Music sermon

On my eighth birthday I was given a book called The Meaning and Magic of Music, by my great aunt Carmelita. Carmelita was a devout Catholic, and, like her husband, a skilled musician – an organist and a virtuoso pianist. She encouraged me in my love of music – mainly that of the Western Classical Tradition, although she also did a cool line in jazz. She lived in Ealing and, to my childish mind, was remarkable chiefly for having not one but two grand pianos, interlocked like warring stags in her front drawing room. The sounds they created were loud, rousing, and inspirational.

Carmelita’s book has journeyed with me, surfacing at odd intervals. The dust wrapper has gone, and the spine is cracked and loose, but the contents still speak to me as vividly as when I was a child. Music, Magic, Meaning – an alliterative triad that tripped from the tongue like a riddle but promised so much more. 

To the mind of a child, there are probably few things more fascinating than magic, and nothing quite as exhilarating as music. Both are mysterious, and both have the power to transform and to transport. The connection between music and magic was obvious to me. The book’s reference to meaning, though, was more problematic. I wondered whether the meaning of music was a thing in itself, something all music had – just as all books had pages -  or whether the word ‘meaning’ in the title referred to something outside the music. Perhaps something important like kindness or truth.

As I grew up I focused less on the title and pictures in the book, and more on its contents. I learned about rhythm and notation and scales, and the Lives of the Great Composers. Eventually I must have thought I’d outgrown the title, when I converted to Catholicism and stopped believing in magic. The uncanny and inexplicable in life was no longer the stuff of fairy stories, it was the stuff of faith. Magic was replaced by grace and mystery. And meaning – if I’d ever understood the word – morphed into mysticism supported by a hefty dose of doctrine.

As for music, it was largely replaced by silence when I took the veil as a novice in a contemplative order of nuns. I entered a world of palpable quiet, punctuated only by bells and birdsong. Both had their own proper forms of meaning: birdsong was the spontaneous praise of the created world to its creator, while bells reminded us of our human and rational duty to do likewise, they were a call to worship.

The monastery was a beautiful world, one where silence was perceived not as deprivation but as nourishment for the soul. It was the receptive space into which the Spirit breathed as Advocate, one ‘giving voice’ both to the mind of God and to the hidden regions of the soul. Silence, to the contemplative nun, was not empty or inert, it was expectant listening. It was filled with presence. As an enthusiastic Novice I had come a long way from aunt Carmelita’s book. That had gifted me with sound as a vehicle for meaning. The Carmelite Order gifted me with silence.

Both sound and silence have a vital role to play, but their relationship with each other and with communication is a slippery and complex one. Silence is a vitally important part not only of language – words need to be punctuated by commas and full stops -  but also of music, sound which is only made intelligible when interspersed by rests. The space between the notes is often as dramatic and expressive as the notes themselves. You don’t need to be a Carmelite nun, or even to sit for 4’33” to realize that silence is alive with power.

In his 1931 essay, The Rest is Silence, Aldous Huxley famously said: “All the things that are fundamental, and most profoundly significant to the human spirit, can only be experienced not expressed. The rest is always and everywhere silence.”

The inadequacy of words to capture or communicate spiritual experience is well attested. The apophatic theology of the desert fathers, and later of the medieval Spanish Mystics bears witness to the fact. William James, in his critical survey of religious experience, even went so far as to single out ineffability as one of the hallmarks of a genuine mystical experience. 'Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ the ancient hymn exhorts; where God is present, language fails.

However, intense experience can trigger something restless within us, something stirring us to forms of expression that either use language creatively – the domain of poetry – or that go beyond the verbal, into a more abstract sphere, that of music. Like the Holy Spirit, music (literally, the ‘work of the Muses’) seems both to spring from and to activate regions of awareness that are inaccessible to the intellect. Regions that echo, and take us somehow, ‘beyond’. Music and transcendence are happy bedfellows. Huxley’s essay acknowledges as much when he goes on to say:  “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”

Today’s feast celebrates the elusive but infinitely precious experience of inspiration, the state of being in-spired, or literally, breathed-into.  Since the experience eludes literal description, it presents us with an image. More like a meme than an icon, it moves and dances before our eyes. The metaphors are visual, florid and dynamic, they are intended to rouse and to inflame. Rushing wind, dancing fire, voices raised in raw, spontaneous polyphony. There is grace, there is transformation, there is power. The result is a wild outpouring that shatters any familiar framework of meaning and communication, and breaks the boundaries of language.

The Pentecost experience as conveyed in Acts is often seen as a counterbalance to, and ‘correction’ of, the turmoil of the Tower of Babel - a re-ordering of those incoherent ancient voices, directing them to God. But I prefer to see it as a complement to the Old Testament story of Elijah on the mountain. Elijah, in extremis, goes out and stands on Mount Horeb, waiting receptively on the Lord. Eventually, when God comes to him, it is not in the wind, or fire or earthquake, but in the ‘still, small voice’ of calm. The fluttering of a gentle breeze.

Whether in stillness or in violence, the inbreathing of the Spirit touches us in ways that cannot but elicit a response. For some, the response may lie in silence, discipline and restraint –  the desert fathers’ life of dedication was their hymn of praise – but for many there is the spilling-over, the outpouring of expression, like the disciples’ gifts of tongues, which mimicked but transcended what we understand as language.  The dynamic nature of inspiration tends to urge and to prompt, stirring us from within with “sighs too deep for words.” Creativity can be painful and unsettling, and, to quote St Paul, an inward groaning, the condition of a frustrated or incomplete creation engaged in the “one great act of giving birth”.

If music expresses the inexpressible, what does it say? Can it tell us anything about the ineffable regions that lie on the edges of our consciousness, or hide buried deep within? Can it effect a cleansing of the doors of perception, to make God clearer to us, or perhaps to reveal us to ourselves? Does music mean anything at all, and, if it does, how does it mean? And what kind of meaning is it privileged to convey?

Nietzsche once said that Beethoven’s music is “music about music”.  This is not necessarily as unhelpful as it sounds. It may be circular and tautological, but it echoes a relatively widely held position on music, namely that it is essentially abstract. Leibniz, two hundred years earlier, had described music as “an unconscious exercise in arithmetic, in which the mind does not know what it is counting”. This rather Pythagorean view of the art of music focuses on the structure, the pure geometry of measured sound as interval, ratio, proportion, constellation and construction.

The mathematical nature of music’s inherent structure cannot be denied. A vibrating body of a certain size oscillates at a certain speed for a fixed temporal duration. These variables can all be measured numerically, pinned down, and developed in complexity. There is no mystery here. In itself, music is pure transparency. The extra-musical claims and associations of the art of sound (which is, at the most basic level, simple movement as vibration) are what cloud the issue and divide opinion. Pythagoras associated musical intervals with the movements of the planets. Plato’s associations were more political and moral. Music was an abstract form, whose essence had power to shape the mind and dispositions.

As history unfolded, understandings of the nature and character of music changed, as did its social purpose. Under the jurisdiction of the Church, a modal system was developed to give glory to God, and certain intervals and forms were privileged. Others were outlawed as too passionate or disturbing, the tritone (the ‘devil in music’) being virtually excommunicated, thus ironically witnessing to the extraordinary emotive power of ordered sound. Even in its banishment it made a noise in Trent’s corridors of power. Under courtly patronage music later flourished as an art form, and the rise of the public concert hall and the bourgeois salon followed on its heels. Alongside the rise of instrumental forms, opera ran its own trajectory.

Where “sounds and sweet airs” are coupled with poetry, the result is usually an amplification of the text.  The meaning of music in such cases is not difficult to identify. The problem arises where music speaks unsupported by drama, function, or overt association. The rising and falling intervals of Bach’s Art of Fugue, a tautly-constructed work of measured beauty, needs no conceptual or verbal justification. It just is, entirely self-referential, and could be said to be about absolutely nothing. And yet it is a thing of numinous and transcendent power. Yes, it acts on the emotions, but one senses there is so much more. Like the late Beethoven Quartets, it appears to be a distillation, but of what it is impossible to say. 

The 19th Century brought about the exaltation of the individual sensibility, the cult of the hero, and the romantic adulation of creative genius. ‘Great’ musical works were placed increasingly on pedestals, for the delectation of the cognoscenti. It was the century that produced Walter Pater with his famous statement about all the arts aspiring to the condition of music, and Schopenhauer who articulated the view that music is above all an expression of the Will, the innermost sanctuary of the self. Removing music completely from its associative contexts, stripping it of extra-musical meaning, he said: “Music stands quite apart from all the other arts. In it we do not recognise the copy, the repetition, of any idea of the inner nature of the world.” Music is not representational. Music is about music is about music.

While Schopenhauer divides opinion – the wars of the romantics followed, with sense being pitted against spirit, Wagner against Brahms – it cannot be denied that he put his finger on something inescapable and extraordinary. Music, while overwhelmingly present to our perception, seems barely to exist in the terrestrial domain at all, if existence requires spatial extension and solidity on the one hand, or epistemological function or necessary being on the other. It is pure act, something incorporeal and fleeting, an event. Events occur in Time but transcend Space.

In this way, Music has much in common with the Christian concept of Grace. Grace, a function of the Holy Spirit, speaks directly to the mind and heart, while it itself remains hidden, elusive, out-of-view. No one can see or touch or hold onto it, yet its effects are immediate and irresistible. Invisible though it is, those who have experienced it at a deep level can never forget it. Like Grace, Music speaks in sighs – that is to say in rhythms, tones, and harmonies – that really are too deep for words.

Music remains irreducibly mysterious yet undeniably meaningful.

Meaning, Magic, Music - an alliterative triad that trips from the tongue like a riddle but promises so much more.  To my child’s mind it had the ring of prophecy. Joel’s words similarly point to an experience of wonder and the outpouring of elusive gifts. Young and old prophesying, billows of smoke, the mountains running with sweet wine. Pentecost, again, moves us with its fire and wind, the beat of doves’ wings on the air. Yet, beyond the flutter of wings and the stirring of the elements, there is mystery. Mystery initially attracts yet is ultimately reticent. Unlike the vibrant biblical metaphors and colourful images of God’s approach, it is not noisy or invasive. Pentecost is as much a feast of silence as it is of noise.

I no longer live in a world of palpable quiet, punctuated only by bells and birdsong. I exchanged the cloister for the quad, the countryside for the city, over fifteen years ago. But I am privileged to live in a city full of music and of quiet spaces. When my senses have been flooded by sound or chatter – however meaningful - I seek out the solitude of chapel, library or study, where I wait on meaning in silence and attentiveness. Occasionally, I may become aware of something like the stirring of a gentle breeze. Or I might take down my old boxed set of Beethoven CDs and listen to the Heilige Dankgesang, the sublime slow movement of his opus 132 string quartet.

If anything evokes the Meaning and Magic of Music, at its most persuasive, it is this. It has even been cited - by Huxley among others - as proof for the existence of God. Aunt Carmelita and her two grand pianos had nothing on this. If there were time, I would suggest we listen to it now. But since this is Evensong, and the hymn beckons, I will merely suggest you go away and lock yourself in a darkened room, and listen to it on your own when you have time. You never know, you may hear the ‘drift of pinions’ and feel that strange warming of unearthly fire that is divine inspiration. The Spirit is, after all, accustomed to entering behind closed doors. 

by Catherine Coldstream