Friday, April 09, 2004

Good Friday; Arvo Part's Passio

I said something in yesterday's entry about discussing the assessment model we were presented with in my school's in-service meeting yesterday.  While that matter is definitely blog-worthy, I'd rather, this Good Friday, turn to loftier matters.
I have since met other believers who have felt this way, but when I was a child I felt very odd because I actually preferred Good Friday to Easter.  Religion and belief are certainly intellectualizable--and they should be (see, for example, this article from the New Republic about the character of the recent arguments held before the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of the phrase "under God" in our nation's Pledge of Allegiance)--but in the end the practice of one's beliefs should produce emotion as well.  And as a child, I found the chill produced by Good Friday to be far more significant that the thrill of Easter.  My faith was ironically more alive at that commemoration of a death than at any other time (though now, many years later--and this may sound strange--I finally "get" why Christmas should matter so much and, thus, it now provides the same chill Good Friday does.  But that discussion will have to wait until, say, Advent).  The ideas that God's Son could--and did--die, and that God willed this to happen, with His Son's consent, out of love for His creation, stunned and stun today, more so than the Resurrection, the manifestation of God's power to raise the dead (but what Christian could doubt THAT??).  As I write this, I gaze up at a crucifix which gazes down at me--the Christ figure and I contemplate each other, an exchange that need not be put into words; it goes deeper than language.
But not deeper, perhaps, than art or music can go.  Consider, for example, this powerful painting by Grunewald, one that never fails to elicit comments from my Humanities students.
One can attribute the Crucifixion's pervasiveness as a theme to reasons other than theological ones--to, for example, the cult of the Passion in the pre-Reformation Church; but art that takes the Crucifixion as its theme is not only plentiful but powerful from the medieval to Counter-Reformation eras.  Though less so now, Mel Gibson's film notwithstanding, the Crucifixion still and must continue to command Christianity's collective attention.  We cannot fully recognize the triumph of Easter if we do not fully accept Christ's literal suffering and death.  As an aside, though, I would add that Gibson's film is a distortion of the Gospel, despite his claim (on The Tonight Show, of all places) that the problem of those who object to his film is that their real problem is with the Gospel.  That is extraordinarily distasteful at best, implicitly calling into question as it does the faith of many, many devout Christians--clergy as well as laity--who object to it on various grounds, and terribly arrogant of him at worst: the route established by comments such as that is well traveled by religious extremists of whatever faith.  Yes: Christ suffered, died, and was raised for the forgiveness of our sins.  But The Passion of the Christ does not reveal Christ's living--that is, how He would have us live, which is, of course, the whole point of Christianity (or of any religion).  His film in effect, to pun on an old image of the Cross, mistakes the forest for the Tree.
But enough of that.  As I have been writing this, I've been listening to Arvo Part's setting of John's account (in the Vulgate) of Christ's suffering and death, titled Passio.  Here are a couple of links to information about him:
Musicolog; Arvo Part.
Part (Tallinn, Estonia, 1935) is an extraordinary contemporary composer.  The temptation is to see him as a sort of Minimalist composer because of his stark arrangements, but I think he's actually evoking (perhaps reworking) the terrain of the oldest written Western music, Gregorian chant, blending with that tradition the folk harmonies of eastern European music.  (But these are my ears-in-training talking; as you'll read in the sites I've linked you to, you'll read about the composition theory he calls tintinnabuli.)  His music simultaneously sounds ancient and strangely familiar and yet like not quite anything else.  His best-known ensemble pieces ("Fratres," "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" and "Tabula Rasa"--all of which, by the way, are available on a first-rate CD titled Tabula Rasa released by ECM in 1984) have an effect on me of something like the best modern sculptures, or maybe a painting by someone like Rothko: they don't merely assume a shape, they actually alter the space they occupy.  My room actually LOOKS different as I listen to him.  I don't know how else to describe that effect. Passio (1982; this is a Naxos recording from 2003) is a choral ensemble piece performed mostly a capella, with a tenor and bass singing the words of Pilate and Jesus respectively.  Handel this ain't: the music's sound and performance style is very close to chant, as it repeats musical ideas (though not words) in the same minor key.  But the multi-voiced parts aren't sung in unison, as Gregorian chant is--rather, they are reminiscent of Leonin's pieces from the late medieval period, with some singers singing what a bagpiper would call a drone note and others singing a moving line against that held note.  It isn't for everyone.  There certainly are flashier pieces on this same theme.  But as I hope I made clear in my earlier description of Part's music at its best, his goal here is not flash but to create an ambiance for contemplation: in the case of this piece, the aural equivalent of contemplating a crucifix in all its starkness, one in which the silence between notes is as important--perhaps more so--as the notes themselves.  The drama isn't in the music; it's inside the listener.
Those wishing to read the comments for the original LiveJournal post can go here.

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