July 11, 2012

Present Truth in Music

The following address, delivered at the Charles E. Weniger Awards for Excellence ceremony at Loma Linda University church on January 28, 2012, is reproduced here with slight editorial changes. Maestro Herbert Blomstedt was one of the honorees. We invite our readers’ considered responses to this articulate exposition of his philosophy and theology of music.—Editors.

Truth—what an awesome word! The topic in Sabbath school this morning was judgment—the Lord’s judgment. Have we spoken the truth today, and only the truth?

It seems that the call for truth is pursuing us today. In fact, truth pursues us our entire lives. We are all born with a desire for knowledge and truth. For those of us who devote our efforts to science and the arts the search for truth becomes an obsession, or else we cannot be true scientists or artists.

It is a demanding, hard life, with lots of sacrifice. Oh, yes—we get richly rewarded, also. Discovering a new truth is rare enough. But when it happens, we become elated, like the man the apostle Paul wrote about who was caught up into the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2). But we are immediately sobered by the thought that what we discovered was just a small drop in the ocean. We should indeed be the most humble and modest of people. English poet Alexander Pope expressed it well:

    “A little learning is a dangerous ?thing;
    ?Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian ?spring:
    ?There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us again.”

Discovering Truth
Yes, the search for truth is an obsession. Truth should never be treated like a possession. We can never have the truth, like a pet in our pocket. Truth as a habit, truth as a duty, is not the kind of truth we are looking for. Truth is something dynamic, not something static. Rather, it is something ecstatic.

2012 1519 page18Great classical discoveries come to mind: Archimedes in his bathtub. Isaac Newton under the apple tree. Adventist pioneer Hiram Edson out in the cornfield the day after the Great Disappointment.

Elias Canetti, the Nobel prize-winning author, says in one of his sketches, “The truth should be like a thunderstorm, and when it has cleansed the air it passes on. The truth should come as lightning, otherwise it has no effect. Who knows the truth should be terrified by it. The truth must not become the dog of man—woe to the man who whistles for him.”

I remember an Andrews University extension school in Norway in the mid-sixties. Some 50 pastors from all over Scandinavia had come together for three weeks to study with leading scholars from America. I was there to conduct a workshop about Christian hymns. The last day a question period was announced. Only written questions were allowed.

The first question was read, and the answer was something like: “Well, I have a wonderful quote here from the second volume of Testimonies, page 213.” Next question, and the speaker offered something like “I have the perfect answer to this problem in Early Writings, page 57.” That was the Great Disappointment of those otherwise wonderful days. Truth was treated like a dog. Whistle, and he comes. The questions were sincere; the answers inspired. But they did not match. The issues were not dealt with, but deferred. In that way there can be no progress.

When James White published the first Adventist journal in 1849, he called it Present Truth. A good name: The truth was new, relevant, and urgent. But if there is a “present truth,” there’s also a “past truth.” The history of the journal is a good example. The main themes were the Seventh-day Sabbath and the belief in the “shut door,” referring to Jesus’ parable of the 10 virgins waiting for the Bridegroom. The Sabbath truth remains strong to this very day, but belief in the “shut door” disappeared after a few years. They were wrong!

There’s nothing humiliating in this. We are all on our way; life is a journey. That your flight arrives after mine does not make me superior. That I am slower than you does not make me inferior. We are all travelers. Thus I can be comfortable with people who have very different beliefs than mine. I can sympathize with Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and atheists, even if I don’t share their views.

Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). What a dynamic statement! Everything is on the move. Nothing is static. If you want life, get on your way following Jesus, seeking the truth. The Pharisees had hammered down the truth with the Torah, nailing even the living Truth to the cross. They used truth as a weapon, as a sword, as revenge. But Jesus shows that truth is a way of life. Even more—the way to life. It makes us humble.

Our aim should not be to “possess the truth,” because that is really impossible. Our knowledge will always remain in part (1 Cor. 13:12). The all-important thing is that we are “possessed by the truth,” searching for the truth, being constantly on our way, with Jesus as our supreme example.

Performing With Passion
I am often asked: How can you continue to play the same symphonies over and over? Don’t you ever get tired of Beethoven’s Eroica? The answer is that I am looking for the truth. The truth in a performance of a musical masterwork is to achieve a perfect balance between all its elements. It is very complicated. Thousands of details have to fit together perfectly in a split second. Not only do all the technical difficulties have to be solved—the expressive and emotional qualities also have to come through. If the desire for absolute clarity and transparency gets the upper hand, we risk losing warmth. If we achieve maximum expression, we tend to lose clarity. Intellect and emotion have to be in perfect balance. And it must sound completely natural. Nobody should notice how difficult it is.

As a performer I must remain in the background. The message of the music as laid down by the composer, the truth of the music, gets obscured if too much attention is focused on the performer. I hope to come closer to that truth with every performance, even if I know it will never be perfect, because in the arts we never reach the ideal. A work of art is in fact never finished; it is just abandoned. Even God’s Creation is not finished. The seven days were only “the beginning.” It still goes on today—in every budding green, in every baby born.

Performance has a special place among the arts. Unlike a painting or a sculpture, a symphony or a song must be played or sung to become alive. It is an art of how to use time and fill time with meaning. It is a mirror of life itself. It begins with silence and ends in silence. What is in between can be sublime or trivial, but it has to be performed in order to exist in the real world. Otherwise it survives only as dead dots and lines on a piece of paper until it is “resurrected” by the performer.

Here is the most obvious connecting link between religion and music: the search for truth. I play every day with some of the greatest musicians of our time, and I find them all more or less religious, even if they don’t attend church. Like me, they are searching for truth.

Of course there are also other links between religion and music. Martin Luther saw music as the greatest gift of God after theology. And the Romantics attributed transcendental powers to music: transporting humanity to the very gates of heaven. The Swedish novelist and philosopher Lars Gustafsson, for many years a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, said this in his latest book: “There is something mysterious with music, something spiritual, or something demonic, that we don’t find in the other arts. As if music could reach further into the secrets of our existence than we can do with words or symbols or pictures. Could it be that music knows more about the world and the universe than we normally are aware of? Is music the door to another, inner world? And if it is a door to this other world, this other world must exist.”

I think these obvious and sometimes mysterious links between music and religion are the main reasons for the surge of interest in music in the Ad?ventist Church. When I started as a professional symphony conductor 60 years ago, I think I was the only one in our church, and I was viewed with much suspicion. This was “the world,” and I was considered “lost.” But I had understanding parents and loving church members. Without them I would not be where I am today. God has led in miraculous ways, and I am not alone anymore. Now several professional, full-time Adventist conductors are active with philharmonic orchestras today. Plus all those working in our schools, churches, and universities. Plus dozens of Adventist musicians now playing in the great symphony orchestras around the world.

Since the search for truth fosters humility, these musicians tend to be loyal church members as well. In Leipzig, Germany, home of the famous Gewandhaus orchestra, of which I was music director, we have a church of about 400 members. In any given year about a dozen of them are professional musicians or students at the Felix Mendelssohn conservatory. They are among the most active in the church.   

Once during a Thanksgiving service I heard eight cellists play a great piece of chamber music. Six of them were professionals or students, the other two were the pastor and the head elder, a heart surgeon, all playing the cello! It sounded great.

Of course, however wonderful, music also has its limitations. This is not a deficiency. If something has no limits, it also has no form, as Leonardo da Vinci says in one of his maxims. If you try to make a theological argument in music for the 28 fundamental beliefs you’ll get stuck. Music does not serve dogma well. Its field is ethics, the pairing of intellect and emotion. The book of Revelation can inspire a composer to great music, and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion can move the listener to an intensely personal religious experience. So can a simple song in the church hymnal. But what about music without words: sonatas, string quartets, concertos, symphonies? Or an impromptu by Schubert? What kind of truth do we seek when playing this music? Is it possible to lie in music? Yes, it is; and it happens more often than you might think.

2012 1519 page18One of the fundamental responsibilities of a performer is to know what the composer wants with his or her music and play it accordingly. The composer’s will is laid down in the score, and we have to play it exactly as it stands, not changing the notes or the rhythms or the instrumentation because we think we know better. A great many details need personal interpretation, such as tempo, volume, balance, sound, expression, but we must not change the text. ?If we deviate, we have to say so and explain why. Otherwise we are not telling the truth. It starts with putting the right label on the piece, or we make ourselves guilty of “juggling with names.” What is written in the score amounts to the Bible of the musician. It is “holy” and must not be touched.

The first Sabbath evening I spent in Loma Linda, now more than 40 years ago, I learned how easy it is to break this first commandment of musical ethics. Vernon Koenig, of the Education Department at La Sierra, had brought me a cassette radio and asked me to tune in to the university FM station and its most ambitious music program of the week. I heard 15 pieces of music by the world’s greatest composers, such as Bach, Haydn, Schubert—all wonderful. But none of the pieces was played as the composer had written it. Bach’s great organ prelude in E-flat was played in an arrangement for orchestra, Hollywood style, with trumpet fanfares and harp glissandos—without telling the listener that the original was for organ. Schubert’s wonderful “Ave Maria” was played without words—on the saxophone.

I started to understand why Koenig had asked me to listen. He had a vague feeling that something was wrong with the program, that it was not worthy of a university station, but he could not say why. It was unclear to me why the music was thus misrepresented. It could be sheer ignorance, or—still worse—the presenters thought the made-up versions were more beautiful than the originals, more pleasing to broad public taste, which they apparently shared.

Sixty years ago I helped a group of talented young musicians from Atlantic Union College perform a program at Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University). We played, among other things, one of the most popular pieces of classical music, Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” for string orchestra. But the leader insisted that we add a piano part, because it made the music “so much more beautiful.” So it was not pure Mozart any longer, no matter how well it was played. We also were treated to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. But no mention was made of the fact that we were going to hear only the first of its three movements. Also, the original piano solo ?was “enriched” by the addition of long sustained chords from the string orchestra; a self-conscious effort to “improve” on Beethoven! And in order to make it “still more beautiful,” the stage lights were turned off, with only a spotlight on the pianist. A great masterpiece of music, reduced to popular kitsch. And it did not stop there. To top the experience, the pianist’s mother read a poem at the same time. Instead of the truth, we got superficial effects. Nothing was true anymore.

Unfortunately, we are so used to these fakes that we don’t even notice them. A wonderfully helpful surgeon at the university loaned me one of his cars so I could drive it with my family to Florida—an unforgettable trip. He lived in a magnificent place on a hill, and I was instructed to follow the sign: “To the Royal Rose Gardens.” I was curious and asked about the history of this place. Had the Spanish king perhaps once owned this place? “No, not at all,” he said. “I just thought it sounded nice.”

A fake. It doesn’t even have to be true.

Even in church we have fakes. The organ is more often than not an electronic imitation of an organ, with no pipes. Certainly it helps churches that cannot afford a real organ, but it is still just makeshift. It would be better to have a small, real organ, a real art object, than a big fake that just imitates. The true, handcrafted instrument built by a master is a constant inspiration. But the factory-?produced fake just spoils our taste for the genuine. As poet John Keats wrote: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

Many singers use microphones to cover up their lack of voice training, which turns microphones into voice destroyers. Or we hear a vocal solo with the accompaniment of a tape; we just pretend we have an orchestra at our disposal. A fake.

I was moved by two guitar players in the Lakeview church outside Cleveland. One of the young men was stone deaf. He just moved his hands in sync with his companion. The music was extremely simple, but it was genuine. No pretense. It was true.

There is a widespread notion that music is neutral and has no special meaning, that it is meant only for sensuous pleasure. We accordingly pick and choose what we happen to like. But in reality music carries a variety of definitive messages. The music you choose tells me a lot about who you are. And when playing or singing, the performer is like a naked person, hiding nothing. As you play, so you are. It is frightfully revealing. If you are proud, it will show in the way you play. If your education is shallow, your style will reveal it. Musical language is direct and telling.

In comparison, it seems that communicating with words often just serves to cover up the truth. The words say one thing, but how you say them tells another story. When the great composer Felix Mendelssohn met Frédéric Chopin, he wrote to his sister, “It was a joy to be once again with a musician, not one of those half-virtuosos and half-classicists who would like to combine the honor of virtue and the pleasures of vice in music.”

Informed Appreciation
These bad combinations of opposite values mar much of contemporary music, and we have to be constantly aware of their negative effects. I learned my first lesson in this at age 13. I played the barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann at a church service. At the exit a dear brother took me aside and said, “You should not play such music in church.” I was dumbfounded. I thought the music was just wonderful. But he said, “That is an operetta!” He had more experience than I had, and knew that it was a lascivious song, sung by a prostitute.

Bad matches happen even in the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal. Take for example number 152, “Tell Me the Story of Jesus.” The truly beautiful text by Fanny Crosby tells the “sweetest” and “most precious” story ever told. About how Jesus was “despised and afflicted, homeless, rejected, and poor.” About His “anguish and pain,” and about the “grave where they laid Him.” Beautiful and moving.

But what does the music tell? Exactly the opposite. It is a trivial, catchy march tune that manages to drip with sentimentality. The most sweet interval of the third is heard in the melody almost half of the song. The harmony is monotonous in the extreme, since all cadences are in the same key. The melody puts us in a dreamy, passive mood. The rhythm wants us to march on, while the text wants us to stop and reflect on the wonders of salvation. Nothing fits. It sends conflicting messages. Truth does not thrive in such contexts.

Happily, our church hymnal is full of wonderful songs also. But we have a tendency to like the bad ones, those that appeal most to our senses. This is not only a matter of taste, it is much more serious than that; it influences the way we perceive God. Our great God remains too long in the shape of a super Santa Claus, who loves us infinitely and gives us presents when we behave well, but also when we don’t. We have to experience more of God’s majesty and power. We have to exercise more effectively our intellectual muscles and search for more “present truth” or “new light,” as Ellen White would call it.

Our church is starting to realize this. Recently I read an amazing statement in the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide: “Nothing is more destructive to our grasp of the atonement of Christ than the sentimentality that sometimes passes for Christianity in our day” (Jan. 19, 2012).

Sentimentality is essentially another way of lying. It blows up a feeling of bliss that is disproportionate to the material at hand. It is just pretending an emotion, often in a theatrical way, and at the expense of reason. As Oscar Wilde said: “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” Since the public loves to see emotions, we as performers are in constant danger of getting stuck in the bottomless swamps of sentimentality, assuming emotions that are out of balance with the musical substance. A musical zero blown up to 100 decibels only demonstrates its utter emptiness.

Closer, Closer, Closer
Seventy years have now passed since my father baptized me into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I have never regretted that decisive step. I have always trusted, and often obeyed. I have experienced miracle after miracle. All my orchestras, some of the greatest in the world, have agreed to schedule no rehearsals on Sabbath. One of them even agreed to change its whole weekly rhythm for seven years so we could have dress rehearsals on Sunday at 11:00 a.m. instead of the customary Saturday at 10:00. Nobody complained, not even the musicians’ union, not even the spouses who had to give up their only full family day. Even the Communist government in East Germany put in writing in my contract, “Maestro Blomstedt’s wishes concerning rehearsals, auditions, and interviews on Saturdays will be respected.”

God certainly has been the way for me. He has shown me some wonderful truth and given me a rich life. Still, I have not stopped searching for new truth. I feel akin to the great Swiss painter Paul Klee, who had these words put on his tombstone:

Slightly closer to the heart of creation than usual, but still not close enough.

Herbert Blomstedt is one of the world’s leading symphony conductors. This article was published July 12, 2012.