From the pulpit this past Sunday I considered how my experience bringing our family through the Holocaust Museum in the District of Columbia opened my awareness to the transformation that occurred between the wars within Germany. What was happening politically then and there looked stunningly like what has been happening in our country recently, even down to the relative minutiae surrounding the pairing of a loose conglomerate of left-leaning politicians unable to focus their energies into an intelligible centering message; and conservatives so desperate to grasp and maintain power that they would ally themselves with someone as incendiary as Hitler, who would potentially lend popular support to the conservative chancellor and surely wouldn’t have the political wherewithal to focus the populace around his own ridiculously xenophobic ideology.
I don’t want to harp on further about that, but it is occurring to me that what I paid attention to in studying that period has to do with the general field I was studying. Out of the early twentieth century in Germany is born a movement that would define music for at least the rest of the century.
The Second Viennese School centers around Arnold Schoenberg and, primarily, his two pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg (no relation to the author). By the end of the Great War, the character of the music they were producing was changing dramatically. Their techniques effectively brought the Romantic period to an end, and between the wars, their music shifted from atonality to serialism.
To put that in context, most of us get our orchestral music fix from movie scores. Those composers are informed by the work of the Second Viennese School and the developments that follow, but little of their atonality or serialism filters into what they produce for movies. We would describe the moments when those styles surface as frightening, dark, or threatening. Most of our movie scores settle comfortably into more Romantic and evocative tonal music.
Serialism, though, reflects the tone of the culture in which it is born. It is mechanized and harsh like the impersonalized culture of mass production and industrialized warfare. Listening to and performing serial music exists on a spectrum of difficulty that ranges roughly from watching sausage being factory-produced to watching human beings being loaded onto cattle cars.
I’m not sure there’s much about the production of sausage or chicken nuggets that is beautiful. I’m fairly certain that the only beautiful thing that comes out of Auschwitz is the hope maintained in that hopeless and evil place. But artists like Schoenberg and Webern and Berg work out of a place that assumes hope and beauty. Their music is often difficult to hear, but with some understanding of their context and with deep consideration of the works themselves, we can see glimpses of astounding intricacy that belie the genius of the artists.
Sometimes we just need to invest a little (or a lot) more time and attention into a subject to appreciate it.
I suppose that is true about people, too.
I thank God that the Artist who shaped me appreciates the intricacies of my personality. I hope I can take the time to recognize that every person I encounter is an equally beautiful work of divine art. Every person I encounter is shaped by and defined by their culture and social environment. What makes them uniquely beautiful is where their created self turns their surroundings into a miracle of hope and healing.
That’s what I want to look for. That’s where Messiah is, in those places where the sacred and profane meet, where heaven and earth collide.
I want to appreciate the art of the Holy Spirit more.
That’s where I get a glimpse of heaven.
That is the music of God.