Music: John Nelson — To God Be the Glory

I recently had a chance to talk with one of America’s most sought-after conductors, John Nelson. Maestro Nelson is currently music director of the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. He also conducts regularly at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Chicago Lyric Opera. His many recordings have won such prestigious prizes as the Grammy Award (in 1994, for a recording of Handel’s Semele) and the Grand Diapason d’Or (in 1992, for a recording of Berlioz’s Beatrice et Benedict). John Nelson is also the artistic director of Soli Deo Gloria, an organization he helped found to commission new works of sacred music.

Reilly: Let’s begin with Soli Deo Gloria. How extraordinary it is to have started an organization with that name for the purpose which you did. Tell us about it.

Nelson: The idea came five or six years ago through two close friends of mine, who encouraged me to think of something unusual in the sense of tithing my time and my work. These two friends are of the same religious persuasion as I am.

And what is that?

Christian. I am originally a Baptist, become a Presbyterian, become an Anglican, on my way across the Tiber. So I’m somewhere in between, but nevertheless, my faith remains strong, and it motivates my work. And at the encouragement of these two friends, I began thinking of doing something in the profession that would honor God, honor the profession within which I’m privileged to work. So we came up with this idea to create an organization that would do a number of things—principally, commission composers to continue the tradition of sacred music in the classical tradition.

You took the name of your organization from Bach, who wrote “Soli Deo Gloria” (To God Be the Glory) on the top of all his manuscripts?

That we did. And it says it all, because Bach worked within a sense of giving his gift back to God. And so this is what I’m personally trying to do, and what the organization itself is trying to do. It doesn’t matter whether I’m conducting [Richard Strauss’s] Salome or whether I’m conducting the St. Matthew Passion. It all, in my view, comes from above. And I’m privileged to have the gift that I have, number one. I’m enormously, unspeakably privileged to have as my companions composers like Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz, whatever. It’s an incredibly privileged life that I live. I best cope with it by being grateful.

How do your peers in the musical and artistic world regard this enterprise? We live in a secularized age that must find your endeavor somewhat quixotic.

I’m not amazed, but I’m very happy with the general response because it has been tremendous.

From whom?

It doesn’t matter from what quarter of my world, but all the responses have been very, very positive. I will just give you one example. I commissioned Christopher Rouse to write a Requiem in the memory of Berlioz. So I went to see Christoph Eschenbach to ask him whether he would like to place this commission with his orchestra in Paris. And he said, “Tell me about the idea behind it.” So I told him the whole idea of Soli Deo Gloria. His eyes were wide open. Here is a man that is not religious in the least; I think I can say that straightforwardly. The idea of doing something like this and receiving no recompense for it, and doing it simply out of a love of the art, a love of sacred music, fascinated him. I could see it in his eyes. And every composer, every interpreter who has studied western civilization’s music knows the importance of sacred music in not only my field but in art and every endeavor. So the idea of keeping this alive was just fascinating to him. And he said right away, “There’s no question that we want you to do this with the Orchestre de Paris. I applaud you in your efforts. I think this is remarkable. I’ve never heard of anything quite like this. Let’s go for it.” I’ve had that kind of response everywhere.

The only place where people had heard of anything like this before was when the Church, as the source of sacred music, was commissioning such works. And that’s why they must be so surprised that, with the horrible failure of the Church to support music, you and Soli Deo Gloria have picked up this noble enterprise.

It’s a social, political, historical situation. I think that, in our age, the Church doesn’t want to have the power, the same kind of terrestrial power, that it had in ages past. The Church has become something quite different.

I’m afraid it has a spiritual dimension, not just an economic and political one, and that it is part of the liturgical striping and collapse that we have seen over the last half century.

That is for sure, and all good Catholics know that very well.

This is why there are so many people who will be happy to hear of what you are doing.

It’s interesting that the monies that are coming to us are coming from a wide variety of sources. They’re coming from people who are not religious in the least. I have some Jewish friends who are giving to the project for a Mass at the Vatican that violently disagree with the pope’s stand on this and on that, but they find the whole idea behind it so captivating.

Why do you suppose that is?

Well, I think for people who are not particularly spiritually minded, they find it noble. For those that have an inward sense or a small germ of spiritual sensitivity, they want to increase that, and this is a way of expressing themselves maybe in a nontraditional way. They can feel that they are doing something important in a spiritual sense or in a higher sense in some way.

How do you match the commission to the composer? You were talking about the Requiem and Christopher Rouse.

We have six commissions on the table, and each of them is very different. The Christopher Rouse commission came about because I’ve known Christopher since he was my composer in residence in Indianapolis, before anybody knew his name. We talked for hours and hours about the music of Berlioz. I’m considered an interpreter of his and somewhat of an authority on his music. And I found that Chris knew every bit, if not more, about Berlioz’s music than I did. I sensed that he felt a kinship with the composer even so far as to say—I’m going to say this because he hasn’t really come out and said it—I consider him the Berlioz of our time. That means that the person has a fantasy, an unusually creative mind, and a sound image that is very, very different than that of his contemporaries.

I was standing several feet from Rouse at the back of the Concert Hall in the Kennedy Center in 1988 when he was announced as the winner of the Freidheim Award for orchestral music. He’s already a tall man, but of course he leapt into the air in elation over his victory.

That was his first award.

That’s right. I was quite impressed with the work. It was his First Symphony. The symphony was recorded later by the Nonesuch label, and he said a very interesting thing in respect to it—what we have here is the demise of the romantic hero. He said, “I have depicted ‘death without transfiguration.'” This is the expressive content of the piece. So it’s going to be very interesting to see what he produces in a Requiem, which is usually expected to express transfiguration.

Christopher comes from a Catholic background. When we’ve talked about religion or the Church in a traditional sense, he’s always been a bit put off. But he said to me “I don’t know whether I believe, but I would like to believe.” And in that feeling, he said he really wanted to take this on because he found it such a challenge. So in what direction that is going to take him, I don’t really know, except to say that there are going to be additional texts interpolated in the manner of Benjamin Britten. He has already chosen some Michelangelo texts, but he is in search of others. All I told him is that he has to take the complete liturgy and deliver it. Otherwise, there’s no commission. But, if you want to put your comment into it, that’s perfectly OK.

So really, it was his connection with Berlioz that led you to Rouse?

That was it. What I really want to do in this whole enterprise of Soli Deo Gloria is exactly what the title says. In my opinion, we are clay. We’re pretty minuscule by comparison to the Creator. And it’s that perspective that I would like to encourage. It’s really anti-Nietzsche.

Igor Stravinsky said a wonderful thing once. He said, “The first original sin was the sin of knowledge; the new original sin is the sin of nonacknowledgment.”

That’s it.

And he shared the view that the purpose of art is to make the transcendent perceptible so that, whether music is explicitly sacred or not, it nonetheless shares in a spiritual mission. It is precisely this view of art that was rejected for a large part of the 20th century.

It was, but something rather curious has happened at the end of the 20th century. We find ourselves much further ahead with things like the Internet, but the rest of our moral problems remain the same. I don’t think we find ourselves really in much better a world than we did at the beginning of the 20th century. I think that awareness has had an effect on society and what it has produced. And there are tons of composers out there who are writing profoundly religious music.

I always feel a chill down my spine when I recall Schoenberg’s remark that he was “cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.” I think that remark represents a profound spiritual problem. I share with you the view that this is now being overcome, and that modern audiences are unaware of the extent and depth of the recovery from this view.

I would still have to agree with Schoenberg in his view that we don’t have to portray things as beautiful. I think the artist has to be honest. I think the artist has to reflect what his society is thinking and feeling. I think the description of horror in Christopher Rouse’s music, just to mention one composer, is a description of truth. What I feel is missing in a lot of it is light, some form of light. All is not darkness, and darkness is there so that we can enjoy light, so that we can perceive light. It has been very interesting to watch Christopher’s evolution in the last ten years because there is light coming into his music. And there is beauty coming into it, and there is a certain emotional neo-romanticism that is coming back now that he’s past his 50th year. He has a different take on things, and I’m really pleased to see that.

This seems to me a journey that many of our composers have undertaken, whether its John Adams, my friend Steve Albert, whom we lost several years ago, or, even earlier, George Rochberg.

George Rochberg, there’s a case in point, what an incredible transformation.

They themselves speak of this change as fundamentally a spiritual one. Certainly George Rochberg does, certainly John Adams does. He’s always talking about what he’s doing in terms of spiritual sickness and health. And Steve Albert did that as well.

Certainly Krysztof Penderecki is doing it. He wants to spend the rest of his life writing music that reflects spirituality.

And then we have this phenomenon of what sometimes people sarcastically call “holy minimalism” with the Henryk Gorecki, Arvo Part, and John Tavener. What do you make of that? I know you are directly connected with it in some way because you’ve commissioned a Mass from Gorecki for the pope and have made the premier recordings of some of his works.

I think we’re dealing with a number of things. One of them is his personality. Gorecki’s music suits that kind of pillared music, wall music. It fits his personality to a tee. When he was younger and he was involved in the Autumn Festival in Poland and was writing all the stuff based on his studies of other composers, I think a lot of that was just student-oriented. But when he really found himself, he found this kind of language within. And I find it extremely powerful. Then there’s the whole Eastern Block social, political situation, which has caused these people to have to find a peace, a calmness in the midst of a horror. And the strength of that calmness is, to us westerners who live in New York and live with telephones in our ears, so remarkable because it is so otherworldly.

I am so encouraged, but it seems the good news is not broadly spread about this recovery of modern music. And if the arts are a harbinger, I think it’s pointing in the right direction.

It’s always difficult to have a perspective on it. We have our small perspective from the present time, and I don’t know where this is all going to lead us. I continue to think that we need to progress along the tonal physics of the musical line, with the overtones, that has taken us now into quarter tones. And I really don’t know where this is all going to lead us. I just think that we have to continue into newness.

Well, I think that particular direction has exhausted itself pretty thoroughly because almost every composer I mentioned began in serialism and renounced it.

Paul Schoenfield, who was our first commissionee, is a Jewish-American composer. He lived on a Kibbutz in Israel and is not terribly well-known, though he is an incredibly brilliant composer. He has given it all up and gone into mathematics and other interests, because he finds that there is a dead end. He can’t write anything that’s new. I find that really fatalistic. And I agree with you. I’m very encouraged with what is happening because, for one thing, composers are writing with a sense of communication and not a sense of living in an ivory tower. And that’s the way Michelangelo, that’s the way Bach, that’s the way most of the greats wrote. They wrote because they had an audience in mind; they had a commission; and they wrote as a part of the working process. To sit back and write for future generations, or to write because of certain distant impulses that are not related to the present life, is faulty. I’m very encouraged. The compositional scene in America has totally changed in the last 30 years. When I started in the business, there was no one listening and no one responding to the music of the time. Now it’s completely changed.

What else are you thinking of commissioning?

Well, I’ll tell you what the commissions are right now. Augusta Read Thomas, who is the composer in residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a 35-year-old composer out of Eastman [School of Music]. She’s writing a piece for children’s choir and my orchestra here in Paris, based on the text by Madeleine L’Engle, a wonderful author. Following that, George Arasimowicz, another composer that I discovered that I don’t think you’ve ever heard of. He’s a composer in the Midwest, the head of a conservatory of music at Wheaton College outside of Chicago. He is one of the great voices, but he’s such a shy fellow that he just writes for himself. So I’m encouraging him to get out, and I’m introducing him to agents and so forth. He is writing an orchestral piece based on the life of St. Peter. Then comes the Rouse Requiem for the 200th anniversary of Berlioz’s birth in 2003. Then Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentine composer who lives in Boston, will do a multimedia piece on the life of Jacob. Then in 2005, we’re hoping to lasso James MacMillan, who was one of our early commissionees, but it became very complicated. He did not particularly like working with the librettist that we had in mind so that one fell through, but he loves our organization and wants to write something for us.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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