- November 7, 2017
In the Strasbourg Opera House, the prima donna and I had just sung the roles of Dido and Aeneas in Hector Berlioz’ epic opera “Les Troyens” (The Trojans).
Afterwards we strolled over to La Marne restaurant, where the headwaiter gave us a private mirrored dining room.
Regine sat down on the red leather bench facing me across the table.
I looked in the mirror and saw behind me a small man standing in the doorway. He was dressed in black and wore an old-fashioned frock coat. His tie was black string, and his white hair, streaked with gray, was a wind-blown mane.
His aged wife stood behind him.
I recognized him and quickly got to my feet. As I turned around he asked, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
I nodded and said, “Jawohl.”
In German he said, “My wife and I wanted to tell you both how much we enjoyed your singing. Berlioz has always been a special favorite of mine. One doesn’t get a chance to hear ‘Les Troyens’ often, even in France.”
I invited them to join us and helped them both into their chairs.
“We are enjoying everything we can on this trip from Africa,” he said.“ Who knows if we’ll ever be back here again?”
I said, “I recently reread your ‘The Quest for the Historical Jesus’ — in German— no mean feat for an American!”
He smiled, “That book has gotten me in lots of trouble. I wrote it about 1910, but people think I wrote it yesterday as a recantation of life-long beliefs. I was very young when I wrote it.”
“I am surprised anew at rereading your book,” I said, “that so much of what is today accepted as fundamentalist dogma seems apocryphal in your view.”
“My so-called view was the result of a lot of study and painstaking research when I was here in Strasbourg at the University many years ago. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach,” he continued, “has always been truth to me. Nothing needs to be added or taken away to help it say what it means. I wanted to do the same for the art of Jesus Christ, to let Him speak historically for himself, without any help from 2,000 years of editors and embellishers.”
The old man went on, “When I was young, I believed that Jesus was laid in a manger in Bethlehem. This was important to me. Later in my studies, I learned that the word for manger and the word for crib are the same word in the original. A mistranslation seemed a worrisome possibility. To me, Jesus had to be laid in a manger — the story is charming and it fits His humility.
Today, I am interested in the baby, not whether he lay in a manger or a crib. I am interested in what He said and what He means to us.”
Before leaving, the old man turned to us and said, “Tomorrow morning at 10, at the University, I am playing a Bach recital on a baroque organ I built in 1912. I hope you can come.”
Next morning I went to the Bach organ recital. The organist, our elderly companion of the evening before, Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Albert Schweitzer, played magnificently, of course.
Who is Roney?
Harvard’42—Distinguished Prof, Em.—UCF
2004 Fla. Alliance for the Arts award
(Assisted by beautiful wife Joy Roney)