What is the essence of music? As a philosopher, music fascinates me. As a Catholic, music does something much more – it brings me before the face of God.
Josef Pieper, one of the great philosophical thinkers of the twentieth century, once gave an address during intermission at a Bach concert about the essence of music. Today I want to share with you some of what he said, so that you might understand why I say that music is able to bring me before the face of God, and why I believe that it can do the same for you!
But before I get into the address, take a look at this Ted-Ed video. If you’re unfamiliar with classical music, then it really will be an “eye-opener.” Suspend your skepticism for a few moments and watch. The beauty and depth that lies behind a classical piece of music may be something you’ve never realized before, but it certainly is something to be marveled at.
The video shows how Vivaldi captured that which he perceived around him and put music to it so that it could be expressed. Pieper goes further when speaking of music to say that music ‘is by its nature so close to the fundamentals of human existence.’ This for me is why music is so great – because it reveals something very intimate and very interior on the part of the artist, but that’s also applicable to all of us at different times in our lives. Much like the Psalms, it takes us on a journey.
So, what are the fundamentals of human existence? Well, as Catholics we know that our human existence is a journey; it’s a journey towards God. In our physical reality, we grow and mature, and eventually diminish, and in our spiritual reality, too, we are always moving – ‘man is intrinsically a pilgrim’ Pieper says. We move towards the Good, but we have not yet fully arrived.
St. Augustine has spoken of this journey towards God, and our human condition in not yet being there. He declares: “The Good – you hear this word and you take a deep breath; you hear it and you utter a sigh.” He adds that man is unable to put into words the central and full meaning of the concept of the Good, “We cannot say, and yet we cannot be silent either […] What are we to do, employing neither speech nor silence? We ought to rejoice! Jubilate! Shout out to your heart’s delight in wordless jubilation!” Pieper believes that such “wordless jubilation” is known as music!
This is what music can be! It can take all of our human experience; it can take all of the joys and all of the sorrows that we encounter on our pilgrim journey towards the Good, and it can lay them all out – not in an image (as with a painting), nor with words (as with a poem), but directly through sound. We see, then, that it’s not merely the sounds that we perceive when we hear music, but rather we hear the journey of hearts; we hear the expression of lives, and the reality of experiences.
Because as Pieper says, ‘[to] articulate such intimate realities, the dynamism of human existence itself, the spoken word, proves utterly inadequate […] Music reveals the human soul in stark “nakedness”, as it were, without the customary linguistic draperies’. Our words often fail us on our pilgrim journey through life. When we encounter a great beauty, or when we encounter a great tragedy, we are often left speechless and without a way of expressing our innermost feelings.
This is the thing about classical music – it’s real, and it expresses these feelings. It’s not created trivially to make you feel good, it isn’t always going to provide you with that “happy sound” which so much popular music creates today, and which Pieper describes as a type of self-deception; a type of enchantment or escapism, which tells us that “everything is ok and there’s nothing to worry about.” Classical music doesn’t promise this because it reveals real life, and life is messy, a life has sorrows and tragedies, a life has ups and downs. This is what music is able to capture. And it’s because of this that Plato made the statement that music “imitates the impulses of the soul.”
I said at the beginning that music is able to bring us before the face of God. Pieper describes music as presenting us with a challenge, a challenge to ‘listen attentively to the essential message […] and [to] let this message find an echo, as if on reverberating strings, within the immediacy of our soul’.
Why should we engage with this challenge? Because – and this is probably the best quote about music of all time! – ‘this will lead to a new and rekindled clarity, authenticity, and vigor of our inward existence; to dissatisfaction with entertaining but hollow achievements; and to a sober and perceptive alertness that is not distracted from the reality of actual life by the promise of easy pleasure proffered by superficial harmonies. Above all, this will guide us to turn with resolve, constancy, courage, and hope toward the one and only Good by whose grace our inner existential yearning finds fulfillment; the one Good praised and exalted […] with such ever-present “wordless jubilation.”
And there it is! Music brings us before the face of God! Everything we experience in music finds its reason and its fulfillment in God.
When music is tragic, sorrowful, or painful, it brings us before the cross, for the cross is the only place where we’ll ever really be able to understand human suffering. Pope Saint John Paul II said, ‘Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: we are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. Christ causes us to enter into the mystery and to discover the “why” of suffering, as far as we are capable of grasping the sublimity of divine love’ (Salvifici Doloris: 13). In suffering we cling to the mystery of the cross, knowing that in Christ all will be well, and through music we are able to, in part, express that mystery which is often so inadequately expressed in words.
(Listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 – if you listen to all four movements you’ll see how the darkness of the first movement comes into the light of the fourth. Hoffman said of the 5th, ‘How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite! […] the soul of each thoughtful listener is assuredly stirred, deeply and intimately, by a feeling that is none other than that unutterable portentous longing, and until the final chord – indeed, even in the moments that follow it – he will be powerless to step out of that wondrous spirit realm where grief and joy embrace him in the form of sound’).
When music is joyful it brings us to contemplate the joy of eternity and the triumph of salvation along our very human journey. We yearn for perfect happiness, and so in those moments when we come to experience a foreshadowing of that perfection, it can be captured, and reflected upon, in music.
(Listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 – Aptly, the fourth movement includes a choral ‘ode to joy,’ including the words ‘Do you bow down before Him, you millions? Do you sense your creator, o world? Seek Him above the canopy of stars! He must dwell beyond the stars’).
Sacred music, or music settings for particular liturgical events, directly takes up our human existence – that is our journey towards God, with all those experiences that have been previously mentioned – and it transcends them, bringing us together with the transcendent God, as we stand before Him, sinful and sorrowful, and yet consumed by awe and wander at His Majesty.
Sacred Music is some of the most beautiful and also some of the most terrifying music ever composed (Listen to Verdi’s ‘Dies irae’ from his Requiem, which captures the terror of the last judgement). And then, finally, listen to the Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis! I will say no more. For words do indeed fail.
Classical music has everything to do with God because it has everything to do with man and his journey towards God. It captures our pilgrim journey in all its dynamism. And it reminds us, ever so sweetly, that we have been created for Him.