Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Composer Retains His Composure

The Thirty Year' War was, and remains, one of the worst conflicts in human history. The fighting was savage; soldiers killed not only other soldiers, but innocent civilian bystanders as well. Mercenaries switched sides readily, lacking any loyalty to nations or causes, and sometimes amused themselves by torturing harmless noncombatants. In the wake of the bloodshed, famine and disease swept through the area. Entire towns disappeared - the population killed by fighting or disease, valuable and food plundered by soldiers, and buildings and fields burned. The total population in central Europe was reduced by 25% to 40%, and individual kingdoms and regions sometimes lost over two-thirds of their population.

The horror was compounded by hypocrisy - both sides were motivated primarily by greed, yet put forth propaganda which claimed that they were fighting for religious motives. Their rhetoric fooled few: it was clear that the real goals were land, money, and power. It would be those with truly spiritual motives - a collection of Lutherans and Roman Catholics - who would create peace in 1648, negotiating a settlement between worldly monarchs. It was a religious war in name only; those with no spiritual interests starting and fueled the conflict. The truly religious leaders were those who brokered the peace.

In the midst of this horror, amazingly, a series of brilliant thinkers kept the arts alive. During the harshest of times during these three decades, from 1618 to 1648, composers like Michael Praetorius, Melchior Franck, and Michael Altenburg kept the musical and spiritual life of Europe alive. Perhaps the most significant and influential composer of the era was Heinrich Schütz. Heinrich Scheidemann laid important musical foundations for the work of Dieterich Buxtehude. Buxtehude, who would be only eleven years old at the war's end, was able to achieve his stellar successes because men like Scheidemann had kept the arts alive during the war (Buxtehude's first name is variously spelled 'Dietrich' and 'Diderich').

Another creative thinker who endured the suffering of this era was Paul Gerhardt. Professor Uwe Siemon-Netto writes:

For most of his childhood, youth, and maturity, Paul Gerhardt, who was born on March 12, 1607, in Gräfenhainichen, Germany, near Wittenberg, lived through one of the worst calamities of Central Europe - the Thirty Years' War (1618-48). Yet "the religious song of Germany found its purest and sweetest expression" in his hymns, wrote Catherine Winkworth (1837-1878), whose English translations of Gerhardt's verses reflect their purity of thought, beauty, and elegant iambic meter.

While Winkworth's nineteenth century translations now suffer from archaisms, paradoxically, Gerhardt's texts and melodies, two centuries older, strike the eye and ear as fresh. Gerhardt, born in 1607, lived through all thirty years of the war's horrors. While his music reflects the suffering of those years, it also contains a hope which looks beyond them.

A remarkable mix of Trost und Trotz (consolation and defiance) lends Gerhardt's hymns their unique allure, according to Heidelberg theologian Christian Möller. This defiance is directed against pain, while consolation comes from his trust in God's governance and goodness and the knowledge that all torment will pass. Gerhardt's genius lies in his insight that one would not work without the other.

This same thought lies in the works of the other composers who lived through, and composed during, the war. This notion applies also to the decade or two after the end of The Thirty Years' War - the destruction was so great that the region did not recover quickly.

Paul Gerhardt ranks the second-most important crafter of hymns in German Protestantism, after Martin Luther, but he had worthy contemporaries. As the Swedes laid siege to the town of Eilenburg, fellow Saxon pastor Martin Rinckart wrote, "Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices" - and this while burying an average of 50 plague victims every day!

Four hundred years later, works like Rinackart's Nun Danket Alle Gott, Mit Herzen, Mund, und Händen and Gerhardt's Befiehl du deine Wege and Nun ruhen alle Wälder remain frequently performed. The suffering during this era did not end with the peace treaty of 1648. Because the secular aims of the leaders who started the war had been hidden behind empty religious rhetoric, the postwar milieu was bitter. While the real Christians, both Lutheran and Roman Catholic, had worked to end the war and bring peace, the non-Christian leaders who proclaimed themselves to be Christians caused anger and resentment among the public. It was difficult to distinguish between the true peace-seeking Christians and the warmongers who called themselves Christians but were not. Thus the war's misery was followed by a bitter and resentful peacetime. Gerhardt's beautiful music grew out of all this misery and suffering.

There was the Thirty Years' War when Gerhardt lost his parental home. There was the loss of his wife and four of his five children to disease. There was his personal illness. There was the loss of his powerful pulpit at St. Nicholas Church in Berlin due to the political war between Lutherans and Calvinists. Ministers of both attacked each other ferociously in their sermons. In 1665, the Elector Frederick tried to put a stop to that, insisting that Lutheran pastors sign a document pledging not to criticize

the Calvinists, also called the "Reformed" theologians, in contrast to the Lutherans who were "Reformation" theologians. Because both groups were Christian, they shared quite a few common beliefs. But tensions between the two were accented by worldly leaders who saw religion in terms of political influence. Thus an allegedly 'religious' debate was actually amplified by non-religious political leaders, who nudged it from friendly disagreement into societal conflict.

Likewise, the well-intentioned but heavy-handed attempt by the Elector Frederick to resolve the tension resulted merely in a loss of the freedom of religious expression. Preachers were figuratively muzzled. The Elector, so-called because he had a role in selecting the Holy Roman Emperor, lacked both the instinct for religious liberty and the nuanced approach required to deal with sophisticated theological distinctions.

Until that point, Gerhardt had been restrained in his public disapproval of Calvinism. But after the elector's edict, Gerhardt became very outspoken. Though ill, he assembled Berlin's Lutheran pastors at his sickbed, imploring them to remain steadfast in asserting their right to free speech.

Gerhardt was ultimately transferred out of Berlin to work at a church in Lübben, a few miles outside of Berlin.

He later called the loss of his influential position "a small sort of Berlin martyrdom," which was all the more egregious as he was separated from his organist, Johann Crüger, who had put many of Gerhardt's poems to music.

Crüger and Gerhardt collaborated on numerous compositions. Their joint efforts are regarded as some of Gerhardt's best work. An ironic twist revealed to the world the truth about the allegedly religious tensions of the era - that they were not at all rooted in religious, but in worldly power politics - when the value of Gerhardt's hymns was recognized by the Roman Catholic church:

There was also a fascinating ecumenical side to Gerhardt's work. Only 30 years after his death in 1676 in Lübben, then Saxony, Gerhard became perhaps the first Lutheran poet to have a song published in a Roman Catholic hymnal: "O Sacred Head Now Wounded"

was included, a song still considered today to be "perhaps one of Gerhardt's most haunting verses." The inclusion of Gerhardt's work in Roman Catholic hymnal manifested clearly the underlying commonalities between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, and exposed as a fiction the claim that religious differences had led to the war. The misery during the war's thirty years, and the misery in the decade or two afterward, although caused by worldly greed, although falsely labeled a religious war by those who needed an excuse for the conflict, nonetheless served as a spiritual incubator in which enduring works of music were composed.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

And the Whole Earth Was of One Language, and of One Speech

The study of text ultimately includes the study of language, which in turn will include the study of language's history: how did human language come to be? Reading a text, whether in its original language or in translation, will inevitably engage us in the history of language if we read carefully enough. Even something as familiar as "Fourscore and seven years ago" incites us to consider how numbers are relayed through language, and the history and variety of patterns which languages use to transmit numbers.

Linguists generally agree that all human languages are related, descending from one common ancestor. About the universal family tree of all languages, however, further agreement eludes us. There is little consensus, for example, about where or when that one primordial language was spoken, or about its vocabulary or grammatical features. Most controversially, one group of linguists term that primeval language 'Nostratic' and attempt to trace all, or at least most, known languages back to a proto-Nostratic source.

Even among Nostratic theorists, there is not complete consensus; they are far from monolithic in their understanding of language development, and the more cautious among them restrain their claims.

Far less controversial, and in fact uncontested, are the understanding of the sub-families which claim to be parents, not of all or most human languages, but of defined subgroups. The history of Semitic languages, for example, is accepted among academics and tells us that Arabic, Hebrew, Ethiopic Ge'ez, Babylonian, Assyrian, and other languages of the Ancient Near East arose from a common root.

Also widely recognized is the understanding of a group of languages known as Indo-European. Scientists have shown that languages from Sanskrit to English, from Russian to Persian, and from Latin to Greek, are all related in a family which includes German, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Dutch, Flemish, and others. Linguist William Bennett writes:

Indo-European, the common ancestor of most European and some Asiatic languages, has left no written records, nor have its first descendants. At an early period, probably before 2500 B.C., the speech of the Indo-European tribal communities had already become divergent, subsequently developing into parent forms of Indo-Iranian, Greek, Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, Albanian, Armenian, etc.; these in turn were to break up in preliterate times, leaving groups and subgroups of descendant Indo-European languages.

Of special interest to speakers of English is the Germanic group, from which English descended. Both the grammar and the vocabulary of English are largely Germanic, as can be seen by a list of common German/English pairs: Apfel/Apple, Bäckerei/Bakery, Trink/Drink, Tür/Door, Kuh/Cow, Kalb/Calf, Bulle/Bull, Bring/Bring, Brust/Breast, Brot/Bread, Buch/Book, Blau/Blue, Blut/Blood, Band/Band, Ellbogen/Elbow, Finger/Finger, Feuer/Fire, Fisch/Fish, Faust/Fist, Flasche/Flask, Flotte/Fleet, Fleisch/Flesh, and Flur/Floor. Hundreds of other examples can be listed.

Proto-Germanic, the common parent of the Germanic group, had broken up into several dialects before the beginning of our era. Among these was Pre-Gothic, the immediate ancestor of the Gothic language. The essential features of Pre-Gothic, like those of Proto-Germanic and Indo-European, can be determined only through reconstruction.

With painstaking linguistic research, scientists can reconstruct those languages of which we have no written evidence. Knowing, for example, that Danish, Icelandic, Swedish, and Norwegian have a common ancestor, the common features of those languages guide linguists as they work backward to the unattested source language.

As mentioned, while Indo-European linguistic history is relatively undisputed, Nostratic theory is quite contested. According to Robert Wright,

A basic tenet of Nostratics is that Western comparative linguists, in classifying the world's languages and thus tracing their historical lineage, have been too timid. Western linguists, by virtual consensus, consider the largest language family in Eurasia to be Indo-European, which encompasses the languages native to most of Europe and to a stretch of land extending southeast through Iran and India. What this means in historical terms is that all these languages, from English to Bengali, are descended from a single language, "proto-Indo-European," thought to have been spoken at least 5,000 years ago. So far so good, the Nostraticists say. But they then go further and ask the next logical questions: From what language did proto-Indo-European descend, and what other modern language families, if any, are also descended from the proto-proto-language? Most Indo-Europeanists shy away from these questions, citing a lack of evidence.

Just as Indo-European gave birth to several daughter groups - Germanic, Slavic, etc. - so Nostratic had several daughter groups, of which Indo-European is one. The other linguistic children, according to Nostratic theory, were an Afro-Asiatic group which included Semitic, Berber, and Cush; a Kartvelian group which includes Georgian; a Dravidian group which includes Tamil; a Uralic group including Finnish and Hungarian; and an Altaic group including Turkish. In some versions of the hypothesis, the Altaic group includes Japanese or Korean.

Nostraticists are not known for shying away from questions. According to classic Nostratic doctrine, the Indo-European language family is only one of six branches of a much larger family. This "superfamily" - the Nostratic family - extends to the south, covering languages of northern Africa and the Middle East (and languages of India unaccounted for by Indo-European), and well to the north and east, covering scores of languages from Finland through Siberia all the way to Korea and Japan. The idea is that all these languages are offshoots of the proto-Nostratic tongue, spoken by a people who lived more than 10,000 years ago. Nostraticists, through the arcane detective work that is a primary pastime of comparative linguists, have reconstructed this language. They have compiled a dictionary containing hundreds of proto-Nostratic words, modeled after the proto-Indo-European dictionaries that have long been accepted in the West as standard reference works.

In addition to being controversial, some aspects of the Nostratic hypothesis are still undergoing refinement in light of ongoing research. Bringing all known human languages, including those of the Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, into a single family tree of linguistic development is a daunting task. Persuading skeptical colleagues about the accuracy of such reconstructions is even more difficult. The debate, in any case, rages and will continue for decades.