A Lutheran God

Robin Wallace

There’s been some lively conversation going on here, considering that these are the dog days of summer (which last 2 or 3 times longer for academics than for everybody else). All the talk about Dvorák and Garrison Keillor has brought me to the realization that I enjoy both, in small amounts. Like Dvorák, Keillor manages to come up with enough zingers to keep me listening on the relatively rare occasions that I tune in. One of them was the observation that everybody in the upper Midwest is Lutheran. The Lutherans are Lutheran, of course, but the Catholics are also Lutheran, and the Methodists are Lutheran, and even the atheists are Lutheran, because the God that they don’t believe in is a Lutheran God. (In the South, of course, substitute Baptist for Lutheran and the same holds true.) Everybody who doesn’t believe in God, he’s saying, really doesn’t believe in some version of God that has loomed particularly large in their own experience. Whichever version it is, there’s a lot of God left.

Where I’m going with this is that I suspect the limitations of most people’s musical tastes, including my own, are ineluctably shaped by a dulled sensibility for the vastness of what is out there. Robertson Davies, who is one of my favorite authors, once suggested that an appreciation for what is good in the work of the minor, also-ran composers is one of the marks of artistic maturity. (Read his novel _A Mixture of Frailties_ if you want the context for this. It also contains Davies’s observation that “music is like wine; the less people know about it, the sweeter they like it.”)

I can honestly say that the moments when I love music the most are those when I realize that there is simply no end to it. If I really thought I had discovered everything that was any good, or even come close to discovering it, I just might stop listening for a while. But then I happen upon the odd piece by Boccherini, or the obscure Biber sonata or Gottschalk polka that makes my day, and sends me back to Beethoven with renewed curiosity. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Does anybody else know what I’m talking about? If so, what are the Kleinmeister works that have brought you to such points, and what are their particular virtues? If Davies’s premise in _The Lyre of Orpheus_, his other music-centered novel, is correct, you just might be redeeming somebody from limbo by laying it out on the line.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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13 Responses to A Lutheran God

  1. Elaine Fine says:

    Yes, I understand Robin. Thanks for mentioning Robertson Davies. He is one of my favorite writers as well. The world of music is vast, and I have spent large amounts of time and energy exploring what I have thought were its outer boundaries, only to find that they were not outer boundaries at all. Boccherini was a brilliant and prolific composer who wrote a lifetime of music, as was Biber. Until 70 years or so ago nobody had heard anything about Vivaldi, and Bach’s music would have languished in manuscript if it weren’t for a handful of well-connected musicians. Music, like the universe itself, is far too vast to actually contemplate as a whole. We have to take it one piece at a time.
    A trip through the M2 section of a university music library is a wonderful adventure, but it is sad to realize how little of the great music by composers who we consider “minor” or “lesser known” actually gets played. And that’s the stuff that made it into publication in the “monuments of music” collections. Think of the music that was destroyed by fire, war, and flooding over the centuries. Think of the music that was thrown away or burned by the composers themselves. Think of the operas that were scrapped after their first performances.
    Here’s a short list of a few of the composers that have been the subject of my obsessions (besides Boccherini and Biber): Nicola Porpora, Philipp Scharwenka, particularly his Viola Sonata, Heinrich Isaac, who wrote a lot more than that song about leaving Innsbruck, and Alexander Glazunov, who wrote some of the best piano fugues and the most wonderful chamber music I have ever heard.
    Yes, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Schubert are shining stars in the night of music sky, but there are so many other composers who we might consider “lesser lights” that shine just as brilliantly up close.

  2. Kip W says:

    Bazzini’s “Dance of the Goblins” is a fast-paced fiddle romp with plucking and sawing both that still exhilarates when I hear it. Arensky’s Waltz from one of his suites for two pianos is a real charmer. Litolff’s Scherzo from his Concerto Symphonique number… uhm, four? …sounds so good, I always wonder what else he wrote.
    Ditto Schulz-Evler, whose “Arabesques on the Beautiful Blue Danube” make me want to hear another piece, and Brassins, who produced the definitive piano version of Wagner’s “Magic Fire Music.”

  3. Elaine Fine says:

    Bazzini also wrote six wonderful string quartets (that I know only from recordings. I have never seen any on a string quartet program) as well as some more great violin and piano music.

  4. Lisa Hirsch says:

    I love Davies, such a wonderful writer. And seemingly underappreciated, perhaps because of his moral backbone.
    I read “A Mixture of Frailties” long ago and ought to re-read the Salterton trilogy. I remember thinking at the time that it captured some things about a musician’s training better than any other writing I’d ever seen.
    Joshua Kosman has a pretty strong dislike for Saint-Saens, whom I consider one of the major minor composers, and, really, a master in so many ways. I’ve been thinking of a blog posting about S-S off and on for months, in fact.
    The notion of major/important composers seems to blur as soon as you get back before Bach, in the sense that everyone who knows anything is willing to name the greats, but they’re hardly ever listed in the same breath with Bach and the post-Bach greats. I’ve never understood that; Schuetz, Dufay, Monteverdi, and so on all belong up there on the same plane as Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Wagner, Stravinsky, etc.

  5. Robin Wallace says:

    “I read “A Mixture of Frailties” long ago and ought to re-read the Salterton trilogy. I remember thinking at the time that it captured some things about a musician’s training better than any other writing I’d ever seen.”
    My sentiments exactly. My favorite Davies book, though, is actually _What’s Bred in the Bone_. It’s not about music, but it goes deeper than anything else I’ve read in probing what artistic creativity is about. The idea that art can communicate something that’s real, even though it’s unfulfilled in the artist’s personal life, is extremely important in understanding Beethoven.

  6. Elaine Fine says:

    Isn’t the third part of the Cornish Trilogy, the trilogy that _What’s Bred in the Bone_ is in, about the reconstruction of an ETA Hoffman Opera? As I recall it concentrates on every aspect of the opera except the music. I found that extremely interesting.
    Also, I should have added Saint-Saens to my list of obsessions. When he hit musical “gold” he really hit it, like in the second movement of the 5th piano concerto and the D-minor Violin Sonata. Monteverdi’s “Lamento della Ninfa” from the 8th Madrigal book is also a genuine piece of musical “gold.”

  7. Robin Wallace says:

    Yes, that’s the right trilogy. The book about the Hoffmann opera is _The Lyre of Orpheus_. It’s the completion of the opera that gets ETAH out of limbo. And you’re right, he doesn’t say much about the music, although there is an amusing caricature of a musicologist giving a doctoral exam.
    I performed the Lamento with my Early Music Ensemble when I was still teaching at Converse College. I sang the second bass part, and I agree that the whole piece is golden.
    BTW, do you remember the name of the opera that’s written in _A Mixture of Frailties_? It’s called The Golden Asse (after Apuleius). Several years ago, a Canadian composer did write an opera called The Golden Asse, on a posthumous libretto by Robertson Davies.

  8. Lisa Hirsch says:

    “What’s Bred in the Bone” is a remarkable book, but it centers around a painting. Hmm, maybe it’s just time for me to run through Davies again. I’ve read the Depford Trilogy three times…

  9. Elaine Fine says:

    It’s on to the Salterton Trilogy for me! Thanks for reminding me of Davies. Contrary to Phil Ford’s post above I always know why I like him so much while I’m reading and re-reading him. My problem with Davies is that his novels and triologies end, and that he’s not around to write more.

  10. Lisa Hirsch says:

    I share exactly Elaine’s opinion of Davies.

  11. ben wolfson says:

    I thought that _What’s Bred in the Bone_ was a free-standing novel, not part of any trilogy?

  12. Robin Wallace says:

    No, it’s the second novel of the Cornish trilogy. That’s why it’s framed with scenes involving characters who play little role in the rest of the book.

  13. A Lutheran God

    Robin Wallace, sometime contributor here, posted a thoughtful note at Dial M for Musicology recently, entitled “A Lutheran God.” Well, I figure any musicology post with a title like that deserves a cross reference here!

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