27 May 2008

‘Bach’s Christmas Music in England and in Germany’ by Vernon Lee

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This is the long-forgotten article in which the iron curtain was first taken from the theatre and converted into a political metaphor. It was published in the London-based Suffragist magazine Jus Suffragii, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1 January 1915, p. 218. I count it among the key writings of the First World War. It can also be read – against Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other latter-day polemicists – as an example of how secular-minded and even atheist writers may engage religious subjects without merely resorting to furious denial. An account of Vernon Lee and her article’s sources, context and influence is given in my book Iron Curtain: from stage to Cold War.


Vernon Lee at Sestri, 1914 (Colby College Special Collections, Waterville, Maine. Photo: Margery Taylor)

I was at the Temple on Christmas Eve for Bach’s Music. The shimmering double church was full of old and elderly men, of women of all ages, with a sprinkling of soldier-lads, brought along, on what may be their last Christmas in this world, by their mothers and sisters and sweethearts. Everyone – but it was perhaps that my own eyes and heart were opened – everyone seemed so altered from other perfunctory times, grave, sincere, aware of all it meant.

With the first rasping notes of the organ, tearing the veil of silent prayer, there came before my mind, as when a cloud-rent suddenly shows depths of solemn moonlit sky, the fact that There also, There beyond the sea and the war chasm, in hundreds of churches of Bach’s own country (I can see the Thomas-Kirche at Leipzig, where he was Cantor, and the church of his birthplace, Eisenach), There, at this very moment, were crowds like this one at the Temple, listening to this self-same Christmas Music. There also, elderly men, stay-behinds, and many, many women, old and young, and a sprinkling of soldier-lads brought for that, maybe last Christmas at home and on Earth. Praying like these silently kneeling around me, and praying for the same mercies: Give us, O God, strength to live through these evil times, or, if so be, die to some purpose; suffer not, O Lord, who seest our hearts, that we be crushed in this war not of our making: teach us to forgive the cruel folk who hate us; give us such peace as will never be broken. Forgive us, deliver us; remember, O Father, the peace and good-will which were promised with Thy Son.

Something like that, articulate or not, is welling up with unshed tears and silent sobs in those kneeling crowds, behind those screening hands, both on this side and on yonder, of the shallow seas and the unfathomable ocean of horror and hatred. They are united, these English and those German crowds, in the same hopes and fears and prayers, even as, unsuspecting, they are united in the same sequences of melody, the same woofs of harmonies wherewith, across two hundred years, that long dead but undying organist of Leipzig enmeshes, draws together, nooses and nets our souls to lift them, clarified, close embraced, nay consubstantial, into the presence of the new born, the eternally reborn, Hope of the World.

They are thinking and feeling the same, those German and these English crowds. They are played into unanimity not only by Bach with his tunes and counterpoints, but by the ruthless hands of our common calamity. The same heroic, or resigned, or despairing modes; saddest of all, perhaps, the brief snatches of would-be cheerfulness, and beneath all individual, all articulate differences, the unanalysable harmonies of collective sorrow.

They have come, those German women like these English ones, to seek rest in this church and this music after their day in hospitals and relief offices and committee rooms. They also have brought along with them their soldiers, their boys or their lovers, home perhaps for the last time; brought them from old peaceful habit, or because one can feel nearer together, without the unnerving fear of words and glances, here in this church, side by side, embracing in the music and in God. And, the service over, they will many of them, German women like English, go back to their homes, light up the Christmas tree, pull the paper caps and the favours out of the crackers, and laugh and play, so that the children at least may forget the war, and remember only that the Christ Child has been born once more. German and English, the same burdens have been brought to the church, been laid down in the prayer and the music; the same burdens have been shouldered again. Never have we and they been closer together, more alike and akin, than at this moment when War’s cruelties and recriminations, War’s monstrous iron curtain, cut us off so utterly from one another.

United, moreover, in the common feeling of Christmas. For a symbol turns the simple fact we can singly know into the myriad applications we can together feel. And the Child Christ, whom, orthodox or unorthodox, we are all celebrating, was not born once, but is born always, over and again. He lies in every cradle, the incarnate, unblemished hope of every land and every generation. And He is the Redeemer because every new life, like every new day after the winter solstice, like the wheat quickening in the winter furrow, is the redemption of our Present, by our Future, the deliverance by our Hope from our Despair. Enmity dies and is forgotten, being accidental, changeable, sterile, and against the grain of life. But peace and goodwill on earth is born for ever anew, because it is born of the undying needs of our common humanity.

This is the message of Bach’s Christmas music, his cosmic thunders hushed in pastoral flutings; the message of the long-deceased German organist to us English who listen; the message to us listening English back to Bach’s fellow-countrymen united with us in listening and in sorrowing and hoping.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 27th, 2008 at 1:29 pm and is filed under Articles General, Found Objects, War & peace. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.