Heaven’s Gates

This article is part of a series on Baroque Music. See also:

  1. Structure: The Perfection of Bach
  2. Style: Baroque Style Sampler
  3. Performance: Heaven’s Gates

“Mystical states of consciousness”, as described by William James in his 1902 Varieties of Religious Experience (1), feature a set of distinctive characteristics: ineffability–they resist adequate depiction in words; noetic quality–they seem to deliver “depths of truth unplumbed” by the standard intellect; transiency–their durations are consistently brief, and passivity–they seem to have been brought on by powers above.

James describes the power of music in facilitating mystical experience. “Music, rather, not conceptual speech, is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth… Music gives us ontological messages which non-musical criticism is unable to contradict.”

The Moscow Conservatory’s performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was no exception.

“Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly,” writes James, “and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd.” James’ disclaimer is prescient. These experiences are difficult to describe. I’ll try anyway, though; let’s begin.


The main concert hall of the conservatory

The Conductor

Conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev controlled more than the music. He seemed to control the seas, the skies, and the clouds. A small twist of his fingers could have redirected a bird midflight. The lifting of his hand brought forth a swelling tide. His passionate, double-armed downbeat shot torrents of water into the air, and the final lifting of his arms accompanied fireworks and exploding stars!

I’d never seen two hands effortlessly convey entirely different messages. Fedoseyev’s right hand lifted power out of the encircling choir, while his left hand cued the cellists on the downbeat and the violins on the offbeat. Beneath his own orchestral control, Fedoseyev’s arms worked like a complex array of sub-processes: coordinated, unified, and often too intricate to understand.

Fedoseyev’s movements, most of all, carried incredible musical depth, both reflecting the music’s emotion and – more significantly – adding to it. He was a towering genius. He was a colossal energy. Fedoseyev’s conducting reflected a heavenly musical omniscience.

Vocal Soloists

The vocal soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) were admirable, beautiful, and quasi-angelic in their perfection. The soprano was gorgeous with hazel skin, dark eyes, and a dark green dress; the red-dressed blonde alto was not only musically flawless but also accompanied her music with the facial expression and emotive nuance of a highly talented actress. Bringing their voice to a prodigious, glorious pitch, these women seemed to conjure behind them a rising, cresting tsunami. The tenor was a dark-haired youth of about twenty-two; the bass was robust and bearded. Singing with dignified posture, and precise, ringing voices, these men commanded the room musically as they did physically. The four soloists, singing together near the end of the piece, formed a quartet of perfect, godly beings.

Above the bright colors of the women’s dresses rose the brighter colors of the group’s music, as they stood triumphantly, in a perfect row, adorning one of Moscow’s greatest auditoriums at scarcely twenty years old.  “Tower based on worth transcendent and profound! / To fairer light than else ‘neath Heaven is found!”

My mind’s grasp of an overwhelming perfection was only beginning.

The Music

I closed my eyes and let my head rest back as I placed my hands in my lap.

Above the colorfully sweet, subtly pulling clouds of the choir’s chords, the violins rose, twisting and climbing. The energy mounted as the music, rotating and expanding geometrically, approached a resolution. Finally settling on a blasting D-major chord, the choir released a flood of white and gold as the trumpets, sparkling on the mountaintops, sounded a message of pristine glory. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio seemed to open the gates of heaven.

One of James’ correspondents describes a relevant experience:

I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hill-top, where my soul opened out, as it were, into the Infinite, and there was a rushing together of the two worlds, the inner and the outer. It was deep calling unto deep—the deep that my own struggle had opened up within being answered by the unfathomable deep without, reaching beyond the stars. I stood alone with Him who had made me, and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation…

It was like the effect of some great orchestra when all the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony that leaves the listener conscious of nothing save that his soul is being wafted upwards, and almost bursting with its own emotion.

I walked out into the rain and lights of the cold Moscow street. The world was glowing. James’ text describes a sense of unification, of sadness alongside the glowing good, of humbling solemnity. I think he was onto something.

“We shall see how infinitely passionate a thing religion at its highest flights can be,” James writes. “If religion is to mean anything definite for us… It ought to mean nothing short of this new reach of freedom for us, with the struggle over, the keynote of the universe sounding in our ears, and everlasting possession spread before our eyes.”

This is precisely the reach of Baroque music.

  1. Full text of The Varieties of Religious Experience

4 comments on “Heaven’s Gates

  1. Mattson says:

    Your description of the synesthesia is perfect, and its amazing how music like that can sweep you so wholly into its own reality. Moments when you are suddenly so far from the norm and into the depths of beauty are always surreal and, at least for me, make me question which reality is more real. Did you get that kindof glossy finish to the rest of the night once you had left?

    • Ben says:

      Yes. Definite glossy feeling as I walked out.

      Let me continue the young contributor’s quotation:

      “I could not any more have doubted that HE was there than that I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two.”

      Your question about “which reality is more real” now seems shockingly prescient!

  2. Josh says:

    I heard yesterday that Bach believed his music was only a fraction as great as the music we will hear in the afterlife. The author of this book was being interviewed on PBS.

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