Who was Albert Schweitzer?
Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965) was a German—and later French—theologian, musician, philosopher, physician, and medical missionary in Africa best known for his interpretive life of Jesus.
He was born in the province of Alsace-Lorraine, at that time part of the German Empire. Schweitzer, a Lutheran, challenged both the secular view of Jesus as depicted by historical-critical methodology current at his time in certain academic circles, as well as the traditional Christian view.
He depicted Jesus as one who literally believed the end of the world was coming in his own lifetime and believed himself to be a world savior. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of "Reverence for Life", expressed in many ways, but most famously in founding and sustaining the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, now in Gabon, west central Africa (then French Equatorial Africa).
As a music scholar and organist, he studied the music of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach and influenced the Organ reform movement (Orgelbewegung).
Born in Kaysersberg, Schweitzer spent his childhood in the village of Gunsbach, Alsace (German: Günsbach), where his father, the local Lutheran-Evangelical pastor, taught him how to play music. Long disputed, the predominantly German-speaking region of Alsace or Elsaß was annexed by Germany in 1871; after World War I, it was reintegrated into France. The tiny village is home to the Association Internationale Albert Schweitzer (AIAS).
The medieval parish church of Gunsbach was shared by the Protestant and Catholic congregations, which held their prayers in different areas at different times on Sundays. This compromise arose after the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years War. Schweitzer, the pastor's son, grew up in this exceptional environment of religious tolerance, and developed the belief that true Christianity should always work towards a unity of faith and purpose.
Schweitzer's home language was an Alsatian dialect of German. At Mulhouse high school he got his "Abitur" (the certificate at the end of secondary education), in 1893. He studied organ there from 1885–1893 with Eugène Munch, organist of the Protestant Temple, who inspired Schweitzer with his profound enthusiasm for the music of German composer Richard Wagner.
In 1893 he played for the French organist Charles-Marie Widor (at Saint-Sulpice, Paris), for whom Johann Sebastian Bach's organ-music contained a mystic sense of the eternal. Widor, deeply impressed, agreed to teach Schweitzer without fee, and a great and influential friendship was begun.
From 1893 he studied Protestant theology at the Kaiser Wilhelm Universität of Straßburg. There he also received instruction in piano and counterpoint from professor Gustav Jacobsthal, and associated closely with Ernest Munch (the brother of his former teacher), organist of St William church, who was also a passionate admirer of J.S. Bach's music.
Schweitzer served his one year compulsory military service in 1894. Schweitzer saw many operas of Richard Wagner at Straßburg (under Otto Lohse), and in 1896 he pulled together the funds to visit Bayreuth to see Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal, and was deeply affected. In 1898 he went back to Paris to write a PhD dissertation on The Religious Philosophy of Kant at the Sorbonne, and to study in earnest with Widor.
Here he often met with the elderly Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. He also studied piano at that time with Marie Jaëll. He completed his theology degree in 1899 and published his PhD thesis at the University of Tübingen in 1899.
Schweitzer rapidly gained prominence as a musical scholar and organist, dedicated also to the rescue, restoration and study of historic pipe organs. With theological insight, he interpreted the use of pictorial and symbolical representation in J. S. Bach's religious music.
In 1899 he astonished Widor by explaining figures and motifs in Bach's Chorale Preludes as painter-like tonal and rhythmic imagery illustrating themes from the words of the hymns on which they were based. They were works of devotional contemplation in which the musical design corresponded to literary ideas, conceived visually. (Widor had not grown up with knowledge of the old Lutheran hymns.)
The exposition of these ideas, encouraged by Widor and Munch, became Schweitzer's next task, and appeared in the masterly study J. S. Bach: Le Musicien-Poète, written in French and published in 1905. There was great demand for a German edition, but, instead of translating it, he decided to rewrite it.
The result was two volumes (J. S. Bach), which were published in 1908 and translated in English by Ernest Newman in 1911. During its preparation he became a friend of Cosima Wagner (then in Strasbourg), with whom he had many theological and musical conversations, exploring his view of Bach's descriptive music, and playing the major Chorale Preludes for her at the Temple Neuf. Schweitzer's interpretative approach greatly influenced the modern understanding of Bach's music. He became a welcome guest at the Wagners' home, Wahnfried.
His pamphlet "The Art of Organ Building and Organ Playing in Germany and France" (1906, republished with an appendix on the state of the organ-building industry in 1927) effectively launched the 20th century Orgelbewegung, which turned away from romantic extremes and rediscovered baroque principles—although this sweeping reform movement in organ building eventually went further than Schweitzer himself had intended.
In 1909 he addressed the Third Congress of the International Society of Music at Vienna on the subject. Having circulated a questionnaire among players and organ-builders in several European countries, he produced a very considered report. This provided the basis for the International Regulations for Organ Building.
He envisaged instruments in which the French late-romantic full-organ sound should work integrally with the English and German romantic reed pipes, and with the classical Alsace Silbermann organ resources and baroque flue pipes, all in registers regulated (by stops) to access distinct voices in fugue or counterpoint capable of combination without loss of distinctness: different voices singing together in the same music.
Schweitzer also studied piano under Isidor Philipp, head of the piano department at the Paris Conservatory.
In 1905 Widor and Schweitzer were among the six musicians who founded the Paris Bach Society, a choir dedicated to performing J.S. Bach's music, for whose concerts Schweitzer took the organ part regularly until 1913. He was also appointed organist for the Bach Concerts of the Orféo Català at Barcelona and often travelled there for that purpose.
He and Widor collaborated on a new edition of Bach's organ works, with detailed analysis of each work in three languages (English, French, German). Schweitzer, who insisted that the score should show Bach's notation with no additional markings, wrote the commentaries for the Preludes and Fugues, and Widor those for the Sonatas and Concertos: six volumes were published in 1912–14.
Three more, to contain the Chorale Preludes with Schweitzer's analyses, were to be worked on in Africa: but these were never completed, perhaps because for him they were inseparable from his evolving theological thought.
On departure for Lambaréné in 1913 he was presented with a pedal piano, a piano with pedal attachments (to operate like an organ pedal-keyboard). Built especially for the tropics, it was delivered by river in a huge dug-out canoe to Lambaréné, packed in a zinc-lined case. At first he regarded his new life as a renunciation of his art, and fell out of practise: but after some time he resolved to study and learn by heart the works of Bach, Mendelssohn, Widor, César Franck, and Max Reger systematically.
It became his custom to play during the lunch hour and on Sunday afternoons. Schweitzer's pedal piano was still in use at Lambaréné in 1946.
Sir Donald Tovey dedicated his conjectural completion of Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge (Art of the Fugue) to Schweitzer.
In 1899 Schweitzer became a deacon at the church Saint-Nicolas of Strasbourg. In 1900, with the completion of his licentiate in theology, he was ordained as curate, and that year he witnessed the Oberammergau Passion Play. In the following year he became provisional Principal of the Theological College of Saint Thomas (from which he had just graduated), and in 1903 his appointment was made permanent.
Since the mid-1890s Schweitzer had formed the inner resolve that it was needful for him as a Christian to repay to the world something for the happiness which it had given to him, and he determined that he would pursue his younger interests until the age of thirty and then give himself to serving humanity, with Jesus serving as his example.
In 1906 he published Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung ("History of Life-of-Jesus research"). This book, which established his reputation, was first translated into English by William Montgomery and published in 1910 as The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Under this title the book became famous in the English-speaking world. A second German edition was published in 1913, containing theologically significant revisions and expansions: but this revised edition did not appear in English until 2001.
In The Quest, Schweitzer reviewed all former work on the "historical Jesus" back to the late 18th century. He showed that the image of Jesus had changed with the times and outlooks of the various authors, and gave his own synopsis and interpretation of the previous century's findings.
He maintained that the life of Jesus must be interpreted in the light of Jesus' own convictions, which reflected late Jewish eschatology. Schweitzer, however, writes: "The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the kingdom of God, who founded the kingdom of heaven upon earth and died to give his work its final consecration never existed."
- "Albert Schweitzer." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (with minor edits), under GFDL.