Welcome to Da stand das Meer, an interdisciplinary blog devoted to questions concerned with music, theology and the interface between them (with a few incursions into science and philosophy). Why Da stand das Meer?, you may be asking. Well, if you Google the phrase long enough, you will probably discover (if you didn’t already know) that it is the final line of a poem entitled Jona written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) from Tegel prison in October 1944, shortly after the failure of the plot to assassinate Hitler in which he was implicated. Not only has Bonhoeffer long been one of my spiritual heroes – as a martyr, theologian, ethicist and pioneer of the Ecumenical Movement -, but he was also a keen practising musician (his fellow conspirator and brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi was the son of composer Erno von Dohnanyi and father of the famous conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi) in whose work frequent use is made of musical metaphors to illustrate theological concepts. Take this famous example from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison (to which I referred in my oratorio ‘Et iterum venturus est’) on the ‘polyphony’ of life:
‘God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts – not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. […] I wanted to tell you to have a good, clear cantus firmus; that is the only way to a full and perfect sound, when the counterpoint has a full support and can’t come adrift or get out of tune, while remaining a distinct whole in its own right. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going.’
(Letters & Papers from Prison (New York: Touchstone 1997, p.303)
This is precisely the sort of correspondence between music and the spiritual life that really intrigues me, and which I hope to explore in future posts.
If Bonhoeffer’s considerable shadow looms large over this blog, so too does that of another prisoner of World War II, French Catholic composer and ‘theological musician’ Olivier Messiaen, whom I like to regard as the ‘best friend I never knew’ (I arrived in Paris just a few years too late to have studied with him, although I did at least hear him play the organ of the church of La Trinité where he was titulaire for some 60 years). His life and work represent a profound integration of music and theology – by which I don’t mean an academic discipline but a reflection on faith combining heart and mind – equaled among composers of Western classical music by only one figure, although there are some serious contemporary contenders such as Arvo Pärt and James MacMillan. That figure is the third hero of this blog, Johann Sebastian Bach (who else?!)