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Music: The Language of Hope

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Unitarian Universalist Christian Table of Contents

The James Luther Adams Papers

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993

Part 12: Music: The Language of Hope

The talk about music can be a futile effort, especially for me. I confess that when I was taking lessons on the violin some years ago, I went to my teacher’s home for the weekly lesson, and I played for him a movement from a Handel violin sonata. When I finished, and before the teacher could say anything, I admitted that I had played the movement badly, adding that I was frustrated and disappointed, for I had practiced three hours every day. My teacher was a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a much better teacher than I deserved, and he was a hard master. When I said that I had practiced vigorously that week, he replied, “Mr. Adams, it is not the amount of time you spend in practice that counts. What counts is the intelligence you apply to that bow.”

So much, then, for my competence as a musician. Nevertheless, I kept at it on the ground that some things are so precious that they are worth doing badly.

Shakespeare is severe in his judgment of people who have no music in their souls. In The Merchant of Venice, he has Lorenzo say to Jessica, his beloved:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is not fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted.

What good is music, then? Does it improve the character of the music lover? William James once wrote that if, after attending a symphony concert, you are not kinder to your grandmother on returning home, the concert has been wasted on you. I doubt that we can accept this Sunday School moralizing. The question is not an easy one to answer. Perhaps the answer cannot be put into words. There is a tale or legend about Beethoven, who had played one of his compositions to an acquaintance. On his finishing the piece on the piano, the listener asked, But what does it mean? Beethoven replied with not a word. Instead, he sat down at the piano and played the piece again.

I suppose that if we try to answer the question, What good is music? we should say at the outset that it is an end in itself, a terminal value. I recall overhearing an argument at Columbia University. A pragmatist philosopher in the spirit of William James was asserting that music helps us to adjust to the environment. The other person in the argument then said, “Tell me, please, what does the music of Mozart suggest to you?”

The reply came, “I suppose music has a certain therapeutic value.”

“I see,” said the other fellow, “you class Mozart along with pills!”

I have the notion that the answer to our question lies somewhere in between the view that music is simply an end in itself and the view that it creates good character or possesses therapeutic value in some immediately practical way. We have to remember that there is a lot of bad music that can habituate one to bad taste. But more than that, music, even good music, can accompany a wide variety of actions. There are work songs, army songs, love songs, prison songs, hymn tunes. In all of these activities, we see the illustration of the maxim of the art critic who said, Art has a heart full of service. Music can be brought into the service of non-aesthetic ends, good or bad.

Music can be in the service of anything and everything, that is, music with words; but what about music without words? Let us consider what great music without words does and what great great music without words serves. Authentic music without words is able to say what cannot be put into words. In any time or place, this is an extremely significant enterprise, one that painting and sculpture and architecture share with music. Perhaps Beethoven simply played the piece again, in effect saying, “Listen, my friend.”

In a time when the old myths of religion are crumbling, when traditional formulations of religious faith are frayed or fraying, music without words can express the substance of life’s meaning, the substance of joy, of tragedy, of comedy, of play, of lament and re-affirmation; in short, the meaning of life itself.

In large measure, we may answer the question, What is music worth?, by saying,

it depends not only on the music but also on the listener. When listeners are looking for or wanting to affirm the meaning of life, they may well be able to enjoy Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or Bach’s Mass in B Minor, even though the religious words themselves appear to be meaningless.

There are two ways in which this affirmation of the meaning of life is expressed in music, whether with or without words. The first of these ways can be illustrated by an incident reported by an eminent literary critic. In an essay entitled, How to Tell a Good Book from a Bad, H. W. Garrod, formerly professor of poetry at Oxford, sets forth the view that great art expresses the fundamental emotions of life, at the same time ordering these emotions and stabilizing the soul. Mr. Garrod tells about reading a popular novel in a railway carriage in England. As he read the novel, he began to weep, and the further he read the more he wept. Finally, a benign clergyman in the same compartment, pitying the poor man, moved over to his side of the compartment to sit beside him and asked, “Is there anything I can do to help you in your distress?”

Mr. Garrod gave an inspired reply, “I fear I am beyond the aid of prayer. I am weeping because this is such a bad book.”

Instead of giving stability, the novel was unhinging him, dissolving his center.

Great music gives intensified expression to insight too deep for tears, and it does this by lending order and dynamics to sound. It is the genius of the performer of music that he can present a work of music with the ease and mastery that give dynamic order to human experience, at the same time giving the impression of spontaneity. A second thing to be noted here is that the dynamic order gives the listener the experience of perfection of style. Our lives are filled with frustration, disappointment, awareness of the miscarriage of justice or the absence of friendship and love. The artist provides the listener with the opportunity of contemplating perfection, of experiencing unity in variety, of enjoying fulfillment. Music is the language of hope, affirming hope against hopelessness. Music is the language of new resolve in the face of the seven evil angels having vials of seven last plagues filled with wrath. Music as the language of hope joins the chorus of humanity, striving for community while singing, “Great and marvelous are Your works, O God Almighty.”