Although Lent for 2012 will have passed, the last lecture of this year’s Price Lenten Lecture Series, funded by the will of an 18th-century Boston cabinetmaker, print-seller, and sometime organist, William Price, will occur nine days after Easter. Alex Ross, classical music writer for The New Yorker and author of the highly acclaimed The Rest is Noise, about 20th-century music, will give a lecture, “Sacred Music of the 20th Century” at Trinity Church in Copley Square on April 17th at 6 pm.
Ross’s return to Boston (he was Class of 1990 at Harvard) features a lecture on a subject he first explored during his undergraduate years as a member of the staff at WHRB (“The Network”). Members of the WHRB cult audience may remember Ross; he planned its classical music programming.
WHRB President David Elliott reminisced about Ross, “He had a program on Sunday afternoons, ‘Music since 1900,’ a title he took from a book by Nicholas Slonimsky — Alex’s tribute to him, to use the title. He explored all of 20th-century music in a way that was enlightening to our audience. Music they otherwise might not have heard, but if they did, it approached from a point of view that they otherwise might not have thought about. In his senior year, May 1990, he produced a major 60-hour orgy of Mahler and the fin-de-siècle, presenting all of Mahler’s music in chronological order [as orgies usually do] with music of other composers interspersed, to show their influences upon him and his on others. A phenomenal undertaking, worthy of thesis credit.”
Ross planned some of these programs with James C. S. Liu, M.D., a Boston internist (and a BMInt reviewer), who was a year ahead of him at Harvard.
“Pretty much everybody recognized that Alex was special from the beginning,” Liu said. “Harvard is full of smart, talented people, but Alex was easily one of the smartest people I’d met in my four years there. He was definitely one of the most gifted writers as well; even in college, his best writing could warp your perception of reality in the same way that any great artist does. We ultimately didn’t completely see eye to eye on things — he was more of the rebellious Young Turk, looking for creative new ways to bend and break the established rules.”
The “rebellious Young Turk” quality in Ross just got him the highly coveted Belmont Prize from Munich’s Forberg-Schneider Foundation. The prize, according to its mission, “honors innovation, daring, and courage, but nothing that prolongs the status quo. Innovations proceed from the arts; art patronage can only help to sustain them a few steps along the way…. But Belmont is also a token of admiration for Arnold Schoenberg, who declared war on empty pathos and embarrassing conventions in his protean artistic creations and forms of expression: ‘The heart must reside within the domain of the brain.’”
Trinity Church in the City of Boston (Copley Square), has an interesting music history. A staple of Christmas music, O little town of Bethlehem, was composed by Phillips Brooks, rector of Trinity from 1869 until 1891. The Rev. Theodore Parker Ferris, rector from 1942 until his death in 1972, who took lessons from Nadia Boulanger when she was in Cambridge during World War II, also composed a church hymn, though it has never achieved the stature of his predecessor and in fact was omitted from the most recent American Episcopal hymnal.
Price, after whom the series is named, played the organ at King’s Chapel for a short time after he arrived in Boston, before his allegiances switched to the North Church, and then Trinity Church, where he was a member of the original Vestry and building committee — and part-time organist. At his death, Price left a substantial amount in his will that was fought over by both King’s Chapel and Trinity Church. The courts decided that the fund would be administered by Trinity but that the income from the trust would be split equally between the two parishes — even after King’s Chapel renounced Episcopalism for Unitarianism following the American Revolution. The legacy has grown over the years to be substantial.
Many well-known organists have served Trinity, but the reception to more adventurous or modern music often has been chilly to ice-cold. When one 20th-century organist attempted to play more obscure music from the late Renaissance, it was not well received and he decamped. Another organist was told to limit himself to “statured composers — not that atonal crap.” That era has passed, and now organists have been able to perform a wider variety of music, including such 20th-century composers as Judith Weir, Tavener, and Judith Bingham, whose Clouded Heaven Emeritus Director of Music and Organist Brian E. Jones (and also a BMInt reviewer) included a few years ago on the church’s choir tour of Europe.
Ross explained to BMInt, “When I was working on the Messiaen chapter of my book The Rest Is Noise, it struck me that the 20th century had produced an extraordinary corpus of sacred music—a body of work perhaps more significant, collectively, than the equivalent production in the 19th century…. From the beginning [of the 20th century], the avant-garde had a mystical urge. One could even regard The Rite of Spring as a religious work; the Russian title is, after all, more accurately translated as ‘Holy Spring.’”
“In addition to the above, I will talk about John Cage, whose spiritual path is difficult to describe briefly but seems essential to his development as a composer. When you place it in the proper cultural context, Cage’s famous “silent piece” 4’33” is very obviously not any kind of prank or satire but a work of meditative intensity. Of course, in the twentieth century the notion of what is “religious” or “spiritual” or “mystical” grows confusingly vague; …”
Asked if he planned to mention any composers less well known to the general public or any current American ones like Dan Pinkham, Hilary Tann, or Weir, Ross responded, “Alas, not everyone knows the work of the Swiss master Frank Martin; I will play the Agnus Dei from his Mass for Double Choir. I will also give listeners a taste of the hard-edged religiosity of Galina Ustvolskaya — radically different in style from the so-called “Mystic Minimalism” that has gained popularity in recent decades. One theme I wish to trace is the power of dissonance to suggest not merely earthly terrors and tragedies but also intimations of the sublime and the sacred. … I might play a selection from the haunting new Requiem of the young American composer Gregory Spears.
“This topic is immensely broad, and I can hope to offer, at most, a few glimpses, a few hints, a few beginnings. Messiaen will of course have the final word.”
So the question occurs to this long-time (since 1945) parishioner: is the intent of this lecture to foster more understanding, and therefore interest, in hearing more 20th-century sacred music at Trinity? A spirited lecture by Ross should make many converts.
The lecture, in the nave of the church, is free and open to the public.