Dave Brubeck (1920–2012), as a great American musician and composer, is known throughout the world.
He was a pioneer of improvisational jazz piano whose precision and complex rhythms blended with the creativity of his bandmates in the Dave Brubeck Quartet, producing decades of remarkable popular jazz music. His larger scale "classical" compositions also brought together orchestras, choirs, and contemporary instruments into a masterful fusion of diverse styles which extended his legacy over the whole musical repertoire.
The northern California native was a striking person in many other ways. He was a man of large aspirations and a childlike sense of wonder, a devoted husband and father (Dave and Iola Brubeck shared seventy years of marriage and raised six children), and a lifelong seeker of the truth about the mystery of life.
Brubeck's experience as a young soldier in World War II made him wonder why humans were so divided from one another and from God. He had a strong sense of the gap between the mystery of God and the ignorance and frailty of humans, and in many ways music was expressive of his search for an aesthetic and vital bridge over this gap. Here he traveled a path that included jazz, with its roots in the rhythms and tones of African-American Gospel music, and that also led him to take up choral compositions with biblical themes.
By the late 1970s Brubeck was known in the classical music world for several of his religious oratorios and cantatas. It was at this time that Ed Murray of the Catholic magazine Our Sunday Visitor had the idea to commission Brubeck to compose music for the new English text of the Mass. Brubeck declined, insisting he had never been to a Catholic Mass and knew nothing about it, but Murray persisted with the conviction that something beautiful would come from this encounter. Brubeck felt unqualified, but he finally agreed on the condition that Catholic liturgists would oversee and correct his work.
In 1979, he finished his composition To Hope! A Celebration, a bright, jubilant, sometimes sublime musical piece incorporating the major sung parts of the Mass. A priest friend remarked, however, that he had composed nothing for the Our Father, but the composer pleaded that he had finished the commission and now needed a vacation with his family.
Then one night during that vacation, Dave Brubeck had a dream. He insisted that he heard the entire orchestral and choral setting for the Lord's Prayer in that dream. He heard it so vividly that he got up right away and wrote it all out as best as he could remember it.
Brubeck sensed something more in this mysterious experience, something that had been building throughout his composition of the work. He became convinced that he was being called to join the Catholic Church himself. In 1981, he was baptized, with Ed Murray as his godfather.
Brubeck never gave much of a discourse on why he became Catholic, insisting only that it was a "calling" that he followed (and remained faithful to for the rest of his life). He had spent his first sixty years living the tension of his humanity, his musical creativity, and his questions about the meaning of life. Then, through the Mass, he found his spiritual home in the Catholic Church.
John Janaro "Dave Brubeck." Magnificat (November, 2018).
Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.
John Janaro is Associate Professor Emeritus of Theology at Christendom College. He is a Catholic theologian, and a writer, researcher, and lecturer on issues in religion and culture. He is the author of Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy and The Created Person and the Mystery of God: The Significance of Religion in Human Life. He is married to Eileen Janaro and has five children.Copyright © 2018 Magnificat
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