Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What a Jew Hears When Listening to Beethoven

. . . et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen.

And the Life of the world to come. Amen.

Hillel and Shammai, two well-known and perpetually quarreling rabbis, play prominent roles in Avot d'Rabbi Natan. Here, as in talmudic stories about these characters, Hillel is patient and lenient, while Shammai is strict and easily irritated.

In one story, a man comes to Shammai asking to be converted on the condition that Shammai make him a high priest. Shammai responds, "Don't we have anyone in Israel to make a high priest rather than this proselyte?" and dismisses the man. The man then approaches Hillel with the same request. Rather than rebuke him, Hillel suggests that this man begin studying the biblical laws of the priesthood. As he learns about the difficulties and dangers of the priesthood, the man abandons this ambition but commits himself to conversion. In a final rebuke to Shammai, the man comments, "Your impatience, Shammai, almost made me remove my soul from the life of this world and of the world to come; and your patience, Hillel, made me worthy to inherit the life of this world and the life of the world to come."


Gary Freedman said...

The video is from the Credo of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. It's my favorite part -- musicians say it is the most difficult to perform.

Richard Wagner said that the Catholic Mass was "nothing but Jewish propaganda." There's truth to that.

Gary Freedman said...

The quoted passage is from an article by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.

Gary Freedman said...

The concert is from February 2010 in Dresden, Germany. Each year in February Dresden holds a concert memorializing the fire-bombing of the city in WWII:

At a time when Dresden, that Baroque and Rococo gem, was full of Berlin’s refugees and the war for us was pretty much good as won, our firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 was not one of Britain and America’s finest hours. Whatever the much-disputed strategic reason was, it still feels, to someone of my generation, like someone stamping unnecessarily on a Faberg√© egg. For the U.K., of course, it was a kind of payback for the Germans’ totalling of the pretty medieval city Coventry in 1940. Dresden and Coventry are twinned now, both scarred not so much by the bombing as by the swift, concrete-fixated rebuilding (British architects were just as cross-eyed and short-sighted as East German ones). Since reunification, huge investment and returning industry have brought Dresden back to life, as one by one the historic buildings are being restored so that, in time, it may regain its prewar name of the Jewel Box. Even while part of East Germany, Dresden managed to retain some of its cultural standards, something that has eluded unemployment-ridden Coventry. Although Benjamin Britten premi√®red his War Requiem there, Coventry doesn’t have any living cultural flagship. In short, it never had anything like the Dresden Staatskapelle, an orchestra that even in the world of globalized blandness, has managed to retain its unmistakeable, rarefied sound.

I vaguely knew about Dresden’s memorial concerts held each year in February. What is startling about watching one for the first time is the complete lack of applause before and after the concert. Judging by the political, elite-looking audience (Mikhail Gorbachev, among others, is there), it feels like a very international, ambassadorial act of mourning. Last year, 2010, was an especially pertinent year for the concert, being not just the 65th anniversary of the bombing but also the 25th of the Semperoper’s reopening. I doubt there could be a better choice here than Beethoven’s solemn mass. A strange, awkward masterpiece, it contrasts its lyrical, slow-building climaxes with frenzied joyous moments, culminating in a surprisingly forward-looking, positive conclusion.

Gary Freedman said...

It is said that once Beethoven narrowly escaped excommunication for having said that Jesus was only a poor human being and a Jew. Haydn, ingenuously pious, is reported to have called Beethoven an atheist.

Gary Freedman said...

The fire-bombing of Dresden, 2/13/45: