Martin Jean: encountering the world of faith in beauty and metaphor

By Ray Waddle
Editor, Reflections magazine

In the beginning was the Word, and in the fullness of time the Word was carried along on the winds of music, poetry, metaphor, ritual, color, stone, dance, beauty—in a word, art.

JeanSuch imagery is not foreign to Martin Jean, who works and performs at the junction of faith and art as the director of the Institute of Sacred Music, which is housed in the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle. ISM trains students to engage the sacred through music and other arts in vocations ranging from parish ministry to concert performance to literary expression.

Jean, a widely known organist, administrator, and recruiter of faculty talent, presides at a time when the world seems to be catching on to the power of art as a component of religious belief—and when ISM is expanding its reach into the larger global scene of creativity and diversity.

“There’s so much more to be done in sacred music and the arts in Christianity and in encounters with the broader world of faith,” says Jean, professor of organ and professor in the practice of sacred music. “I see so much potential for synergy—with homiletics, practical theology, systematic theology, historical and cultural studies, and so much more.”

Lately Jean has been busy announcing a cascade of ISM faculty appointments and other news:

• Poet Christian Wiman will join ISM and YDS in Fall 2013 as senior lecturer in religion and literature. He is currently editor of Poetry magazine and the author of an upcoming memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013)

• David Hill, one of Europe’s leading conductors, will join ISM and Yale School of Music for a three-year appointment as adjunct professor of choral conducting and as principal conductor of the Yale Schola Cantorum, the ISM’s 24-voice chamber choir.

• Masaaki Suzuki, known as a foremost Bach interpreter in the world, will continue as principal guest conductor. Suzuki is founder and artistic director of the Bach Collegium Japan, a Japanese ensemble.

The Four Holy Gospels and Golden Sea, recent work of acclaimed artist Makoto Fujimura, will be exhibited at the ISM Gallery of Sacred Arts from Jan. 15 through March 8 at YDS. The exhibit will be joined in February by the arrival of QU4RTETS, a multimedia project based on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, with works by Fujimura and painter Bruce Herman, as well as music by Yale composer Christopher Theofanidis.

A world of convulsive change—globalization, spiritual renewal, the demographic challenges to traditional religious habits—reinforces ISM’s mission to enrich the conversation between the widening fields of religion and the arts, Jean says. ISM’s 65 students, who receive degrees from either YDS or Yale School of Music or both, hurdle into a curriculum that exposes them to a full repertoire of Christian artistic expression and grapples with 21st century issues of worship and theology.

“ISM has a unique position in this,” he says.

“We’re aligned with Yale School of Music, whose work is primarily to prepare performers in the Euro-American canon, and at the same time we’re affiliated with YDS, training people for congregational life as theologians, art and music historians, literary specialists, and clergy. About half go into fulltime church work, half become concert professionals or academics. All along, we are interested in broadening their learning: it could be through worship in Marquand, an art exhibit, a concert of early music, a performance by a Balinese dancer, a lecture on Haitian Pentecostals, and much, much more.”

Jean joined the teeming world of religion and art notably early: At age three, he memorized The Little Drummer Boy, learning to play it on the piano (his sister guided him by taking him by the fingers). Raised Lutheran in Michigan, Jean had taught himself to read music by age six. By ninth grade he was holding down church organist jobs in local congregations. But he says he came to a sense of musical vocation relatively late, only after he arrived at Concordia College as an undergraduate.

“In college I was a science major at first. I didn’t come to terms with whatever gift I have until I tried to picture being in a lab the rest of my life. Then I quickly discovered where my passion really was.”

Jean won first place at the international Grand Prix de Chartres in 1986 and the National Young Artists’ Competition in Organ Performance in 1992. He has performed across the country and on four continents. In 2001 he performed a cycle of Bach’s complete organ works at Yale. His CD recordings include The Seven Last Words of Christ by Charles Tournemire and the six symphonies of Louis Vierne, both recorded in Woolsey Hall (Loft Recordings). Jean came to New Haven as faculty in 1997, and then was appointed director in 2005. Previously he was on the faculty of Valparaiso University, where he was also university organist.

The topic of beauty in sacred spaces might sound alien to some church traditions, but Jean says virtually all religious expression is crafted in artistic, metaphoric ways.

“There are churches that might not articulate what they do in those terms. But if one of the core essences of theology is metaphor—and our scripture is riddled with metaphor—then there’s no escaping it. We all deal with metaphor and image. One thing we do at ISM is make people aware of it, help them interpret it, use it responsibly in ecclesial communities and public life. Poets, for instance, are experts in their own way at metaphor. With Christian Wiman, we have a world-class poet who thinks theologically. He’s a living, breathing artist who is trying to work out his theology through his art form.”

Last year, ISM hosted a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor by the Bach Collegium Japan, under maestro Suzuki’s direction—an emotional evening that in retrospect symbolizes the spiritual, ethical commitments of the Institute. The concert almost didn’t happen. The ensemble arrived in the U.S. from Japan in the immediate aftermath of the island nation’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami. They received a grateful, tearful reception at ISM.

“They got out of Japan at the last moment before the airports shut down,” Jean recalls. “We were reflecting on the coincidence—or miracle or providence—of that. We donated all ticket sales to tsunami relief. The evening stands out as a moment of faith and beauty and service.”

Date Posted: Saturday, January 12, 2013 - 4:23pm