- “It was a common theme of the ‘nature sermons’ that had made Laurillard one of the most sought-after preachers in Holland. Using simple, vivid images, he portrayed a Christ not only in nature, but also intimate with the processes of nature . . . and inseparable from the beauty of nature. . . . Finding beauty in nature was not just one way of knowing God, they proposed; it was the only way. And those who could see that beauty and express it – writers, musicians, artists – were God’s truest intermediaries. For Vincent, this was an electrifying new ideal of art and artists. Before, art had always served religion . . . . But Laurillard preached a ‘religion of beauty’ in which God was nature.” [Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life (Random House, 2011), pp. 171-172.] This new understanding changed everything for the young van Gogh. “Dat is het” (“That is it”), he said. He had struggled to adhere to his father’s stern understanding of religion; now it need no longer control him. The artist had freed himself, a bit.
Are there any revealed Truths for Humanists, scientific naturalists and non-theists? Most certainly, yes, not in the sense of a truth handed down from an external source such as a god or an ancient writing, but in the sense of a Truth revealed from within. Unless the person is suppressing or denying something, she is the best judge of what she is thinking, feeling and experiencing. For each of us, the inner life experience is the Truth revealed from within. We know this, and yet after all these centuries of human history, it still seems to come as a revelation to many.
- Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (W.W. Norton & Company, 2019): “This kind of beautiful, immersive narration exists for its own sake but it also counteracts the most common depictions of black urban life from this time — the frozen, coerced images, Hartman calls them, most commonly of mothers and children in cramped kitchens and bedrooms.”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Poorly acted, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Master Singer of Nurenberg) can come across as a four-plus-hour piece of insufferable nonsense, a vehicle for Wagner’s music (which is not the best in the operatic repertoire anyway). However, in this 2011 performance from Glyndebourne, Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs, and the entire cast, deliver a compelling interpretation that elevates this opera and by comparison transforms it into the greatest vehicle for the illustration of human values of all operas. The storyline begins with a typically Wagnerian premise: a man has decided that his daughter Eva is to be given in marriage to the master singer who wins a singing contest, as judged by the members of the local master singers’ guild. She may refuse to marry the victor but then she may not marry anyone. Her suitor and love interest, an at-first too-eager Walther von Stolzing first appears creeping around inside a church during a service trying to ask her whether she will “say the word” and become his wife. He is informed of the singing contest, and off we go. Stolzing has not been designated a master singer but he appears at a guild meeting to audition for that distinction. Master singer Beckmesser, who wishes to marry Eva, serves as the “marker” who will determine whether Stolzing is worthy of the title master singer. Of course, the audition – which Stolzing sings brilliantly – is deemed a failure, ending his hope of ever becoming a master singer. The story’s protagonist Hans Sachs – a master singer, poet, and cobbler by trade – is incensed at the injustice, and at the foil Beckmesser. Remember, though, this is opera, so there is no such thing as never. Stolzing appears at Eva’s home, and the two decide to elope. As they prepare to elope, Beckmesser appears with his lute and performs a pitiful love ballad while Sachs cobbles a shoe, each strike of his hammer mimicking a mark with Beckmesser’s chalk during Stolzing’s audition. The third act opens with a despondent Sachs and the revelation of a depiction of his deceased wife and children. Stolzing, who has slept the night at Sach’s home, awakes after having a dream which he then puts to poetry and music. Sachs devises a plan for Stolzing to perform his song at the Midsummer’s Day festival (that day, of course), where the community will adjudge him a master singer, and he will win Eva’s hand. Beckmesser makes a fool of himself with another pitiful song, and then Stolzing triumphs with his song. Here are links to performances of the complete opera conducted by Karajan (1951), Furtwängler (1943), Abendroth (1943) and Jordan (2017). Below are some of the values illustrated in this opera:
- Truth: Having lost his young family, Sachs appreciates the pain of others. The story also reveals the Truth of Stolzing’s and Eva’s romantic love.
- Intuition: Great art is not a matter of simply following the rules of composition; it must speak to the heart.
- Honesty: Great art is also honest.
- Art and Beauty: to Wagner, as is obvious from lyrics in the final scene, this was a story about the art of music.
- Praxis, Tradition and Unconventionality: By balancing conventionality and unconventionality, great artists take art forward. No doubt Wagner saw himself as a living example of that.
- Transcendence: A line in the final act asks what is the difference between a beautiful song and a master song. It is the transcendent quality that takes art beyond its conventions.
- Passion and Amore: Stolzing’s and Eva’s romantic love for each other
- Suffering, as represented most directly by the untimely death of Sachs’ young family
- Empathy and Compassion: Through the loss of his family, the suffering of others has become exquisitely palpable to Sachs.
- Authenticity: though talented, Stolzing writes and sings from his heart, in stark contrast to the foil Beckmesser.
- Humility: Beckmesser presents its antithesis.
- Self-awareness: again, Beckmesser presents its antithesis.
- Mentoring: Sachs mentors Eva and Stolzing, and also his apprentice David, whom he promotes to journeyman near the end of the opera – OK, so he beats David with a. strap on occasion but this is nineteenth-century Wagnerian opera.
- Perseverance, Faith and Miracles: Though he has been told that he can never become a master singer, Stolzing writes and sings his song, with considerable help from Sachs. David the apprentice also perseveres, and triumphs.
- Wisdom: Stolzing represents this virtue most fully, in this opera.
- Triumph: The opera’s opening chords announce a motif of triumph, which also closes the opera.
Heitor Villa-Lobos dedicated most of his seventeen string quartets to musicians, or to his longtime companion Mindinha. Consistent with this, these works do not present grand themes but mainly reflect and express the composer’s inner life. This statement from his 12th String Quartet best summarizes their essence: “Richness through the heart always . . . The experience of the man himself, then onto paper.”
- String Quartet No. 1 (1915, rev. 1946) is a series of brief mood pictures.
- String Quartet No. 2 (1915)
- String Quartet No. 3 (1917)
- String Quartet No. 4 (1917)
- String Quartet No. 5 (1931)
- String Quartet No. 6 (1938)
- String Quartet No. 7 (1942)
- String Quartet No. 8 (1944)
- String Quartet No. 9 (1945)
- String Quartet No. 10 (1946)
- String Quartet No. 11 (1947)
- String Quartet No. 12 (1950): Villa-Lobos composed this quartet while he was hospitalized.
- String Quartet No. 13 (1951)
- String Quartet No. 14 (1953)
- String Quartet No. 15 (1954)
- String Quartet No. 16 (1955)
- String Quartet No. 17 (1957)
- Boulez, Pli Selon Pli for soprano and orchestra (1957–58, as Improvisations sur Mallarmé 1–2; completed 1959–62; revised 1983; revised 1989): usually, we think of revelation as a sudden occurrence but according to the composer, and the work’s title, this revelation is “fold by fold.”
- Gloria Coates, Symphony No. 7 (1990) expresses the uncertainty that is the opposite, or dark side, or revelation.