My newest piece, at least, the next to be premiered, is entitled Symphony No. 1, “Apologia”, and it’s worth talking about why. Specifically, why am I calling it a symphony? What makes a symphony a symphony? What is a symphony, anyway?
The short answer is that a symphony can be almost whatever you want it to be. Symphonies have been written for almost every conceivable group of instruments, from a quintet (Antheil’s Symphony for Five Instruments) to more musicians that will fit on most stages (Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand). They’ve lasted anywhere from three minutes (Milhaud) to well over an hour (Mahler, again). They’ve covered a wide array of subject matter, including loss (Górecki’s Third), world peace (Glass’s Fifth), a drug-induced hallucination (Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique), and even gastrointestinal distress (Beethoven’s Second, seriously).
One through-line seems to be that, for the most part, symphonies are serious works based on serious themes, including — and there are too many examples to list just one — matters of faith. So, why call my new piece a symphony? Well, why not call it a symphony? And anyway, Dark Night of the Soul was already taken.
The great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor was often criticized by her peers for being something as dull and unfashionable as a Christian. In one of her letters, she wrote:
I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.
Perhaps the Spanish Basque writer Miguel de Unamuno had something similar on his mind when he said, “Those who believe that they believe in God, but without any passion in their heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation, believe only in the idea of God, not in God himself.”
I am not a person for whom faith has ever come easily. When I hear about people leaving faith, particularly a faith that they grew up in, I admit, I see more than a little of myself. There have been times when I was almost certain that, at any moment, I would hang it all up and become a devout atheist. (Honestly, agnosticism has never felt like a viable option for me; I tend to be an all-or-nothing type of person.) And yet — spoiler alert! — I haven’t. I'm still here, questioning, doubting, and believing, day after day.
Over the course of writing it, this symphony went from being something fairly abstract and concept-driven to something surprisingly autobiographical. In broad strokes, it outlines my abiding desire to believe as well as the real difficulties of belief that I’ve experienced, and that I still experience. It describes moments of bliss, even transcendence, but there’s also conflict and struggle, hypocrisy and dissonance, often overlapping with the voices of orthodoxy and tradition. That’s part of why there are so many hymn quotations — church music has always been a huge part of my life — that, and an enduring fascination with the music of Charles Ives.
Ultimately, in more ways than one, the piece is an apology — hence the subtitle. I didn’t write it to try to convince anybody of anything, but to try to tell my own story as best I can. I don’t pretend that it is anybody else’s story — faith, or the lack thereof, is such a personal journey for everyone — although I do hope it will help leave the door open for others to share and ponder their own stories. Nonetheless, it is my story, a story of false starts, good intentions, faltering prayers, and ultimately, the decision to keep tying my shoes and putting one foot in front of the other. To quote Fanny Crosby, the great American hymn writer, “this is my story, this is my song.”
EDIT: Symphony No. 1, “Apologia” was commissioned by Chamber Orchestra of Pittsburgh, Edward Leonard, Conductor and Artistic Director. It will be premiered by the orchestra and Maestro Leonard on Friday, September 14, 7:30pm, at First Unitarian Church, Pittsburgh, PA.
Chris Massa is a musician based in Pittsburgh, PA. You are on his site right now.