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.

Trump and Christmas: Seasonal Reflections (2017)

“A shoot shall come forth from the stump of Jesse…” (Is. 11:1)

In front of our old farmhouse in southwestern Maine, I witnessed a sign from heaven this past summer. Several years ago, we called in a tree-man to cut down – sadly – a grand old maple, which we’d treasured for decades. One of its three huge trunks appeared then to be threatening our kitchen. It could have come crashing down on us during some ferocious mountain windstorm. So we had the whole tree removed. That was then.

Sometime this past spring, a single gold and brown gallardia took root in the middle of that large maple’s stump. That gorgeous flower, maybe two feet tall, flourished all by itself from July through the first fall frosts. This wasn’t exactly a shoot from the stump of Jesse. But, for me, it was something like that. I contemplated that astounding flower every time I could. It stood there bright and resilient and beautiful through the wildest of storms and the driest of hot summer days.

A Letter About Hillary

I’m writing to friends and family and other contacts to share one side of the story about one of our presidential candidates, which may not be familiar to many, at least in the terms that I know them.  A hundred years ago, I worked closely with a bright young Methodist student at Wellesley College, where I was serving as a teacher and Chaplain, one Hillary Rodham.  She was then, and, I believe, still is a person of deep moral passion, notwithstanding press caricatures of her that have appeared in recent years with predictable regularity.

Hillary came to Wellesley as an enthusiastic “Goldwater Girl.”  Hers was a dedicated voice of the Midwestern Right.  Then she took the (at that time) required sophomore Bible course, and it changed her life.  She was especially fond of Amos, texts such as 5:24, “Let justice roll down like waters.”  And she did not just talk the talk.

One example.  As president of the student government, she and a group of young women like her (I was a kind of back-row advisor to all this), wanted to address the mostly lily-white complexion of the student body.  At that time there were, as I recall, 12 African-Americans in a student body of some 2000.  The College’s administration wanted nothing to do with all this.  Hillary took the lead with her group to raise money independently to pay for those African-American students to make recruiting trips to predominantly black high schools across the country.  Not only had those schools never been visited by Wellesley College recruiters before, they were unknown to the Admissions Office.  That project turned out to be a minor success.  But my point here is not minor successes, but Hillary’s impressive moral passion and her eagerness to act on that passion.

I have kept close tabs on her personal and political trajectories ever since.  Notwithstanding her being the object of sometimes vicious attacks (tell me that sexism is not alive and well in this country) and notwithstanding mistakes of her own along the way, I believe that the faith that she discovered in Amos and the moral passion she exemplified at Wellesley College have not left her.  If anything, given the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, that faith and that moral passion have deepened and become the driving force of all she does.  I believe that she has added the wisdom of spiritual depth, too, which sometimes comes with maturity.  Did you notice that when asked, during one of the New Hampshire debates, about spiritual influences on her life she spoke at length and with some conviction about how much she has learned from that great Catholic spiritual teacher of our time, Henri Nouwen?

I, of course, am not an unbiased witness.  I affirm what I once saw, and I affirm what I now see.  I have walked the streets of New Hampshire in her behalf and I support her current campaign financially.

I write only with this hope, that, as you continue to reflect about the current campaign, you will take into account her moral passion and her spiritual depth.  She is much more than her popular detractors, even on the liberal side, make her out to be.  I also believe that she has even more to offer.  Her much vaunted “experience” is not something to shake a stick at, for example, not to speak of a certain wisdom she brings with her as a knowledgeable student of history.  But those are themes for another day.

This link will take you to Hillary Rodham’s commencement speech, in which she mentions The Rev. Dr. H. Paul Santmire, then Chaplain at Wellesley College.

Race, Activism, and Hillary Clinton at Wellesley, The New Yorker

Faith Intertwines with Political Life for Clinton, The New York Times

Cutting Through the Ice to Contemplate the Depths

Late in the fall, my wife and I typically shut down our old Maine farmhouse in the eastern foothills of the White Mountains.  We’re not skiers, but even if we were it would be folly for us to keep water in the pipes of our porous 19th century house during the bitter winter months.  We once rented out the place for the winter, and the pipes froze all the time, even with the furnace on and the wood stove blazing.  Still, two or three times during the winter months we do travel up to that frigid house for a couple of days.  Sometimes I wonder why.

It’s all the more puzzling when I reflect about what we have to do in order to travel there and what we have to do while we’re there, simply to maintain ourselves.  Our Prius barely handles the up and down rural roads, covered as they often are with snow and ice.  Once we arrive, I have to chop our way some twenty feet to the front door through iced-over drifts.  Then we lug in not only our modest provisions, but a dozen gallons of water for drinking and cooking.  As soon as possible, we begin to burn precious stacks of firewood lavishly in our Franklin Stove, around which we huddle.  First thing the next morning, it’s time for me to cut a hole in the ice out back.

We have to use the toilet while we’re there, of course, but there’s no way to flush it during the winter.  To address that challenge, I put on my boots, grab hold of a long-handled, flat-edged spade, a small pitcher, and a couple of buckets.  I then crunch my way through the deep snow behind the house for a hundred feet or so to a tiny stream that’s totally covered by high drifts.  Precariously, I inch my way down the almost indiscernible bank of that stream to the underlying ice, maybe two or three inches thick.  Once balanced, I use my spade as an icepick to chop a foot square opening.  Then I hunker down over that opening, and contemplate the water that flows there, maybe eight inches deep, moving along even when the temperature has dropped below zero.  It must be a comic apparition, were anyone to witness it.  There I hover, pitcher in hand, the wind-chill raging around me, bailing out water from beneath the ice, in order to fill the two buckets I’ve brought with me.

Witness me, then, cautiously carrying a single bucket of nearly frozen water through the snowpack to the back door of our house.  Then I repeat the process.  Once, by the time I arrived at the house with the second bucket, a skin of new ice had already formed on the first bucket.  Even when the sun might be beaming down, the ferocious winter temperatures rule the day, and permeate my hands through my double-lined gloves.  All this, so that we can flush the toilet when we need to.

But why?  Why not remain at home in our well-heated condominium in the Boston area and warmly continue to embrace our comfortable, retired existence?  Why push ourselves, in this way, to confront the elements?

Yes, there’s something to be said about this kind of “comfy” experience in Maine, as a friend once suggested:  times when “the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.”  There’s something to be said about “getting away from it all,” no matter where you live.  There’s something to be said about what one historian of American culture once called, perhaps sardonically, “the quest for contentment in ‘the bourgeois interior.’”  Be that as it may, why Maine in the winter?

One of the factors, on my part, could be my years.  Past eighty now, am I secretly regarding myself as some kind of wilderness warrior?  Is this an old-age rite or even some masculine thing, to show myself that “I can still do it”?  But I think it’s more than stereotypical posturing.

Could the real lure of this adventure, for me at least, be that experience of chopping through the ice and seeing the moving water underneath?  What do I see?  Even though the stream is only eight inches deep, I’m overcome by an experience of what Paul Tillich called “the dimension of depth.”  I took courses with Tillich when I was an undergraduate and beyond, and his voice haunts me to this day.

My God!  In chilling midwinter, underneath all those drifts and thick ice, reality is moving.  It’s flowing.  It’s going somewhere.  We don’t live entombed in a world destined for nothing but ice, at the cosmic end of all things.  Underneath it all, Being is Becoming, not Stasis.

Granted, this particular encounter with the Depths of Being and Becoming is only twelve inches square and eight inches deep.  But it’s a revelation for me when I chop through to the ice, under those arctic conditions, to discover that flowing water.  To some passerby, it might look odd.  It feels odd.  Still, I now regard myself, when I stand there, as contemplating the Depths.

I have only lately come to that possibly comical spiritual conclusion.

Recently on a family outing to celebrate my daughter-in-law’s graduation from a master’s program at Dartmouth College, I was able to find occasion to wander through that institution’s art museum.  There I encountered, for the first time, works by the contemporary Finish-American painter, Eric Aho.  Many of his striking abstract impressionistic works depict three-by-four foot squares cut through eight-inch ice toward the edge of a sizeable, snow-covered stream.  The explanation:  those squares in the river ice depict an opening into which someone who has just come from the sauna can plunge.

The curator of that exhibit just didn’t get it.  She interpreted those paintings in terms of lines, colors, shapes, and contrasts.  “Aho intuitively understood the hole as an abstract motif,” she wrote in the visitor’s guide.  “The depth of the ice, the light of the day, the reflectivity or opaqueness of the water, the snow accumulating around the opening, and the angle of the view on the ice cut – all of these elements differentiate the paintings in terms of subject.”

I saw much more. Most of the icy water squares in this exhibit were dark, although one was a bright yellow, as if reflecting sunlight.  I found this series of water-squares in the river ice powerful, even overwhelming, a testimony to ultimate meanings, to Darkness and Light.  In this respect, I think, I remain a student of Tillich.

Tillich would have celebrated those paintings, much more insightfully than the curator of that exhibit did.  For Tillich, there was a darkness, a mystery, even a dangerous character, to our world:  Being and Becoming threatened by Non-Being, yet not without moments of mystical elation.  Tillich believed – and often demonstrated – that art can reveal those dynamics, that art more generally is a matter of what he called “ultimate concern,” not just a matter of images, colors, contrasts, and lines, however striking they might be configured in any given work of art.

Especially these paintings!  The curator made nothing of the sauna experience, presupposed by the artist.  Don’t these paintings suggest death and resurrection?  Even Baptism?  If they’re not intended to recall dying and rising with Christ, surely they suggest some kind of primal death and rebirth from the womb of the Depths.

I have concluded that that’s the vision that claims me, as I chop through that thick ice on that little stream behind our Maine house.  It’s a matter of ultimate concern. That’s the underlying reason, doubtless among others, I have decided, why I keep wanting us to undertake those winter excursions, so that I can cut through that ice to contemplate those Depths, comically perhaps, but powerfully for me.

Dedicated to David Gagne.*


“After running out of the hot sauna, your naked body steaming in the below zero weather, only your feet covered by socks to keep your feet from sticking to the ice, you jump into the hole in the ice (don’t think about it – just do it – thinking is a problem at that point), dip under the water surface two or three times and then climb up the wood ladder leaning against the far edge of the rectangular hole.  You always do this in pairs so another set of hands is there to grab you and pull you out in case you panic or somehow end up under the ice.  Alas, because of my stents I no longer can do this.  Now I tend the fire, sit in the sauna, but can only go out and stand on the small deck of the sauna and let my body steam away the heat until I am cool enough to head back into the sauna again.  You actually don’t feel cold when you go into the water – just your body feeling pin prickles and the sucking sound as you try to breathe as you dip under the surface of the water.” — David Gagne via private communication, February 20, 2016