[This one really hit me because I studied organ with the author – Peter Planyavsky, formerly of St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna. Liturgically speaking, he is one of the good guys. He pushed hard for congregational singing and the presence of a cantor, even and especially at Latin High Mass. He composed “orchestral responsorial psalms” for congregation and choir so that the Liturgy of the Word would not be dwarfed by a Mozart Sanctus and Agnus. He labored mightily for the development of vernacular repertoire for the reformed liturgy. He once told me that the first time he heard a Eucharistic prayer in German, tears rolled down his face at the fulfillment of a long-held wish. Now, after his departure from the cathedral under less than pleasant conditions, his memoirs appear. The book is at once humorous, clever, insightful, poignant, and tragic. The shock is that the author considers himself an agnostic, in the sense of not affirming the Christian faith. I wonder, how common is this? How many people in the ministry are in a similar personal situation? I don’t suppose they can very well talk about it too openly. I have the greatest respect for the author’s honesty and conscientious integrity. Of this I am convinced: the God I believe in worked through the gifted creativity of Peter Planyavsky. – awr]
But can one who is agnostic be a church musician? The standard answer always comes quickly and with emphasis: “Of course not!” Because, it is argued, anyone who does not believe in a Son of God who became human will not be able to conduct “correctly” an “Et incarnatus est.” Or, in the sharper version: “correctly” indeed, but “not very devoutly.” My complex answer begins with devious simplicity: You don’t have to believe in the existence of witches to perform Humperdinck’s opera “Hansel and Gretel” validly; but you do have to know what a fairy tale is, what a witch is, and what is supposed to be conveyed by the story. Above all, you must recognize what Humperdinck had in mind as he set the text in this and not in that way. This may even mean that it “gives one the creeps” – but it need not necessarily mean belief in the existence of witches. My discussion partners then generally retort, “But that’s totally different!” Until now, no one has been able to illustrate to me what is so different without recourse to easily recognized circular reasoning.
A triad can be correct or false, but it can’t be devout or irreligious. The tempo of an Agnus Dei cannot be faithful or unfaithful, but only good or inadequate, musically speaking. Here there are criteria intrinsic to the composition which have nothing to do with the content of the text (and which so many devout conductors have not yet noticed) – such as the stretching out of a phrase, or the highly prosaic question of whether a soprano soloist can make it without constant gasping for air (if not, then the tempo is too slow – for this reason, and not because the conductor is particularly devout). Furthermore, there are musical symbols which one can comprehend or ignore (e.g., if in the place “and became man,” a motive from the following “Et resurrexit” is already quoted). Here it is a matter of information from the musical score and also, it goes without saying, of approaches to the score which are known from knowledge of the cultural and spiritual context. Haydn created Kyries fundamentally different than, e.g. Bruckner. But those who investigate this do not have to be themselves devout, but rather must only understand and recognize the devoutness of Haydn, and how this differs from that of Bruckner. And those who conduct the humble, restless Kyrie of Bruckner should not be humble and restless in this moment, but rather, with their musical craftsmanship and all their concentrated intellect, do everything they can to convey to the listener the affect “humble and restless.”
An actor is not given the assignment of being surprised when he is suddenly ambushed and stabbed in the 4th act. The assignment is to make credible to the viewer that he is surprised – even on this 19th evening after the premier. How telling that by coincidence the word credible appears here…
And just so have I always defined myself: as one who assists others to strengthen or experience their faith, to grasp more clearly a message, to sing along more easily on a hymn, to join in celebrating a liturgy more joyfully.
The other side of the coin is that I have developed a manner of Sunday-antipathy and feastday-antipathy, an all-encompassing “solemn-mood-neurosis,” which only now, after the end of my work for the cathedral, I am able slowly to break down. This sort of thing is clearest at Christmas, for which I have long since lost any joy. This is connected not only with the heavy workload between December 24th and 26th, but especially with the four-week bombardment in all greetings, homilies, and conclusions of liturgies with, oh! what bell ringing and angel-singing ecstasy which was to materialize “soon” or “shortly” or “in a few hours.” Furthermore, you wouldn’t believe how many thoughtless fellow humans, who knew exactly what occupation I had, have wished me “happy vacation” on December 24th. A similar case was the cathedral preacher Zimmermann, who every Friday at 5:00 pm wished me a great weekend. This occurred with the best intentions and was fundamentally praiseworthy. For indeed, a clergyman had appropriated a convention from outside, from the real world of normal people, and acknowledged that Sunday is not exclusively for devout piety, but also for free time. But to shoot the formula of repeatedly great weekends at none other than the cathedral organist, who for sure would not be spending his weekend lolling around or at a countryside party – I found this to be most thoughtless. It was rather like wishing a bank teller a happy “International Savings Day” before being barraged with customers. Beneath all this was a fatal error in unconsciously watered down form – and for this there are plenty of examples elsewhere – that a church musician is above all a devout Christian (if possible, particularly devout) who had to go to church anyway on Sunday. Because of his unique gifts, he not only sang the congregational hymns, but also played along – indeed, drawing on his inner enthusiasm, he did so for all seven Sunday liturgies.
I have always loved my occupation. But I define it differently than so many truly devout people expect.
——–Peter Planyavsky, Gerettet vom Stephansdom [“Rescued from St. Stephen’s Cathedral”] (Vienna/Klosterneuburg: Verlag Va Bene, 2007), 166-169, tr. Anthony Ruff, OSB.