Sunday, November 15, 2009

There is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music is. William P. Merrill


Yesterday evening was one of those intensely spiritual moments for me and I was nowhere near a church. It was my privilege to have been participating, as a member of the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, in one of the Leeds International Concert Season's performances - Mozart's Requiem with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in the iconic Victorian Leeds Town Hall.

There is nothing unusual about my participation in a big choral concert but somehow every once in a while it becomes personal and I am transported beyond myself. The atmosphere was electric with anticipation and from the orchestra's very first haunting notes in the opening chorus we knew this was going to be something very special indeed.

God has given me a talent, albeit a modest one, and singing has been part of my life since I was a teenager when a very charismatic music teacher gave me a glimpse of something beyond pop music. I learn music quickly and I have a pleasant enough voice: it is not a soloists voice, at least not since my student days when I was often cast as second or third romantic lead in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, but it is a blending voice and as such it is a good enough choral singer's voice. (Even given that My Own Personal Agnostic and I have been moved up from Baritone to Tenor and are "exploring" the upper limits of our voice range.)

I have long been interested in the link between music and spirituality although I have never made the time to explore it any in detail. Victor de LaPrade once noted It is incontestable that music induces in us a sense of the infinite and the contemplation of the invisible. But I am not at all convinced that the intensely spiritual feelings I sometimes experience with music are necessarily linked to overt religious expressions. I hate hymn singing, for instance, with a deep and deadly loathing (something of a problem, one might note, for a person preparing for ordained ministry) while being deeply moved by Elgar's Cello Concerto and mesmerised by Purcell's closing lament and chorus in Dido and Aeneas. Am I encountering God in those two (and the many other) secular pieces that touch my soul? I would say so if only because I am the recipient of someone else's God given talent.

Of course Mozart is always going to the one who most touches my soul and there must be an element of the very personal in the composers, and indeed performers who, quite literally, strike a chord in our subconscious. And, of course, Mozart wrote music to sacred texts and liturgical settings and his Requiem must be one of the most intense of all with its eschatological vision Dies Irae, Dies Illa (Day of wrath, day of anger will disolve the world in ashes) portrayed in incredibly powerful and urgent music: talk about putting the fear of God into people. A similar effect is created in the declamatory Confutatis maledictis, flammis acribus addictis, voca me cum benedictus (When the accused are confounded, and doomed to flames of woe, call me among the blessed.) It was designed to terrify and to challenge the conscience but its not the text that works for me. Although I have sung latin more times than I could hope to remember I have to read the English translation - and I don't always - to understand what I am singing and I discover repeatedly that the written text is flat for me and totally devoid of impact.

No, it is the music and what Mozart, in this case, does with it for the text that creates the vision and the terror and the immense power that makes it a spine tingler: you don't need to know the words to get the message: this is urgent, passionate, confronting music even given its incredible beauty and I would also add, inspired. It has the power to move today as it did then. Of course the liturgy ends with the expected note of hope in the Lux Aeterna (Let eternal light shine on them, Lord, as with Your saints in eternity, because You are merciful. Grant them eternal rest, Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them, as with Your saints in eternity, because You are merciful) but that's no help at all if your Latin is only good enough to buy a coffee and an ice cream!

Then, of course, I have to add the complication of participation: it isn't always just the listening is it? Certainly not passive listening, anyway. There is something extra in the act of participation whether it is the all absorbing enthrallment and awe of active listening or the self-giving of playing, singing or conducting which seems to me to be akin to worship.

So what is it about music which, regardless of its sacred or secular context, can make the soul sing? What does music do to the soul? What does music reveal to us of God?

Cervanes said He who sings scares away his woes and that is certainly true for me and I am sure for many others. So is it purely psychological and if so why? Was Confucious right when he said Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without? Why does music have that power to touch emotions? Beethoven seemed to be on to something when he said Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life and Delius seemed to be on the same track when he said Music is an outburst of the soul but sadly they didn't go on to do the theology.

I'd be delighted if someone else would.