Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Effect of Paul Manz

Since Mr. Manz's death last Wednesday, I have listened, re-listened, and re-relistened to the three Pipedreams shows on Manz.

No two people are touched by the same thing in the same way. I knew a cleric who could hear Christian rock music of the lowest music and theological quality and say, "That touched my heart." Thus, these things are impossible to measure. That said, I have in these days been so touched -- in fact blessed -- by Mr. Manz's playing of his own music. It has "jumped out at me."

There are several qualities which make this man and his music remarkable and, well, touching.

A composer playing his own music. Without question, my greatest dilemma as a musician has been the inability to replicate how the composers played their own music. Even if, by some miracle, we could be certain of every articulation, rubato, and inflection of a composer, even by reproducing every one of these details, the personality, the "spirit" (and spirit is real) would never be right. Chopin is an extreme example. We know almost nothing about how he played. (Yes, I own Chopin: pianist and teacher, The Chopin Companion, and every other relevant book. So what? We still don't know what he sounded like. Or as Baron Munchhausen said, "Vass you dere, Sharlie?")

Then in 2001 I discovered the recordings of Ernesto Lecuona, playing his own music. From the "classical" point of view (I don't know what that means, but I said it anyway), the music is not on the level of Chopin, Liszt, or Debussy. But hearing Lecuona play it, it moved me on a profound level. It sounded ... well, right. Not just musically right -- spiritually right.

In 1989, in Newport, RI, I heard Charlie Callahan play the world-premiere of his Partita on "Slane." I remember seeing members of the audience in tears -- and they were musicians. Someday, a student of a student of a student of Callahan will exhume this piece and play it. And it won't be the same.

As a teenager, I played a lot of Neobaroque chorale-preludes, published by Concordia, of various composers of the Manz mold. Useful stuff for church, not all of it great. Today we know a lot more about how Baroque music was constructed. Improvisers like Bill Porter and Harald Vogel are not as rare as they once were. There are quite a few musicians today who can fashion Baroque-style music. We hear it, and in our snobbery we wonder, "How 'authentic' is it?" This week, hearing Manz play his music, the question instead was, "How right is it?"

In the context of church. The music of Manz seems even more right, because he wrote it for use on Sunday morning, during actual worship. Manz went one step further: instead of giving traditional organ recitals, he gave hymn festivals, playing hymn-based compositions and improvisations interspersed with hymns sung by all present.

I could not applaud this more loudly! We have dissected Bach's music from every angle and with every rationale. The composer whose music I most love to play is Bach. And the composer about whose music I feel the most subconscious is Bach. Every time I play a note, I imagine that I've broken ten rules. Maybe it was too legato or too staccato or, worse yet, it "wasn't in the style." What that "style" is, of course, no one knows, a fact that we've already established. It's a rather fluid thing; in ten years the "authentic style" will suddenly be something different.

But hearing Manz play his Neobaroque compositions, in the context of worship, I feel like I'm brought closer to the spirit of Bach. While the organ professors were out having fistfights over articulation, here in the Midwest, far from Boston, was a fervent Lutheran musician, improvising on Lutheran hymns during a Lutheran service. That is much closer to the Bach experience than some Bach recital by some top teacher on the trendy tracker of the time.

A good person making good music. Around 1991, I was at Duquesne University, playing what I think was the world-premiere of the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Elliott McKinley. It was some sort of new music festival organized by David Stock. One day, Bill Bolcom did a composition masterclass, during which the discussion somehow meandered to "good" music written by "not necessarily good" human beings. Bolcom mentioned Wagner and admitted that he wasn't sure how to reconcile the fact that great music was written by ... well, Wagner. I admired Bolcom's candor about it; he was brave enough to say, "I don't know the answer to that one."

It is a question that I've thought often of in the almost 20 years since.

There's no question that great people sometimes write bad pieces, and bad people sometimes write great pieces. And frankly, we can't always judge how "good" or "bad" a historical figure was. Some claimed that Verdi, Brahms, and other composers "believed in nothing." Chances are, they very much believed in a Higher Power but did not believe in the church hierarchy. Put differently, God's laws and church laws are not necessarily synonymous. The latter they were happy to break -- and historically the clergy themselves have been only too willing to break both categories of laws. ("Do as we say, not as we do," proclaims their conduct.)

However, what I do know is that when you have a great person writing a great piece of music, it transcends all earthly stratospheres. The greatest music of Perosi is greater than the greatest music of Wagner or some other reprobate. We have, for instance, a recording of Perosi conducting his "Giudizio Universale." This is a musical/spiritual level that Wagner never reached.

And so there is "a certain something" about the music of Paul Manz. It comes across that there is a great human being making this music. There is a simplicity -- a quality that is not childish but childlike. Manz, in his music, seemed to be behaving the way Christ admonished us to behave.

Here are the Pipedreams shows. Experience them for yourself:

Long live the memory of Paul Manz.