Feb. 7, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 9

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    Strand to share results of challenge he undertook for ‘Seven Last Words’

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Mark Strand

    The Brentano String Quartet will be featured in a performance of Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ” at 8 p.m., Friday, Feb. 22, in Mandel Hall. This concert, part of the University of Chicago Presents Chamber Music Series, will mark the Chicago premiere of a new text written by Mark Strand, Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Inspired by the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, the text will be read by Strand as part of the performance of “The Seven Last Words of Christ.”

    Taken from various sources in the New Testament, the seven last words of Christ are traditionally a subject for meditation among Christians during Lent, the fast commemorating Christ’s death and leading up to the festival of his resurrection at Easter.

    Haydn’s complex, elegiac composition also is traditionally performed during this season.

    The challenge was translating the piece’s spirit beyond its original, strictly Christian context. Mark Steinberg, first violinist of the Brentano String Quartet, whose idea it was to commission Strand to write a new text, said of the piece: “It’s one of my very favorite pieces of music. I find it incredibly moving, though I don’t consider myself religious in any formal sense. The last words are just fantastically compelling, apart from any purely religious ideas, whether you see them as story or parable. It taps into human emotions that are in the music, apart from anything purely Christian. I wanted to find a way to bring the piece into the secular realm, make it accessible to anyone who is spiritual in any way.”

    The composition is challenging in different ways, Steinberg said. “Haydn’s music is sometimes very ugly and harsh and painful, not always uplifting. I think it’s quite vivid that way, like Gruenewald’s crucifixion scene, which shows so much pain and anguish. Everyone looks so saintly in most of them. And without breaks for contemplation and text in between the movements it would be difficult to absorb, to concentrate on a big, complex piece for that long.”

    This led him to search for a poet whose work would match the music. “So I immersed myself in poetry, book after book after book, looking for someone with a voice analogous to the Haydn. Something not convoluted, not complicated on the surface, but profound underneath. And it needed to be someone whose work could be read aloud, so people could really glean something from hearing it. I was immediately taken by [Strand’s] Blizzard of One and thought ‘This is the person to write these,’ and I was so happy he agreed.”For Strand, composing the new text was a struggle: “I found it difficult––I’m not at all religious.” He said he took on the commission as a challenge. When asked to specify what beliefs did motivate him, he responded, “I believe in the power of my skepticism, but I’m a nonbeliever in anything religious.”

    As a result, Strand started by throwing out the traditional text entirely, retaining only the seven last words themselves. “I floundered around for a year and a half,” Strand said. He then took his dilemma to Harold Bloom, emeritus professor of English at Yale University. “I said to him, ‘God, I can’t write about this divine stuff, I don’t believe in magic!’ He said, ‘Go to Thomas.’”

    But this led to a twist that is at once poetic and religious. Strand’s text, which he will recite on stage between the movements of the piece, is inspired by a text that is not in the Bible at all, but was only discovered in 1945. This text, the Gospel of Thomas, is a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, which were found in the Coptic language, translated from the Greek original, in Nag Hammadi, Egypt.

    The discovery of the text aroused controversy in the scholarly and religious worlds because of its complex relation to the Bible and its eerie mystical poetry. There is general agreement that some of the sayings found in Thomas go back to Jesus himself and could possibly be older and more authentic versions of material in the canonical Gospels. And the sayings represent the influence of Gnosticism, a mysterious stream of Christianity that has surfaced repeatedly in its history.

    Eventually banned from the early Church, political conflict around a Gnostic resurgence in the 12th century prompted a papal general to utter a line that was immortalized in a form the U.S. Marines modified: “Kill them all––God will know his own.” Or, as Thomas (saying No. 7) depicts Jesus saying: “Blessed is the lion, which the man shall eat, so that the lion will become man; and cursed is the man whom the lion shall eat, and the lion will become man.”

    Adding text to the piece has been a long tradition. Originally composed without words, a collection of lines from various Biblical sources was added later. But they surely never have been joined to anything like Strand’s meditations on Christ’s death. Strand explained, “I didn’t use the words Jesus or God because then you get into clichÈs. The Gospels have become such a clichÈ, such an often-told tale that it doesn’t allow for much originality. I didn’t want to subscribe to the idea of Christ as a man who goes around working miracles. I think this is a primitive form of publicity for the new religion. He was just the most famous of these miracle workers. Robert Graves claimed 19 ‘christs’ were crucified on the same day. So I was challenged by it.

    “A nonreligious person takes on a religious theme, and how does he go about it? Does he accept the religious premise of the seven last words? Or does he reject the premise and supply his own terms?”

    Strand was born in 1934 on Canada’s Prince Edward Island and was raised and educated in the United States and South America. His honors include the Bollingen Prize, three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, the Edgar Allen Poe Prize and a Rockefeller Foundation award, as well as fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the MacArthur Foundation and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. He has served as Poet Laureate of the United States and is a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

    The Brentano String Quartet is composed of violinists Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Maria Lee. The quartet is named after Antonie Brentano, whom many scholars believe to have been Beethoven’s mysterious “immortal beloved” and to whom he wrote his famous love confession. The Brentano String Quartet has garnered the first Cleveland Quartet Award, the 1995 Naumburg Chamber Music Award and the 10th Annual Martin E. Segal Award. They made their Chicago debut on the University of Chicago Presents’ Chamber Music Series during the 1999-2000 concert season.

    Mandel Hall is at 1131 E. 57th St., on the University campus. People with disabilities who are in need of assistance should phone (773) 702-8068 prior to the event. Tickets, which are $29 (student price $11, with valid identification), are available through the Concert Series Office, 5720 S. Woodlawn Ave. A free preconcert discussion with Strand and Michael Kannen, founding cellist of the Brentano String Quartet, at 7 p.m. also is available to ticket holders.

    For further information or to purchase tickets, please phone (773) 702-8068, or visit: http://chicagopresents.uchicago.edu.