Monday, February 11, 2013

Catholic Musical Sensuality



In the first chapter of the supremely witty, gorgeously written Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, the 19th century French composer wrote:
"Needless to say, I was brought up in the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome. This charming religion (so attractive since it gave up burning people) was for seven whole years the joy of my life, and although we have long since fallen out, I have always kept most tender memories of it. Indeed, such is its appeal for me that had I the misfortune to be born into the bosom of one of those schisms ponderously hatched by Luther or Calvin, I would undoubtedly have abjured it the moment I was able and flung myself into the arms of the fair Roman at the earliest promptings of poetic instinct."


Last week, the San Francisco Symphony offered one of the most remarkable programs in their history with a pair of rarely heard French Catholic choral masterpieces conducted by the Swiss/French/Canadian conductor Charles Dutoit. The concert started with the first SF Symphony performances of Francois Poulenc's Stabat Mater, sixty years after its 1951 premiere, an odd omission for such an exquisite piece of music.



Maybe it's because Poulenc's reputation as a masterful composer is still taking time to establish itself. A rich, gay, French Catholic, miniaturist, mostly self-taught composer who wrote operas for cabaret singers overlaps too many categories and is not to be taken seriously, so it's taken decades for the world to catch up. The similarly brilliant gay, British Catholic piano virtuoso Stephen Hough recently wrote a blog post at The Daily Telegraph called The Three Faces of Poulenc that is an amused appreciation of the composer's musical and holistic synthesis. It begins:
"A reliable, reputable, scholarly source told me once of an occasional activity of Poulenc when staying in Paris. In the late afternoon he would leave his apartment and go to the local park where he would have an anonymous encounter. He would then cross the park to the Catholic church where he would slip into a dark confessional. After being absolved of his sins, and less than an hour after first leaving home, he would return to a sumptuous supper, all ready to be served along with a decanted bottle of fine, red Bordeaux."


Listening to Poulenc's music, it is easy to hear his religious feelings are sincere. What is odd and charming is his integration of the spiritual with the sensual and sardonic, putting him far ahead of the institutional Catholic Church which is still officially demonizing people like him. So in honor of the first resignation of a pope today in 600 years, I will play Poulenc's joyous cantata, Gloria, to celebrate. (Photo above is of Ragnar Bohlin, Symphony Chorus Director, and Erin Wall who was the soprano soloist. They both did themselves proud.)



The second half of the SF Symphony's concert was Berlioz's massive 1849 Te Deum, which had not been performed in 40 years, another shameful omission because this piece is Berlioz at his greatest. Then again, the radical 19th century composer is still being absorbed into the world's cultural bloodstream. The first performance of this piece didn't occur until almost seven years after he had written it because of the money and the politics involved, and since then it has mostly disappeared as a repertory staple. The performances by the huge forces on Saturday night at Davies Hall were magnificent, and the music surpassed all expectations for beauty and strangeness, mixing delicacy and huge, bombastic effects seamlessly, decades before Mahler played with the same dynamics.

Dutoit, pictured below, is a jet-setting, veteran star conductor who can either phone it in or provide serious inspiration, and it was the latter who was on the podium last week, leading the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in one of their greatest performances.



In the first chapter of Berlioz's Memoires, he also writes about his first communion where he encounters the disgusting sexism of the Church and also receives a glimpse of heaven:
"It was spring: the sun shone brightly, a light wind stirred the rustling poplars; the air was full of some religious fragrance. Deeply moved, I crossed the threshold of the chapel. I found myself in the midst of a multitude of young girls in white, my sister's friends; and with them I knelt in prayer and waited for the solemn ceremony to begin. The priest advanced, the Mass commenced; I gave myself to God. I was rudely awakened by the priest summoning me--with that boorish, unthinking bias in favour of their own sex that some men had even at the Lord's table--to come up to the altar first, in front of all those charming girls. I felt sure they should have precedence; but I went up, blushing at the unmerited honour, and received the sacrament. As I did so, a chorus of fresh young voices broke into the eucharistic hymn. The sound filled me with a kind of mystical, passionate unrest which I was powerless to hide from the rest of the congregation. I saw Heaven open--a Heaven of love and pure delight, purer and a thousand times lovelier than the one that had so often been described to me. Such is the magic power of true expression, the incomparable beauty of melody that comes from the heart!"
On Saturday night at Davies Hall, during the final, wild Judex crederis movement of the Te Deum, I also saw Heaven open, and would like to thank everyone involved, especially Hector.

4 comments:

Michael Strickland said...

Through a third-party email, David Littlejohn writes:

Brilliantly thought, researched, felt and written. As one more lapsed Catholic, I am always ready to be drawn back into the arms of Holy Mother Church by an hour or two of sublime music. Enjoyed the story of Poulenc's ingenious system of sin and repentance.

Kit Stolz said...

You had me at me at "this charming religion (so attractive since it gave up burning people)"..


.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Kit: I can't recommend Berlioz's Memoirs in the David Cairns translation enough. This guy knew everyone, from Liszt to Georges Sand to Chopin to Paganini to you name it, and he basically made his living as a passionate journalist while trying to singlehandedly reform the world of music. Plus, he writes these tales in the first person, with brilliance, humor and self-deprecating irony mixed in with authentic grandiose visions. He has long been my hero.

Axel Feldheim said...

Bravo on receiving accolades from David Littlejohn! I thought this was a great program as well. Berlioz is underrated & so far ahead of his time that we haven't caught up with him yet.