Almost (but not quite) Persuaded

In the car last night, I was thinking about the post I put up a couple of weeks ago regarding the Great American Opera, and I realized that I had missed something. I had suggested that such a piece would never come about because the latent Puritanical streak in American culture was fundamentally at odds with the exuberant vulgarity of opera. But there’s also the possibility that religion is a factor in another way, a deeper and more subtle way.

The one common thread throughout the history of home-grown American religion is the premium placed on the transcendental experience of the divine. The First and Second Great Awakenings that swept the country starting around 1730 were all about this: feeling and emotion were more important than reason, personal “rebirth” was more important than theological understanding. Such movements would culminate in Pentecostalism.

All of which had an abiding influence on the culture. In a way, the holy grail of American culture has been an experience of secular transcendence, one which successfully mimics the transporting emotional catharsis of a revival meeting. But opera is, for the most part, about inflating human emotions to gargantuan proportions: we thrill to see ourselves writ large, but it doesn’t move us beyond the experience of this world.

Ah, you might argue, but the addition of the music makes all the difference. I don’t think it’s enough of a difference, though. The first reason is something else I missed, in last week’s post about materialism and the primacy of vision. In essence, music may be the least material of the arts, but in practice, it can be the most—with live performance, you’re constantly aware of the human presence behind the music, the physical action needed to produce it. I would guess that such a persistent reminder of human effort (and fallibility) would counteract any draw towards the divine.

The second reason, though, is just another manifestation of the idea that everything in this country has to be more grand and fantastic than it’s ever been anywhere else. European composers historically tended to aim not for transcendence, but sublimity: an aesthetic that doesn’t try to duplicate the emotions of a revealed experience, but instead hints at them. It’s as if they realized that the most you could accomplish with musical means was a fleeting glimpse of heaven, not the real deal. But we’re Americans, by golly—we want it all.

(And, incidentally, yes, I really do tend to think up this sort of esoterica when I’m in the car. It’s Boston, after all—it’s not like I’m actually getting anywhere.)


  1. There’s no essential divergence between physicality and religion, especially of the charismatic sort. There’s a reason the most musical of sects were called “Shakers”. I’m too young to have seen John Coltrane, but apparently he rocked back on his heels as he was playing music that inspired a religious sense in his listeners.So, let me make a suggestion, derived from your post: the Great American Opera would be an exuberantly vulgar religious opera. We’re uniquely disposed to marry the forms.

  2. There is, in fact such a beast: the Bernstein <>Mass<>. The fact that it’s a failure (granted, a glorious failure, but a failure nonetheless) was one of the things that led me to think there was something else going on here. I mean, if <>Bernstein<> can’t pull off a vulgar religious spectacle, what chance do the rest of us have? 🙂Out in San Francisco, I think, there is (or at least used to be) an actual church of Coltrane. So that’s not so far off…

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