A musical question of faith | Music | DW | 20.09.2012
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A musical question of faith

The Stuttgart Music Festival is one of the biggest classical events in southwestern Germany. For the past four years, it has focused on a changing theme. This time around, faith was the subject at hand.

It's not always easy for composers to give expression to their faith in musical form. That was certainly true for 16th and 17th century composers during the periods of the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The raging conflicts between Catholics and Protestants meant religious compositions could put the artist behind them at risk.

The circumstances of the age led many composers to turn inward, often writing music only secretly for their contemporaries of the same faith - but always living in fear of being discovered.

Persecution and exile

Alfred Schnittke Copyright: dpa

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke

This year, in over 80 top-class concerts, as well as lectures, symposia and exhibitions, the Stuttgart Music Festival devoted itself to the brighter and darker sides of the subject of faith. The dark sides were represented with concerts under headings like "Persecuted Faith" or "Diaspora."

Neither, said program planner Michael Gassmann, are topics of the past: "One example - Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke - shows that there are repeated situations in which composers write religious music under complex political circumstances," he explained. "And I believe there will always be such constellations, as well as the diaspora situation."

That was impressively demonstrated this year by way of a work by Israeli-Palestinian composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi about the urgency of faith and martyrdom. It premiered in Stuttgart, titled "O Leute, rettet mich vor Gott" (People, Save Me from God).

Opening up

Conductor Helmut Rilling (c) Jo Goertz

Conductor Helmuth Rilling

Johann Sebastian Bach, for his part, was not confronted with denominational distress. The Protestant composer worked only in circles who shared his faith - and yet he grappled intensively with his religion.

Stuttgart's Bach Academy, founded in 1981 by conductor Helmuth Rilling, strives to get Bach's spiritual works performed abroad. Pondering and advocating Bach's work remains an important task even today, said Christian Lorenz, director of the Bach Academy.

"We want to open up Bach's music to a broader, more urban audience - one that is not necessarily Christian or Protestant," he said. "That is a distinguishing factor of the Bach Academy and of the Music Festival."

From early to contemporary

An unusual concert venue: a streetcar depot Copyright: Holger Schneider

An unusual concert venue: a streetcar depot

Although the Bach Academy heads up the Stuttgart Music Festival, which takes place each August to September, Bach's music is only one part of the multi-facetted program - which ranges from early music to contemporary modern.

World-renowned musicians - from the Auryn Quartett to pianist Martin Stadtfeld, organist Cameron Carpenter and conductor Helmuth Rilling - performed this year at over 30 venues, which included churches, concert halls, conference centers, castles and streetcar depots in and around Stuttgart. Up-and-coming talents also had an opportunity to perform in concerts. In addition to repertory concerts, plenty of other seldom heard delicacies dotted programs, such as sacred music by Italian composer Niccolo Jommelli.

Diaspora and tolerance

Classical on show in Stuttgart Copyright: Holger Schneider

On stage in Stuttgart

The Catholic Jommelli, who came to the Stuttgart court in 1753, lived in a kind of diaspora of faith since the city was Protestant at the time. But the composer lived under the patronage of Catholic Duke Carl Eugen, so he had little to fear, said Gassmann.

"He was primarily supposed to write operas and composed a few works for the Catholic court, but that was more of a closed group," Gassmann explained.

The Stuttgart Music Festival, on the other had, is a completely open event - bringing together Jews and Muslims in interdenominational projects, for instance. They are inspiring encounters, said Bach Academy head Lorenz, who mentioned one line that has stayed with him: "One of our partners who was Muslim stood up and exclaimed: 'Bach did not only write for Christians!'"

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