Music, religion, and me: Playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with Jesus in the place of Kevin Bacon

It wasn’t that long ago that I wrote about the end of my long-term relationship and my plans to use music to get through the rough patches of loneliness and bitterness and whatever the hell else comes along. At that time, I was anticipating leaning on Mahler a lot due to the overwhelming universality of his music. And I have listened to a fair bit of Mahler in that time, but it’s been something from a bit of an unlikely source that has really held me captive during this time…

Surprise surprise...

Surprise surprise…

I touched a bit on Bruckner’s choral music recently, so perhaps it’s less of a surprise than I think it is, but I would have wagered any amount of money that the piece I would have wound up overdoing would have been a symphony by Mahler (probably the 7th, and by the way I’ve listened to this a lot too) or Sibelius (probably the 5th, and by the way, etc.). And certainly if Bruckner was going to shoulder the load of carrying me through this burden it was going to be in the form of one of HIS symphonies, as emotionally epic as Mahler’s if not as earthly. But somewhere between thinking about the “Ave Maria” that I wrote about before and randomly thinking to myself “hey man, why don’t you know any of the Bruckner masses?,” I started in full force. And I haven’t stopped.

All three of Bruckner’s mature masses are fucking brilliant, but the one that’s kept me transfixed has been the Second, in E minor. Originally composed in 1866 to celebrate the opening of a chapel, the premiere was delayed because, and you’re not going to believe this, the construction on the chapel fell behind schedule. By 3 years. Regardless, the premiere was a success, so Bruckner did what he did with success and revised the thing over and over again with the final revision coming in 1882 (the more commonly performed version today).

The mass setting is traditional, from Kyrie to Agnus Dei, but the treatment is anything but. Bruckner shows off his brilliant choral writing throughout, with extended a capella sections (particularly in the Kyrie) and amazing balance between cosmic power and plaintive reverence. You may have also heard that Bruckner was a good orchestral writer, and this is no exception. Even in what is almost entirely a support role, the sheer ferocity of the loud bits is overwhelming. But it’s in the mystical tranquility of the soft parts that the really good shit happens.

The highlight of the work, for me, is in the Credo, perhaps not a coincidence given the Latin translation of “I believe.” After passing an a capella line from the female voices to the male voices to the bassoons (a beautiful bit of descending musical writing on the text “he was made man”), the chorus, supported by the kind of radiantly mournful horn sounds that tear your heart out in the 7th-9th symphonies (think especially of the very last note of the 9th) and a haunting syncopation in the bassoons and clarinets, mysteriously intones the word “Crucifixus” (“he was crucified”) with a stillness that is devastating in its profundity and sheer heartbreak. It’s as perfect a setting of text to music as I could ever hope to hear, and I will tell you that I’ve played it back something like 20 times in typing this paragraph.

I’m not a religious person. I was raised Mormon but left the church for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the treatment our family received by other members. I haven’t been to church for anything other than a Christmas Eve service that my mother played in a decade, unless I was being paid to be there. But I am not a “religion is bullshit and causes all wars” dude, either (although it has a fairly significant role in a lot of wars, this is true). Religion is incredibly valuable for many people, providing an opportunity for them to worship and promote fellowship within their community. Faith is an incredibly powerful thing, and even if there are crippling flaws to essentially every religious model that exists, the basic idea is nothing other than noble and good.

I’ve struggled for years under the weight of my own perception of faith, which to me entails, at least in part, a willful rejection of knowledge. The most obvious example of this is the contention among certain groups that dinosaurs didn’t exist and that man was created 6,000 years ago despite science that should easily refute that assertion to anyone with even basic reason. I’m not here to suggest that God can or cannot do all things, but one of the things God can probably do is fucking carbon-date something. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that faith is a sign of weakness, but speaking strictly for myself I feel like it’s a too-convenient outlet for my frustrations, hopelessness, and cynicism. As tempting as it is to think that the trials and tribulations of this world are but a prelude to a Heavenly Paradise in the clouds, I cannot shake the cold reality that it’s just as likely that when we die we just go in the fucking ground and call it a life. Do I worry about this entirely more than I should? Of course I do.

And yet I find the stories of religions utterly compelling, and I marvel at the devotion of its most ardent followers. Take that monk in Georgia who lives on a pillar and has done so for 20 years. That’s amazing. I’m not sure I could handle being alone with myself in silence for 45 minutes without desperately reaching for the phone or the remote or something, anything. This man has contemplated his place in his God’s world non-stop in complete isolation for more than a third of his lifetime. Even if I find it sad that this type of devotion means that the enjoyment of Thai food and Lebron James and Beethoven and Shakespeare and banging hot chicks is an alien concept to these worshippers, I wholeheartedly admire and respect the commitment to a chosen path.

Bruckner was as devout as they come. He’s buried under a church organ. He dedicated a symphony to God. He had a hard time in the “banging hot chicks” department because he was so squirrelly and awkward. But his music, and especially his sacred music, operates on a religious plane unlike any other composer’s. Plenty of great composers were religious (most of them, frankly), but none were as inextricably intertwined with Christianity in their personal lives as Bruckner. Like the monk with the big-ass ladder, it was who he was. That’s been the lesson in discovering these works, and the second mass in particular: there is a personal connection in these works that even masterpieces like the B minor Mass and Missa Solemnis cannot match.

And in spite of my non-religiousness, that personal connection has played no small part in providing comfort in a difficult time. What we cling to may be different, but that sense of connection to something not of this world as an escape from the perils definitely of this world has made a permanent impact on me. Things may fall apart, bad shit can happen to good people, and the sheer injustice of human existence can often demand the promise of something better. You have to find that connection where you can.

Bruckner found it in Jesus. I found it in Bruckner.




4 thoughts on “Music, religion, and me: Playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with Jesus in the place of Kevin Bacon

  1. Thanks for writing about these works.

    Last fall, Arnold Epley’s group, Musica Vocale, perform the Bruckner mass no. 2 with wind orchestra at Old St. Patrick’s Oratory in downtown KC. It’s a great sounding space that almost never gives concerts. I think some of those beautiful Bruckner wind chords are still ringing in that place.

  2. Yeah, I love this piece too and listen to Herreweghe’s recording quite often. His forces are smaller than in the Youtube video you linked to, and he uses a very stark orchestration, with some emphatic brass punctuations here and there. Composer and author Robert Simpson has a soft spot for this work to and writes about it in the beginning of his Bruckner book.

  3. WOW!!! Thank you for your soulful and literal intimacy with Bruckner, his love of Jesus (seriously, who couldn’t love Jesus, anyway…) and his Mass No. 2. I am going to listen to it one more time.

  4. Pingback: Turn, Turn, Turn…to Beethoven 6 | Everything But The Music

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