Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What Music Means to Me

The following is a something I wrote for a recital in the program notes. Questions, comments, critiques are very welcome:

I have been asked to write down some thoughts about what music means to me. I shall begin then, with a short account of my own experience with music. My love of music began (I am almost ashamed to say) from selfish reasons. When I was 10, I read an article about how classical music makes ones IQ go up. Being a snobbish little boy I threw myself into my parent’s Mozart collection which amounted to about 10CDs. All the while, I constantly chanted this mantra to myself: “this will make me smarter, this will make me smarter” add infinitum. Like a musical moron I would vigorously nod my head up and down with the rhythm of the symphony or when the music became grand and exciting I’d wave my hands around frantically as if I were conducting an invisible symphony. Can you imagine what I must’ve looked like? In fact, I would look into the mirror sometimes and practice my I-am-deeply-in-musical-thought look and try to seem very profound, I mostly ended up looking constipated. Thank God something good came of this egoism! As I became more and more familiar with the pieces, I found that I actually enjoyed listening to them for their own sake. I didn’t really even know why yet, I just liked listening. My initial enjoyment began to spill over into a liking for other composers. In addition to Mozart’s music, I began listening to Elgar, Dvorak, Beethoven, Puccini, and then it hit me: I had discovered the Second Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff. Diane Ackerman, a poet, describes this piano concerto as one that is:

full of tenderness and yearning,
beguiling melodies, raging passion,
and long sensuous preludes
to explosive climaxes,
frenzy followed by strains
of mysticism and trance.

Loaded with starry melodies,
it was a map of his sensibility,
and a wilderness rarely known
-the intense life of an artist
seen in miniature, with rapture expressed
as all-embracing sound.

But words do not come close, I think, to describing what it is like to listen to that music. How can I describe that aural experience which ravishes my entire being and makes me weep to hear such beauty? The answer is, I think, that we wouldn’t have music if we could fully describe it in words. Descriptions of Rachmaninoff can only go so far, you will have to listen to it yourself.

If I thought that discovering Rachmaninoff was something, imagine how it must have shaken my world to find Bach! Oh Bach! What a colossal syllable! I shall not even try to tell you the love, humility, and goodwill that his music inspires in me. This is what Leonard Bernstein says, “…once you do get to know Bach well enough to love him, you will love him more than any other composer. I know this because I went through the same process myself.” Further on he states,

And what is it that holds all these pages together, that makes it all inevitably the product of one man? The religious spirit. For Bach, all music was religion; writing it was an act of faith; and performing it was an act of worship. Every note was dedicated to God and to nothing else…Every last cello suite or violin sonata, every prelude and fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier praises God…Bach…was a man of God, and his godliness informs his music from first to last (The Joy of Music, 237-277).

And with that, I come to my point. The fundamental value of music is in its ability to make us better people. Rather than just a hobby or something we teach children because it will make them “smart” (which it will). Classical music is an education of the heart. It is a vital part of forming a person’s character for the better. Now realize that I am not saying that you need music to be a good person, after all, the Nazis also listened to Schubert, but music makes it that much easier to love God and to love your fellow man. While the music lasts, I am in wonder and awe before its beauty. It’s almost as heady as being in love with someone, and perhaps it is just that – love – I mean. I do love music. And though my fingers stutter and mumble across the keys trying desperately to incarnate that love, I still do it; rather, I play because I love. In the last act of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we are given a very good model of what all our praises to God are like when the King of Athens comments on the bumbling and ridiculous play of the builders is put on in the King’s honor,

Our sport shall be to take what they mistake,
And what poor duty cannot do, noble respect
Takes it in might, not merit.
Where I have come, great clerks have purposed
To greet me with premeditated welcomes;
Where I have seen them shiver and look pale,
Make periods in the midst of sentences,
Throttle their practiced accent in their fears,
And, in conclusion, dumbly have broke off,
Not paying me a welcome. Trust me, sweet,
Out of this silence yet I picked a welcome,
And in the modesty of fearful duty
I read as much as from the rattling tongue
Of saucy and audacious eloquence.
Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity
In least speak most, to my capacity
(Act V.90-105).

If you skipped over that long quote, don’t worry about it, I mostly put it there to sound smart. The point is that the king took the stuttering praises of his servants and accounted those jumbled and messy attempts as eloquent speeches because of their love for him. In the same way, God will take our intention and count it as the act. If we will commit the time we spend in practicing and playing this music (like Bach) as a form of worship towards God, then it will mean something; otherwise, recitals are simply mutual admiration societies. We have mechanical piano players to do that. We come here not just to listen to those we know and admire the talent and hard work that has been put into these pieces, we come here also to participate in and experience beauty, beauty that at its root is from God. Life itself becomes more wonderful because such beauty exist. That’s what music means to me, it is one of the ways in which we are led to God. Where would I be without music?