The Need for Brave Artists–Part II

Bravery is a difficult concept. It is a term that is overused and often misunderstood. It is currency for many, a source of esteem and a badge of honor. Yet even as ubiquitous as the desire to be brave is, bravery finds itself usurped and appropriated more often than not, too often relegated to a narrow set of circumstances, professions and personalities.

Bravery among artists, especially in our own epoch, seems to be a punch-line in search of a joke. As the Knight of the Lion argued in his passionate (if amusingly troublesome) speech, the sufferings of the man of arms is often seemingly much more profound than that of his counterpart in the profession of letters.

But there is also the adage about the pen and the sword, which has enough of the weight of history on its side to give even the most skeptical (or philistinic) among us pause, however brief. That the pen is sometimes mightier can be seen in the works of Voltaire and Jefferson, Ghandi and Goethe, and so many to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for the beauty and enlightenment of the modern age.

It is with this knowledge that a recent local controversy has left me shaking and scratching my head. A few weeks ago it was reported that a local high school chorus canceled a concert it was preparing to give. The cancellation was apparently in response to criticism over the choice of venue: namely, a church in the community. Since then the local paper has been flooded with letters bemoaning this choice; but those who opposed the performance on grounds of ‘intolerance’ (or exclusion) have stood their ground, with highly personal stories from third parties included in the discourse.

Perhaps this point of view has more to do with idealism than the personal musical and professional experience of the writer, but this controversy seems rather out of place. Music–and choral music perhaps more than any other sort–has a natural home in church, no matter the denomination. The contributions of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert–the list goes on, and the notable omissions are made only for the sake of brevity and, possibly, reinforcement of the point–were made with the church in mind, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively, it was for the Church: in the case of Bach, for Sunday services or, in the case of the Passions, both for occasion and posterity (for it cannot be denied that Bach’s spirituality was central to his work–his fervor and sincerity cannot be discarded for the purpose of being politically correct, nor can it be regarded simply as a musicological pertinence.) Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were employed by the church, literally in the case of the former two composers, and in the case of the latter two by a deep, nearly pathological desire to express particular feelings. Indeed, is there any work in the repertoire which is more bold and cathartic than Beethoven’s mighty ‘Missa Solemnis’? And to offer yet another disclaimer–the cases of Haydn and Mozart are not to suggest at all a lack of spiritual motivation at the expense of that related to their career and financial prospects!

Now, in the literal sense, there is the matter of the Churches for which this music was conceived and composed. This is so both for the institution–the orchestra and choral musicians educated and employed by the church–and the physical structure–stone buildings which were highly resonant and offered incredible possibilities for compositional devices such as fugue and antiphonal counterpoint.

An attempt to disregard either influence for reasons either practical or politically correct is foolhardy. Worse yet, to disregard it in the context of education–the very setting in which a high school chorus rehearses and performs–is irresponsible.

Forget, for a moment, the associated disciplines to which studying choral music affords access–a beautiful advantage, particularly for the junior high or high school student in America. These disciplines are many, to be sure: foreign languages, history, theology, philosophy, poetry, drama, folk-lore, phonetics, diction. And let us also temporarily put aside, however painful it must be, the character building opportunities that come with it: discipline, honesty, team-work, trust, loyalty, persistence, and patience (especially in the case of young voices!) There is another valuable, essential–no, indispensable!–trait that this uproar overlooks: tolerance.

Tolerance may be the cranky uncle of that most beautiful Muse, Acceptance, who counts among her kin such luminaries as Patience, Wisdom, Empathy and Love. But tolerance, temperamental and imperfect though he may be, is a wonderful point of introduction to this healthy family which strives, through kind acts, to wear the crown of every civilization.

Music teaches us tolerance. It also demands it from us–whether composer, performer, academic or audience member, we are required to be tolerant. It can be a wonderful experience–in fact, it is often followed closely by Empathy and carries with it only the prerequisite of Sincerity.

How should we call ourselves musicians if we are prepared to go without Tolerance? One needn’t hold membership or even have personal experience to walk the proverbial mile in a strangers shoes. Must one be German to understand the spirit of Beethoven? It is entirely possible to sing a mass by Mozart or Haydn without so much as ever having been inside a Catholic church. Do we need to be an expert in modern music to correctly play the Berg violin concerto, a Lutheran to sing a Bach cantata or to have braved a few dozen Moscow winters to do justice to Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich? No, this is not required. But Tolerance–ah, that is so very necessary! For with Tolerance, our eyes are opened to the strength of Beethoven; the setting of Mozart’s Latin is revealed to be profound as well as masterful; the excruciating agony of the Berg emerges from the dissonance clothed in the robes of Heaven; the spirituality of Bach leaps forth from the page; the brooding introspection of Tchaikovsky becomes a chance to comfort a dear friend; and the sense of fear and the courage in its face shown by Shostakovich is made manifest.

The setting of a concert, whether humble or grandiose, is ultimately irrelevant: music takes us to a higher place. To perform music in a religious venue does not confer on the performance or the music a sense of religiousness. And houses of worship, despite being home to a particular religious community, are meant to be homes to all: warm, welcoming and safe. If this is not the case, then shame on that house–it is their own problem, whether through failure or hypocrisy. But we should not and cannot blame the music for existing, nor the composers who wrote it for having faith (or not having it, for that matter.)

Yes: we must be brave. And that should begin with tolerance.