Monday, February 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Chopin

Today may or may not be Chopin's birthday. He always claimed that it was March 1, though church records put it earlier. No matter what the date, though, this year marks the bicentennary of the great composer's birth.

Chopin composed only for the piano, which is only one of the reasons we don't associate his work with church music. I actually did play one piece of Chopin's during my time at Bethany, employing the A major Polonaise as a postlude (Op 40, No 1, nicknamed the Military Polonaise). It's about as close to a march as we could ever claim he composed and worked as a change of pace, I believe.

However, some people would shun Chopin's music for its romanticism. His pieces plumb the depths of the passions (in the broad, classical sense of the passions, not simply amorous). Despite his fondness for Bach and classical influences, Chopin's piano music was fully steeped in 19th century Parisian salon culture. The turmoil of the era can be heard in the etudes and the romance in the waltzes, as well as the nationalism of the Polonaises and mazurkas.

I find it intriguing that much of the famous and beloved classical music of the concert hall is from the romantic era, but the church largely shuns it in favor of earlier work (or its modern revival and reinterpretation). A Washington Post article on Chopin today might have touched on the problem when it described the challenge of his work as "walking the fine line between emotion and sentiment, between feeling something and looking back, fondly, on the way it felt." The romantics urge us to action and emotion, not contemplation. Romantic music could inspire liberation theology, perhaps, but not push us toward meditative prayer. Thus, the cliche remains of yoga and prayer to the strains of chant or Bach. Is that fair to the composer's intentions? And is it fair to us that such music is not part of our worship experience?

In other words, do you ever feel that church music (or perhaps even the worship experience in general) intellectualize faith too much (exclude too much romanticism), and thereby diminish the experience? Or does such an emphasis wisely avoid the irrational whirl of personal emotions in order to instruct us and learn God's will?


  1. I think we need both - on really hectic days, it may take 3 or 4 Bach inventions to order and compose my mind, especially for study. On the other hand, I think Chopin may be a great interlude, especially after a passionate sermon, to help pick up the emotion and the challenge that has been brought before us in God's word. Depending on the worship service and the theme of the day, there is definitely a place for both.

  2. I would start by agreeing with you that there is a place for both. The "main-line" churches have not trusted the emotional responses, and with some historical justification. This is where the Evangelicals have made inroads, although without Romantic period music, certainly. Interestingly, "main-line" churches tend not to trust intellectuals overly much either, preferring a simple piety. The results of this are, like all things, probably both good and bad.