Music and Suffering

Alvo Von Cossel

16th February

All generic and clich ́ed presentations about music invariably begin with quotations from dictio- naries and brief explanations about how these definitions aren’t quite good enough. The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, defines music as “Vocal or instrumental sounds put together in melodic, harmonic, or rhythmical combination, as by a composer”. This, like virtually all dictionary definitions of music, isn’t quite good enough. It misses out that which is fundamental to all musics: the emotional aspect. Having a definition of music without mentioning the emo- tional side is like having a major world religion whose creed mentions only doctrinal matters, and omits anything to do with the loving kindness of God. Imagine that!

The New Grove – a musician’s bible – tactfully defines music as “The principal subject of the publication at hand, whose readers will almost certainly have strong ideas of the denotative and connotative meanings of the word.” This definition is amusingly useless, but it does tell us that there are all sorts of losers out there who think they know what on earth they’re talking about (possibly a reason why so many musicians become clergymen, and certainly the reason why I’m standing here today). [pause]

Only very few musicians in the world are paid for their performances. These are the profes- sional musicians, the actors who can, in many ways, create emotion on demand, for an audience with expectations. But most of us – musical amateurs – play for ourselves. Music is a way for us to express our emotions and, even if others may be listening, we are our own audience. The act of playing or singing takes away the burden of words. We don’t need heart-to-hearts to tell anybody how we feel; we don’t need to find words for sometimes ineffable emotions. Instead, we ‘speak’ through the music in a way that may not be intelligible to others; perhaps in a way that need not be intelligible to others.

But what about when we can’t play? And here I don’t mean being a cellist with a broken wrist. I mean, rather, being a Jew with a broken heart. The Jews in our first reading, Psalm 137, – their homes having been devastated, and they having been captured by the Babylonians – when required to sing one of the songs of Zion, they react in a way that I could never have expected. Instead of being humiliated further and having their culture commodified, they do not play. But their decision not to play is not an act of defiance towards their captors. Giving a rendition of the songs of Zion – “the Lord’s song” – becomes impossible outside the right frame of mind. We’re talking about a tough crowd, here: they would happily murder Babylonian babies. (I think we’d all agree that there’s not much musical virtue in the sound of an infant going “splat!”). And yet their inability to sing represents their deepest, darkest grief, and the extent of their defeat. Their homes and livelihoods have been taken from them, and, quite possibly, they have witnessed the murder of their own children. Nothing seems to matter anymore, other than the everlasting, unchanging Almighty God. And yet they are even removed from Him, in a place far from Zion, far from the synagogues and comforts of their home. Their music has been taken from them.

By not singing, they are admitting their defeat, and they are surrendering to the Babylonians. They’ve been completely destroyed, and there remains no hope in their eyes. Indeed, “How shall [they] sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

The fact that music is of such high importance to these Jews, that they are capable of physical violence, and yet incapable of song, suggests an inseparable relationship between music and soci- ety. Music was a necessity for them. Today, music is becoming more and more of a commodity, and communal music-making is now only part of ever-disappearing musical subcultures, such as choral societies, brass bands and hymn-singing Cambridge College Chapel congregations. There is a consensus among evolutionary scientists that music significantly predated speech among hu- mans, and former civilisations did have very well integrated musical cultures. Yet the absence of any serious and regular communal music-making from the agendas of most people in the West- ern world today has caused Sigmund Freud to regard music and all acts relating to music as an expression of a desire to escape from reality, as though we turn to music when we’re fed up with the mess that is quotidian existence. To me, though, music is no more an escape from reality than a walk in the park or a badly executed knock-knock joke. Listening to music, rather, is a “path of temporary withdrawal from the hurly-burly of the external world” (Anthony Storr). It helps us to adapt better to our world, rather than helping us escape from it. It creates clarity in our minds when there is otherwise no clarity. If only briefly, music turns the chaos in our minds into order.

Here, I’d like to talk about music as a vicar for experiencing the Divine. In listening to or playing music, we often engage with that which is known as the “oceanic experience”: that feeling of vastness and eternity that is unknown to our physical world. It is easy to define what the oceanic experience is and what it makes us feel, because we can put names on certain emotions and things (e.g. happiness, joy, vastness etc.). But it is impossible to convey how this experience feels. There are no words that could possibly convey the how; only the what. But


where does this experience come from? How is it brought about? An idea I’ve have is that we do (or, at least, can) experience the Divine vicariously, through music. No clich ́ed visions of the Cross, no Henry Tozer-esque voices booming supernaturally out of the heavens. The access of the Divine is indirect, but it is there. In Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra, that beautifully poetic ode to the Sky opens with “O Sky above me! O pure, deep Sky! [. . .] Gazing into you, I tremble with divine desires.” Do we not also tremble with divine desires at the sound of music? Does music not, in some way, bridge the gap between us and God, whom- or whatever He may be?

I therefore ask: are acts of devotion and worship bereaved of their power in the absence of music? If we were only to say the words of the mass-ordinary, without music, – for instance “Glory to God in the highest” – we would sound like emotionless zombies. And even if we stopped being so overcast, rainy and British in the way we speak our liturgy, something would still be missing. Just try imitating the supreme sense of triumph that the Choir will generate in the anthem tonight, by speaking the words “Hosanna in excelsis Deo”! For exactly this reason, I would argue that the service of compline, in which the congregation does nothing at all other than listen to music and poetic liturgy, is the most powerful of all liturgies. And I’m clearly not the first to think it. There’s nothing coincidental about the fact that the oldest extant hymn melody in our Western music tradition, dating back at least 1200 years, comes from the compline service. While eucharists and evensongs have changed over the centuries according to various musical and political factors, compline remains true to its most ancient origins. There has never been a need to update it, to make it in-keeping with contemporary trends in music. Compline allows for introspection and contemplation, granting the congregant access to the oceanic experience, to find mental order in a world which is, by nature, chaotic.

I can’t say whether there is divinity in music. But I can say that it works wonders for the mind and heart. Finally, then, we might have found out what music is: as Robin Maconie puts it, if noise can drive us mad, then perhaps music can “drive us sane”.