Friday, October 31, 2014

A Mighty Fortress is Our God: Bach's Cantatas for the Feast of the Reformation

Luther window in Wehrli Chapel,
Eden Theological Seminary,
where I'm an adjunct instructor.
With only five posts to go, I'll recap my year-long project one more time…. The English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner performed all of Bach's extant sacred cantatas in over sixty churches. Happening primarily in 2000, this "pilgrimage" commemorated the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. The CD notes testify to the logistical challenges of moving a choir, orchestra, and recording equipment around to different cities, every single week.

During ensuing years, the cantatas have been available on 2-CD sets (first on Deutsche Grammophon and then on Gardiner's own Soli Deo Gloria label). They are still available that way, and also as a 56-CD box set (available at this link). All the cover photos are of people from around the world, symbolizing Bach's universality. Last fall, I purchased the box set and decided to listen to the cantatas in conjunction to the liturgical year. I began with the First Sunday of Advent and have stayed with the "journey" pretty faithfully all year.

October 31 is Reformation Day, and these cantatas were appropriately performed in the university church of Luther, the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. The CD cover photo, of a wide- and dark-eyed little girl, is from Kandahar, Afghanistan. One cantata is a long-time favorite on LPs, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 80), based on Luther’s hymn.

The first piece is the festive “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild" (BWV 79), “The Lord God is sun and shield”). The pageantry of this commemorative piece even includes a drum beat that (as Gardiner writes) could imaginatively echo the hammering of the 95 Theses upon the church door. Gardiner describes the numerous techniques with which Bach creates a profoundly moving piece.

Now thank we all our God

with heart and voice and hands,
who doth work great things for us
wherever we may be,

who since our mother’s womb
and from our infancy

hath favoured us so many times
and continues so to do.

“Now thank we all our God” is the title of the second cantata (BWV 192, “Nun danket alle Gott”), a much smaller work with “modest instrumentation that nevertheless “provides an attractive contrast, an alternative and less bombastic approach to the celebrations.”

Back to “Ein feste Burg” (BWV 80, “A mighty fortress is our God”). In the CD notes, Gardiner writes that Bach revised the cantata three times before this late version, which he “constructed a stupendous and elaborate new contrapuntal opening movement,” without instrumental prelude. He points out that Bach uses Luther’s hymn in three different numbers of the piece, with the last number being closest to the tune with which we're familiar. For a long time I had difficulty singing this hymn in church, because it had been sung at the funeral of a Lutheran pastor who had been a mentor. Bach's setting of the hymn helped me move toward healing.

We can do nothing with our own might,
all too soon we are lost.

It is the righteous man,

chosen by God, who fights for us.

We who at baptism swore loyalty
on Christ’s bleeding banner,

his spirit conquers evermore.
Do you ask who He is?
He is called Jesus Christ,
the Lord of Sabaoth,
there is no other God,
He must hold the field.

But I owe a greater debt to Luther himself. Writing in my last post about New England, I thought to myself about days in the Yale library, where I loved to read from Luther's works. I was a divinity school student, feeling lost and inadequate, struggling to find my way. Luther's themes of sola fide, sola scriptura spoke deeply to me. I filled dozens of index cards (which I still have) with quotations and citations from his works. I wanted to learn his theology but most of all I wanted God's unconditional love to "sink in." Luther was a perfect teacher.

I read an article online (and unfortunately didn't bookmark it) that raised the question of whether Reformation Day should be celebrated. After all, there is greater theological concord between the Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches than in Luther's day, and even Bach's day. Plus, there have been several historical moments when the church experienced a reformation or a course-correction when it had strayed from the Gospel in some way. I believe that the way many dominations are addressing LGBTQ inclusion is a kind of contemporary reformation, and so is the hard work of churches (in my own community of St. Louis and others) to address the tragedies of racism. Reformation goes hand in hand with repentance and renewal.

So we could speak of "reformation days" that have happened and, by God's grace, will continue to happen.

(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Visions of Belonging": New England and the Sense of Place

Childe Hassam, "The Ledges, October in
Old Lyme, Connecticut", 1907 
When I arrived Yale Divinity School in the fall of 1979, I fell in love with New England, in the sense of an instant, overwhelming emotion of belonging. That love was bittersweet, because I knew I’d likely not remain beyond the three years of my program. I wrote about those years here.

Given my feelings about New England and my interest in “place,” you’d understand why I grabbed a book I saw in a bookstore this summer: Visions of Belonging: New England Art and the Making of American Identity, by Julia B. Rosenbaum (Cornell University Press, 2006). I had been unfamiliar with the book but the themes of New England and of place made it a necessary purchase.

Rosenbaum is associate professor of art history and director of the American Studies Program at Bard College. Her introduction is an excellent summary of the whole book. Focusing upon the late 1800s-early 1900s, a prolific period for artists associated with New England, she writes about the way New England held deep significance for many Americans. She aims to understand “the regionalist impulse animating artistic production at the turn of the century” (p. 1), and the related debates about regional and national identity. She argues that New England and its artistic representation “provide a case study, a means to apprehend nationhood and the forging of a common culture it provides” (p. 2).

Thomas Hovanden, "Breaking Home Ties," 1890.
By the 1890s, Frederick Jackson Turner had declared the end of the American frontier (p. 2, 152-153), and the 1893 Word’s Fair celebrated the nation’s regional diversity. Historically, the U.S. was in a period of postbellum sectionalism, immigration, and industrialization. In this context, Americans looked for a sense of belonging and of roots that could stand for the whole nation, and New England fit the bill, for interrelated reasons (p. 2). It represented the colonial beginnings of the nation. Writers like Yale’s Timothy Dwight had celebrated New England’s benefits (pp. 5-6). Its places and characters had a secure place in the national art and literature, and the region’s architecture and furniture were esteemed.

Interestingly the World’s Fair---with its many displays featuring different states and regions---was the catalyst by which New England newly inspired Americans (pp. 6-7, 26-31). A few posts ago I discussed the new biography of Norman Rockwell, an artist so associated with New England and whose painting Breaking Home Ties is one of his most popular. It was a painting of the same name, by Thomas Hovenden, that captured people’s imaginations at the Fair and helped spur a discussion about national identity (p. 7, 32-36). Artists associated with New England sought to represent the region’s character and ideals via paintings and (especially in the case of Augustus Saint-Gaudens) statues of historical worthies. The works of Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf articulated visually “a sense of home and belonging with New England” and “helped to consolidate what I have termed an ‘iconography of belonging’,” notably beloved images of pleasant villages, churches with staples, and attractive landscapes (p. 7). The author also discusses the work of artists like John Twachtman and Julian Alden Weir, and the range of artistic styles used by the several artists.

The book contains color plates of four key works: Hovenden’s Breaking Home Ties (1890), Weir’s The Laundry, Branchville (c. 1894), Hassam’s Church at Old Lyme, Connecticut (1905) and Marsden Hartley, The Last of New England--The Beginning of New Mexico (1918/1919). Other reproduced painintgs include works by Metcalf, Twachtman, Saint-Gaudens, Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, Theodore Robinson, Wallace Nutting, more paintings by Hassam and Weir, and other artists.

By the 1920s, artistic energy and art criticism shifted to other regions. For instance, artists like Georgia O’Keeffe were associated with the Southwest, the Ash Can School focused upon poorer sections of New York City, and Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood were associated with the Midwest. New England lost its cultural prominence but not the abiding appreciation of many Americans. Rosenbaum’s book shows us how crucial to a nation's identity are art and culture, how a sense of place can inform national unity.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Strolling in Warm Autumn

The source of this picture is F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm via Facebook, from the site I love this place, a suspension bridge on a hiking trail at the F. A. Seiberling Nature Realm park in Akron, OH.

When we lived in Akron, this trail was spread with mulch and thus was soft enough for me to hike shoeless. On a recent visit I noticed that the mulch hadn't been replaced, which I understand; that stuff's expensive. But I've nice memories of feeling the trail as I walked and then strolling across this bridge (with its cool, smooth beams) to take the alternate "loop" pathway. As long as I can avoid acorns, going barefoot on autumn days has always been a simple pleasure for me.

I think of all this because the weather is so warm this weekend, 80s yesterday and again today. I love autumn because of the colors but also the varying temperatures. Changing weather can be hard on one's allergies, and planning your wardrobe can be a problem. But I like the variety between seasons, weather trying to make up its mind what to be.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Whither Shall I Flee: Bach's Cantatas for the 19th Sunday after Trinity

The 19th Sunday after Trinity is coming up! Next is Bach’s Reformation Day cantatas, and then the 20th through 23rd Sundays of Trinity in November. Advent is fast approaching. My family brought home some Christmas cards from the Papyrus store yesterday; soon I'll be starting on that late-November job. The CD for this Sunday features a girl from Herat, Afghanistan.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the themes of this time (the last few weeks of the post-Trinity season) include “the thorny and intractable issues of belief and doubt, “the rejection of the world by the faithful and the prospect of eventual union with God – or the horror of exclusion.” But “Bach both softens and humanises the severity of the words while in no way diminishing their impact: he has an unfailing knack of being able to vivify the doctrinal message and, when appropriate, of delivering it with a hard dramatic kick, yet balancing this with music of an emollient tenderness.” Overall, the pieces for this Sunday are more pensive (though beautiful), in contrast to those coming up for October 31.

Right on cue, the title of BWV 48 is “Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen vom” (“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me [from the body of this death]”, which is from Romans 7:24). The first part of the cantata depicts the healing miracle of Matthew 9:1-8, with all the misery both of illness and of sin-sickness. But the second part, as we’ve seen so often before in Bach’s works, turns to the praise of Christ, who (in answer to the misery of Romans 7:24) alone can save and heal us. Similarly, the second cantata focuses upon the healing of Christ for the misery of infirmity and sin. But here, the theme is the blood of Christ. This cantata is called “Wo soll ich fliehen hin” (BWV 5, “Whither shall I flee”). Gardiner writes that the viola obbligato reminds us of “the gushing, curative effect of the divine spring” of blood.” His likening of the power of Christ’s blood to agricultural preparations for crops makes me remember something I read quite a while ago: that Gardiner maintains a farm in addition to all his musical work.

The third cantata is “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen” (BWV 56, “Gladly shall I bear the cross”). The piece is for orchestra, chorus, and solo bass. As Jesus occasionally crossed the sea of Galilee, all of human life is like a voyage across seas. The music carries us through waves and calm to affirm God’s ultimate salvation once we reach journey’s end.

Like last week, the cantatas for this Sunday are joined with cantatas for post-Trinity Sundays that could not fit on the 2000 liturgical calendar. A cantat for the 25th Sunday after Trinity is called “Es Reisset such ein schrecklich Ende” (BWV 90, “A terrible end shall sweep you away”). Not so calming as BWV 58, this cantata gives us the horrors of damnation, sung in arias for the men’s voices. What a relief when we cross the terrible threats and hopelessness faced by the unredeemed and affirm God’s rescue of those who believe.

When I hear the phrase "blood of Christ," particularly as a stream that washes us, I often think of that old camp meeting song that I learned in childhood.

Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

Would you be free from your passion and pride?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Come for a cleansing to Calvary’s tide;
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

There is power, power, wonder working power
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

A very different kind of music than Bach's, but a similar expression of hope that Christ's power is sufficient for this life and that to come.

But the image of life as a sea voyage is another appealing theme from this week's music. Bach's music carries the text by Johann Frank for a lovely assurance for our faith.

My life on earth
is like a voyage at sea:
sorrow, affliction and distress
engulf me like waves
and daily frighten me to death;
my anchor, though, which sustains me, is God’s mercy,
with which He often gladdens my heart.
He calls out to me: I am with you,
I shall never leave you nor forsake you!
And when at length the raging foam is calmed,
I shall step from my ship into my own city,
which is the kingdom of Heaven,
where I with all the righteous
shall enter out of so great tribulation.

(As the CD notes indicate, all translations are by Richard Stokes.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Norman Rockwell, "American Mirror"

In the early 1960s, my parents subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post. Dad’s shed was my “club house,” and sitting out there on summer days, I’d look through copies of the weekly magazine, stacked up in the corner. I was a decent sketcher and wondered if art might be a good career. The magazine’s covers and articles were illustrated by artists. I looked at the magazine’s website just now and found the names of illustrators of that era: not only Norman Rockwell, but also Richard Sergent, John Clymer, Robert G. Harris, Gilbert Bundy, and others. I still have a few of those old copies as childhood keepsakes. 

Browsing the Webster Groves Bookshop a few weeks ago, I purchased the new biography, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). An art critic and journalist, she had the weekly column “Questions For” in the New York Times Magazine for several years.

Rockwell (1894-1978) won Americans' devotion with his art. Saying Grace---a painting of an older woman and a boy praying over their food in a restaurant, with curious patrons looking on---topped a poll among people's favorite Post cover. Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series is also popular, as well as works like Breaking Home Ties, Boy with Baby Carriage, Rosie the Riveter, The Problem We All Live With, The Gossips, Tattoo Artist, Girl at Mirror, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, Jockey Weighing In, Triple Self-Portrait, Stockbridge--Main Street at Christmas, and others. He painted several portraits, including Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. LBJ preferred Rockwell’s painting of him to the official portrait. Rockwell even did a rock album cover for Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, and David Bowie approached him for a portrait (but he needed it sooner than Rockwell could provide). He produced over 4000 works: magazine covers, book illustrations, posters, murals, illustrations for advertisements, and others. He never aspired to sell his paintings to collectors or to display in fine-art galleries. His meticulous technique (realistic but not photo-realistic), his ability to tell a story in a single picture, and the care with which he set up the situations in his paintings, add to his works’ appeal.

Rockwell was born in New York, attended Chase Art School and the National Academy of Design, and sold his first illustration when he was eighteen. The same year (1912), he became staff artist for Boys’ Life. He was 21 when he sold his first cover to The Saturday Evening Post. Until 1963, he painted 323 covers for that magazine. He continued to provide paintings for Boys’ Life in addition to other magazines. His later paintings for Look dealt with topics on poverty, civil rights, and space exploration.

Rockwell married three times. His first marriage to Irene O’Connor was from 1916 till 1930 and ended in divorce. Living in California, he met Mary Barstow. They married and had three sons. They lived in New Rochelle, NY and then Arlington, VT, and later Stockbridge, MA. It was in Vermont and Massachusetts that Rockwell painted some of his popular depictions of small town themes. The family moved to Stockbridge so that Mary could have her alcoholism addressed at the psychiatric hospital there, but Rockwell himself also benefited at the hospital; he received treatment from psychologist Erik Erikson. After Mary died in 1959, he married “Mollie” Punderson in 1961. She survived him.

Solomon writes about the dismissal Rockwell suffered from art critics. “Rockwellesque” became a pejorative term for sentimental depictions of life. His painting The Connoisseur, depicting a man gazing at a Jackson Pollock-like painting, is for Solomon a masterpiece, and contrasts Rockwell with the abstract expressionists with whom critics compared him so unfavorably. But in recent times his work has been more honored. Solomon writes that the Guggenheim and other museums have had an exhibitions of his work, Rosie the Riveter sold at auction for nearly $5 million, and Breaking Home Ties was auctioned for over $15 million. After this biography was published, Saying Grace sold at auction to an anonymous buyer for $46 million.

"Election Day," 1948.
Solomon considers Rockwell’s complicated psychology. Especially when he was a young painter, he
was known for painting boys much more often than girls, and some of his behavior would cause accusations today, such as hanging around grade schools, looking for kids who might be models for his illustrations. But there is no evidence that Rockwell acted inappropriately with any boy. He was, however, cold to one boy whom he no longer needed for modeling, which had ill effects on the boy’s psyche. The boy's tragic death seems to have weighed on the artist.

Rockwell was compulsive about cleanliness and his food preferences. He was also extremely modest, refusing even to consider himself an artist. Women made him insecure. Throughout his life he searched for brotherly, masculine companionship; yet he was not close to his own older brother. His wives were discouraged that he preferred spending time in his studio than with his family. Rockwell never mentions his wife Mary's death (or much about his family) in his 1960 autobiography. The artist emerges from Solomon’s account as a person of considerable self-caused loneliness, who found more personal happiness in depicting family life, in the emotional safety of his studio, than he ever did in his own life. Interestingly, he was not particularly nostalgic about his own childhood.

Solomon considers him a postmodern artist who “shares with the current generation a historically self-conscious approach to picture making” (p. 11). The book’s title refers to Rockwell himself, “his work mirrors his own temperament---his sense of humor, his fear of depths---and struck Americans as a truer version of themselves...” (p. 10). He wasn't all positivity. In the jarring work The Problem We All Live With, a little black girl is escorted to school accompanied by faceless law enforcement figures, with tossed fruit and racial slurs prominent against the wall by which she walks. Even in Election Day, Rockwell depicts a humorous yet sad situation: a young couple is angry at each other, divided by the Dewey-Truman presidential campaign, as the child sits, crying and ignored. But good spirits and a tenderhearted view of life prevail across his oeuvre. She writes:

"Where, in his work, are disease and death? Where is his sense of existential dread? I would argue that angst is probably overrepresented in modern art. Surely we can make room for an artist who was more interested in running toward the light. Unlike his fellow realist Edward Hopper, whose work abounds with the long shadows of late afternoon, Rockwell prefers the light of morning; his work can put you in mind of that sunny, hopeful moment right before lunch" (pp. 10-11).

Although aspects of Rockwell's personality leave us sad, Solomon interprets his art with a civic vision---a sense of the common good---that I find admirable.

“The great subject of his work was American life... a homelier version steeped in the we-the-people, communitarian ideals of America’s founding in the eighteenth century. The people in his paintings are related less by blood than by their participation in civic rituals, from voting on Election Day to sipping a soda at a drugstore counter. Doctors spend time with patients whether or not they have health insurance. Students appreciate their teachers and remember their birthdays. Citizens at town hall meetings stand up and speak their mind without getting booed or shouted down by gun-toting ragaholics. This is America... before searing divisions in our government and general population shattered any semblance of national solidarity” (pp. 4-5).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Cy Avery, "Father of Route 66"

Route 66: The Highway and Its People (1988) has always been my favorite among the many histories of the fabled highway. I purchased my copy in Sedona, AZ in 1989, during the years when my family and I lived in nearby Flagstaff. The photographer Quinta Scott and the historian-writer Susan Croce Kelly researched the highway and interviewed many people associated with the road. Scott took photographs, Kelly wrote the text, and the book was published by University of Oklahoma Press. I used the book in my “American Highways and American Wanderlust” colloquium at University of Akron.

Now, Kelly (Susan Kirkpatrick) has written a wonderful biography of Cyrus Stevens Avery (1871-1963), the “Father of Route 66," also published by University of Oklahoma Press. What a fascinating life! Born in Stevensville, Pennsylvania, young Avery and his parents and siblings journeyed to Indian Territory and then Missouri. He went to college in Missouri, married Essie McClelland, then moved back to Oklahoma where he was an insurance agent, moved into real estate loans, and established the Avery Oil and Gas Company. In 1907, he and his wife and children moved to Tulsa.

Automobile travel at that time was new but growing rapidly. Roads were dirt and gravel, poorly suited for cars. Consequently, the Good Roads Movement in the 1910s was an effort to improve and eventually to pave highways. Avery became interested in this effort, which would benefit Tulsa and Oklahoma. He became a leader in the movement. Among his several roles, he joined the Oklahoma Good Roads Association, was president of the Albert Pike Highway Association, and was president of the Associated Highway Associations of America.

He was also appointed to the Joint Board of Interstate Highways, the task of which was to designate and mark a new system of federal highways. Prior to that time, roads had names, like the Lincoln Highway, the National Old Trails Highway, the Jefferson Highway, the Dixie Highway, and many others. But as the designation of named highways had been controversial in the 1910s, with towns vying for a place on major routes, similar controversies occurred in the laying-out of federal roads. One dispute was fateful. Boosters proposed a route from Virginia Beach to Springfield, Missouri and eventually to Los Angeles, and proposed number was U.S. 60. Avery, though, pressed for a major road from Chicago to Los Angeles, also via Springfield, MO, that would pass through Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Such a road would benefit his town and state, unlike the proposed U.S. 60 which, under the original plan, would not enter Oklahoma.

In the layout of federal routes, the west-east transcontinental highways would end in 0, and the principal north-south highways would end in 1. (My hometown Vandalia, IL, which Susan mentions as the terminus for the pioneer National Road, is on two of these routes: 40 and 51.) Avery wanted his route through Tulsa to be U.S. 60, identifying the road as a major route. Kentucky leaders, however, balked at that idea, since the proposed U.S. 60 would (and still does) serve that state. The number 62 was suggested (U.S. 62 is now the highway from El Paso to Niagara Falls). Avery disliked that number, but he and his associate Frank Page discovered that the euphonious number 66 had not yet been assigned to a road. Thus was born the Chicago-Los Angeles highway that became famous.

The federal highway system of numbered routes became reality in 1926. The work of improving and paving those roads continued for many years. Avery was instrumental in the formation of the U.S. Highway 66 Association and its work of paving and promoting U.S. 66. As a member of the American Association of State Highway Officials, he was also involved in the approval of the signage with which we’re all familiar, including shields for highways, octagonal stop signs, round railroad signs, yellow diamond-shaped caution signs, and rectangular speed limits signs.

Other aspects of Avery’s life are also noteworthy: his work for a Tulsa airport and for a water pipeline to the city, his tireless handling of political disagreements, his travels, and his efforts to improve race relations. During his life, he earned the animosity of the Ku Klux Klan and eventually lost his job as a state highway commissioner because of Klan manipulation. In her readable style, Susan discusses these and many other aspects of Avery’s long career in business and public service.

Avery died in 1963. He is honored in Tulsa with several memorials, and nearly any highway history will mention his work for Route 66. It’s fortunate that now he has a history of his own!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"The Doors Unhinged"

A few weeks ago, drummer John Densmore visited Euclid Records in Webster Groves, MO, to autograph copies of his 2013 book, The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison's Legacy Goes on Trial. I couldn't stand to wait in a line of well over a hundred people, a line (down the street and around a corner) which didn't move an inch during the fifteen or so minutes that I was at the shop. I did purchase a copy of the book and got a glimpse of Densmore's gray hair in the back of the store, where he sat and greeted fans. What a thrill even to be that close!

This book is about Densmore's suit against his fellow Doors, Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger, filed in 2003. Manzarek and Krieger had begun a band called The Doors of the 21st Century, and Densmore sued for breach of contract and trademark infringement. They countersued Densmore for vetoing the use of "Break On Through" for a Cadillac advertisement. Morrison's family joined the suit on Densmore's side. His concern was that Jim Morrison had insisted on a unity of all four band members, including songwriting credits and the use of the band's music. Famously, Morrison (the door "hinge" of the title) became furious when the band considered allowing Buick to use "Light My Fire" in an ad.

The book contains accounts of the grueling proceedings, as well as Densmore's memories of the group and of Morrison. It is a sad story, clearly written both as a healing process for Densmore and (especially the last chapter) as a healing offer to his former bandmates. (Sadly, Manzarek died a few weeks after this book's publication.) Densmore is as fearful of failure and financial devastation as anyone would be in a high-stakes lawsuit. But you do get the sense that he was standing up for what he considered Morrison's wishes for the band, and he expresses sorrow about what he calls "the greed gene." An image by Shepard Fairey provides a striking cover.

Densmore prevailed in his suit, the countersuit was dismissed, and a later judge upheld the original ruling.