So we drove up yesterday with friends to hear the Bach Mass in B Minor, performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Walt Disney Concert Hall. This is not a music review--for which I am definitely unqualified. Rather, it's a report on what came up for me as I listened to this majestic piece of church music, magnificently performed in the inspiring environment of Frank O. Gehry's auditorium.
I attended a mass (or Anglican "Communion") virtually every Sunday of my early life, at least until the age of eighteen. It was required at the boarding schools I attended; it was unquestionable at home. So the English translation of the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Nicene Creed, that Sanctus and the Agnus Dei are pretty much in my blood. I'm even familiar with a lot of the Latin original that Bach uses as his text. The words reverberate in my heart and mind with a profound and familiar resonance. So I was listening as much to the words, perhaps more than to the music which remains, alas, a foreign medium for my untrained ear.
Aside from revisiting those words with the kind of pleasurable recognition one reserves for the best of old friends, I found myself reflecting on their context--or rather on their decontextualization. Because the music was written in a culture in which the truths of Christianity were for the most part unquestioned. I'm guessing--and here I can only guess, because I'm unfamiliar with the history or biography of the creator of this Mass--that the composer wrote the music out of his own deep religious conviction, his belief in the Virgin birth, in the sinfulness of man and Christ as the agent of remission, in the crucifixion and the resurrection, in the reality of an afterlife in the arms of God. His Mass was an enactment of his faith, and its heart and soul, its ultimate meaning, is inherent in that belief.
Come now to Disney Hall, which is not a church, where the music is performed to fulfill an aesthetic, not a religious need; where its flow is interrupted by an intermission provided for chatter, bathroom breaks, and drinks; and where (I suspect) the vast majority of the audience (like myself) and the singers themselves are not believers in the Christian faith at the spiritual heart of the music. And ask yourself, what is lost? I found myself asking, what is lost?
Not that I am nostalgic to recover it. Readers of The Buddha Diaries will know that I long since abandoned the religion I grew up with. No, as our friend said in the car on the way home, (I paraphrase) the Christian religion comes with too much baggage, too many leaps of faith I am unprepared to take. Buddhism is quite simply, in my view, more rational, more human, more compassionate in its teachings. It requires not our belief in stories and tenets laid out for us by those who went before us, but the testing of each cornerstone of our own belief and practice.
Given all this, I wondered as I listened, to what extent am I really listening, really capable of listening, to what was written? Is it enough, is it true to the music, to derive no more than aesthetic satisfaction--no matter how great--from the performance? Does it matter that those singing their hearts out may not believe the words they sing, but simply hit the right notes in the right order--with passion, perhaps, but not belief? That they sing "credo in unum Deum" (I believe in one God) without really believing in Him? Or "expecto resurrectionem mortuorum" (I await the resurrection of the dead, "et vital venturi saeculi" (and the life of the world to come)? Beautiful words, in sound and sentiment. But true? Truly meant?
So these were my reflections as I sat in Disney Hall last night, awed by the music, but troubled by my personal memories of those professions of a lost faith. Perhaps it was simply the loss of that faith that troubled me. Echoes of childhood, the language of my youth...