Melchizedek and the Magi

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Two seemingly peripheral figures in the pages of Scripture look somewhat enigmatic when viewed alone. But they begin to glow with meaning when considered together. In contrast to the two towering protagonists – Abraham and Christ – who stand at the center of the main Old and New Testament stories, these two ostensibly minor figures are totally subsidiary – only members, one might say, of the supporting cast. Still, for a few moments, their episodes in the overall narrative almost steal the show.

No one is more decisive for the whole Old Testament story than the patriarch of patriarchs, Abraham. Three world religions are often termed “Abrahamic” because of the founding importance they give to this man and his deeds. Genesis 12-25 tells of grand occurrences in his life, such as his journey to Canaan from Ur of the Chaldees, his battles with formidable foes, the great Promise he receives, the miraculous pregnancy of his aged wife and the mysterious Sacrifice he was summoned to make but prevented from performing – all of these stand in high profile as we meditate upon the man Christians have come to call the “Father of our Faith.”

From Abraham’s loins will come the Chosen People, and for Christians finally the Church. Understanding him to be the great father, the point of departure of the story of salvation, would seem to be compromised by placing anyone else over and above him. However, this does seem to happen in a couple of verses (18-20) in chapter 14:

“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed [Abraham] and said: ‘Blessed be Abram by God most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”

No more mention is made of this mysterious figure in the Old Testament. Or almost none. There is an exception in one striking poetic reference in Psalm 110. It is brief, but it blows open the implications of this king/priest who intrudes almost illogically into the Abrahamic narrative:

“…From the womb of the morning like dew your youth will come to you. The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.'”

Christian theologians have struggled to understand this “order,” this sacerdotal lineage, prior to and thus superior to the Levitical line which still lay in the loins of Abraham. What seemed most logical was to identify Melchizedek as a figure of Christ. That might have been enough. However, the Letter to the Hebrews only adds to the mystery in its chapters 5-7. Anyone who takes the New Testament seriously has to give due attention to what is written there. For example:

“…He [Melchisedek] is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days,  nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest for ever. See how great he is!…” (Hb. 7, 3-4)

Some Hebrew traditions identified him with Shem, son of Noah, whose descendents would indeed include Christ himself. Sounds promising, but unfortunately we know Shem’s geneology all too well, whereas Melchizedek is supposedly without one. Again, some early Christian theologians assumed he was a pre-Incarnational epiphany of Christ himself. But if there is a “pre-Incarnational” Christ at work in the ancient world, this will inevitably open up a number of questions regarding non-Christian religions, most notably the most developed and primordial religions of the East.

From other quarters, esoteric speculations have identified Melchizedek with everyone from Hermes Trismegistus to Enoch and even Zoroaster. Documents are too scarce to confirm or give the lie to any of these identifications. But their variety does give witness to what everyone senses: whoever Melchizedek was, he was extraordinarily important.

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The Biblical dramas – from both Old and New Testaments – do not unfold in Europe. From the beginning to the end they occur in the East, or in what is certainly to the east of the region that will one day be known as Europe. Even Eden was “in the east” (Gn. 2,8), and after the Fall, the cherubim were placed “at the east of the garden of Eden…to guard the way to the tree of life.” (3,24) Of course, St. Paul will venture across the Aegean and finally to Rome, but by then the Gospel drama will have achieved its climax.  Paul was just a courrier of the resultant message. Otherwise, the furthest westward reaches take us only to Egypt – both with the Hebrews themselves before the Occupation and the Holy Family before Nazareth. But few will call ancient Egypt a part of the “West,” however defined.

When surveying the great surges of philosophy and religion that emerged from Greece and Palestine, we don’t always take into consideration the degree of commerce and contact between the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian, Indian and even Chinese worlds beyond. The singularity – indeed, the “exceptionalism” – of both Greek science and art, on the one hand, and Jewish and Christian religion and morals, on the other, can still maintain their profile within the context of a robust east-west cultural osmosis. But the significance of the East has recently moved into new prominence due to modern contact with India and China, and with still evolving research into the common legacies and interactive influences between them and the West.

We are told that Melchizedek was the “king of Salem,” that is “king of peace,” which could mean a particular place or quite possibly a supernatural function. Whether or not Melchisedek actually hailed from east of Canaan, he certainly comes from the fountainhead of all religion, “without father or mother or genealogy,” and in that sense from a symbolic East. When we turn, however, to the Magi in St. Matthew’s Gospel, we stand clearly before representatives of the geographical Orient.

Countries as diverse as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran and even India have claimed them as their own. As always happens with world-changing but mysterious events, traditions and legends have grown apace, with the number of the Magi varying from three to a dozen or more; some will locate the current resting place of their relics near Tehran, others in Cologne. They’ve been given names and grown into integral figures of the Christmas manger scene. Consensus tends to identify them as Zoroastrians from Persia and students of the stars, back in an era in which astronomy and astrology were so interlocked that any separation of the movements and the meaning of the stars was unthinkable. The movements of some of those stars indicated to them that a king was to be born in the west.

These Oriental outsiders were allowed to see and venerate the Messiah before a single Pharisee, Sadducee, Scribe or Priest of the Chosen People could even get close.  And the visit of these men from the East would unwittingly cause the Holy Family to move to the west, to Egypt (thanks to Herod). Decades later, St. Paul would also go west, but the Apostle St. Thomas would go east, all the way to India. With him, followed by subsequent waves of Syrian missionaries, Christianity would bring its graces and grow in Asia long before ever becoming a “European” religion.

Later Portuguese missionaries would change that, of course, and the crucial contributions of St. Paul and then of Greek philosophy and Roman law would enter instrumentally into the formulations and organization of Christian faith throughout the world. But in the East this would only come after more than a millenium of Asian Christianity had told its story to eternity. The now often forgotten Christianity of the East and its legacy is at least as important as the one we Westerners identify as our own. Both Melchizedek and the Magi may have a lot to teach us if we have the good fortune of meeting them in the afterlife. *

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The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age, by Philip Jenkins (HarperOne, 2008) is a good guide to what we have forgotten.

On the Meticulous Ritual of New Year

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Even in my adopted country of Brazil, where a massively endemic unpunctuality rules the land, nearly every soul will be awake, seconds before midnight on Dec. 31, glaring at a clock and scrupulously chanting the countdown to the new civil year. Beginnings of church services, school classes and appointments of all sorts are missed by margins of an hour or more, but the beginning of the new secular year is hit with bull’s-eye precision. The difference between 11:59:59 p.m. on Dec. 31 and 00:00:01 a.m. on Jan. 1 is greeted as a magical and rapturous transfiguration, whereas the difference between Advent and Christmas has all but vanished; and the line between Lent and Easter has faded away as well. The amoeba-like spread of Carnival festivities bears some relationship to Lent, it is true, but Ash Wednesday usually slips (along with the rest of the liturgical year) into the long shadow of Fat Tuesday.

The reason for this is simple. When religion declines, religiosity remains – it just shifts its abode; when transcendence is no longer believed in, the immanent world becomes the shaky support for cult and adoration. Thus we lavish with worshipful devotion and obsessively punctual observance the bland instant in which a 2019 becomes a 2020. It doesn’t even fall on the solstice!

And the ritual is coveted, almost addictively, because we are missing a defining time-marker still inherent in our culture: the cut-off nature of the date of December 25, when the Christ Child is laid in the manger for the first time since last year’s Christmas (instead of being seen in the shopping centers since October), with a neat and dramatic sundering of Christmastide from Advent, and cheerful Christmas songs replacing the longing, wistful Advent tunes sung before the Coming; or, three months later, the chill down one’s spine as a church is totally darkened and the lumen Christi, in the form of one sole candle, enters the sanctuary, followed by dozens of flames in its train. That explosion of light, like a sudden sunrise, begins the Easter vigil. All these soul-filling moments are gone, and accordingly, we lust after secular surrogates.

When holy days become holidays, otherwise uplifting days become “days off,” and our orphaned religious instincts look elsewhere for their rules and rubrics. Religious hymns no longer sung?  How about a national anthem at a sports match, with hands on heart and tears in the eyes (in Brazil, they are actually called national hymns). Tithes all gone?  Let’s declare our income tax before the mystical date of April 30. Forgotten how to pray?  Try intoning one of the politically correct buzzwords of our day and watch the heads bow in reverence. Or maybe blaspheme a bit (after all, it’s just prayer in drag; how many times do you hear “Oh my God!” during the week?).

Now I am not discouraging New Year’s festivities – once-a-year punctuality is better than never (speaking here especially to Brazilians), and the solar (or lunar) year’s inauguration is a hoary tradition that deserves respect. So let us lift a glass indeed. But as we countdown the last gasps of our civil year, let us briefly recall that one day – soon – we will be countdowning our own last gasps, and all those neglected holy days of the year will prove to have been far better training for that final transition than the confetti and champagne of January 1. This New Year could possibly be our Last Year, and our connection with lasting things be far more vital than our distracting innovations. Even though we propose to hail the new and to salute the promises of the future, we are still haunted by the perennial and ancient. “Auld Lang Syne,” after all, simply means “long, long ago.”

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Feast of the Restless Family

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Each time we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, I am reminded of my trip to Egypt, several years ago, and the visits I paid to a few of the multiple Coptic Christian sites dedicated to that Family. The Flight to Egypt (only mentioned by St. Matthew) does receive abundant attention from Christian art, and counts as one of Mary’s Sorrows in the Catholic tradition. It is otherwise somewhat overlooked in the Western church – at least if one is to judge from the prominence it predictably achieved in Egypt. No less than 14 Egyptian sites commemorate that momentous visit with chapels or churches. These mark the resting spots or temporary abodes of the Holy Family as they followed that other Joseph who had also entered Egypt against his will, one and a half millennia before. In due course, they would also follow Moses out of it, although this time they would be carrying the Holy Land with them, in the Child Jesus, rather than looking for it on the other side of the Sea of Reeds.

The sweet peace of the manger scene can lull us into a deceptive comfort. We all love to “be home for Christmas,” but the occasion of our holiday is the commemoration of a homelessness of the most cruel variety. The dirty stall and smelly animals we festoon with colored lights in our domestic manger scenes served as a brief and temporary shelter for these three fugitives. We easily forget the turmoil that followed upon the unexpected pregnancy, and the massacre of innocents brought on by three Eastern star-gazers only asking directions to Bethlehem. The Family’s years in Egypt – the Copts count seven – like the four centuries of the long sojourn of their ancestors, must have been more formative than we tend to imagine.

Jesus would have started to talk in the land of the Nile, and some of the first sights caught by his boyish eyes would be pyramids and pharaonic temples. When safety permits, today’s tourists love to tour Egypt’s exotic monuments and marvel at this culture that has sired a whole science (egyptology). But for Mary and Joseph it must have been more foreboding than fascinating. What thoughts must have gone through the mind of the boy Jesus as his young memory was stocked with these images of the mysterious land of the pharoahs. But somehow it all makes sense. As the Jews became a people in Egypt, and the Old Testament became a book in Babylonia, here too it seems that God often does his “best work'” when his chosen ones are in exile.

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Et Verbum infans factum est (and the Word was made an infant)

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When you look into the eyes of an infant, you see someone who sees something you are no longer able to see. The orbs are clear, free of self-reflection, looking outward at the world as it really is, unclouded by disguise and interpretation (even when they are looking at you – a slightly unsettling thought). Recent studies in child psychology have confirmed what the world’s traditions have always taught, namely, that children know things that get forgotten in the throes of misguided education and the tumult of adolescence.

By the time we are adults, we dismiss those sweet little gazes as childish naivete that will soon have to measure up to the ‘real’ world. But we are wrong. True, Christ does not admonish us to remain children, but he does insist we become like children; and it is that childlike innocence that is held up as a spiritual goal. Still – and this we too often forget – becoming childlike also means knowing certain things only children know. (Take another look at the baby’s face before continuing to read.)

The Incarnation of God is not the work of one more in a series of avatars. Those ‘descended manifestations’ do, in Hinduism, what angels and prophets do in the Bible: they ‘come down’ (the root meaning of avatar), teach or reveal for a while, and then return to whence they came, like the angels; or they speak forth the deep things of God, like the prophets. If an angel takes on the form of a human being, it is only a temporary vehicle, soon to be cast off once the mission is accomplished. They are not God, and do not become man. Prophets are men already, and never become God. In fact, the impossibility of this last is perhaps their most frequent prophetic injunction.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This is certainly the most momentous claim ever made about the fabled Logos. For those who believe it – and nothing is more germane to bare Christian faith – it is a fact so objective, so metaphysical and so severe, it could only become  a scandal (a tripping stone) on which all the world would lose its footing. It bespeaks a God who is not, as most atheists and too many believers hold, just the biggest being in the universe, but rather Transcendent Being Itself. And it bespeaks a human nature that carries an abyss within itself that only such a Being could fill.

You cannot explain the beauty of music by mathematics alone, nor can you account for the look on that baby’s face (take another look) by survival of the fittest alone. Man is a mystery, and his soul is open – both intellectually and volitionally – to the infinite. Into that parabolic opening of the human mystery the Second Person of the Holy Trinity took its own nature, producing the event in time that marked the year zero, and made the “God Who Is” into the Man of Sorrows.  God became man in a full human nature. And since that nature does not exist, as does God’s, in the ever-present moment, it is spread over time and unfolded in space. And like all things in time and space, it begins small, as a child.

In the decades and centuries following Christ’s Ascension, the colossal events of Holy Week and Easter lost some of the edge of their first shock, and the early Christians began to put that Paschal Mystery into context. They pondered the backstory of the early years of the man who died and rose from the dead. Mary was queried more than anyone, and further witnesses of the birth, infancy and youth of Jesus offered their recollections as well. Much of this found its way into the Gospels.

Slowly the story of Christ’s Nativity came into full focus, as it became clear that the fullness of the Godhead already resided in the tiny child lying in the manger. Surrounded by shepherds, overlooked by angels, soon to be hounded by a murderous monarch and visited by mysterious magi from the East, the story of Christmas became the beloved domestic tale we all know so well. It inspired even its secular counterparts in the yuletide midwinter traditions of the north, with all the magical trees of life and festooned colored lights we see each December. But nothing prepared the world’s religious imagination for this last divine wonder: that out of the sweet face of a tiny infant, the God who created the cosmos and hurled the world into a new context by his death and resurrection, would gaze at us, and love us, and lose nothing either of his infinite power as God or of his disarming delicacy as a Child.

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The Silent Night of Fecundity

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Easter is dramatic, and the narrative from Palm Sunday to the Ascension is laden with more twists and turns and ups and downs than anything Aeschylus or even Shakespeare could think up. And there is noise—from the cheers of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem to the jeers of his crucifixion; even the earth quaked at the Resurrection.  On Pentecost, too, “a sound came from heaven,” and soon multiple tongues were filling the air with proclamations of the message that would change the world for ever.  When we come to Christmas, however, there is silence.

Long before the unsettling drama and glory of Easter and the vocal responsibilities of Pentecost, we find a hushed atmosphere around the manger of Bethlehem. And yet something equally moving is before us.  When a child is born, we are urged to be still; the child cannot talk, and adults find themselves to be tongue-tied, or reduced to imitating high-pitch baby blather. And so it is with Christmas. For the mystery of the night Christ was born is a night of the Father, as much as Easter was a morning of the Son and Pentecost a day of the Spirit.

The Father is God in his most recondite and ineffable recesses. He is the mystery before whom we ultimately fall silent. But also in the face of every newborn child we see a mystery that makes us gaze and wonder. At Christmas, God ordained to show his very own power and glory in the face of the Christ-Child. And what is the mystery in this face? What is this secret of the Father?

It is, I submit, fecundity. Whenever we wander close to the matrix of a new human life, we are in the presence of a power far beyond us. Our words falter, and in desperation, even turn vulgar (don’t our worst profanities all have to do with procreation?). This is why we have always instinctively felt that sex ought not to be discussed in the open, not because it is bad, but because it is too good and too near to God’s own trinitarian mystery to be entrusted to our careless words.

The eternal Birth of the Son in the Spirit is the very mystery of the Trinity. The Son’s temporal birth in Bethlehem marks the beginning of the mystery of  Redemption, and that mystery is extended through history only when we allow him to be born also in us. Christmas is all about birth, buds of life and babies. It reminds us that God is alive and that love of life is the beginning of love of God. And only silence has space enough to accommodate the immensity of the miracle.

One day this boy will begin to speak, but the greater part of his time on Earth will be passed in silence, beginning in Nazareth and even during his years of preaching. The sermons of Jesus were not frequent. It’s true that a good number of his words were remembered by the apostles and evangelists and passed on to us in the Gospels; but they were just sparks from the Fire that he was, a divine Fire that only shown for a spell on Earth because it shines forever in eternity. And its supreme mystery is this silent fecundity, like the burning bush in the desert of Sinai, that burned but was never consumed. More important than the words Christ spoke was the Word that he was. Everything worth saying is said in the Being of him who is Truth itself.

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Leaving Troy (rev.)

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The northwestern corner of “Asia Minor” (today’s Turkey) represented to the ancient world the westernmost cusp of the huge, heaving landmass of Asia, stretching behind it all the way to Japan in the north and to New Guinea in the south. Mesopotamia, Persia, India and China all lie there, heavy with millennia of history and culture. And on that intruding tip we find the fabled city of Troy, an undisputed fact of history now that archaeology has unearthed multiple layers of a complex metropolis of almost prehistoric antiquity. From that eastern city of Troy, three voyages would be launched. Each would leave its mark on what would later be known as Europe.

Even the name of the continental newcomer would trace its story back to the East, as the Phoenician princess “Europa” was said to have been ravished by the king of the gods and brought to the shores of Greece. That is myth, which is “penultimate truth.” The three voyages, however, were more palpable than myth, and especially the third.

Our Greek cultural forefathers were forever interacting with the East. Their first great historical work (The Persian Wars, by Herodotus), and their first dramatic masterpiece (The Persians, by Aeschylus), both dealt with the inhabitants of what is today Iran. World history would have looked very different if the Greeks had not triumphed against the massively superior Persian Empire. But the Trojan connection goes even deeper than that. To begin with, that war predates the Persian War by centuries. In the latter war, the Greeks won, but they didn’t conquer; it was a conflict of successful self-defense. In the former war, both winners and losers launched myth- and history-making voyages. Troy haunts the Western imagination not as a defeated enemy, but as the stage of an iconic altercation destined to frame the emerging narrative of Europe from both sides of the contest.

On the winning side, Odysseus leaves Troy and undertakes his fabulous and prolonged voyage home to the peninsular country that – courtesy of the blind bard Homer – was soon to sing his story. Greece would begin to speak not only in sublime epic, lyrical and dramatic verse, but also in an idiom unmatched hitherto on Western lips: philosophical prose. A new wave of naturalistic sculpture would also rise out of that culture, fascinated artistically with the natural curves of the body, just as the new philosophy would be captivated by the natural trajectories of logic. And during this philosophical apotheosis, their distant past heroes’ struggle on that Asian coast would serve as their defining epic recollection. Generations of Greek schoolboys would henceforth memorize their Odyssey and Iliad, and learn what example teaches even to theory.

But that’s only half the story. On the losing side, another tale was told, with a plot just as momentous as that of the victors. Aeneas also left Troy, but he wasn’t going home to a Penelope; he was fleeing a home which was burning to the ground. Odysseus met obstacles when he got home, but he did get home. Aeneas began with obstacles, and they continued as he searched for a new domicile. At long last, he found his new home on the Western shore of Italy: Rome. Thus, Western civilization’s two European fountainheads – Greece with its philosophy and art, and Rome with its law and architecture – both look to a founding saga based on an ancient war on an Asian shore. And since Rome was fated to ultimately conquer Greece militarily (and in some way settle accounts after their forefathers’ defeat at Troy), it would no less decisively be conquered by Greece culturally, blown away by the latter’s love for beauty and wisdom.

Virgil’s Latin Aeneid is already worlds apart from Homer’s two epics in style and tone, although alike in scope and ambition. But the text that will recount the third voyage from Troy is so different from all three epics (and indeed from all earlier literature of any genre), it stands alone in the world of the written word. I refer of course to the New Testament, and to the episode in St. Paul’s missionary travels that brought him to that very tip of Asia that bore the ruins of Troy. It also saw a new literary genre arise without warning, and without precedent. We call it the Gospel.

At that western limit of Asia, St. Paul famously dreams of a Macedonian from across the Aegean Sea, pleading with him to come to the other shore (Acts 16,9). So often in religious history, the “other shore” has symbolized a decisive moment in one’s spiritual life – in Hinduism and Buddhism as a symbol of mosksha or nirvana, in Jainism the transcendent conquest heralded by the tirthankaras (the “ford-makers”). In Paul’s case, he himself is the one who is bringing liberation and enlightenment to that other shore. It is he who is fording the body of water that separates Asia from the Europe-to-be. And to the Hellenic fervor for aesthetics and dialectic, and to sober Roman jurisprudence and stately architecture, a new ingredient was injected. Adding to this civilizational recipe, Paul of Tarsus decided to act on a dream.

Centuries hence, the Celtic, Germanic and Slavic peoples of the north would inherit the fruits of this promiscuous Mediterranean mix, and the Europe we have known since the Middle Ages would begin to rise like a Gothic cathedral. But as the three major components – hailing from Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – begin to interact alchemically, something new in history was afoot. The world was never to look the same. Odysseus’s and Aeneas’s sea crossings were long and sinuous, but Paul’s was swift and direct. Still, all three voyages began in Troy, and all three voyages led – directly or indirectly – to wherever you are sitting right now.

 

Bruckner! (rev.)

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I first listened to Anton Bruckner in the mid-70s, inspired by a Viennese friend of mine in Austria. Amazed at my ignorance of the admittedly odd but formidable Austrian composer, he looked me in the eye with the kind of earnestness one only shows when about to divulge an esoteric and explosive secret. Bruckner’s music is (he proclaimed in German): wunderschön!  He then paused a moment to hold back the tears, and repeated: wunderschön!  In German, that means not just beautiful, but seriously and world-shakingly, tear-jerkingly lovely. I was moved by his insistence and passion, and, although slightly wary of possible Austrian self-promotion, finally overcame the humiliation at having my ignorance exposed. As soon as I could, I got my hands on a cassette tape of Bruckner and slipped it into my Walkman.

Consummate scholar that I was (at 22, I fancied I knew not everything, but almost everything), I decided I must first familiarize myself with the biography of this musical prodigy who had deftly flown beneath my radar for so long.  I ran to whatever encyclopedia or short bio I could find, and quickly came upon the photo you see above. Hmm, I thought, not as classical a look as Bach or Mozart, and not as intimidating as Beethoven or Wagner, nor as handsome as Mahler, and yet he will do. I admitted him to audition for my favorite composers club. But then I learned a bit more about this man, and was taken aback. It almost made me cancel the audition.

I had come upon what seemed to be the consensual low-down on Bruckner – something all the snooty classical music mavens have proclaimed for a century. In effect, they have told us not to waste their time with this cowboy. And they were right about one thing : Bruckner was clearly one of the most uncultured men who ever walked the Austrian Alps. Born in a small mountain village, he spoke an Alpine dialect (when he spoke coherently at all), dressed Salvation Army (with pants cut high, since he played the organ and, he claimed, needed unhindered feet for the pedals). He behaved with a clumsiness and self-effacement that would rival the most abject among our homeless today. He knew next to nothing about history, philosophy, poetry, drama, dance, science, etc. As I said: uncultured. But then he climbed onto the seat at his local church’s organ (and many others thereafter) and promptly morphed, Hulk-like, into a musical giant. Improvisation – arguably the supreme test of high musical endowment – rolled off his fingers with astonishing ease. It is regrettable, in retrospect, that he composed so little for the organ, but I think we can say he made up for it in a big way.black-and-white-buttefly-music-notes-facebook-cover-black-and-830x307

When I finally heard his unfinished 9th (why not start at the top?), I felt like I had just walked into Notre Dame cathedral, and I was enraptured (still am). Later came his 4th (an easier listen), and his accessible and popular 7th. But I hadn’t yet confronted the astounding, surprising, adventuresome 5th – I am in a small minority in my love of this imperfect symphony – let alone submitted my virgin sensorium to arguably the grandest, most demanding and most transformative of all his symphonies, the 8th. By this time, I had become an insufferable Bruckner apologist.

However, as I turned again to those mavens, I noticed – to my shock and disbelief – that this dwarfish musician was regarded, almost universally, as bombastic, disjointed, confused and, above all, incapable of economy (his symphonies are anything but succinct). He is seen by many as a kind of absurdly baptized Wagner; he idolized the German megalomaniacal genius, and the fact that he was, along with Wagner, one of Hitler’s favorites, certainly won him no converts. Add to this that unlike any other 19th century musical celebrity of comparable stature, Bruckner was a devout Catholic, and daily Mass attendant. So – we were soberly told – if it’s  late romanticism that you covet, go to Mahler, and leave this pathetic bumpkin to his self-indulgent musical swamps of piety and pretension.

Despite all this, Bruckner’s music is just too interesting to roundly ignore. The famous orchestral swells are of such transcendent grandeur and sublimity, tears and tears alone will reveal you were really listening. Europe was unable to banish him from its musical repertoire, and he was performed with some regularity, despite the nay-sayers. But he hardly ever crossed the Atlantic. Thus, I was delighted when I recently heard that the Argentine/Israeli pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim – a longtime fan of Bruckner – was honoring the composer in New York City’s Carnegie Hall with a full cycle of his symphonies.  That was earlier this year.

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Barenboim concedes that there are more melodic composers, more architectonic, better orchestrators and, certainly, those more concise and economic in expression. But he tells us also that it is not melody or architecture or orchestration or brevity that draw us to Bruckner. One is drawn to Bruckner by that which drew him to music: his faith. No one else in the 19th century composed more religiously, more spiritually, than Bruckner. No program music here, no poetry, no story, just an archaeological dig for God and the supernatural, as multiply hidden in the world of sound – like veins of gold in the earth. To be sure, his Te Deum and Masses are also works of genius, but it is in his symphonies where something otherworldly is on unmistakable display.

He digs, and digs again, explores and sifts – returning to an earlier spot to dig just a bit more – and then, often in an expectant crescendo, other times in a sudden cloudburst, there is an epiphany unlike anything else in symphonic literature. Nothing can equal those moments. When you know the music, you meditatively wait for them – like all of us wait for God – and grow impatient with Bruckner as the composer searches his heart and the orchestra for just the right convergence of sound and revelation. Bruckner’s organ playing is more visible in the shape of his symphonies than any reliance on Beethoven or even Wagner. In this way he stands alone. Finally, Bach is more consistently superb, Mozart more playful and varied, Beethoven more synthetic and rousing, Brahms more assertive and Mahler more expansive; but Bruckner alone creates a passageway between earth and heaven that reminds us that the beauty beyond is utterly overwhelming, and, for those willing to pursue it, well worth the wait.

(For those new to Bruckner, probably his 4th and 7th ought to be heard first. If you have less patience and want a bit of the best, take in the Adagio of the 8th (or of the 4th, the 5th, the 7th or the 9th….but I recommend the 8th). Of many fine versions, I like the tempo of Herbert von Karajan here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asJf3KmAg08 ; if you want to go straight to the Adagio, jump to 32:15.  There are versions with better sound, but he who seeks will find the one that seeds the glory in his heart.)

death mask Bruckner
death mask of Anton Bruckner