By David Ney
Some time ago, when people were able to do such things, I went to the ballet with my wife, my four kids, and a couple of friends. The architecture of the theatre was stunning, and, having just come from church, we were dressed for the occasion. As we waited for the show to begin, I took my son to the front to show him the orchestra. I was disappointed to find the pit empty. Cost-cutting perhaps. Historically, my approach to ballet has been to embrace it as a chance to hear good live music. As the show began I was almost willing to revoke my displeasure since the sound emitted from the speakers received an almost passing grade. The bigger problem was that our cheap seats turned out to be bad seats. We wondered if the choreographer intended to punish our frugality by having all the climactic moments take place just beyond our gaze in the back corner of the stage.
Had I put on my scholar’s cap I might have also complained about the thin plot, but I have learned to keep my expectations low with ballet. As it turned out, the issue this time around was that the plot proceeded without words. It was my son’s first ballet, and an un-narrated plot is not something he had anticipated. He kept whispering in my ear, “What’s that?” “Who’s that?” “What’s happening now?” “I don’t understand.” All he could see were bodies fluttering about.
When Felix Mendelssohn died at the age of 38 in 1847, Europe lost its great hope of finding Ludwig van Beethoven’s true heir. In the years that followed, the two leading candidates turned out to be Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms. Wagner’s genealogical claim rested upon an interpretation of the late Beethoven. Wagner saw Beethoven as a visionary prophet who smashed the traditional boundary between choir and orchestra in his final complete symphony, his choral Symphony No. 9. For Wagner, the future belonged to the grand operatic masterwork. His crowning achievement, which is still regarded as the most ambitious feat an opera company can complete, is his four-part Ring cycle, which takes place over four nights and 15 hours.
Brahms, however, went to work with a different interpretation of the Choral symphony. He had a reliable account, mediated by Robert Schumann, that Beethoven was ambivalent about the voices in the score and had even considered taking them out. For Brahms, the Choral symphony was an experiment and that is all. He was convinced that there was more to be said in both choral and symphonic traditions as independent traditions. Yet as Brahms’s fame grew, he faced enormous pressure. He knew his status as Beethoven’s heir would be in question until he produced a symphony worthy of the master of that most difficult musical form. He began to make sketches for his First Symphony in 1855, and he worked on it intermittently for 21 years.
The symphony finally premiered on November 4, 1876, less than three months after the first full production of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Brahms’s audience was initiated into the new work with one of the most suspenseful symphonic introductions ever produced. As the intensity of the rising violins grew gradually with the support of pulsating timpani, the answer to the question was hanging in the balance: What kind of work will this be? And more to the point: Will it secure Brahms’ status as Beethoven’s true heir?
And then, suddenly and without fanfare, the symphonic exposition begins in an understated and arguably even comical way: a rolling theme in the violins which shares much in common with the main theme of the Choral symphony. Europe had been waiting all of this time, for this? It was precisely the kind of symphonic theme with which concertgoers had long been acquainted.
The theme soon transitions to the woodwinds, as the percussion and strings evoke the steady ta-ta-ta-TUM of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Brahms has challenged Wagner head-on, and his statement is clear: there is no need to shock the world with ever greater grandiose gestures of cultural progress. There is no need to add anything at all. Not voices, Mr. Wagner. (And definitely not helicopters, Mr. Stockhausen.) What Mr. Beethoven gave us in the symphonic form he mastered is enough. Everything that needs to be said can be said with the violins and a small complement of other string, woodwind, and brass instruments.
Not everyone agreed with Brahms’s bold assertion. Initial reviews were lukewarm. Over time, conservatives increasingly came to celebrate it as “Beethoven’s Tenth,” though Wagner ridiculed this idea in his essay “On Poetry and Composition.” There was more at stake than just conservative or progressive sensibilities. At issue was the very real empirical, philosophical, and theological problem concerning the relationship between sound and words. Wagner agreed with Brahms that instruments could speak. But he also believed that as they spoke they called out for a greater articulation which only human actors and human voices could produce. The question then becomes: Is music enough?
From the standpoint of catharsis, it probably is: the release of deep and hidden emotions has been associated with music since ancient times, and for good reason. Music has the power to draw out our emotions as it somehow draws us deeply into the mystery of existence. When dancers are added to the mix, a similar (though some would say even more profound) experience is forthcoming. The music (or the music and the movement) can be appropriately described as speech. Even without words it can say so much.
And so as my son tries to sit still, frustrated that he does not understand, my first instinct is to tell him to pay attention, to look into the matter and see if he can’t begin to understand. But I should not dismiss his childish longing for words. Sometimes the violins or the dancers seem to be groping about for words, too. Sometimes their gestures seem to cry out for interpretation. This, presumably, is why the libretto was broadcast above the stage on a screen last time I went to The Marriage of Figaro with my wife. I’m partly quite willing to accept this accommodation — though I am still committed to helping my son understand that there is a beauty in the spotless white page which is lost as soon as the pen touches it.
My theological and scriptural studies have convinced me that the words the violins and the dancers speak, but that they also fail to speak, are given in Scripture. Erich Auerbach points us to this conclusion in his reflections upon “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres.” According to Auerbach, the classical tradition had taught the Greeks and Romans through literature, music, and drama that only great and powerful people do great and powerful things. But in the Gospel depictions of Peter’s denial of Christ, we find the antithesis of this doctrine. A slave girl, warming herself by the fire, instigates an incident of cosmic proportions when she asks a simple fisherman whether he knows a carpenter from Nazareth. The gestures of these players are so small when compared to the confident and refined declarations of Greece and Rome. And yet the sounds they make and the steps they take somehow reach beyond even the music of the spheres.
When God, the Scriptures tell us, wanted to say that most profound thing, he said it in the form of a body as the Word made flesh. In this particular body, we see that though we strut and fret our hour upon the stage, our inarticulate sounds and searching steps are not nothing. For though they are only shadows we see in them the silhouette of the divine form in the world. We are often tempted to boisterously assert ourselves through our words: “Here are two swords” we blurt out, even as we bumble about in the dark. Jesus stops us short: “It is enough,” he says (Lk. 22:38). It is enough because, as the Word made flesh, he has already said everything that needs to be said. And yet it is because he has already said everything that we find that we can say so much not only when we speak, but even when we say nothing at all.
The Rev. Dr. David Ney is assistant professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry.