J.R.Donohue/Commentary/Tosca, Abandoned by God
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Tosca, Abandoned by God
Passion for great music does not require God

     During a quite heated and lengthy discussion on line about atheism, one of those challenging me on my atheism and the validity of atheism per se stopped the exchange to inject a question about serious music and belief/non-belief in God. I suspect this person was trying to catch me up in a contradiction about the requirement for God in experiencing transcendent passion, but asked politely enough. The exchange follows below.

     Note: my online presence in debate is often marked by the screen name Operaguy, which I sign as ::::: Opera :::::


Dear Operaguy,

     Last night I listened to some portions of the Mozart Requiem followed by a Brandenburg Concerto. I needle dropped some Debussy and then listened to a couple Chopin transcriptions from the Amsterdam Guitar Trio. While I listened, I was reminded that a great deal of classical (or more accurately, "polite" or "symphonic") music deals with religious themes and not many of these shed a negative light on the issue.

     Even when a piece is written for a formulaic religious theme, the Latin requiem for instance, it is still "in yer face" so to speak: even if the composer is disinterested and is merely adhering to a social convention.

     My question is this: When you, a composer, a sincere and convicted appreciator of music, and an outspoken atheist listen to these pieces of music that involve religious themes: when you are forced to listen to a religious message in pieces of music which you no doubt appreciate, do you feel a little bit annoyed?

     Or asked more specifically; Have you learned to separate the religious content of these pieces from their musical beauty? Do you sometimes feel that you could enjoy them more if they didn't contain a religious element?

     Does Also Sprach Zarathustra have an "edge" on Verdi's Requiem in relation to its subject alone?



     When I listen to or compose operas, I expect the music, action and words to have a narrative, programmatic content. This is music-drama. In fact, the reason I am not partial to early opera is because it fails to integrate the music, story, action, sets and character development.

     Few operas have religious themes. They are mostly about love affairs, sex, jealousy, revenge and death. In a debate about God in which I desire my position to be considered fair, I would not attempt to make hay with the ones that are religious, since they are relentlessly bad news for religion and belief as with "Salome" (Richard Strauss), "The Saint of Bleeker Street" (Menoti) and "Suor Angelica" (Puccini) for example.

     I don’t want to be accused of "piling on!" But you brought it up!

     Tosca is one of Puccini's greatest operas. The main character, Tosca, is imbued with a fundamental devout Catholic religious belief, extended to a tendency to religious superstition in the extravagant Italian vein. However, she is also an artist (a singer) and passionately in love with Cavaradossi, a painter. Their first-act assignation (non-sexual) is in a church. There is a political theme dragged in to complicate their lives and involve them with Scarpia, the villain. Scarpia is devoid of scruples -- a complete Machiavellian; he cares only for power. Noting the attachment between the lovers and struck with the real-politick use to which it could be put (with the added spice of sexual possession of Tosca into the bargain) Scarpia sets his scheme and swears his oath of utter destruction for his male enemies and cynical sexual predation on Tosca. His vile oath to carry out this hate-filled plot crashes down in the vestibule of the church as the Mass commences and the priests and worshipers sing the holy liturgy. Curtain. Very very dramatic.

     In the second act, Scarpia unfolds his plot, arresting and torturing Cavaradossi within hearing of Tosca. She cannot hold back, revealing a small amount of information, enough to cause the death of Scarpia's political enemy (Cavaradossi's friend.) Continuing, he twists his nightmare intent into her soul, telling her that the only way her lover will live is if she submits sexually to Scarpia.

     At this point, the action stops and Tosca, prone on the floor, sings the utterly devastating aria "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore." In it she looks straight at her choice (a life and death one) and then lifts her agonized soul to God. The aria is a spectacular cry of despair and rebuke of God for putting her, a good human being, into this hell. Here is the English translation:

     Art and love, life's fairest treasures,
     These humbly I served and dearly cherished.
     Kindness and pity
     Gladly I gave to the poor and afflicted.

     Ever with fervent devotion
     I prayed to God,
     Trusting fully in His truth divine.
     With simple joy, I brought
     Bright flowers to the sacred shrine.

     In this my hour of sorrow,
     I stand alone, forsaken.
     Is this, O Lord, to be my just reward?

     Rare gifts I gave,
     And jewels for the Madonna;
     My songs I offered to stars and sky
     In praise of their beauty.
     And now, in time of grief,
     Is this my just reward, O Lord!
     O why am I forsaken now: O why?

     Tosca stands up. She is resolved. She consents to Scarpia. He signs documents and arranges things for a mock-assassination of Cavaradossi after which he is to be whisked out of town alive but incognito. Scarpia turns to approach his victim to claim his reward of lust. Tosca lifts her arm as he comes toward her and utters her famous line:

     "This is Tosca's kiss!"

and plunges a dagger into Scarpia's breast.

     When Scarpia's death throes subside, Tosca performs what has been often described as a counter-Christian ritual, placing a crucifix on his bloody chest and arranging candles in a certain way on either side of his head. She takes a look around, opens the door and walks out. Curtain.

     In act three, both Cavaradossi and Tosca perish, he a victim of a real execution that both thought was to be fake, she taking her own life, having nothing to live for since God has forsaken her, the police are about to arrest her for Scarpia's murder and her lover is dead in her arms.

     "Vissi d'arte" is one of the great works of art that I know. I melt under its spell even without the context of the opera, even without knowing the words of the aria itself. In fact I identified this song as one of my lifetime treasures -- something of unchanging high value -- before I knew it's literal content. I have many recordings of it. I favor Callas, Tebaldi and Kiri Te Kanawa. There is another song of high import in "Tosca", Cavaradossi's aria "E lucevan le stella" which is his death poem when he expects to be executed.

     Tosca (as well as "Solome", "The Saint of Bleeker Street" and "Suor Angelica") are told from the point of view of a nonbeliever and indeed shed a negative light on the issue of religion and belief. I know of no opera in the world repertoire told from the inside of religious belief, let alone favorable to that consciousness. "Don Giovanni" and "Faust" are morality tales, and do deal with the hellish consequence of sin, but they are very worldly -- the worship of God is not the theme. Wagner deserves a separate essay on this point, and while the exaltation of the Grail-quest and redemption theme strongly reflect the composer's Christian urgings, I would argue that all of Wagner is essentially pagan -- heroic, pure worldly love overcoming the gods.

     Now, with non-operatic music, I have exactly the opposite take: I shun narrative, programmatic content. Even though many the Beethoven piano sonatas I love have popular nicknames such as "Moonlight" and "Tempest" and "Pastoral," I have no trouble dropping any association between such "names" and the emotional reality of the piece. I never impose a story line on any of the works of Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Hayden, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninov etc. and in fact drop even the intentions of the composer, in the rare cases he indicates them. Of this list, Bach was by far the most explicitly religious in his orientation, yet I never resent it in the slightest -- I just go on loving the passionate ardor of the music as it speaks to my soul directly. This has nothing to do with God for me, although all evidence seems to indicate that Bach himself was honestly a believer.

     Contrary to your claim ‘that a great deal of classical (or more accurately, "polite" or "symphonic") music deals with religious themes,’ I contend that even literally, the bulk of classical/romantic serious music is not of religious nature. The works of the above listed composers with explicit religious intent are the minority the further down the list you go. And many, especially early on, were directly commissioned by religious institutions -- that's all the work there was! Furthermore, the pieces that do have explicit religious intent operate for me totally aside from that explicit intent; the religious grounding does not get in the way of my enjoyment. There are not many that I treasure, but these are the main ones: Handel, Messiah; Mozart, Requiem; Schubert, Ave Maria.

     I have never caught on with "The St. Matthew Passion," Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis," the Verdi "Requiem" but I like the liturgical music of Bach. I take Bach completely as pure music, no concrete agenda. I love the Brandenburgs, The Well Tempered Clavier and many violin short works.

     With regard to your question ‘Does Also Sprach Zarathustra have an "edge" on Verdi's Requiem in relation to its subject alone?’

     I do not like "Also Sprach" Naturally, who could not be awestruck at the opening fanfare. But after that, I fall asleep. (Strauss does not capture me here, in the other tone poems or in his operas I think he is a sicko, frankly.) And in light of my non-programmatic viewpoint for non-operatic music, I do not try to penetrate to a literal meaning for this tone poem. I am also not in sympathy with Nietzsche, so that leaves that out.

     I am moved by art that offers high emotional and intellectual intensity -- passion. It is not contradictory that an atheist can honor a religious expression of that nature; I accept that the real thing is the real thing. It is also not contradictory that such religious passion has no supernatural or divine cause.

::::: Opera :::::

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