Bach Choir tries to win skeptics with performance of 'Agnostic'

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Mass, Te Deum, Ave Maria ... Agnostic?

Sacred music has been at the forefront of Western music for centuries. Liturgical music such as masses dominated composers' duties in the medieval and Renaissance eras, when the Catholic Church was the primary employer. Even as courts and then the free market took over, religious works remained a staple.

It's no surprise, then, that classical music questioning God's existence hasn't happened often. Rarely has a composer even ventured to take a skeptical look at religion. Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" may be the most famous, and other composers such as Beethoven couched the discussion in more general, humanistic terms. But composer David Chesky's oratorio "The Agnostic" of 1997 tackles the subject with no hesitation.

"When I first heard the piece, I remarked that I have never had heard anything like it before," says Thomas W. Douglas, artistic director of the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh, which will perform the oratorio with alto, baritone and boy soloists this week. "It challenges the traditional thought that has been passed on and accepted instead."


Audio samples from David Chesky's "The Agnostic," Slovak Philharmonic and Choir (Chesky Records).

Bach Choir of Pittsburgh "The Agnostic"
  • When and where: Wednesday at Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland, and 8 p.m. Saturday at Shady Side Academy, Fox Chapel. With the CMU Wind Ensemble and string orchestra.
  • Tickets: $10-$25; 412-394-3353.

"You can't prove the existence of God, it is faith," says Chesky, 52. "The oratorio is a humanistic work [of] existentialism." In his notes to the piece, he lays out his own beliefs, that "God did not create man, but man needed to create God for psychological solace." But he concludes that "man does have the inner strength to go forth and live his dreams" and that "The Agnostic" is a "courageous testament to what it means to be alone in a Godless universe."

Chesky wrote the libretto, inspired by the likes of Saul Bellow, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and John Steinbeck. It doesn't have a plot, but rather poses several tragic cases that might lead to questioning whether God exists. One is a young boy who asks why God allowed him to suffer and then die at the age of 5: "How can a God of consciousness/Inflict so much pain on me/ Does this God really exist?"

The New York native says he wrote "The Agnostic" in "a morose and contemplative mood in which he strove to reflect inner beauty in his music." But that doesn't mean the work has a negative ending. "It is unsettling, but it means that we can re-create ourselves," he says. "It can apply to what is going on in the financial market or a nation after war, or [making] yourself a better person."

"It seems like what he is really saying is that if God doesn't really exist, then what are we to do as contemporary man?" says Douglas. "We have to take responsibility for our own lives and how we interact with our own lives. That is something I think is very important."

"Inside us all there lies strength," the choir sings at one point, and the final movement, "Resurrection" challenges humans to free themselves from poverty, tyranny and sickness. A few years after writing the oratorio, Chesky did that himself, surviving open-heart surgery that caused him to reinvent his own compositional aesthetic. (He now writes in a more active style he calls "urban.")

But lines in the work such as "God is what divides us from the Divine" had some of Douglas' choir on edge about the piece.

"I have a couple members of the chorus who elected not to sing the piece, and a local pastor was livid," says Douglas, who admits that he "was drawn to it not only by the beautiful music, but its controversial nature." Douglas is no stranger to controversy nor to members balking. His choice of Bernstein's "Mass" did the trick in 2007. But he is still committed "to stir[ing] the pot with Pittsburgh and pushing the envelope.

"We have to present material we think is quality material and let people decide. One time we sang the opening chorus from Verdi's "Macbeth" -- you don't have to be a witch to sing it! You are a storyteller. We still perform in churches, but aren't we going to broaden the horizon?"

An agnostic is, after all, one who questions belief and holds that ultimate truths are unknowable. It's not atheism. "Sometimes the question is the answer," says Douglas, who says he talked with his largely volunteer choir about its controversial nature. "It can bring you to a place that helps you know what you think." Lyrically, Chesky's piece ends not unlike the pantheistic call to brotherhood of the "Ode to Joy" of Beethoven's Ninth, with an exultant cry to "Go forth man, have the strength to be our dreams."

Whether "The Agnostic" will make believers out of audiences is yet to be seen. But for Thomas it is "a piece that deserves to be heard."

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at He blogs at Classical Musings at


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