Jeremy Denk, Charles Ives, and Jesus

Pianist Jeremy Denk came to Boston recently to play Charles Ives. My wife and I have been following Jeremy for years. Never mind his international stature, his MacArthur Genius Award and the Avery Fisher Prize and many other professional achievements, he happens to be the uncle of two of our grandchildren. But apart from a few family gatherings, we know him best as an eminent musician and spectacular performer.

In Boston, this time around, Jeremy was at the top of his game. His performances are rarely, if ever, just performances. They are events. Jeremy engages his audiences with his wit, his charm, and his own passionate love for the music he is presenting. That’s it – presenting. Not just performing. He is present, powerfully. And he carries his music, like a server at some elegant restaurant arriving at your table with your entrée on a tray. He carries the music to you personally, as if you are the only one in the audience.

Apparently there has been some discussion recently in musicological circles about such matters. I have lately been laboring through the magisterial study, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, by John Eliot Gardiner. Some students of Bach, Gardiner observes, maintain that the study of Bach should just be the study of Bach’s music, not also the study of Bach’s self-conscious, ingenious, and pervasive intention for his music to touch and even to overpower his audiences. Gardiner himself believes that no one can grasp Bach’s music fully and deeply, without some awareness, conscious or unconscious, of Bach’s inclusion of his audiences in his compositional creativity. In a like manner, as a presenter, Jeremy’s intention, from start to finish, is to allow the music to take hold of the audience, indeed he always wants to foster that encounter.

Nowhere was that musical intentionality more apparent, in my experience, than in Jeremy’s Boston presentation of four violin sonatas by Charles Ives, aided seamlessly by the young violinist, Stefan Jackiw. This is how those sonatas were described, in part, in the program notes by Zoe Kemmerling. Ives, she says, “didn’t rely on complex tonal systems or extended instrumental techniques to push boundaries. The music embedded in small-town American life at the end of the 19th century, church hymns and the strains of municipal bands, surrounded Ives throughout his youth and formed his compositional building blocks…. A love of simple tunes met an appetite for polytonality and dissonance to create one of the most recognizable compositional voices of the early 20th century…. All four sonatas evoke aspects of a particular scene: the religious ‘camp meetings’ that took place during the summer at Danbury’s Brookside Park. Sultry New England summer weather and the freedom of the outdoors, as well as the fervor of religious exultation amplified by a group consciousness, are the context for these volatile, rejoicing, impulsive works.”

Consider the audience of which I was a part in Boston that night. Secular Boston, indeed. Aesthetic Boston (Kierkegaard), for sure. I wager that few, if any, in that gathering were familiar with most of those old-time hymn tunes. No, if I may say so, this was not the Tory party at prayer, as Churchill once described the Church of England, this was, for the most part, a gathering of the “cultured despisers of religion” (Friedrich Schleiermacher) meeting to further enhance their post-modern sensibilities. As cultural remnants of a bygone era, my wife and I nudged each other every time we heard one of those old-time melodies. Who else heard those tunes?

Jeremy, of course, was well aware of such dynamics. This is why he imported an excellent barbershop quartet to give voice to that old-time music before each sonata. Words like these: “I need Thee, O I need Thee, every hour I need Thee! O bless me now, my Savior – I come to Thee!” Or these: “What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry Everything to God in prayer! Oh, what peace we often forfeit; Oh, what needless pain we bear – All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer!”

Then we listened to each sonata, each of which fractured, tore apart, and trampled on those old-time tunes, with powerful dissonances, like blows of a sledge hammer slamming into granite. Ives introduced some moments of existential repose and peace, to be sure, and Jeremy and his partner gave voice to such feelings, tenderly and softly. I imagined at such moments that a worker in a rock quarry had put down his sledge hammer, wiped his brow, and was listening, O so briefly, to the music of the wind or to the songs of the birds. But Ives’ dissonance in those sonatas, as I heard it, was relentless from start to finish. Yet so were the harmonies of those old-time tunes, which kept emerging, as if in the midst of a thunderstorm you came upon and old house on whose porch a violinist was playing an old time tune. Was there any resolution? Which had the final word, the resilient, powerful hymnody or the overpowering, inescapable dissonance? I think that Jeremy left us breathless with that question at the end, echoing Ives himself, or so it sounded to me.

Which brings me to Jesus. And not any old Jesus, but Jesus as we know him in the Gospel of Mark, in particular. This is a Gospel of profound brokenness. The voice of the Savior can be heard, but it’s only in the midst of the storms of this life, ultimately crying from the Cross. Some of us are now living in the year after numerous Christian communions around the world marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Luther predicated that profoundly disturbing – so it was then – spiritual movement on what he called “the theology of the Cross.” His signature hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, ends this way: “God’s Word forever shall abide, No thanks to foes, who fear it; For God himself fights by our side With weapons of the Spirit. Were they to take our house, Goods, honor, child, or spouse, Though life be wrenched away, They cannot win the day. The Kingdom’s ours forever!”

Which Jesus is the Church proclaiming and following in these our apocalyptic times? The peace-of-mind Jesus of post World War II America? The personal Savior, whom I am supposed to take into my heart, of the last several decades? The prosperity Savior, announced in our own day, who helps all his followers to get rich? Or is it Mark’s Jesus? Or Luther’s Jesus? Jesus, the Crucified.

Give me Charles Ives’ Jesus any day. And give me Jeremy Denk’s interpretation of Ives, for sure, which rightfully, in my view, leaves the tension between the old-time tunes and our modern and postmodern dissonances dramatically unresolved.

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