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Opening music from Sir William Walton's cello concerto, 1957.
'Music makes the world go round' - ascribed to the conductor Leopold Stokowsky. A pardonable exaggeration from a great musician of the XXth century! Music has surely been with us since the beginning of time. While the biological scientist, Richard Dawkins, could admit during the dialogue he had with the archbishop of Canterbury in Oxford earlier this year, that he found himself singing a hymn tune that morning in the shower, it is surely true that our primitive ancestors had similar experiences, if in less ecclesiastical and philosophical mode, aound their watering holes and springs!
Indeed, the early Greek philosophers had theories about 'where' music came from, deducing that perhaps music had connections with the mathematical motions of the Sun, Moon and planets which could be said to utter a 'hum' which the human ear was unable to hear. However that may be, music has always had the power to take us forward and upward, capable of an enormous influence on us, physically as well as in the mind. The early civilisation's instruments of pipe and drum feature universally, supporting not only the moods of the players but also the ritual dances of tribes and peoples throughout the early periods of civilisation.
It was from the plainsong of the early centuries CE that eventually a change into forms of polyphony occurred in the 10th century to give the wonderful compositions of the Mediaeval period which lasted well into the 16th century. But it is interesting that the great development in music in the West which came with the 17th and 18th centuries coincided with the new philosophy and science of Descartes and Newton. It was an era of new ideas, and none more so than in music.
By the replacement of the old plainsong and polyphonic music of previous centuries with the exciting complexities of new tonalities, composers like Bach were able to write melody and harmony which could launch the mind and body beyond the here and now. Through the classical and romantic periods, the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Debussy and Ravel to mention only a few, and to the music of the 20th century in jazz and neo-classical composers, people are lifted out of a feeling of finitude and their own locality, virtually to the spheres.
Of course, listening to music, apart from just hearing it in the background, is a very personal and often subjective experience. People vary widely on the content of what appears to them lies within the music. Nevertheless the tone, the rhythm, the intervals between notes in a passage all combine to connect with our receptive minds and bodies. Maybe what we apparently hear in the music is not what had occurred to the composer! How a piece of music is played so often controls what we become aware of within the music. Sometimes everything combines to resonate very positively with us as persons. It may become a eureka moment when we become aware of resonances taking us out of ourselves to a new point in life.
But now -
Music & the divine?
- we need to make some little digression into theology, if that can be forgiven!
Just as there is no argument that can prove that there is a divine 'person' in advance of and surrounding our historical existence as persons, so there is nothing that we can say that can point to any musical experience as being, for one person or another, 'in tune' with the divine. And yet, we do have experiences in life that we can say, sometimes, that such and such a person or an experience was divine! Life is too short if we have to cavil with such statements, asking what they can mean. So the experience of hearing, taking into ourselves, the music that appears to us so strongly 'inspired', is perhaps just one of those links that present themselves to us in a transitory moment of what we can call the unbelief of that believing moment - as we often say, "That was just so unbelievably beautiful!"
But if we are Christians there is today a theory of the divine which appears to make more sense than the older classical theories about God. (There are ever only 'theories', as I said, and no proofs - so perhaps modern theories can be looked at as acceptable - if they seem more sensible!) The idea today about the divine is that he is one who certainly is apart from creation as a whole - ourselves and the universe - but as creator he is always in touch with humanity, knows us, each intimately, and seeks to lure us towards the good (and the beautiful and the meaningful) in life. So he is both transcendent and immanent - but more meaningful than either of those words can express to us. The word coined by philosophers to describe this divine presence is pan-en-theism: 'all'- 'in'- God.
Then, with this God - 'in whom we live and move and have our being' (panentheism!) - our practice of music is not only a highly sophisticated technique but also a reflection of the 'music' that informs and is understood by this divine 'being.' The composer forms within his mind the music which is decisively human and which yet, when played, can be an instrument to feed our minds and whole personality with something more than the human. In the music heard we may become aware of a divine reality which can not only take us out of ourselves, as we so often say, but perhaps also leaves a permanent token of that which we have experienced in beauty, love and confidence.
In such an experience it is possible to become aware that we ourselves are capable of responding to the divine - as T. S. Eliot expressed it so succinctly -
' ... music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.'
T.S. Eliot in The Dry Salvages, The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot, Faber & Faber, 1969, page 190.
© Aelred Arnesen
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© Aelred Arnesen