student is not lost on his detractors and supporters alike.

What is surprising, however, is that voices who you would not normally expect to be waxing theological at all appear to have joined this party. They somehow seem to have intuited that what lies ahead when – rather than if – the whole leveraged economic system inevitably crumbles under its own weight is not merely an event in chronological time but a kairos moment. One in which Western civilization will be confronted not only with a technical hitch but with the truth about ourselves. We for example have veteran ‘Dow Theory’ financial newsletter author Richard Russell quoting Emmet Fox’s ‘Golden Key’ about solving seemingly intractable problems by thinking about the character of God, or the inimitably acerbic Trends Research Institute forecaster Gerald Celente predicting a ‘New Altruism’ in ‘response to waning resources, want, and an over-commodified culture’ and a coming ‘Great Awakening 2.0’. In some cases, however, the metaphors are more specifically Biblical, with MSN Money contributor Bill Fleckenstein of Fleckenstein Capital talking of a ‘coming to Jesus moment’ awaiting America when it is eventually forced to confront its mountain of national debt, or Prof. James Petras of http://www.globalresearch.ca calling for a ‘Samson solution’ to pull down the ‘Temple of Mammon’. 

GATA logoDraw your own conclusions from all of this, but I for one find myself led back to where I began – King David. A few months ago, an article appeared on the website of the Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee (GATA) entitled ‘with a sling and a stone’ comparing the struggle against the hegemony of the international banking cartel to the struggle of David and Goliath. For a number of years now, GATA has been in the vanguard of the fight against corruption in the financial sector, waging a consistent campaign with the regulators in order to unmask the manipulation of the precious metals markets, not least thanks to the detailed and damning information supplied by insiders such as London whistleblower Andrew Maguire. Following the revelations of the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal implicating major banking institutions, the manipulation by major financial institutions of the price of gold and silver is now in the public spotlight as the focus of anti-corruption investigations, the allegation being that for several years now there has been massive suppression of the price of precious metals through naked short selling in order (among other things) to maintain confidence in the US dollar and the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve.

Why, you may ask, is this so significant ethically? The answer would seem to lie in the underlying shared conviction of many whose analysis of the ills of the global financial system focuses on the West’s move away from ‘sound money’ based on an underlying physical commodity of some sort to a ‘fiat’ paper currency system supported by nothing except investor confidence. Put very simply, gold and silver are the nemesis of the fiat bankers because, unlike dollars, euros, yen, treasury bonds or the myriad of largely incomprehensible financial instruments that make up the $1 quadrillion derivatives market, they cannot be printed at will. Precious metals’ continued existence as a store of monetary value therefore poses a philosophical threat to those who like Paul Krugman (provoking the ire of Boston University’s Prof. Laurence Kotlikoff whose ‘Inform Act’ petition for greater institutional transparency with regard to public information about debt has now been signed by 1000 economists) think that the world’s debt problems can be solved by simply minting a $1 trillion platinum coin to pay off a debtor nation’s’ creditors. Which logically would mean that possessing a printing press can replace work as a means of wealth creation.

Until now those seeking to call a spade a spade in critiquing the ‘too big to fail banks’ and the money-printing policies of the world’s leading financial institutions have found themselves in a distinct minority. But it seems that they may at last be gaining traction, and it would seem from the foregoing brief survey that many of them clearly feel that they are on the side of the angels – whether or not they take that expression literally. The conclusion of the GATA article is one which, like the finale of Honegger’s Le Roi David and distant echoes of Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus back in 1979, has been ringing in my mind’s ear in the latter part of this year:

‘At least the lesson of history is that the bad guys fail because they always go too far. Yes, far enough to cause terrible suffering and sometimes even great horror, but not far enough to wipe out humanity or every decent human instinct — at least not yet.

Of course the bad guys still have enormous power and will do anything to preserve it, and their opposition remains only lightly armed, but these days even 1st Samuel may worry them a little:

And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slung it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.’

David and Goliath (Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel)

David and Goliath (Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel)

David’s revenge (ii) Honegger in Bercy

The cavernous Palais Omnisports Paris-Bercy is a place that I primarily associate either with Lady Gaga and Rihanna or with indoor tennis, but at the end of September it hosted the French Protestants en Fête Festival, subtitled Paris d’espérance (a bit of wordplay which could be loosely translated ‘betting on hope’). On Sunday September 29th an estimated 12-15,000 (including Catholic Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, as there was an ecumenical dimension to the Paris-wide festival, whose venues included the Institut Catholique) attended a televised worship service  with singing led by a thousand-member choir and instrumental ensemble directed by my good friend John Featherstone. Prior to this was a Saturday evening marathon entertainment event featuring everything from headliner Camerounian saxophonist/singer Manu Djibango and manouche jazz guitar to Gospel and theatre sketches; my part in the proceedings was that I had been entrusted with kicking off the evening by directing a ‘classical’ set with forces drawn from the CRESCENDO professional Christian musicians’ network.


I put ‘classical’ in inverted commas as we found ourselves performing in a rock concert atmosphere complete with giant screens, dry ice, cameramen a matter of inches from the players and a live audience of around 7000, a setting which had its challenges but also a peculiar thrill to it. On the program were works by Mendelssohn, two of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge given a memorable performance by the formidable Bertrand Grunenwald, my own Breathe in me (on a prayer to the Holy Spirit by St Augustine that I discovered in an adaptation by Mother Teresa of Calcutta), plus three movements from Honegger’s Roi David.

Théâtre du Jorat, Mézières, 1921

Théâtre du Jorat, Mézières, 1921

Honegger’s ‘Symphonic Psalm’ on the life of King David  is without doubt Francophone Protestantism’s greatest contribution to modern musical literature. It has to be conceded that the composer’s neo-classical aesthetic is not to all tastes, and that the recitation accompanying the piece has not aged as well as the score itself, yet the work is a real feat of musico-poetic imagination, particularly when you consider the highly problematic practical circumstances under which it was written. If Le Roi David is now best-known as an oratorio with full orchestra, it was originally composed for a Biblical drama by Swiss poet René Morax for the Théâtre du Jorat in Mezières near Lausanne, where Honegger had the delicate task of writing for 100 amateur voices accompanied by an instrumental ensemble of only 17 players (including a solitary double bass). It was this original 1921 instrumentation that we used at Bercy, and the score just goes to prove the maxim that necessity really is the mother of invention, with the composer following the no-nonsense advice of Igor Stravinsky, who had advocated him for the project: ‘It’s very simple … Do as if you wanted this ensemble, and compose for a hundred singers and seventeen instrumentalists’. Le Roi David is remarkable for the way in which Honegger is able to squeeze every last drop of colour and texture from the forces available to him with masterly economy (not least by the imaginative use of keyboard sonorities and muted brass). In particular, the extended Danse devant l’arche and the work’s finale La Mort de David, with which we concluded our set at Bercy, have to count among the great moments of the modern choral/orchestral repertoire. In the finale, first the soprano soloist (the excellent Diana Higbee) and then the chorus take us beyond the Davidic timeframe with a promise that is both Messianic and eschatological, its note of ultimate hope being all the more noteworthy in having been written in the wake of the carnage of World War I:

Dieu te dit: un jour viendra
où une fleur fleurira
de ta souche reverdie,
et son parfum remplira
tous les peuples d’ici-bas
du souffle de la vie.

God tells you: a day will come
when a flower will blossom
from your stem grown green once more
and its perfume will fill
all the peoples here below
with the breath of life

Arthur Honegger, 1921

Arthur Honegger, 1921

Besides this one-of-a-kind event in Bercy (of which a commemorative DVD has just appeared) and my memories of Kodaly’s Psalmus Hungaricus there are two additional reasons why the Biblical figure of King David has very much in my mind of late. The first, of course, is the present season of Advent – just yesterday in our liturgical readings we heard David and ‘Uriah’s wife’ (a.k.a. Bathsheba) mentioned in the genealogy of Joseph that opens Matthew’s Gospel. The second, however, may surprise you as the third part of this post takes a sudden lurch away from music to an urgent subject which has not yet been featured on this blog but may well do so in the future with a certain frequency given the current turn of international events – global finance.

David’s revenge (i) Psalmus Hungaricus

In my previous post I indulged in some reminiscences about my first exposure to the world of professional music as a teenage chorister in London, talking about Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which I sang in 1980. Today I would like to go back a year in thinking about a Biblical figure who has been uppermost in my mind recently for reasons both musical and non-musical: King David, the hero of the present three-part post. On July 24, 1979 I took part in a performance at the BBC Proms under Sir Charles Mackerras of the Psalmus Hungaricus Op.13 of Zoltán Kodály , a piece that I still regard as one of the twentieth century’s most underrated choral masterworks. Written to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Buda and Pest and given its first performance in the same concert as Bartók’s Dance Suite, this setting of Psalm 55 is one of imposing emotional range, encompassing moments both of hushed meditation and rugged, declamatory ferocity in its trajectory leading from a cry of affliction and betrayal to contrite expectation and final vindication. That it is not better-known outside Hungary can surely only be attributed to linguistic factors (in 1979 we sang in English) and the difficulty of the cruelly taxing solo tenor part. Its climaxes may strike some listeners as bombastic, but there are also introspective passages of a haunting, evocative beauty, notably the clarinet and violin solos of the Psalm’s central section in which Kodaly displays a similar flair for delicate orchestral colour as that found in Hary Janos or his unjustly neglected Peacock Variations. Above all, what continues to stand out for me when listening again to the Psalmus Hungaricus is the unusually dramatic, almost operatic intensity of its portrayal of King David. This is a thorougly un-sanitized Psalmist who shines through not only as a sublime liturgical poet but the passionate creature of flesh and blood that we find in the Biblical record, capable of giving expression to even the most visceral of human feelings.

Zoltán Kodály, 1930

Zoltán Kodály, 1930

The première of Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus took place on November 19, 1923. Just two weeks later, another Davidic masterpiece, Le Roi David by Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) received its first performance in the oratorio form which would make the composer’s international reputation. This piece now leads me to fast forward from 1979 to 2013 and a concert which was certainly one of the most unusual concerts with which I have ever been involved.