Haydn’s Theresienmesse: An Artistic/Apologetic Tour De Force

 

Perhaps every generation of Christians since the 18th century has felt they are facing the epic battle of all battles in terms of faith versus science. Now, I personally don’t believe the two are opposed but that’s a topic for another day. In addition to engaging scientific arguments in a scientific manner, each generation of Christians who live among enlightened scientific thinkers(i.e., communities that consider themselves to be sophisticated observers of the natural world and scientific processes as they relate to how things work) must boldly proclaim faith, an intangible quality this side of heaven, as the most powerful reality in the universe.

Recently, there has been a call to respond to 21st century scientific thinkers who are relentlessly, dogmatically, and combatively committed to an atheistic view of the universe. We call these individuals the New Atheists. The responses in book form, at conferences, and increasingly in sermons are mounting. I contributed an artist’s response about a month ago at the Southwest ETS conference, which I plan to share on this blog in coming days.

Tonight the NOBTS Seminary Chorus will present a work that emerged during one of Western church’s  greatest periods of questioning. Certainly some enlightened thinkers sought to maintain faith in Christ, but many of the influential enlightened philosophers sought to destroy the foundations of Christianity. For example, even in America’s early days Thomas Paine wrote an influential work, Age of Reason, questioning the validity of the New Testament.

Responses in the Enlightenment by thoughtful Christian leaders were appropriate and well presented, but I would argue that the arts as well provided a meaningful response.

To illustrate how Christian art was a meaningful response to the Enlightenment, I will need to provide some brief background on a particular philosophical argument. The ontological argument (Speaking of God: “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”) originated with Anselm in the 11th century.  The idea re-emerged with Descartes and has made an important comeback in recent decades.

Although Hadyn was no philosopher, I believe the greatest of Western artists inherently recognize that something or some being demands art “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Beethoven’s journey with the symphony ultimately led him to a story line in the 9th symphony that has  become the theme of the European Union. Beethoven no doubt sought to make a lofty philosophical statement with the work. For Haydn, the thematic vehicle for music of the highest possible conception must be Christian. Ultimately Haydn’s journey to write sacred music of the highest quality resulted in the Creation, but the six symphonic masses written in the 1790’s are of equal quality. The Theresienmesse, which will be presented tonight at Leavell Chapel, is one of those works.

By the 1790’s, Haydn was not a naive artist writing a fluffy settings of a familiar mass text . At this point, he knew well the dangers of a tyrant such as Napoleon, yet the joy of the Gloria movement cannot be contained, just as the joy of a life lived for Christ cannot be contained no matter what difficulties we face this side of heaven, “O death where is thy sting.” Surely there is a powerful apologetic that is represented in a life lived for Christ with joy in the midst of very difficult circumstances. When an artist so uniquely captures this sense of uncontainable joy and hope, a powerful response to the God-doubters is presented for the world to observe. No doubt Haydn’s Theresienmesse is an artistic/apologetic tour de force.

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