Thursday, 13 September 2012

Back Beat 2

After reading our post Back Beat on Orthodoxy and Classical Music, the person who originally submitted the comment discussed wrote to us to ask us further about the matter of classical music and Orthodoxy. The person is a classical musician who is contemplating converting from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy. We hope there are any number of such persons so that we are not giving anything away about this person’s identity.

First of all, our interlocutor, let us call her Alice, originally made her comment under a pseudonym. She later apologized to us for that. We didn’t think an apology necessary. The Internet is a dangerous place and it behoves all of us to be careful. A pseudonym is perfectly in order on the Internet. So Alice it is. And let us say that Alice lives in Manhattan, which most assuredly is not her real residence.

Alice is quite worried that Orthodoxy might not accept classical music, which she loves. First, let us be plain: no one is going to tell anyone that they have to stop being a classical musician to enter the Orthodox Church. That’s just not going to happen. There are, we suppose, some professions that are incompatible with Orthodoxy. We don’t think classical musician is one of them. We suppose that being a rock musician specializing in dark, Gothic music might be incompatible with Orthodoxy but that is not what Alice is asking about. She isn’t a dark, Gothic musician; she is a professional classical musician.

So Alice can join the Orthodox Church and continue her profession.

However, what is the issue about classical music? Well, actually there isn’t one. The Orthodox Church doesn’t have a dogmatic position on classical music. It’s not in the stuff you have to believe to become Orthodox. So why then would dark, demonic music be forbidden?

Because it’s dark and demonic. We suppose that if there were a branch of classical music that could be construed to be dark and demonic then a sensitive confessor would persuade Alice to stop playing and listening to it. Is there such a dark and demonic classical music? We frankly don’t know. Wagner springs to mind; we mentioned in Back Beat that Satie was a Rosicrucian. But this is not something as obvious as your local stoned-out Satan-worshipping heavy-metal rock band.

Let’s look at some classical composers. First, Bach. Bach was an intensely devout Lutheran. No one can listen to his religious music without grasping that he believed. Now consider Rachmaninoff. It’s not entirely clear whether Rachmaninoff was ever properly inserted into the Orthodox Church. He was baptized; he was Orthodox; he didn’t seem to practise his Orthodoxy and in some cases seemed to be living a sinful life. We’re not in the Rachmaninoff-judgement business but a question could be raised whether he was a candidate for sainthood. However, his Orthodox liturgical music can be quite pleasant to listen to. However, and this is important, it is ultimately sentimental. But then ultimately so is Bach sentimental.

We suppose a musicologist would discuss the differences—apart from differences of genre—as between Bach and Rachmaninoff. He or she might want to argue that Bach is musically deeper than Rachmaninoff. We would tend to agree even though we think that both composers are working with the sentiments. But Bach was Lutheran and Rachmaninoff was Orthodox. As we can see, things get very complicated.

There are all kinds of genres in Western classical music and composers composing in those genres of all different beliefs and states of virtue. This is also true of performers of Western classical music. There is no possible way to categorize all of Western classical music—or even its performers—according to Orthodox spiritual standards.

So what, really, is the issue that Elder Paisios was raising that we referred to in the previous post?

Well, first of all, Elder Paisios is in Heaven and we will have to wait to ask him for clarification. We don’t know precisely what he meant. He was speaking to a specific person in a specific place. He was speaking for that person in that place. His words might not apply as a rule of Orthodox faith in a general setting—and certainly Orthodox dogma can never be defined by the words of one Elder only.

However, what we think Elder Paisios meant—and we could be wrong—is this. Elder Paisios was speaking to a member of the Orthodox Church about the personal effect that music has on a person. What he was saying is that ultimately Western classical music remains on a human, sentimental plane. Rock music remains on a demonic plane. Only Byzantine chant has a spiritual effect on a person.

Our friend George has spent more time on Mt Athos than we have. He told us of once attending the patronal festival of St Panteleimon at the Russian Monastery of St Panteleimon on Mt Athos. This would be about 50 years after the death of St Silouan (+1938), who himself was a monk of St Panteleimon’s. The patronal festival that George attended at St Panteleimon’s was an all-night vigil. George remarked that in the canons of Orthros the Russian cantors alternated with the Greek cantors. First the Russians would sing a hymn from the service book, then the Greeks would sing the next one. The Russian cantors were among the best Russian cantors of Athos and Russia whereas the Greek cantors were among the best cantors of the Greek monasteries of Athos. The Russians chanted in the Westernized chant in vogue among Russians whereas the Greeks chanted in the classical Byzantine chant of Athos. George said that when the Russians chanted he felt greatly moved emotionally and tears came to his eyes but when the Greeks chanted he felt great spiritual sobriety. “It was weird,” he said to us, “One moment the Russians would be chanting their hymn from the service book and my eyes would be full of tears and the next moment the Greeks would be chanting the next hymn from the same service book and I’d be soberly saying the Jesus Prayer in something straight out of the Philokalia. Then the Greeks would finish and the Russians would start the next hymn and I would go back to crying.”

That, we think, is what Elder Paisios was driving at. Byzantine chant supports the classical spiritual sobriety that is taught in the Orthodox Philokalic tradition. Russian Westernized chant—and this by extension would include Western religious music—works more on the emotions, creating effects on the sentiments, so that the person is sentimentally moved to religious emotions. This is better than demonic emotions, certainly, but it is not the same as the spiritual sobriety of the Philokalic tradition. This is very difficult for a Westerner to comprehend, we know, because Westerners have been taught all their life that the only possibility is for religious emotion. There’s no provision in their Western upbringing and education for the Philokalic spiritual sobriety that is compatible with Byzantine chant and which is supported by Byzantine chant.

What is behind all of this is the notion that music has an effect on the person hearing it. It can agitate, calm, make sad, make happy—or even support Byzantine Orthodox spiritual life.

But the Russians are no slouches when it comes to philokalic spirituality. After all, Way of the Pilgrim, that famous introduction to the Philokalia, was found in a manuscript at St Panteleimon’s Monastery on Athos. Moreover, St Panteleimon’s Monastery is where St Silouan lived, also Staretz Sophrony. Certainly, in Russia proper St Seraphim of Sarov was a practitioner of the Jesus Prayer who no one would want to suggest was a second-class saint. The 19th- and early-20th-Century saints of Optina are renowned for their command of philokalic spirituality. So while Russian liturgical music may be a bit more sentimental than Byzantine liturgical music, that doesn’t mean you can’t become a saint in either tradition. There is ample evidence to the contrary.

We can see the same distinction between the sober and the sentimental in Byzantine and Western religious art. The two arts were pretty much the same until a certain period, when Western religious art began to diverge from the received iconographical tradition.  This is not prejudice on our part; any art historian can explain that up to a point the two traditions were the same and that after about the 11th Century Byzantine iconography remained much closer to that common tradition than Western religious art.

Here is the 6th Century Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy, the apse:

The acme of Western religious art in its divergence from the common tradition is probably the High Renaissance, in the works of Michelangelo. This is already a sentimental art but at least it’s well done.

 Here is Michelangelo's Risen Christ (Christ Carrying the Cross, 16th Century):

The naturalism of Michelangelo is quite evident in this sculpture; the point that Elder Paisios was making, we think, is that such a naturalistic art remains on a human plane affecting only the human emotions whereas Byzantine art raises the mind to the spiritual.
For reference here is Christ, detail from the 13th Century Deesis Mosaic in St Sophia:

We would have preferred to stay in a single medium (painting or mosaic) but it's not easy to find images for upload on short notice, hence the use of a sculpture by Michelangelo rather than a painting.

To make the point clearer, here is the Madonna and Child by Raphael (16th Century):

For reference, here is the 12th Century Our Lady of Vladimir icon, painted in Constantinople:

No one doubts Raphael's ability but his art is quite naturalistic and as such it works on the emotions.  It would be useful for the viewer to obtain a good copy of the Our Lady of Vladimir icon to study the facial expression on the Theotokos; this icon is an example of the icon as door to the spiritual, something that is completely missing in Raphael's painting.

After that it’s downhill.

Of course Byzantine iconography has had its vicissitudes; who doesn’t love the sentimental, Westernized kitsch of the 20th Century?

And Russian iconography is not all Rublev’s Trinity:

But classical Byzantine iconography has always maintained an ideal of the spiritually sober.

Let us now look at the issue from the point of view of Alice’s conversion to Orthodoxy. Alice is somewhere: she’s of a certain age, of a certain cultural, familial and ecclesiastical background. She has grown interested in Orthodoxy. She has a number of options open to her if she decides to join the Orthodox Church. She could join a Russian jurisdiction or she could join a more Greek-Byzantine jurisdiction. Wherever she goes she will find that she is on earth, not yet in Heaven—that there are problems. But that aside, from the point of view of music she could certainly join a jurisdiction that used a more Westernized liturgical music, something more similar to what she herself deals with in her profession. Given her training, she might like that Westernized liturgical music or she might hate it—she will obviously have a highly developed taste and that taste might agree with the music of the jurisdiction or it might disagree with it violently. It’s something she will have to consider.

But that is not the crux of the problem: Alice is not joining a musical club; she’s working on her salvation. She should be joining the Orthodox Church, if she joins, because she thinks that it brings her salvation and knowledge of the One True God. So what if the music is or is not a little kitschy (if it is)?

What we think happens is this. Alice joins the Orthodox Church and commences an Orthodox spiritual life. We strongly recommend reception by Baptism. That is a complete transformation to make a new creation. After Baptism, Alice doesn’t realize how transformed she is; others begin to see the difference but Alice doesn’t until after a year or so. However, be that as it may Alice continues her profession. The same scales every day for 2 hours; the same studies for 3 hours; the same concert pieces for 5 hours. The same routine at the orchestra, the same students for lessons. Nothing’s changed. Alice has a stereo set and plays classical music and also experiments with listening to the liturgical music of her new religious environment. Maybe Alice joins the Church choir—even though Alice is a classical musician that doesn’t mean she has the ability, time or inclination to sing in the choir; it’s not obligatory in any case.

In any event, Alice’s musical taste slowly starts to change. Why? Because Alice has slowly started to change. If she weren’t going to change, and didn’t want to change, why would she join a new religion?

So Alice changes as a person. She matures—spiritually, psychologically and so on. Why wouldn’t her taste in clothes, furniture and everything else also change? Including her taste in music, where she has a highly developed artistic sensibility? She starts to hear pieces that she liked as being of poor quality. She starts to hear pieces that she didn’t care for with new ears, seeing a new depth that she hadn’t realized was there. But some things that Alice liked she still likes, and some things she hated she still hates. Alice is alive. She’s still Alice from Manhattan.

Let us suppose that Alice plays 1st Violin at the New York Philharmonic. She goes to rehearsals; she plays the 1st Violin part of whatever has been selected, doing the best she can; in concerts she performs in her black dress doing the best she can. And as Alice grows after becoming Orthodox so does her appreciation of the music she is playing professionally.

Will Alice become a better musician once she becomes Orthodox? If Alice makes a serious effort at repentance and prayer and spiritual growth she will become a better person. Surely being a better person would make Alice better at whatever she set her hand to, including her profession. It is conceivable, indeed, that God might grant a spiritual charism to assist Alice musically but this is something that God knows, not Alice, before she becomes Orthodox. And what is important is that Alice became Orthodox to grow spiritually, not to improve her professional competence in an orchestra.

Now someone asks Alice to play violin in a local rock band. Alice, who’s Orthodox now, devoutly attending church and receiving communion, graciously declines, saying she has no time.

Next, someone asks Alice to be the conductor of a church choir in a non-Orthodox church (let’s suppose she has the ability). Does Alice accept? We wouldn’t, but this is something for Alice to discuss with her confessor.

What happens if the New York Philharmonic starts playing many, many pieces by composers known to be non-Orthodox, non-Christian, anti-Orthodox and anti-Christian? This gets complicated and Alice needs to consider her priorities.

Finally, we would recommend that Alice, if she has the time, begin a study of Byzantine music, its scales, notation, performance, compositions, history. This is not obligatory and Alice might not even like Byzantine chant. But it seems obvious that this will be a big part of Alice’s new religion and that Alice would want to learn something about it at a level consistent with her training. One thing we do know is that the Byzantine scales do not have the same intervals as Western scales and it is very difficult for a Western-trained singer to ‘convert’ to Byzantine chant, and vice versa. This is a matter of human physiology. The organs of voice production have been trained in one way; the other type of music requires a completely different training of the voice-production organs, making it impossible to switch from the one music to the other. We imagine the same is true for an instrumental musician in terms of how the ear hears the scales. Assuming Alice plays the violin, it wouldn’t be that easy for Alice to convert to playing Byzantine scales on the violin, although we are sure that she could demonstrate Byzantine scales on a one-off basis.

We hope that helps, Alice.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article. Here's my 2 pennies' worth. I asked my spiritual father about this and he said that music itself is neutral - given for the Glory of God and the pleasure of man. If there are lyrics associated with the music as in pop music then it might be more problematic and unsuitable for Orthodox consumption or performance. We'd need to understand what the lyrics are about and if they conflict with our Orthodox faith we'd have to refrain from actively listening to them or performing them.
    As far as I can understand it, instrumental Rock music and instrumental classical music are both 'sentimental' in the sense described in the article. I don't see any "inherent" demonic element to purely instrumental music be it Rock or anything else. That's not to say that the any form of music can't be used for demonic purposes though.

    Best Wishes