Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Conducting Hänsel und Gretel

When I was in Austria recently, I picked up Peter Planyavsky's rather disturbing book about his 35 years as organist of the Stephansdom in Vienna. The book is quite appropriately called Gerettet vom Stephansdom (Saved from St. Stephen's). You wonder how Planyavsky managed to spend such a long time in a outrageously difficult working place. The book is full of horror stories: lots of mediocrity, of course (and this is the big cathedral of the music capital of the world!), lots of utterly hypocritical priests (not all of them, thank God). That Planyavsky—who is one of the very best improvisers alive—was nevertheless able to bring lots of great music to the church is a miracle. Anyway, if you read German and you have some kind of connection with church music, by all means read the book.

I feel a bit of a connection with Planyavsky, and funnily enough, I've just retired from church music myself after some 35 years of professional involvement in it (though thank goodness I've not been a cathedral organist for 35 years). Like Planyavsky—he calls himself an agnostic—I don't feel particularly religious in the narrow sense of the word, and I've been increasingly aware that that made it impossible to function well as a church musician. Plany sees this differently: to him, agnosticism is not in the least an objection to being a good church musician: "You don't need to believe in witches to conduct Hänsel und Gretel," he writes with his wonderfully dry sense of humor.

"But one has to know what a fairy tale is, what a witch is, and what the story wants to bring across. Most of all, however, one needs to try and understand what went on in Humperdinck's mind as he set the text to music exactly the way he did."

I have thought about Plany's comparison for days and spoken to a number of people about it. My initial reaction was: "Of course, he's completely right." In fact, I thought, it would be a real problem for a Hänsel und Gretel conductor to believe in witches. I mean, how the heck are you going to conduct Hänsel und Gretel if you believe that witches actually exist?!

And so I mulled things over for a long time until, finally, I came to a different conclusion. Here's the problem: If I—and I confess to not believing in witches—were to conduct H & G, I surely don't have to deal with a stage director, singers, and an audience who—at least allegedly—all believe in witches. In fact, if after the show I met a five-year-old who was really scared of the witch in the opera, I would surely tell her that, look, witches don't exist for real, you know.

Now try working in a church, especially in America, and not believing in the virgin birth, the resurrection, water turning into wine and all that jazz in a literal sense. I once worked for a minister who objected to the song "We three kings of Orient are." "Look here," she said. "They were not kings, but magi, and it doesn't say there were three of them." So much for her analysis of one of the better stories in Christian mythology, but how was I ever going to tell her that, well, this was of course mythology? To another minister, with whom I thought I had a really good working relationship, I once mentioned a bestselling author of books on early Christianity He simply dismissed the whole author with a "We don't do that sort of thing." Huh? An advanced degree in theology and no interest in a middle-of-the-road scholarly book on what happened in the early church? I once had a choir member who went to a seminar at some church where the free-thinking presenter had had the chutzpah to suggest that the physical reality of the virgin birth was, perhaps, not so crucial to Christianity in today's world. "If that's not true," she said disdainfully, "the whole fundament of my belief is gone."

Now imagine the whole opera company plus the audience all believing—or telling themselves they're believing—in witches. "But you know, the conductor doesn't believe in witches!" "What?! He doesn't believe in witches?!" "No—he thinks it's all just a fairy tale!" "O my... But how can someone conduct H & G without believing in witches?!" "You're right—we had better get someone who believes in witches."

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