Guest pianist Duggan to connect Bach and spirituality


Sean Duggan

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

As a Roman Catholic priest and a pianist, Sean Duggan takes cues from one of the world’s most well-known composers: Johann Sebastian Bach.

But Bach’s music is only half of the inspiration. Bach also was a very religious man, and his music reflected that spirituality, Duggan said.

At 4 p.m. today in the Sherwood-Marsh Studios, Duggan will spend an hour discussing Bach’s spirituality and performing some of his piano music as part of “The Spirituality of Bach,” which is a collaboration between Chautauqua’s School of Music and the Department of Religion.

This is the first time the two departments have worked together to plan a program, said Rebecca Penneys, chair of the Piano Program at Chautauqua.

“The music of Bach is so spiritual and powerful and leaves us all in a balanced and serene state of being,” Penneys said. “It occurred to me that it would be great for all of Chautauqua to be exposed to Father Sean and the spirituality of Bach.”

Bach was a devoted Lutheran and attended school at the same place Martin Luther had attended. Although Bach’s music is now heard in various venues, a lot of his repertoire originally was for church and consists of organ chorales based on German Lutheran hymns, Duggan said.

Understanding Bach’s passion for both music and the relationship between the spiritual and the secular affects how musicians interpret and play Bach’s music.

“If we consider spirituality to involve things like the meaning of life and the profundity of art … that then changes our perspective, because then what we want to do is be totally subservient to the music and become a kind of instrument or vehicle through which that music can be experienced by other people,” Duggan said.

In this way, music is very similar to religion in its subservience to others. Spirituality, like performance, involves an emptying of the ego, Duggan said. Playing in a selfless manner allows the performer to focus on the transcendent and spiritual aspects of the music that might otherwise be missed.

Religion and music have a more direct tie, as well. Many religious musicians also see their talents as gifts from God. For Duggan, his roles as a musician and a priest are almost completely connected. Duggan spent many years as the organist and director of music at Saint Joseph’s Abbey, a monastery in Louisiana where the music he wrote and played served his religious community.

“I feel that through music, we experience beauty in life and … that gives us a door into life’s meaning, and to me, this is largely what religion is all about as well,” Duggan said. “I think that artists and religious or spiritual people have a lot in common, because they’re both involved in the experience of transcendence. I find a kind of harmony between what I do as a priest and what I do as a musician.”

Duggan also said he sees the music he performs as service not only to his community but also to God. He said he hopes that if his music can touch people, it also can help them experience the goodness and beauty of God.

As a piano faculty member at SUNY Fredonia, Duggan uses his music to profess his faith but is also able to teach students how to use their own gifts to serve others and themselves, he said.

Duggan has a personal history with Bach’s music. He has won the International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition for Pianists twice and used to host “Bach on Sunday,” a weekly program on the New Orleans NPR station. Now, he is in the process of recording all of Bach’s piano music onto more than 20 CDs.

In addition to teaching, Duggan has been the pianist and assistant chorus master for the Pittsburgh Opera Company, has performed with many orchestras such as the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and has been a guest artist and teacher at the Chautauqua School of Music for the past five years.

During this visit to Chautauqua, though, Duggan will focus on teaching about Bach.

“I hope they get an increased awareness of the relationship between religious and artistic experience, between the experience of God and the experience of beauty and how Bach’s music helps us to make those connections,” Duggan said.