The Art of the Psalm

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Art of the Psalm, performed on Oct 22, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Romanticism in the nineteenth century followed the so-called Age of Enlightenment, in which reason was celebrated and religion was tarnished as superstition, rigid doctrine, and the blind acceptance of authority. Romanticism championed the wondrous diversity of nature rather than its Newtonian predictability and regularity. A revival of religion accompanied romanticism. The art of music benefited from this revival. Music seemed to invoke the boundless and the mysterious, even the mystical, and certainly the spiritual. The religious revival that spread throughout Europe before 1848 among Protestants and Catholics alike reveled in man’s capacity to sense the divine and live in awe of it. Perhaps no vehicle is more appropriate to express the compatibility between the avowal of the distinctly human and the humble acknowledgement of God than music. Among Lutherans, the power of music was privileged, for in Luther’s claim that faith within the individual was the goal of the religious experience, music seemed to be the natural and most effective means of access and confirmation. Following the moral of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis, man’s ambition to understand the divine through language and logic was replaced, curiously, by the celebration of something distinctly human but not necessarily divine: the ability to make music. The great achievements of music-making were not viewed as competitive with divine truth in the same way that made philosophy and science, by contrast, consistently suspect. Rather, the greater the music, the more it mirrored human respect for and love of God. In keeping with the Romantic idea that great art was a matter of inspiration, music could be perceived to be the inspiration from God granted to the individual’s religious sentiment, a communication of His grace and divine nature.

For Catholic Europe, the role of music in religious devotion and its connection to secular romanticism was a bit more complicated because of the influence of medieval church traditions, Papal authority, and varying disputes about the “right” music to accompany the liturgy. As the criticism, even in the late-eighteenth century, of the Mass settings by Mozart and Haydn by church representatives reveals, the Catholic clergy was suspicious of the use in sacred works of secular musical styles that were linked to the everyday and the sensual. Consequently, the practice of borrowing from Protestant models during the nineteenth century, as the music of Liszt, Bruckner, and Reger suggests, flourished. This practice aimed to reconcile liturgical traditions and counter-Reformation orthodoxies with trends in contemporary music-making outside of the church. Catholics, like Protestants, sought to fashion musical religious expression into something desirable in the context of the church service, so that the communal awareness of the body faithful could be deepened. Hymn-singing in the Protestant tradition created a natural bridge to the secular choral tradition. The Catholic communities of Bavaria and Austria adapted this Protestant model in a manner compatible with Catholic doctrine and canonical stricture.

Concurrent with this historical process spanning the nineteenth century within Europe’s Christian communities, was the gradual social, cultural, and economic emancipation of Europe’s Jewish population, particularly in German-speaking regions. Legal emancipation began first in the 1780s and it led to a powerful movement of reform and modernization among Jews that sought to reconcile Jewish traditions with secular life outside of the ghetto. The pioneer in this integration of Jews into European society as Jews was Moses Mendelssohn. The irony, of course, is that his famous grandson was converted and became the most significant composer of Protestant church music in the first half of the nineteenth century. However, the appropriation of traditions of secular concert music and even Christian religious music by Jews was not always connected to conversion and the abandonment of Jewish faith and identity. Felix Mendelssohn and the musical practices of early romanticism resulted in the development of a modernized music for the Jewish service and liturgy. The most famous practitioners of this movement were Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894) in Berlin and Salomon Sulzer (1804-1890) in Vienna. Sulzer was the chief cantor and overseer of music for the Jewish community of Vienna. Liszt and Eduard Hanslick, Brahms’s advocate and an arch-critic of Liszt, were both great admirers of Sulzer’s prowess as a singer and musician. The sounds and practices of secular music therefore made their mark in the modernized expression of Jewish faith among acculturated Jews in the major cities of German-speaking Europe.

There is no part of the Old Testament that has functioned more effectively as a bridge between Jews and Christians than the 150 Psalms. In the Jewish tradition, these were the work of David, not a prophet but a king and a musician. Music has always been a central part of the manner in which Jews have expressed their faith. The Levites were second only to the priestly Kohanim, and were the musicians of the Temple. None other than Arnold Schoenberg would mirror this long link between music and faith among Jews in his opera fragment Moses und Aron (1932). Its central subject is the inadequacy of language as the communicative medium of divine truth. Moses stuttered, and Aaron, his fluent brother, was inadequate to the true understanding of the divine. But in Schoenberg’s hands, Moses spoke through music, like King David.

Among Christians, Jesus was said to have descended from David, and therefore the Psalms were easily interpreted as compatible with Christ’s teachings. That is the cosmopolitan aspect that links all four works on today’s program. Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was a devout provincial Austrian Catholic, a nearly fanatical believer in the universal legitimacy of the Church and its liturgy. Franz Liszt (1811-1886), who took minor orders in middle age, was a truly Romantic Catholic, immune to doctrinal rigidity, but devoted to the authority of Rome. Max Reger (1873-1916) represents a bridge between Catholicism and Protestantism. His compositional ideal was none other than J.S. Bach, and he appropriated Protestant musical traditions for his sacred work. Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was born into the Sephardic Jewish community of Vienna and would, like Schoenberg, convert as an adult to Protestantism. Franz Schreker (1878-1934) was born and raised as a Catholic, but had sufficient Jewish heritage to qualify him under the Nazis, much to his horror, as an object of discrimination, and, had he lived longer, as a candidate for extermination.

This strange and poignant amalgam of religious heritages encouraged each of these composers to turn to the common ground of the psalm for the expression of their musical ambitions. Liszt’s Psalm 13 focuses on a text that theologically is the most challenging of the five psalms presented here. It picks up a theme articulated by Job: the fear of God’s abandonment. Liszt sets, with nearly operatic gestures, the plea of the psalmist for God’s grace. What attracted Liszt was the last line of Psalm 13, in which the musician promises God that in return for salvation, he will sing unto the Lord. Bruckner, in a work written late in his career, turned appropriately to the last Psalm, which is a psalm of praise. Fittingly enough, the highest praise humanity can provide God from the humble station of a mortal yet articulate creature is the unique praise of musical sound. The breath of humanity for the psalmist takes shape in trumpets, harps, stringed instruments, cymbals and organ. The young Franz Schreker, with characteristic ambition, chose a psalm of thanksgiving, Psalm 116. The account of faith and gratitude is marked by its emphasis on the consciousness of being the servant of God through a public demonstration of fidelity. What better medium for that public rather than private expression of faith than music? Zemlinsky turned to possibly the most famous psalm of all, the one familiar to individuals of all faiths, Psalm 23. Although this psalm celebrates the confidence that true faith brings despite the trials of mortal life, it curiously has become the psalm read at funerals, both among Jews and Christians. Since faith is an attribute of the soul and not the body, for Christians, Psalm 23 can represent the immortality of the soul and the triumph of faith over death. For Jews the psalm can signal the faith of the living faced with the finality of the death of those fellow humans closest to them, whom the living are chosen to survive. The last psalm on this program, Psalm 100, is a psalm of joy that celebrates the human debt to the divine, the acknowledgement of God’s presence, God’s power, and immortality. Once again music itself becomes the medium of reflection, for as Reger’s setting makes evident to the ear, the praise of God takes the form of a joyful noise that expresses happiness and gratitude for God’s everlasting truth. Psalm 100 evokes God’s merciful and triumphant nature.

The connecting musical attributes audible in each of these composers’ works adapted to each setting of the psalms are an emphasis on counterpoint and the employment of fugal writing. Through the density and multiplicity of simultaneous individual voices, human ingenuity is displayed. Imitative counterpoint becomes a sign of respect for the brilliance and complexity of God’s creation. The unique character of extensive counterpoint is not only located in its dynamic logic but in its inevitable drive to dramatic and affirmative resolution. Dramatic counterpoint leads to a musical representation not only of the power of faith but an affirmation of the clarity and rightness of divine justice.

The works on this concert date from the second half of the nineteenth century, when, as in the mid-eighteenth century, human confidence in rationality and science reached new heights, pushing mysticism and the irrational dimensions of spirituality somewhat to the margins. Yet, at the same time, these overtly tradition-bound works that reflect a debt to conservative practices both musical and intellectual, possess uncanny suggestions of twentieth-century modernism, a movement that would flourish as a secular rebellion during the first decades of the twentieth century. In each of these works, one can find the suggestion of the innovative music of the twentieth century. Music, that unique human gift used to communicate the affirmation of humility in the presence of the divine, becomes wittingly in the hands of these masters a means to express individuality and originality, the inexhaustible power of the human imagination, the freedom of the spirit that for all of these composers was God’s greatest gift to humanity.