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“Bonhoeffer”: Victoria Barnett’s Interview with Composer Thomas Lloyd

seminarians

Bonhoeffer: An Interview by Victoria Barnett with composer Thomas Lloyd

Victoria Barnett is director of the Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, at the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.  From 2004 to 2014, she also served as a general editor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, the English translation series of the theologian’s complete works, published by Fortress Press.

Thomas Lloyd is a classical conductor, composer, and singer. He currently is a Professor of Music at Haverford College, where he has directed the combined Choral and Vocal Studies Program for Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges since 1996. He has also served as Artistic Director of the Bucks County Choral Society since 2000. 

The following interview focuses on Lloyd’s choral theatre work titled Bonhoeffer.


1. What was the impulse for you to write this?  What initially drew you to Bonhoeffer as a subject for a choral work?

Thomas Lloyd: I think I first became aware of Bonhoeffer when I read The Cost of Discipleship during a time in college when I was considering leaving my life-long music studies to explore a calling to the priesthood, first within the Catholic church I grew up in, and then in the local Episcopal church in Oberlin.

I was of a pretty independent and somewhat solitary mind when it came to my religious journey.  I think Bonhoeffer’s combination of intense devotion to Christ and iconoclastic defiance of the institutional church and state authority, even to the point of giving up his life and a promising future, seemed like the most courageous, principled life one could live.

My youthful idealism was also stoked by his iconic, short essay Life Together, where his description of the life of his underground seminary seemed like a moral utopia to me, combining elements of Catholic monasticism with the radical faith commitment of Protestantism.   My hero worship continued when I left music studies to attend seminary as a candidate for the Episcopal priesthood and became enamored with the doubts and unanswerable questions he raises in his Letters and Papers from Prison.  I also discovered there that many, many other people also saw in Bonhoeffer a model for Christian faith and action, but across the whole spectrum of religiosity, from evangelical fundamentalists to partisans of liberation theology.

2. What particular challenges did you encounter in trying to set some of the texts and scenes of his life into music?

Thomas Lloyd: With time, my obsession with Bonhoeffer changed from “How could he attain faith of such strength that it led him to take such courageous actions?” to “How could he act so resolutely when he questioned his own faith and motivation so profoundly?” Then years later, when religious martyrdom took on a very different caste after the events of 9/11, I started asking “Were the choices he made the best choices, not only for himself but for others?” and, “Does the nature of his faith and the actions he took have any relevance at all in today’s world of intense polarization between anti-religious rationalism and religious fundamentalism of all stripes?”

3. Bonhoeffer’s own musical talents and interests are often overlooked in the books about him, or they’re mentioned just in passing.  Yet by all accounts he was a gifted pianist, enjoyed playing music with others, and was very drawn to music throughout his life, whether a performance of Bach’s B-minor mass or the Negro spirituals he heard in the U.S. He also used musical metaphors in writing about his own life.  One thing that struck me is how you’ve incorporated this side of him into the choral work.  Could you talk some about that? As a musician, are there aspects of him that you’ve tried to articulate here?

Thomas Lloyd: As a musician, Bonhoeffer’s musical side always appealed to me.  His writings can be densely analytical as he tries to be as precise as possible about what he is saying and what he is not saying about Christ, about the church, about discipleship. In his actions, he made clear-cut choices with real consequences.   But in his letters from prison, we encounter his poetic side, both in his original poems and in his frequent references to specific hymns, Spirituals, or pieces from the classical repertoire of his youth.

Here we see this outwardly confident, self-possessed, and decisive man struggle for answers to his intense self-doubts, personal longings, and crises of faith through the less precise, more evocative language of music and poetry. As I chose particular poems or passages from his letters, I looked for musical references in his letters and biography that had some correlation and explored ways to incorporate those references within the new music I wrote.

My goal was not that listeners would necessarily recognize specific quotations but that some of the music that must been running constantly through Bonhoeffer’s mind colors the sound world of the piece as a whole – sort of as a way of trying to enter his mind through his music.

These musical references ended up happening in a number of different ways. Passages from three of Bonhoeffer’s favorite hymns by the Reformation hymnist Paul Gerhardt are briefly woven into dramatic scenes involving the seminarians (view the following video beginning at 4:05):

A very different kind of musical reference came from mention in several of his biographies that at the age of 14 Bonhoeffer composed an arrangement of the Schubert song “Gute ruh, gute ruh” (“rest well”) from Die Schöne Müllerin for piano, violin, and cello. (He frequently accompanied his mother and one of his sisters in German lieder and the classical piano trio was the usual combination for chamber music with his siblings.)

This particular song is a lullaby sung by the brook to the protagonist of the cycle, the miller, to welcome him to release from all his sorrow through death.  So I found a way to incorporate a rocking figure found in the piano part in both the opening and closing movements of the work.  In the final moments of the last movement, the Schubert figure leads to a closing choral passage growing out of the Spiritual “Swing low, sweet chariot.” (view the video below beginning at 5:20):

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In fact, it was Bonhoeffer’s love of the African-American Spirituals that led me to the idea of making this a “choral-theater” work in the first place.  I wanted the central scene to recreate a day in the life of Bonhoeffer’s underground seminary as described in his Life Together.  The scene starts with one of the singers going to an old fashioned record player and putting on a recording of Paul Robeson singing a verse “Motherless Child.” This then leads into an original choral setting of the Beatitudes (the central biblical text of The Cost of Discipleship).

The singers-as-seminarians are then split into pairs for confession (as was described in Life Together), each singing individually to each other words of petition and forgiveness. The scene closes as they are brought back together to hear a recording of the Fisk Jubilee Singers singing an exuberant arrangement of “Walk together chillun’”) with the seminarians all joining in at the end (view video below beginning at 1:40):

4. This work consists of a series of fifteen scenes and aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life, expressed through a combination of music, texts, and even dance.   It’s not simply sung as a choral work, but performed and staged.  I’d be interested in hearing more about the creative process of pulling these different modes of expression together. Did that happen organically as you worked on this or thought about how best to stage it?

Thomas Lloyd:  The idea for 15 alternating “scenes” and “meditations” came from wanting to probe the two dimensions of Bonhoeffer’s life I mentioned earlier: his actions and his reflections around those actions.  I wanted the piece to be theatrical in order to bring to life both the internal and external perspectives.  But I didn’t want it to be a linear narrative in the traditional sense.  This is not a suspense story about Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment and execution – his death is implied at the end of the first scene.

The dramatic tension is around the questions, “Why did he make the choices he did?” “What did he really believe about Christ’s role in the world, and how did it motivate his actions?” “Why did he propose marriage to a woman he hardly knew, even after telling his students there was no place for a personal life in times like these?” “Was his life a model we should emulate or simply tragedy that left more questions than answers?”

I was also inspired by the open layout and intimate spaciousness of the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral in which I am privileged to serve as director of music.  Knowing the versatility of The Crossing and the probing artistry of their Donald Nally, I knew they could make the most of the possibilities of a small choir connecting with an audience in a more immediate way than the usual stand-and-sing concert format. So we carved out some space in the middle of the audience for the seminary scenes, which allowed the presbyterium up front to become an even more numinous space for some of the more personal reflections.  And as it turned out, the James Memorial Chapel at Union Seminary, where Bonhoeffer spent a year of study has also had the pews removed so we can use the space in the same way.

5. I noticed that in keeping with your desire to have the piece be theatrical but not narrative, no single singer takes the role of Bonhoeffer or his fiancé Maria von Wedemeyer.  Why is that?

Thomas Lloyd: This was another way of adding a layer of detachment to allow the piece to be choral-theater rather than opera or a sentimentalized melodrama.  Bonhoeffer’s words are always sung by different singers, sometimes as soloists, in duets, or the whole men’s ensemble.

In the first production I included a male and female dancer to further relieve the choir from feeling like they had to “act” everything out – another layer of detachment from realistic drama – but it turned out the dancers were very hard to see without raked seating for the audience, and working together with Donald and the dancer Tim Early, we were able to find ways for the singers to quite comfortably move and be physically engaged without having to be busy every minute.

The contrast between the large group of men singers and smaller trio of female singers is meant to represent another pair of distinct dimensions of Bonhoeffer’s life and psyche.  In his academic, church, and political activities he was in an almost totally male world.  And yet it seems clear from his biography that a handful of important women in his life were all but the only source of his religious and poetic leanings.

Rarely going to church as a child, it was his mother’s religiosity that was at the center of family life, his grandmother who stood up to Nazi anti-semitism, his twin sister who was always a close confidant, his fiancé’s grandmother who was the primary patron of his underground seminary, and Maria von Wedemeyer who led him to imagine what a life after the struggle might be.  The three women soloists stand in for these five and all the passion, hard questions, and humanity they brought to a desperate situation.