Sleepers awake

University organ concert explores the relationship between Bach scholar Albert Schweitzer and the legendary composer

Photo 2 caption

Photo 2 caption

This past Sunday afternoon’s delightful Words of Albert Schweitzer and the Music of Bach was less an organ concert than it was a spoken, slide-accompanied celebration of the great musician/philosopher/humanitarian’s life accompanied by seven Bach works played on the university’s centennial organ by David Rothe and various other area organists.

Collected and put together by Thurston Moore of the Tennessee Players and performed in the Harlen Adams Theatre by CSU professor Lynn Elliott (as Schweitzer), Professor Carl Peterson and Instructor Kathleen Eikert (as narrators/interlocutors), the program strove to encapsulate and present Schweitzer’s life, philosophy, and profound ties to Bach’s music and thought.

Perhaps the first thing to strike the audience was the overwhelming beauty of the nearly 400 slides taken from Schweitzer’s life; a beauty that shone forth in pictures of Africa, books by and about Schweitzer, Bach portraits, European churches and cathedrals, various awards and plaudits Schweitzer gained in the course of his life and especially of Schweitzer’s own iconographically beautiful face—playing the organ, working with his patients, thinking.

The spoken part of the presentation was exceptionally well handled—especially by Lynn Elliott, who delivered Schweitzer’s words, attitudes, and philosophies with dramatic intelligence and thoughtful emphasis.

And, of course, there were the organ selections, often a kind of musical background but quite lovely, particularly David Rothe’s opening and closing Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Triple Fugue in E-flat Major and, especially, the liquid rendition of the “Andante” from Bach’s Sonata No. 3, played by Rothe and Chico State flutist Heidi Pintner.

Once called the “greatest Christian of his time,” Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was a German philosopher, physician, humanitarian and Bach scholar who founded a missionary hospital in French Equatorial Africa in 1913. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, which he used to help finance further medical projects.

Although we admire Schweitzer, it remains difficult to move into his head. The cool rationalism of his philosophy and the profundity of his relationship to Bach are not easy to personalize. The fact that Schweitzer proceeded through a series of logical steps to come to the conclusion that “ethics is unqualified responsibility to all that has life,” an opinion that many people arrive at either culturally or intuitively, distances him from us to a certain extent.

Similarly, even though we know that great art has the mysterious ability to produce a sense of truth and wonder in anyone who enters its world, if we do not come to Schweitzer already having experienced a score by Bach as (in his words) “a manifestation of the elemental force that reveals the infinity of the universe,” his assertion that such a score is “a phenomenon of the incomprehensibly real, a mirror of the world,” remains an assertion that we must accept on faith.

So, finally, Schweitzer appeals to us less as a philosopher, less even as a musician, than as a man who, for over 50 years, did good and strove always to “become simpler, kinder, more honest, more truthful, more peace-loving, more gentle and more compassionate.”

How far Schweitzer’s world and values seem from us today. And how ironic that his relatively simple, straightforward life and philosophy must themselves be wrapped in a presentational package (and the program had a “packaged” feel for all its positive qualities) in order to remind us of his career and values.

That we now have the carefully packaged, destructively simplistic formulation of "the axis of evil" coming at us from one side and the (albeit more lovingly) packaged Schweitzer "reverence for all life" (already popularly reduced to an environmentalist cliché) coming at us from another is somehow a bit sad. It is sad because it reminds us of the extent to which we are the prisoners of PR packaging. It is also sad because we know which packaged formulation is in the ascendant at the present time, here in this country.