Outside the Bachx


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OutsidecropHip-hop is always hungry. Like the katamari of video game fame or the doubly insatiable hippos of the childhood tabletop game, hip-hop music and culture has absorbed (and remixed and made its own) every genre that it touches. From when it was born on the streets of New York City in the 1970s, hip-hop has taken in the bass lines of funk, the vocals of R&B, the epic scale of rock, the improvisation of jazz, and the dancey jams of pop. So why not classical music?

That’s the question that the world premiere commission Outside the Bachx, promoted as  a mix of classical music and hip-hop, is supposed to ask. But in reality Outside the Bachx is a hip-hop show, displaying admirable talents of breakdancing, beatboxing, DJing, song, and slam poetry which all just happen to occupy a space with a grand piano that gets played on occasion.

The story of the piece, as fleeting as its inexpertly pumped theatrical haze, tells of a rental rehearsal space shared in successive time slots by a classical pianist and a breakdancing group, who come into conflict over sharing that space, but eventually realize the fun of collaboration. The trouble is that while the piece finishes with the promised unification of the classical and hip-hop genres, the audience spends fifty minutes of the sixty minute runtime taking in scattered, though technically adept, vignettes oriented toward either hip-hop or classical music. It was like ordering a martini at a bar and only being served a glass of gin, a glass of vermouth, and an expectant look from the bartender.

But the moments that those separate elements get mixed are elevating. The finale of Outside the Bachx combines classical music and ballet beautifully with hip-hop, artfully and correctly adapting classical motifs into true combination. Another high point comes in the middle of the show, when classic Asian pentatonics and martial arts inspire hip-hop dance, though, as the two Asian actors participating in this number point out, they are Japanese and Filipino, while the music comes from China.

Outside the Bachx is admirable in its attempt to show the inclusivity of hip-hop with an ensemble of Latino, Asian, Black and White actors, but the approach to diversity is strained. The play often resorts to stereotyping to express that diversity: the Asian cast members mentioned above, Gene Shinozaki and John Vinuya, use martial arts in their dance, and the text of Gabriel Alvarez, a Dominican cast member, is all about macho bravado. I wish, especially in a show marketed for young audiences, that stereotyping could have been left by the wayside.

The show is part of the Kennedy Center’s Theater for Young Audiences. There’s no swearing, violence, or overt sexuality anywhere in the piece. By a different token though, the Outside the Bachx is held back by what seems to be an oversimplification of story and character development, both of which are shallow to the point of nonexistence. To be fair, the architecture of the Family Theater doesn’t do the staging, done by cast members Gabriel Dionisio and Ana Garcia, any favors. What may have worked in a more intimate configuration as an encompassing expression of hip-hop style feels dulled and unenergetic on a proscenium stage.

But the problem runs deeper than that. Outside the Bachx feels dumbed and watered down for the young audiences it targets. While it has the ingredients that people who don’t know young audiences expect to be winners (flashy lights, loud music, acrobatic dancing), it lacks what young people really crave: good storytelling. Just ask the kids seated all around me who began the squirming burble of boredom not fifteen minutes into the show. Give the kids some credit (I think they’re tougher critics than me), focus on telling one good story first and then worry about the flash later.

All of these criticisms have one theme: the execution of dance and poetry and song in this play were strong, but the fundamental text and storytelling lacked cohesiveness and punch. That’s an issue in the writing, also done by Dionisio and Garcia, who may have taken on too much as directors, writers, and choreographers of Outside the Bachx.

That’s atypical for a Kennedy Center commission for young audiences, which has previously produced gems like The Gift of Nothing and Orphie and the Book of Heroes.

Alan KatzDC Theatre Scene

Neve Shalom Synagogue


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The dome of Neve Shalom Synagogue

The dome of Neve Shalom Synagogue

The construction of Neve Shalom Synagogue, the central and largest Sephardic synagogue in the Galata neighborhood of Istanbul, today encompassed by the Beyoğlu district, was completed in 1951 by architects Elyo Ventura and Bernar Motola. At its opening, Chief Rabbi Rav Rafael Saban expressed his wish that it would be “not only a place to pray, but a place where the rich and poor, the young and old, the ignorant and the learned could gather and meet in a spirit of brotherhood and sincere equality.” In 1992 a prayer of thanks was offered to the Turkish nation on the five hundredth anniversary of their acceptance of the Jewish refugees who had been driven from their original homes into these new lands.

On 26 February 2015, as part of the the music series “Bach Before & After,” Sigiswald Kuijken will present a program featuring Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas (BWV 1001-6) at Neve Shalom Synagogue.

Gülşah DarkDaily Sabah

Is There Inherited “Genius” in the Bach Family Tree?


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Johann Sebastian, Carl Phillipp Emanuel, Johann Christian, Wilhelm Friedemann and Johann Christoph Bach

Johann Sebastian, Carl Phillipp Emanuel, Johann Christian, Wilhelm Friedemann and Johann Christoph Bach

Perhaps as captivating a question as how to define a “genius” in music is whether that genius can be passed down from one generation to the next.

Long before scientists mapped the genome, writers and classical critics pondered the musicians in the Bach family, which spanned seven generations and upwards of twenty eminent musicians, notably including Johann Sebastian, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian.

J. S. Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote in 1802, “If there has ever been a family in which a distinguished predisposition for one and the same art was, so to speak, inheritable, it was most certainly the Bach family.”

In the late 1800s, Italian physician Cesare Lombroso used the Bach family as a case study to further his belief that intellectual qualities such as genius could be passed from parent to child. And before genetics became a mature field of study, Lombroso was far from alone in his assessment of the Bachs – the most famous of which was by Francis Galton in 1863 titled Hereditary Genius. How else would one explain such a concentration of musical talent and accomplishment in one family?

Modern thinking on the topic boils down to the age-old question of nature versus nurture. Certainly the Bach genes might help one of J. S. Bach’s children display the same interest in music as their father, but so might just growing up in a household where music was the family business. Music education opportunities were limited in the Baroque and Classical eras, and all four of J. S. Bach’s children who went onto to be musicians were trained by their father at the St. Thomas School of Leipzig.

C.P.E Bach was also greatly influenced by his godfather and close friend of J. S. Bach, composer Georg Phillipp Telemann. C. P. E. Bach’s access to Telemann is again a question of having the opportunity to be nurtured. Much in the same way the son of a banker might get an internship at a bank because of his father’s connections, bearing the Bach family name undoubtedly afforded a member more opportunity and guidance in their career than any other aspiring composer born in Germany in the 1700s.

It’s also worth pointing out that while the Bach family is held up as a case study where musical talent was passed down, there are any number of descendants of recognized musical geniuses that didn’t exactly carry on the family name. Historians agree that Mozart’s son Franz Xaver Wolfgang only achieved moderate success as a performer and composer. The prospect of being compared to his father plagued Franz much of his life, and the epitaph on his grave read, “May the name of his father be his epitaph, as his veneration for him was the essence of his life.”

A 1993 study by K. Anders Ericsson suggested that there was nothing special in the Bach family tree. Ericsson argued that experts were made rather than born, and his theory was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers as the ten-thousand-hour rule (referring to the number of hours of practice required to make anyone an expert.) This suggestion marked a stark departure from nineteenth-century scientists like Galton who thought the Bach’s family success was evidence of an inherited genius.

However, most studies now suggest that it is neither all nature nor all nurture, but some level of both that determines success. In 2009, geneticist Irma Jär­velä in Helsinki gave musical aptitude tests to subjects with no musical training who were related to musicians. The study found that about half of the variation in test results could be explained by heritability or genetics.

A study in July by researchers from Princeton, Rice and Michigan State universities looked at the role of practice in musical ability. Brooke Macnamara, who worked on the study, said that practice certainly played a role in ability but there are other factors including traits that are likely to have been passed down from parent to child.

“Maybe it’s culturally based to some extent,” Macnamara said of why she thought the ten-thousand-hour rule became so popular. “I think it’s a very American kind of idea that, ‘just work hard enough and you can achieve anything.’ It’s very egalitarian, so people really like that idea.”

So was there some inherited “genius gene” passed through the Bach family? After a few centuries of back and forth, the modern consensus is that there probably were some helpful traits passed through seven Bach generations of musicians, but there were also more opportunities to be nurtured that came with bearing that family name.

Ricky O’BannonBaltimore Symphony Orchestra

Milhaud’s Création


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Darius Milhaud in 1926

Darius Milhaud in 1926

This weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts (beginning on Thursday, 19 February 2015, conducted by Stéphane Denève) include the stylized jazz of Darius Milhaud‘s score for the 1923 ballet La création du monde. Commissioned by the Ballets Suédois, a short-lived rival to the more famous Ballets Russes, La création du monde joined a long line of artworks and spectacles in which European artists leveraged the perceived frisson of non-European cultures. Africa inspired La création du monde: writer Blaise Cendrars fashioned a scenario from African creation myths he collected for his Anthologie nègre; artist Fernand Léger based his set and costume designs on African sculpture. The goal was less authenticity than shock. (Milhaud recalled Léger rejecting designs because they were “too bright and ‘pretty-pretty.’”)

Milhaud brought jazz into the mix. He missed the first Parisian vogue for jazz (he was in Brazil, serving as secretary to the French ambassador, playwright Paul Claudel), but was smitten after hearing it in London; he later traveled to New York and visited jazz clubs in Harlem. Jazzy touches were already commonplace back in Paris, but Milhaud wanted something closer to the source. He favored the tumult of the improvisation he heard in Harlem over the tightly arranged stylings of the largely white bands that played in Europe; La création du monde is fully composed, but its Baroque-inspired prelude-and-fugue form was designed to capture jazz’s contrapuntal frenzy. Milhaud was determined to get the sound right, limiting the strings to single players – letting winds, piano, and percussion dominate – and prominently featuring the saxophone, its tone (as Milhaud described it) “squeezing the juice out of dreams.”

The score also preserves a fluid moment in the history of art. As the twentieth century progressed, modernism and popular culture became adversaries, but, at the time of La création du monde, modernists could engage with pop on terms that were equal parts celebration and sabotage. Milhaud’s music pushes against both sides: the orchestra sounds like a jazz band, the jazz band plays like Bach, Bach underpins a pagan ritual, the ritual fuels Parisian fashion. Every element tries to reshape every other by force of collision. (Not incidentally, La création du monde premiered on a double bill with Within the Quota, scored by Cole Porter.)

The revolution didn’t pan out – commercial forces commodified jazz, cosseted classical music into plush escapism, and ensured a long estrangement between pop and the avant-garde. But La création du monde still shouts an objection with atypical style.

Matthew GuerrieriThe Boston Globe

A Farewell to Bach


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A drawing by Eliane Gerrits

A drawing by Eliane Gerrits

My friend’s husband recently died, so on a foggy February morning, I ask her over for a cup of tea. “Oh, no, please come to my house instead,” she says, “and you can still see Bach’s portrait before it goes forever to Leipzig.”

Bach’s portrait in her house?

Bach sat for only two portraits in his lifetime. One is in poor condition. The other, painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 1746, is in excellent condition just a few blocks away from me in Princeton.

An elderly gentleman who introduces himself as the “house manager” lets me into my friend’s house. “Madame is still getting ready,” he says. “Make yourself at home.” Curious, I look around the crowded living room, which is a cross between a church and a library.

Half of the room is occupied by a gleaming Holtkamp organ. Under a glass plate is a handwritten musical score with the name: Johann Sebastian Bach, signed with a flourish. On a lectern is an open Gutenberg Bible.

Suddenly, I am standing face-to-face with perhaps the greatest composer who ever lived. I know the famous portrait from the jackets of the old record albums my father used while preparing music for his church, and then later on from CD covers and busts sitting on pianos around the world.

Bach was sixty-one when his portrait was done. He is a stout man with a double chin and an unhealthily ruddy skin. He wears a white blouse with sleeves puffed at the wrists; over it is a black jacket with hard buttons. On his head, like a weird hat, is a white wig. In his right hand he holds a tiny piece of sheet music. On it is written, “Canon triplex á 6 Voc.”

Then Judith enters, the widow of musicologist and philanthropist Bill Scheide, who died in November at the age of one hundred. She is momentarily distracted, shuffling around the room, but when she sees me in front of the painting, she brightens.

“Ah,” she says, “you’ve already met him.”

The house manager brings in a tray of tea, and Judith takes a sip. “Bill bought this painting sixty-two years ago,” she says. “It was his most prized possession. Our mornings always started here, in this room, with the music of Schubert. Bill said that listening to Schubert first gave him permission to listen the rest of the day to Bach.”

I had heard about the wave of emotion in church during Bill Scheide’s funeral when Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major was played. Arthur Rubinstein called this composition “the gateway to heaven” and wished to have it played at his own funeral.

“He looks very serious, huh?” Judith says, with a glance at Bach, “but he was a gentle man.” She then sits at a Bösendorfer piano which I had completely overlooked.

“Whoever makes music, makes something of love,” she says as she opens the Notebook for Anna Magdelena Bach. As we listen to Bach’s Bist du bei mir (BWV 508) playing in the background, Judith seems to turn into a girl. Bach, who watches from the wall, is suddenly no longer the pompous man with the quizzical look that Haussmann gave him but a distant third husband watching his much younger wife.

I listen to the song’s words and think of my father, who died three years ago today: “Be thou with me, and I will go gladly to my death and my rest.”

“It is time that the cantor of St. Thomas Church return to Leipzig,” Judith says, looking softly at the painting. “But how I will miss him.”

Pia de JongThe Huffington Post

Bach via Mendelssohn


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Upper volume of the Girard College Chapel

The upper volume of the Girard College Chapel

From the opening chorus of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244b), audiences at the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia performance at Girard College on Sunday [8 February 2015] will be hearing something a bit alien.

Instead of a children’s chorus sailing over the top of the grand double-choir interchange, adult operatic voices among the vocal soloists will be in their place. During recitatives, the typical harpsichord won’t be heard.

Who is responsible for these hard-to-explain decisions?

The chorus’ namesake, Felix Mendelssohn, who rescued the St. Matthew Passion from roughly a century of obscurity in 1829 with a performance adjusted to his nineteenth century, as opposed to Bach’s eighteenth.

“It’s still a beautiful artistic gesture,” said longtime Mendelssohn Club music director Alan Harler, who is retiring at the end of this season. “If you can change your thinking . . . and listening, we’re replicating a version that was more about how people in the Romantic period heard this music.”

Though Mendelssohn was used to hearing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 846-93) played among his ultra-literate family for recreational purposes, the rest of the world had changed so much that, while planning his St. Matthew Passion performance, he was told the audience would never sit through anything so long – about three hours – and complicated.

So they weren’t asked to, because of changes so radical they signify a meeting of two musical minds separated by a century, something like Mozart’s orchestration of Handel’s Messiah.

“At some point, somebody would have rediscovered the St. Matthew Passion and performed it,” said Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd at Duke University. “But you had to have . . . somebody who could pull it off, musically speaking. And Mendelssohn was wired for Bach.”

The famous 1829 Berlin performance, conducted by a then-twenty-year-old Mendelssohn, cut roughly half the piece. Harler wouldn’t touch that version, opting for the 1841 Leipzig edition, which restored many cuts.

“This version is a whole and complete work of art,” Harler said. “I have to believe that. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this.”

The evolution from 1829 to 1841 leaves even the brightest scholars a bit baffled. In the earlier outing, Mendelssohn used keyboard accompaniment for the recitatives – not the kind of instrument Bach would have known, but still closer than the two cellos and a bass accompanying the recitatives in 1841, when Mendelssohn presumably had a greater understanding of the piece. And though he probably could have had a children’s choir in that second performance, Mendelssohn chose to stick with the 1829 Berlin approach of having the vocal soloists sing their part.

Roughly forty-five minutes of the piece were still missing in 1841, and theories abound as to what guided that cutting process. Some say Mendelssohn, born Jewish but a Lutheran convert, was on the lookout for anything that smelled of anti-Semitism. A more subtle theory suggests that a more emotional experience, as opposed to the old idea of faith as an act of self-discipline, guided the cuts. In any case, the version is rather less reflective.

A longtime admirer of the St. Matthew Passion, Harler was drawn to the Mendelssohn edition because it allows the large choral forces of his 140-voice Mendelssohn Club – as opposed to the much smaller, historically accurate performances now championed by Choral Arts Philadelphia.

Only in recent years, though, were scores and parts published that made modern performances even possible – which explains why Sunday’s performance is the U.S. premiere of the Mendelssohn version. To better understand Mendelssohn’s journey with the piece, Harler traveled to Oxford, England, to examine his original score, urged on by his Bach advisor, Koji Otsuki, who studied with the famous Japanese Bach specialist Masaaki Suzuki. “It’s really important to see what Mendelssohn thought, what he really wanted to do and, in the end, what he accomplished,” he said.

Studying such documents is a highly intuitive process; what one learns from them can’t always be articulated. One thing Harler observed, though, was the care taken with modifications, often delineated in the lightest of pencil marks – gray for 1829, red for 1841. Perhaps Mendelssohn knew that Bach would have to adopt outer garments that didn’t entirely fit until succeeding generations became more accustomed to his works – and more curious about what they originally sounded like.

“I think Mendlssohn understood the sweep of the piece,” Harler said, “even if having one hundred forty singers makes a racket that Bach never would have heard.”

The event has turned into a major opportunity for the Mendelssohn Club: The group received its largest-ever grant – $240,000 from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage – including money for a documentary film on the subject.

Musically, Mendelssohn Club stands a good chance of making a strong case for for the edition, partly due to the group’s continual artistic upswing over the past decade. Also, Sunday’s performance has a lineup of soloists that would be the envy of much higher-profile organizations: soprano Susanna Phillips, mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, tenor Yusuke Fujii, and, most of all, bass-baritone Eric Owens, who recently performed in a staged version of the St. Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic.

However seasoned the soloists may be, this promises to be a Bach outing unlike any other they’ve done. Admits Harler: “A few have expressed their dismay at certain places.”

David Patrick StearnsPhiladelphia Inquirer

The Mahan Esfahani Challenge


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Mahan Esfahani

Mahan Esfahani

Ten years ago Mahan Esfahani was by his own account a nerdy anorak at Stanford University, obsessively tutoring himself with the aid of old records in the hope of realizing what seemed an impossible dream – to make his living on that Cinderella of keyboard instruments, the harpsichord.

A few months ago, now thirty, he carried off the award for Gramophone magazine’s Baroque instrumental album of the year, and the Guildhall School has appointed him professor of harpsichord. Not bad from a standing start, and for a total outsider. But perhaps – in addition to exceptional talent, and sheer slog – that outsiderness is the key.

When he was four, he and his parents left Tehran to join the Iranian expatriate community in America, where making good financially was the imperative. Mahan started playing the piano at six and developed an obsession with Bach from the moment he was first given the score of a two-part invention. “The counterpoint sounded so exotic as to be almost Chinese, and so logical” – he dashes over to my piano to demonstrate – “that I knew I was going to spend a lot of time with music like that. Something clicked for me.”

But his parents wanted him to be a doctor, and at Stanford he started a pre-med course, only to realize after two lectures that it wasn’t for him. Law was their next idea – “as I like talking” – but he gravitated instead to the organs and harpischords of the music faculty and began to immerse himself in scores, contemporary accounts of Baroque music-making and the recordings of his heroes, with the great harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, who had been virtually self-taught, prominent among them.

His next eureka moment came when he heard a recording by that sacred monster of harpsichordism, Wanda Landowska: “And I realized why the Bach I had been playing and hearing had never sounded quite right. I now know that she wasn’t particularly ‘authentic,’ but to me she got the spirit of Bach, and I think he would have nodded in approval if he’d heard her play. What I like about her is [that she doesn’t] let a set of prescribed rules for performance practice dictate what [she’ll] do with the music.”  This is said with a pugilistic fire to which we will return.

Without a harpsichord of his own, and with no agent or sponsor, he knocked about playing to anyone who would listen until 2008, when an invitation came out of the blue to join up as a BBC New Generation Artist. “They’d been quietly watching me. They said it need not entail much, and I wouldn’t have to live in London; I’d just do a couple of projects per year. I replied that I didn’t actually have a career, I didn’t have any concerts planned, and I had no income, so why didn’t I just come to Britain? And I presented them with a long list of projects I could do. I came here to live, and one thing led to another.” One of the perks of the scheme was a Wigmore recital which got him his first-ever reviews (one of them by me). “That was my first properly paid concert – when I got the check from the Wigmore I’d never seen that much money, £1,800! I thought – wow – I could really make this work.”

But he’s not averse, when necessary, to biting the hand that feeds him, and the BBC’s obsession with presenting the musicians of the past as being “just like us” makes him bristle with scorn. “That’s really dumb – people in the past were very different. If you ever found your grandmother’s habits strange, how could you seriously imagine that you could understand people who lived three centuries ago? We laugh when we hear recordings from eighty years ago, so how can we possibly claim to know how music was played in the much more distant past?”

More ire is directed at the early-music industry. Disdaining the conventional keyboardist’s tight-arsed silence – “This isn’t a gun club, it’s music!” – he talks to his audience, illuminatingly and amusingly, between the pieces he performs: he may be a serious musicologist, but he wears his learning lightly.

Get him on prevailing attitudes to his instrument, and he really takes off, becoming very exercised about critics who, while praising his recordings, add the ritual rider that his playing “transcends the harpsichord’s limitations.” “If someone comes up to me on Twitter and says they hate the harpsichord, I always offer them a free ticket, saying come and see what you think. And nobody has ever said afterwards that they didn’t like it. They say ‘I didn’t know that it could sing like that’. But of course it can, it’s an incredibly vocal instrument. Its sound is clear and precise, and has a great deal of color.” And the spurious contest between harpsichord and Steinway should emphatically not, he argues, be seen in terms of decibels. “That shirt you are wearing is not a ‘loud’ shirt, but it has a lot of colors in it, it’s loud in a different way. The harpsichord enables you to hear much more subtlety, and it has a sensual quality. If any pianist wants to slam it” – and one prominent pianist routinely does – “be ready to have a public discussion with me, and have a piano and a harpsichord ready on stage.” Any takers?

This engaging contrarian is full of future plans, including a Scarlatti splurge, new commissions for his instrument, and – something really original – commissioning a keyboard that will allow Persian tuning. He leads a dedicated life, practicing most of the day and reading fiction by the great Russian masters plus his favorite American novelist, Philip Roth. ‘“An American Jew, he speaks to me as an Iranian – the irony, the overbearing mother, the guilt complex.” How Iranian does Esfahani feel? The answer comes out like machine-gun fire: “I’m sentimental, quick to judge, and quick to apologize; I’m a loyal friend; I like good food; and I hang on every word from my mother. Yes, I’m very Iranian.”

And his ultimate ambition? “To record on the harpsichord every keyboard piece Bach wrote. I reckon it will take me twenty years.” That’s him sorted, then.

Michael Church – The Independent

Another Bock for Bach


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BockcropBetsy Gwinn and Alex Tiedtke of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park [FL] recently learned of a three-hundred-year-old letter Bach wrote to a friend proclaiming his love for a barrel of beer he had received as a gift. So, to help celebrate the festival’s eightieth anniversary, Gwinn and Tiedtke approached Cask & Larder head brewers Larry Foor and Garrett Ward to see if they could brew a bock beer similar to the one with which Bach was so smitten.

The happy result: Brandenburger Bock, a unique and harmonious collaboration that pays homage to the master composer and beer lover.

Cask & Larder will tap the special brew at 3pm on Saturday, 7 February 2015. But it gets even better: members of the Bach Festival Choir will be on hand to serenade the crowd with traditional German beer hall songs. The party is scheduled to last until 6pm and will feature happy hour prices on the special release.

The Brandenburger Bock release party will feature a special German-themed food menu to pair with $3 pints. The limited-edition beer will be sold in to-go “crowler cans” and will be available on tap at Cask & Larder until it runs out.

Cask & Larder

The Legacy of Jaroslav Pelikan


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Jaroslav Pelikan

Jaroslav Pelikan

It has been nearly ten years since Jaroslav Pelikan died and a full twenty-five since he completed The Christian Tradition, his five-volume, 2,100-page history of “what the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the Word of God.” Who was Jaroslav Pelikan, and why does his work remain so important for serious Christian scholarship today?

Pelikan loved to quote this line from Goethe, his favorite poet: “What you have received as heritage, take now as task and thus you will make it your own.” Pelikan’s remarkable scholarly career was rooted in his Slavic family background. Both of his parents were born in Europe. His father and grandfather were Lutheran pastors. His mother was a school teacher who learned English by reading the essays of Emerson. They bequeathed to young Jary, as he was called, both a love for learning and a desire for God.

When he was a little boy and couldn’t quite reach the dinner table, his parents had him sit on stacked-up volumes of Migne’s Patrologia, a collection of patristic writings in the original languages. He later quipped, “I thus absorbed the church fathers a posteriori!” His facility with languages was astounding—not only the classical tongues of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew but also German, Slovak, Czech, Dutch, Russian, Serbian, all the romance languages, and many more. On occasion he would stay up late at night listening to a short-wave radio to keep fresh his language skills—including Albanian, which he once found useful in a conversation with a taxi driver.

Pelikan’s deep religious faith was nurtured on Luther’s Small Catechism, the great chorales of J. S. Bach, and, above all, the Bible. Each of these – Luther, Bach, and the Bible – would play a major role in his scholarly work. Though he became an ordained Lutheran minister and once taught at Concordia Theological Seminary, Pelikan spent most of his life in the environs of the secular academy. But he never lost the rich faith he received as a small child. As he once confessed, “I was quite out of step with many in my generation, especially among theological scholars at universities, in never having had fundamental doubts about the essential rightness of the Christian faith, but having retained a continuing, if often quite unsophisticated, Slavic piety.”

A precocious Pelikan received both his seminary degree, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, in 1946 at age twenty-two. His first book, From Luther to Kierkegaard, came out a few years later (1950). Soon Pelikan established himself as one of the most prolific Luther scholars of his generation. He was general editor for the 55-volume American Edition of Luther’s Works and wrote a separate volume on Luther’s biblical exposition. Pelikan always had a great interest in ecumenical affairs. His book The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (1959), written on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, offered an irenic introduction to the world’s largest Christian community.

It is said that Karl Barth drew up a plan for his “collected works” at age ten! Just so, Pelikan had a clear, detailed plan of what he called his “big book” early in his career. He would write a comprehensive history of Christian doctrine. No one had attempted such a grand project since Adolf von Harnack, the great scion of German liberal Protestantism, who published his massive History of Dogma in the late nineteenth century. Pelikan greatly admired Harnack, whose picture he kept on his study wall along with that of the great Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. Harnack, however, for all his erudition, had little sympathy with the doctrinal content of his subject and presented a version of Christianity freed from the dogmatic shackles of the past. Pelikan, working with the same historical rigor, approached his subject with much more sympathy. As he put it, “I found, not in theological liberalism and historical relativism (as so many of my predecessors, teachers, contemporaries did) but in tradition and orthodoxy, the presupposition from which to interpret any portion or period.”

Robert Louis Wilken recognized this trait in his former teacher. Shortly after Pelikan’s death in 2006, Wilken wrote in a moving tribute titled Jaroslav Pelikan, Doctor Ecclesiae: “Pelikan knew, and his scholarship demonstrated, what many Christian theologians and church leaders have forgotten, that over the Church’s long history, the orthodox and catholic form of Christian faith . . . has been the most biblical, the most coherent, the most enduring, the most adaptable, and yes, the most true.”

As a capstone to his lifelong interest in the central texts of the Christian faith, Pelikan edited (with Valerie Hotchkiss) what could only be called a second magnum opus – Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, a four-volume critical edition with a one-volume historical and theological guide called simply Credo.

Judaism has its shema, and Islam its shahadah, but Christians, responding to Jesus’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” have produced literally thousands of statements of faith across the centuries. Pelikan’s collection includes several hundred of these, among them The Masai Creed from Kenya. This creed Africanizes Christianity by declaring that Jesus “was always on safari doing good.” It also declares that after Jesus had been “tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died, he laid buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended unto the skies. He is the Lord.”

This creed was brought to Pelikan’s attention by one of his students, a woman who had been a member of a religious order working in a hospital in East Nigeria. Pelikan commented on his reaction to this text: “And so she brought it to me, and I just got shivers, just the thought, you know, the hyenas did not touch him and the act of defiance – God lives even in spite of the hyenas.”

Pelikan dealt with many deep and difficult subjects in his scholarly work, but he wrote in a simple, elegant style with a clarity that is compelling. He had a way of capturing profound truths in short, unforgettable statements. Among his most memorable are these: “Jesus Christ is too important to be left to the theologians”; “Everybody else is an expert on the present. I wish to file a minority report on behalf of the past”; and “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Though he never quite matched the popular appeal of his Yale predecessor, Roland H. Bainton, some of Pelikan’s books did reach a wider audience, including his Jesus Through the Centuries and Whose Bible Is It?

On 25 March 1998, the Feast Day of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pelikan and his wife Sylvia were received into the fellowship of the Orthodox Church in America. Pelikan remarked that while some might have been shocked by his act, few who knew him well could have been surprised. As he put it, “Any airplane that circled the airport for that long before landing would have run out of gas!” Indeed, Pelikan’s tilt toward the East can be traced back to his Slavic roots, his love for the Eastern liturgy, his close friendship with the Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky, and the sheer joy that permeates the pages of The Spirit of Eastern Christendom, the second volume of his history of doctrine. He spent the last years of his life serving on the Board of Trustees of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, where he is still held in great affection and esteem.

I never had Jaroslav Pelikan as a classroom teacher, but I was one of his students, as everyone seriously interested in Christian history has to be. As a young student of historical theology, I once determined to read everything Pelikan had written. It is a daunting task, let me assure you: A 1995 bibliography of his works, which does not include his last prolific decade, runs to some fifty printed pages. He was a generous colleague and friend and a great encourager.

Since 1962, Pelikan had taught at Yale University and served for a while as Dean of the Graduate School there. He thrived in the world of the arts and sciences and wrote learnedly about art, politics, law, poetry, educational theory, and public ethics, as well as history and theology. But he did all of this as a scholar who was also a Christian. Jaroslav Pelikan had a love for all things human and humane, and his work still enriches every person who looks at the world with intellectual curiosity and moral imagination. But his legacy shines especially bright among those who follow Jesus Christ, belong to his church, and see the world through the eyes of the Savior’s love.

Pelikan’s Bach Among the Theologians concludes with a chapter titled “Johann Sebastian Bach – Between Secular and Sacred.” Pelikan points out here that Bach began his compositions by writing Jesu Juva (Jesus, help) and closed them by writing Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone be the glory). These are also good grace notes for one of the most diligent and faithful scholars the church has known in recent times.

Timothy GeorgeFirst Things

Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Piano


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Bartolomeo Cristofori in 1726

Bartolomeo Cristofori in 1726

The names that come to mind at the mention of the Italian Renaissance are the likes of the House of Medici, Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo. Few, however, know the name Bartolomeo Cristofori, an accomplished craftsman who lived and worked during that era. You may not know his name, but you do know his greatest invention – the “harpsichord with loud and soft,” better known today as the piano.

Little is known of Cristofori’s family or childhood, other than that he was born in 1655 and grew up in the town of Padua, located in the Republic of Venice. As an adult, besides working on a variety of instruments, he notably was as a harpsichord maker. In this line of work, at the age of thirty-three, he attracted the attention of Ferdinando de Medici, the son and heir to Cosimo de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Medici hired Cristofori to help maintain the instruments in his vast collection, as well as to try and come up with some new ones.

Cristofori, however, was initially not interested in the position. In one of the few records we have of the man, he noted that “the prince was told that I did not wish to go; he replied that he would make me want to.” It came to pass that Cristofori was started at a salary greater than his predecessor, making twelve scudi per month, and was given a fully furnished house that included the tools he’d need to make and maintain instruments. Eventually, he was also given his own workshop and two assistants, rather than having to share space with other craftsmen who worked for Medici.

Before Cristofori invented the piano, there was a decided lack of stringed instruments with a keyboard that could offer a range of musical expression and was suitable for public performances. The main options at the time consisted of the harpsichord and the clavichord. Both instruments work by pressing a key on the keyboard resulting in the corresponding string being plucked. The main issue with these was that the volume of the harpsichord could not be be increased or decreased while it was being played, and the clavichord was simply much too quiet to satisfy an audience of any size. As such, it was typically used by musicians for composition and practice. Notably, the design of the piano overcame both of these issues.

As for when Cristofori invented what is today known as the piano, an inventory of the Medici’s musical instruments from 1700 reveals that the first piano was created by this date:

A large Arpicembalo by Bartolomeo Cristofori, of new invention that produces soft and loud, with two sets of strings at unison pitch, with soundboard of cypress without rose . . .

“Arpicembalo” more or less meant an instrument that resembles a harpsichord (literally: “harp-harpsichord”). The actual date of invention is thought to have been between 1698 and 1699, and Cristofori may have been working on the instrument as early as 1694. However, it was not revealed to the public until much later, in 1709.

The invention became known as the pianoforte after the Italian for “soft” and “strong.” It was described as this in the aforementioned original inventory listing as “che fa’ il piano, e il forte,” and in 1711 a journalist also publicly called the instrument a “harpsichord with soft and loud,” or “gravicembalo col piano e forte” (gravicembalo being a corruption of the Italian name for the harpsichord – clavicembalo). As the ability to make notes softer or louder while playing was one of the distinguishing features of the instrument, it caught on. Later, of course, the name was shortened to simply “piano.”

Drawings and descriptions of the original piano design were published in 1711, and instrument makers all over Europe began attempting to recreate Cristofori’s innovative instrument, most notably Gottfried Silbermann of Germany. Silbermann was so well known for his work with the piano that he is sometimes incorrectly named its inventor. In truth, while Silbermann played a pivotal role in the history of the piano and invented the forerunner of the modern damper pedal, he relied heavily on Cristofori’s designs to create his own version of the instrument, with this first version seeming to have been made in 1732, about a year after Cristofori’s death.

According to eighteenth century musician Johann Friedrich Agricola, however, Silbermann’s early work in the piano wasn’t completely satisfactory. After crafting his first instrument, Silbermann had Johann Sebastian Bach try it out, to less than glowing reviews. Bach’s criticism of the device spurred Silbermann to develop a better piano, this time attempting to copy Cristofori’s later designs from the 1720s that included most of the features included in modern pianos. After copying this version and having Bach try it out, Bach changed his tune on Silbermann’s workmanship. Among a few other pieces of evidence perhaps lending some credence to Agricola’s story, or at least the part that Bach liked Silbermann’s later incarnations of the instrument, a receipt from 8 May 1749 shows that Bach helped Silbermann sell one of his instruments.

In any event, after he invented the piano, it is thought that Cristofori continued to work for the Medici family, despite the death of Ferdinando in 1713. Cristofori ultimately died in 1731 at seventy-six, spending the latter portion of his life primarily attempting to improve upon the piano.

Three of Cristofori’s pianos survive to this day. The oldest, dating to 1720, is located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The other two, also dating from the 1720s, reside at the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome and the Grassi Museum für Musikinstrumenten in Leipzig.

Sarah StoneToday I Found Out


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