Originally published here on June 23, 2016.
The wife is away and the kids went to bed at about 9:00, so I spent some part of this evening listening to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, in the 1962 recording conducted by Otto Klemperer. Not all of it, I’m afraid; only the first 75 minutes or so. The entire recording lasts for nearly four hours, and I doubt that I or anybody else for that matter has the time to listen to it in its entirety in one sitting, with the exception of those who deliberately carve out an evening to hear it live. Still, even its first third was powerful enough. Listening to it without distraction, even in your own home, leads you into a deep enough contemplation and meditation that is far too rare in my own experience. And I choose my words carefully here — “far too rare” is, in reality, only once every few years. The fragmentation of contemporary musical experience, apart from the sublimity of Bach’s Passions, means that our music comes to us in three- or four-minute slices, far from the 225 minutes of a Bach Passion. What’s more, the Passions don’t even have the narrative drive of an opera. We know how they end, let alone how they begin. Wagner’s Ring has the conflict and characters of the Nibelungenlied, a grand tale of passion stretching over many, many years, and Wagner does with the myth what he will. Bach was rather more constrained with the gospels.
For some reason, this brought to my mind my father, who for the last twenty years of his life lived more or less by himself. His companion, and it was an important one, was the classical music station in Philadelphia WFLN. (Don’t go looking for it; it ceased operations in 1985.) In the 1970s and 1980s, he would sit by himself, quietly smoking and drinking in his sitting room, listening to the chamber music, symphonies, operas, and most likely the Bach Passions every evening for several hours. He listened to them not on a computer or a DVD player, but a radio (I tried myself to find some classical music on the radio tonight, only to find that WQXR has gone all web). He may also have read a book or magazine, and in the spring and summer watched a baseball game or two on television, but even after the games were over, far into the night, he listened to WFLN and thought — about what I can’t say. Maybe philosophy; maybe about his own life; maybe about other things. But listening to the St. Matthew’s Passion tonight myself, alone in my living room, my daughters asleep nearby, drinking a few glasses of Grüner Veltliner, I possibly experienced the same thing, and about what I thought I would find it hard to say. Even “thought” is the wrong word. Perhaps, and only perhaps, it was a few hours in which the music brought me closer to my Self, whatever that is, however that may be defined.
Solitude, quiet, and time unbroken by interruption, whether it’s by glancing nervously every few minutes at an iPhone or by something else: these are the dearest and rarest things, not least because so poorly valued. (And ironically they’re the costliest: Find a quiet bar where you can while away a few hours with a few quiet drinks by yourself, or even a place where you can sit quietly without disturbance in New York. You’ll pay for it.) These are the things that the spirit requires. But of what value is the spirit today? One of the ways in which art teaches us the value of the sublime is through mere duration — not noise or variety necessarily, but through listening or seeing quietly over a long period of time. It carves out a large piece of our lives. I know of few King Lears that last less than three hours, and I’ve already mentioned the Passions of Bach. Contemporary equivalents might include the music of Morton Feldman. They don’t benefit from smartphones buzzing with calls or incoming emails that must be dealt with instantly, or constant looks at one’s watch. Quite the opposite. If you listen to the St. Matthew’s Passion on your computer, you’ll find yourself clicking away to Outlook or another email program, or Facebook, or Twitter, I guarantee it. The music suffers. The spirit has its demands on our attention, and as our attention is distended across distractions, it suffers too.
I mentioned solitude briefly above, but I must contradict myself here, for a live performance of St. Matthew’s Passion is (most likely; I’ve never experienced it myself) an example of individual contemplation within the intentional community of those who choose to attend the performance. In that sense, it is like church. I’ve also been attending services at Grace Church over the past six months or so, and perhaps its greatest message to me has been the necessity of pursuing spiritual life through community. There is a moment during the service in which those in the congregation turn to each other, friends or strangers, to shake hands, to acknowledge fellow churchgoers. It draws the individual from himself to the truth that there are others around him, and that there’s no separation from them; and especially at Grace Church, I’ve found, those others are of far different backgrounds than oneself. For the ceremony, however, we are united, one in spirit, whether white or of color, gay or straight, rich or poor, and however our opinions may differ. (Even atheists may be welcome. As the Yes, Prime Minister series once waggishly put it, they’re called “Modernists” in the contemporary Anglican Communion.)
The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist takes only about an hour — about a quarter of time a performance of St. Matthew’s Passion. Even so, it’s an hour that one must make plans for, for the solitude and quiet the sacrament demands. It is nearly 1:00 in the morning now, but I may just spend another hour or so with the next CD of the Passion. One must make the time, wherever one finds it.