Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano


uncommon intelligence, imagination and textual awareness...



Keynote Address - Music and Faith

presented October 2019 at the Faith and Music Conference, Linden Ponds

Today I have the privilege, and the awesome responsibility, of creating a framework around an exploration of music and faith for you. It’s a huge subject! In order to appreciate the brilliance and power of the art works you will experience throughout the week, I will begin by defining our terms, with some philosophy, as it were.

First of all: what is music? We are accustomed to regard music as pitches, tones that are organized into harmonies. But even more foundational than that concept is the element of time; music is a series of events that depend on remembering prior sounds and relating them to present and future ones. This can make music out of pitchless rhythms or unharmonized tones in melody. All music from any cultural tradition works this way. Because it relies on memory, music can capture the mind and hold its attention, potentially drawing the consciousness to altered states of thinking and being.

Second: what is faith? One way to define it is as a state of mind: holding an idea or a series of principles as true beyond the requirement of reason or logic. In the broadest terms, faith can be placed in anything from a four-leaf clover to the order of the cosmos. More commonly, we regard faith as the acceptance of a supernatural force that governs the universe and our lives; it is this aspect of faith that concerns us here. Because it appeals explicitly outside of reason, faith is supported and enhanced by mental states that capture the imagination.

From this point of view faith has much in common with music, in that it depends on retaining an idea that redefines the present moment in context of past and future. While the myriad of human faith traditions have all employed works of the imagination to attract and inspire their followers, music is uniquely powerful in its ability to manipulate and suspend time.

As we descend from this lofty perspective and consider more specific and familiar examples of music within faith traditions, we can see that there is an inherent tension between the psychological virtue of music and the requirements of faith. Faith, as a system of worship, is built on words; concepts that must be grasped, internalized, and affirmed. Music communicates in a very different manner; by tracking patterns of sounds one not only learns to anticipate consequent sounds, but also finds the emotions engaged by the satisfaction of anticipation fulfilled or the twinge of it delayed or diverted. We have all experienced this surprising capacity of music to influence emotion at a different, possibly deeper, level than that of words.

Thus the faith traditions we are most conversant with, the Judeo-Christian faiths, have sought to place controls on music so that it elicits in the listeners strictly the feelings desired and not others. The first tool, of course, is to use music coupled with text; the power of the words and the concepts they contain can effectively constrain the emotional pull of the music towards their overt meaning. Thus you find text proclaimed and highlighted by chant in worship services; the purity of the sung tone allows the words to penetrate and entrains the human appetite for resolution into the punctuation of the verse.

As more complex musical textures were introduced, faiths, especially Christian faiths, embraced them. Decorated chant led to two independent melodic lines; which developed into various forms of polyphony (interwoven melodies). The words of worship were stretched out and embellished by increasingly lengthy and elaborated forms. In each instance, the inherent power of music to capture the ear and the emotions was enhanced. As certain traditions incorporated more and lengthier musical episodes into their communal gatherings, they found that an effective way to enlist the power of music to direct emotions towards proper goals of devotion is to punctuate the worship service with music that colors the moment with vivid and unambiguous feeling. Thus music can reflect joy in the love of the Creator; it can soothe and comfort the grieving or spiritually troubled; it can inspire awe in the transcendent and mystical power of divinity; and even fear by evoking overwhelming power and judgment over disobedient followers.

However, some traditionalists, keepers of the purity of the faith, were concerned. Sensing the force of music’s attraction, they were suspicious of its ability to reach the emotions. Over and over again, from Calvinist and Methodist to Catholic Counter-Reformation movements, music was banned, diluted, or restricted. Despite the glorious heritage of sacred music, which represents some of the greatest achievements in the art, some contemporary faith traditions shun their own inheritance and choose to worship with music that is pallidly obedient and predictable.

But enough of such a depressing viewpoint! We are fortunate that one of the greatest musical geniuses ever to have lived, Johann Sebastian Bach, made it his life’s work to harness the expressive power of music to communicate faith concepts as never before or since. Transcending the basic emotional states of joy – comfort – awe – fear, the territory of most worship music, Bach set out to let music speak of complex and contradictory ideas: pride and hypocrisy; guilt; humility and inadequacy; the spiritual challenges of living up to the strictures of faith. For the rest of our time together, we will explore how he accomplishes this.

Not only was Bach acutely aware of the power of music to capture our minds and influence our emotions, he was uniquely gifted to exploit this power through his unparalleled ability to create new textures, new harmonic journeys, and radical sonorities. Bach had proved masterful in writing music of joy, comfort, and awe; his intricate polyphonic compositions could dazzle and absorb the intellect as well as bring sensuous delight. But he sought more: through his sacred compositions, particularly the church cantatas, Bach was on a determined enterprise to make music CHANGE hearts, minds, and souls.

It wasn’t enough to employ texts that spoke about the trials and dilemmas of a faithful Christian, even though the cantata libretti were frequently constructed as spiritual journeys from doubt to faith. Uniquely aware of the sensual force of music, Bach continually sought to break down the psychological barrier of beauty, and find means to pierce the soul.

For example, the first aria from BWV 54, “Widerstehe doch der Sünde” [Just resist sin] instructs its listeners to be wary of sin and resist its temptations. On its own, the libretto presents a stern warning, filled with ominous imagery of poison and the devil’s wiles. The music, however, tells a very different story: employing a rich texture of five string voices, Bach piles up poignant and delicious dissonances that seduce before a single word is uttered. Once the singer enters, we slowly become aware that we have been compromised by the same temptation we have been alerted to. As the movement continues, we hear the singer sustain long held notes, on the word “resist”, while the wash of luscious string harmonies beat against the note, seemingly trying to pull it over to a new harmonic role. The singer, however, must not only maintain this long note steadily, but must have sufficient breath to complete the phrase which continues after it. Bach captures his listeners in a very insidious and canny move here; by involving the listener in the physical act of extending breath, he implicates them in the experience of being lapped by seductive temptation.
                           Play excerpt – BWV 54 #1 A section               4:39

In another cantata Bach devises extraordinary means to involve his listeners in the disturbing state of doubt and lack of faith. The cantata BWV 109, “Ich glaube, lieber Herr; hilf meinem Unglauben!” [I believe, dear Lord; help my unbelief], examines one of the most dire spiritual crises a Christian can face. Listen to how Bach depicts the inner turmoil in the tenor recitative, as conviction and despair battle each other:

                           Play excerpt – BWV 109 #2                   1:22

This recitative leads into a remarkable aria in which the singer gives way to despair and anxiety. The violent figuration in the tutti violins not only suggests the wavering of the sinner’s thoughts, but moves beyond to almost literal self-harm.

                  Play excerpt – BWV 109 #3 A section                      2:54

In the B section the sense that the thread is breaking, the candle is being snuffed out, elicits a musical event so shocking that in can provoke a physical reaction in the listener: the final cadence seems to be heading for a conventional harmonic resolution, but suddenly and sickeningly lurches downward to conclude a full step lower:

                  Play excerpt – BWV 109 #3 B section             begin 2:54-3:25

Once again, Bach does not merely invite, but wrenches the listener into the drama; with defenses and complacency dissolved, the audience fully participates in the spiritual suffering and is primed to respond when true resolution is offered.

Elsewhere Bach uses a fascinating device I call “aspirational text-setting” or presenting emotional depth and complexity in the musical elements that contradict or pull against the literal meaning of the words. A brilliant example comes from BWV 127, “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott” [Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God]. The third movement, a soprano aria, speaks of the fate of the soul after death. Specifically, the soul will rest in Jesus’ hands, while the earth will cover the body. For a Christian these words can and should be deeply comforting. But Bach presents a scene filled with profound emotion: while two recorders mark time on every single beat, a solo oboe spins out a melody that sobs, cries out, and lingers on painful dissonances, wailing like a grieving figure. The singer mirrors this lament; when the image of the buried body is introduced a sudden darkening of the harmony, like the ground shifting beneath our feet, drops in the pit of our stomachs. It seems clear that this comforting doctrine is difficult to imagine and accept, no matter how much we want it to be true.

                  Play excerpt – BWV 127, #3 A section                     3:13

Bach takes things even further in this extraordinary aria: when the B-section begins, the singer launches into an ecstatic acceptance of death: “call me now, you death-bells”. At the very instant the bells are summoned, the full complement of strings begin to pluck in triadic arpeggios, joining in with the ticking recorder texture and wailing oboe. The deepening of the sonic space has a profound effect; the fear and grief are transcended by fervor and joy. The sound of the pizzicato strings is so visceral that, once again, the listener is unable to defend against the transformative experience.
                  Play excerpt – BWV 127, #3 B Section   begin 3:13-4:18

Lastly, I’d like to examine a duet from cantata BWV 99, Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan I. The theme of this cantata is acceptance of God’s will despite suffering or difficulty; certainly a favorite subject for Lutheran theology and hymn writers. In this movement, number five of six, Bach sets a text that depicts the struggle of the will to perform the very act of acceptance by a brilliant transformation of motivic material. The piece is composed for soprano and alto voices, accompanied by flute, oboe d’amore, and continuo. The first line of text “Wenn des Kreuzes Bitterkeiten mit des Fleisches Schwachheit streiten” [when the bitterness of the Cross contends with the weakness of the flesh] becomes a virtual march to Calvary, with heavy, halting footsteps recalled by the plodding bass notes, and the dragging beams of the cross imaged by the reiterated dissonances traded between pairs of voices and instruments. The weakness is graphically depicted by the sinking chromatic melismas; the whole effect is effortful and gravity-laden:

                           Play opening of BWV 99, #5          0:22

As the movement continues the voices and instruments begin to cooperate with each other, yet the melismas in chains of thirds and sixths still seem weary and hard to support. The section concludes with a surprising affirmation that it is nevertheless a good thing!

                           Play continuation of BWV 99, #5             begin 0:22-2:02

The next lines begin to unravel the paradox. Whoever falsely believes that their cross is unbearable will never find delight in the afterlife – this is the message conveyed by the chorale and poetic paraphrase. Bach expands on the “unbearable” by stretching out awkward and dissonant arpeggios among the four voices, which labor as they ‘cross’ each other’s ranges, almost moaning with pain. Then suddenly: the same melismas that expressed the struggle in the A section return, yet now they seem weightless, floating, and delightful; the flute and oboe dart about them like fairies in light staccato notes – we have found Paradise!

                  Play continuation of BWV 99, #5                      begin 2:02-4:42

Here Bach takes a complex theological concept – our sufferings are blessings – and makes the identity manifest by transforming the same material from one character to another. Music itself provides the demonstration of truth here; what could possibly better serve the requirements of faith?                

In conclusion I’d like to take a close look at several movements from one of Bach’s most astonishing, uncompromising, and masterful cantatas, BWV 20 “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort II” [O Eternity, you thunder-word]. Written to launch his second cycle of weekly cantatas in Leipzig and the first of an ambitious project to compose a new piece based on a chorale for each liturgical Sunday, Bach deploys techniques that stretch the limits of musical convention in order to flesh out the terrifying ideas examined in the text.

The chorale “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort” was written by Martin Luther, and is a particularly horrifying depiction of the punishment that awaits those who turn away from God. It focuses on time, and the conceptual paradox of timelessness – how we, whose very lives are immersed in the flow of time, cannot truly conceive of existence beyond it. The sense that there are forms of existence beyond our own, that follow other laws, is fundamental to faith. While elsewhere Luther and other theologians expand on the bliss of eternal joy and love in the Creator’s presence, here only the mind-numbing thought of never-ending suffering is contemplated.

Bach clearly realizes the opportunity and challenge presented by such a text – how to depict timelessness in an art form utterly dependent on time? His response employs radical techniques of interruption, harmonic and melodic diversion, and striking elongations of events, all of which play with our inherent expectations of predictable flow.

In the first movement, dominated by the granite monument of the chorale verse and tune, Bach uses the French overture form to imply the momentous force of eternity from the divine point of view. Ablaze with brilliance, the texture is unrelenting, unstirred by the choked-off utterances in the voices. The words themselves are hard to fathom: “O sword, that pierces the soul; O beginning without end.” This magnificent structure could more than suffice, but Bach is far from satisfied. As the second strain of lines begin, he alters the structure, changing the meter to triple time and chaining long, inane sequences that slip downwards chromatically, undercutting any sense of stability or firm arrivals. The text here reflects more inwardly: “O eternity, timeless time, I know not, before such great sorrow, where to turn.”  The music is an uncanny analogue of sands running through an hourglass, or Salvador Dalì’s famous melting clocks; time itself is being deconstructed as the music feels out-of-control, elusive. But Bach saves his masterstroke for the final section of the stanza: instead of cadencing, this mad cascade of sequences suddenly and abruptly halts, and a trio of oboes re-introduce the sharp dotted rhythms of the overture but almost as a shriek of horror. The last two lines of text proclaim “My heart, completely terrified, trembles, so that my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth.” At this point, the choir singing the text disintegrates into literal stuttering, and the final note is drawn out beyond normal length, literally sticking to the texture.

                                    Play BWV 20, #1                  5:18

OK – that should certainly be enough, right? But this is a two-part cantata, written to bracket the sermon. The dire messages, and the opportunities for our composer to flex his genius, continue on in Part 2. Right away we are treated to a premonition of the last Judgment, with the trumpet and full orchestra urging us to rouse and mend our ways. This is followed by an alto recit that lays out graphically a vision of our last hour and how precipitously it might occur. At last we have reached the lowest depths; the pinnacle and most dazzling movement in the entire cantata. Movement 10, a duet for alto and tenor with only continuo accompaniment, places us right inside of Hell itself. We experience the wailing and teeth-gnashing of the sinners, with sharp, grinding dissonances striking like lightning bolts. Most vivid of all, Tantalus-like, are the staccato bass notes which morph into drops of water, unattainable respite for the rich man who despised Lazarus begging at his door:

                                    Play BWV 20, #10                4:48

The final chorale, harmonized plainly and objectively, offers only the faintest glimmer of comfort in the Abgesang as it reaches out to Jesus for rescue.

The compositional magic displayed by this extraordinary cantata is of a very different nature than what we commonly associate with Bach’s genius – generally we expect to be dazzled by intricate counterpoint, closely-constructed harmonic narrative, and layering of structural elements. While these techniques are present, what is most stunning is the juxtaposition, the whiplash shifting from one mood to another, with almost strobe-like alacrity and intensity. Bach is out to terrify us, and he assures that we cannot keep our distance and complacency by playing a game of peek-a-boo with us; lurking in the shadows, he jumps out when we least expect it to make our hearts beat faster and thus move us to engagement. His aim, evidently, is truly to ‘convert’ us; to turn us away from secular complacency to acknowledgment of failing, of destined torment, and of the consequent life-depending need for repentance and acceptance of God. No music could ever serve the needs of faith more closely.                                             

© Pamela Dellal