Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Rely on the cantus firmus

Two quotations taken from Dietrich Boenhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison, in which he uses the analogy of the fugue to explore our fragmentary lives:

1) There’s always the danger in all strong, erotic love that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love him eternally with out whole hearts—not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. One of these contrapuntal themes (which have their own complete independence but are yet related to the cantus firmus) is earthly affection. Even in the Bible we have the Song of Songs; and really one can imagine no more ardent, passionate, sensual love than is portrayed there. . . . It is a good thing that that book is in the Bible, in face of all those who believe that the restraint of passion is Christian. (Where is there such restraint in the Old Testament?) Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits. The two are “undivided and yet distinct” in the words of the Chalcedonian Definition, like Chirst and his divine and human natures. May not the attraction and importance of polyphony in music consist in its being a musical reflection of this Christological face and therefore of our vita Christiana? This thought didn’t occur to me until after your visit yesterday. Do you see what I’m driving at? I wanted to tell you to have a good, clear cantus firmus ; that is the only way to a full and perfect sound, when the counterpoint has a firm support and can’t come adrift or get out of tune, while remaining a distinct whole in its own right. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going . . . . Please, Eberhard, do not fear and hate the separation, if it should come with all its dangers, but rely on the cantus firmus. (166-67)

2) The important thing today is that we should be able to discern from the fragment of our life how the whole was arranged and planned, and what material it consists of. For really, there are some fragments that are only worth throwing into the dustbin (even a decent ‘hell’ is too good for them), and others whose importance lasts for centuries, because their completion can only be a matter for God, and so they are fragments that must be fragments. I think for example of the Art of the Fugue. If our life also is only a slightest reflection of such a fragment, in which at least for a short while the various themes, growing ever stronger, harmonize, and in which the great counterpoint is held on to from beginning to end so that finally, after the breaking-off point, the chorale Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit can still be intoned, then we do not wish to complain about our fragmentary life, but even be glad for it. (219)

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