Art enriches being human. I cannot imagine a genuinely maturing spiritual life without regular immersion in the beauties of nature and in good art. By art I mean works of human beings seeking to embody beauty in the world. Such a broad deﬁnition includes love and friendship, crafts, visual and aural arts. In this section, we brieﬂy consider one art in order to show ways in which art can help nourish one’s soul. I have chosen music, because it is probably the art with which I am most familiar, and because music in one form or another often has powerful effects on human souls—for good, or for bad. Music that is not genuinely beautiful cannot draw a human being into communion with the unseen Beauty often called “God.”
As a non-musician, but as a life-long lover of beautiful music, I recommend a number of composers for those who seek to be spiritually enriched by the joy and healing balm of beautiful music. The list could be greatly extended, and many examples of compositions could be cited. I prefer in this section to name composers whom many musicians and musical souls educated in the western tradition would acknowledge as superb masters of the craft of music.
Anyone seriously interested in becoming familiar with master works of western music composed between the high Middle Ages and the present time would do well to familiarize themselves with three exceptional and accessible composers who embody a considerable portion of the western tradition, and advanced it. Their lives span about 150 years in which the modern western spirit ﬂourished, and its potentials were profoundly explored. In singling out these three, I am not suggesting that they are objectively the best composers, or even the most spiritually beneﬁcial for a particular soul. They are, rather, three essential musical spirits with whom one becomes well acquainted, if one wants to develop a love and knowledge of western music, who desires to reﬁne one’s musical taste, and who wishes to discover the spiritual potentialities of music. I name them both in chronological order, and in what I consider the order of their signiﬁcance:
1. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Bach is the unsurpassed master of intellect in western music, and a bottomless well of musical imagination and invention. The range of spiritual, intellectual, and emotional expression in his numerous Cantatas, in the Passions, in the enormous output of orchestral and chamber works is beyond compare. To meet Bach, one could begin with the great Mass in b minor, or with the famous Brandenburg Concertos (#2, #5). Shorter works, however, may be more accessible for most Americans today. As others could acknowledge in the past century, I remain indebted to J. S. Bach for a vital part of my spiritual formation. When institutions of intellectual and spiritual formation fail, the divine Mind still works through art, and for those “with ears to hear,” through the music of Bach.
2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Mozart is perhaps the greatest composer of beautiful melodies who ever lived, because he seems to have had the most reﬁned “aesthetic sense”—that is, a seemingly connatural sense of what is truly beautiful in sound. Although his ﬁnest operas, symphonies, and chamber music ought to be heard, a good place to begin enjoying Mozart may be with his piano concertos—for example, #21 in C, or #23 in A. Mozart immerses the hearer in Beauty, emanating from God.
3. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Beethoven remains the genius of self-expression in music, who poured into sound the wide range of his emotions, and did so with consummate compositional skill. As Bach reveals Christ, Beethoven reveals Beethoven. His piano sonatas, string quartets, and symphonies remain central to our experience of music. (Even rock music can be heard as a late and decadent step-child of Beethoven in its egophany—its revelation, not primarily of God, but of oneself and one’s ﬂeeting thoughts and feelings). Beethoven’s ﬁnest achievements, among so many, may well be his often heavenly late string quartets (Op 127-135). His 5th Symphony is more familiar, perhaps more typical of Beethoven, and probably more easily accessible for most listeners.
Now, there are a number of other western composers whom I believe a true lover of music should not neglect, but get to know “up close and personally.” Again, I name them in chronological order:
4. Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585): With his student and friend William Byrd, foremost composers of the Renaissance in England. Tallis set to music texts in English and Latin. Motets and hymns such as “If ye love me” and “Hear the voice and prayer” communicate to the listener the profound, peaceful, grace-ﬁlled soul of Tallis.
5. Giovanni da Palestrina (1525-1594): the Italian Renaissance master of counter-point, who breathes the warm, gentle, loving spirit of Catholic faith into hearers. As Beethoven and much music after him has both good and bad effects on the soul, Palestrina provides a refreshing and cleansing experience, without harmful side-effects. Palestrina seeks not to communicate his private ego, but a ﬁrm and loving trust in God.
6. Heinrich Schuetz (1585-1672): with J. S. Bach, the ﬁnest representatives of the Lutheran spirit in music, and one of the unsurpassable composers for human voice. With Tallis and Palestrina, Schuetz is perhaps the ﬁnest translator of mystical experience into sound. Schuetz sought union through music. A foremost example of musical mysticism is Schuetz’ Easter Oratorio. Some of his many Psalms of David may be initially more accessible.
7. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741): master of the joy of beautiful, lively and enlivening music. “Never heavy, just right.” His music generally lacks the profundity and intellectual brilliance of J. S. Bach, and is at the same time more accessible for many listeners. One could begin with the famous “Four Seasons” violin concertos or his famous “Gloria,” and explore from there. I ﬁnd his compositions for cello especially appealing.
8. Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759): a German-born then English Baroque genius, who fortunately composed masterpieces such as his Messiah in English; a craftsman of melodious and harmonically rich counterpoint. I recommend his concerti grossi and his delightful organ concertos, in addition to the Messiah and other oratorios and operas.
9. Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809): the ever-enriching music of a happy soul, who more or less invented two outstanding and central forms of music—the string quartet and the symphony—and bequeathed to us an abundant variety of each, and so much more. If you seek peace in music, listen to happy Haydn. His Symphony #88 in G provides a good entry place to this genial spirit. I especially love his string quartets, such as #62 in C, the “Emperor.”
10. Franz Schubert (1797-1828): with Mozart, Schubert remains the supreme master of lovely melody. Not to listen to some of his exquisite songs is to be deprived a delightful experience. Even in sorrow, he is not bitter or self-pitying. “Wanderers Nachtlied” (768) is unequaled, and best appreciated if one understands the German of Goethe’s poem, or at least a good translation. Schubert’s 8th and 9th Symphonies are memorable, and often stirring.
11. Richard Wagner (1813-1883): undoubtedly a towering musical genius, who used his considerable skill to move audiences according to his will—for good and for ill. Wagner is a master of manipulating feelings in his hearers. And yet, with Odysseus, I would have myself strapped to the mast to listen to the siren song of Kirstin Flagstad or another superb soprano singing Isolde’s “Transﬁguration” (the “Love-death”) from Tristan und Isolde. More accessible and less disturbing for some listeners would be the popular Prelude (Overture) to Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg.
12. Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): In the music of Brahms one hears the marriage of classical form, accomplished technique, with lush Romantic idiom. I have long loved Brahms’ music, but painfully hear in it a soul not open to the divine, and feeling the chill winds of empty death. Brahms brings forth much beautiful music out of his spiritual isolation and its effects: loneliness and sorrow. His late clarinet sonatas (Opus 120) and the wonderful Clarinet Quintet (Op. 115) are exquisite examples of bringing forth beauty out of autumnal melancholy.
13. Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904): Romanticism yet with simple Catholic faith and a gentle, whimsical Czech spirit. Dvorak was also graced with a gift for composing lovely melodies, which he generously and imaginatively shares with hearers. Often I return to his later symphonies and to his beautiful chamber music (for example, the “Dumky” Trio, Op. 90), of which I never tire. Even when sad, Dvorak can break into a peasant dance, turning tears to smiles. To listen to Dvorak is to make a soul friend. His Concerto for Cello and his Symphony #9 (“From the New World”), both composed while visiting America, are delightful and noble works of the spirit.
14. Bela Bartok (1881-1945): From late Romantic to violently modernistic to spiritually harmonious and transcending, so is the musical evolution of this genius. If you wish to hear and to feel what the twentieth century was all about, one good way is to familiarize yourself with Bartok. His music can be deeply disturbing, hypnotic, restless, soothing, spiritually up-lifting. I prefer to listen to his later works, such as the “Divertimento,” “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste,” his late Third Piano Concerto and the “Concerto for Orchestra,” for they are less disturbed and less disturbing than many of his compositions. The 6 String Quartets, brilliant works, document the 20th century’s spiritual crisis perhaps better than any other set of musical compositions. They can be shocking in their effects.
Now I will attempt to put into words what cannot be described with precision: some effects of beautiful music on the attentive listener. It may be that by saying too much, too little is said. Still, an attempt seems ﬁtting, for listening sensitively to good music is an important means of caring for one’s spiritual life. As Plato discusses and demonstrates at length in his Republic, music is a vital part of spiritual and intellectual formation—for good or for ill. In other words, good words with appropriate music can help build up the soul, infusing it with beauty and a sensitivity for goodness; bad music, with deceptive or harmful words, damage the soul, and immerse the hearer in various forms of degeneracy.
Consider music: the composer communicates to the listener through sounds which have been produced by voice or instrument. There are at least several human conduits involved: the composer, the performer, the ears and mind of the listener. More fully, music comes from the mind of the composer to the mind of the hearer, mediated through bodily organs, instruments, airwaves. The most direct means of musical communication would be to hear the composer-musician singing or playing his own composition or spontaneous, “live performance.” Presently we are unable to listen directly to Bach or Mozart performing; these composers speak to us through musicians, who may or may not be faithful to the original composition. Listening to pre-recorded music adds other conduits or media, such as the original recording equipment, methods of adjusting the sounds during and after recording, techniques of mass production, and the play-back sound system (e.g., disc player, ampliﬁer, speakers or headphones). Even through so many media, it is truly amazing how directly music can speak to the soul of the hearer.
It needs to be kept in mind that ultimately music is composed out of the spiritual resources of the composer’s soul, so that the listener is hearing music, but at the same time, listening to the human being who composed the music. The thoughtful listener hears not only sounds, but the composer’s soul: his spiritual life, intellectual formation, present thoughts, emotions, and his technical knowledge and mastery of the art of composition. One hears sounds, but also the sounder—the human being who conceived and composed the music which is now mediated through other musicians and technology. A highly gifted musician, such as Glen Gould, communicates Bach so directly that one can be reasonably assured that he is close to hearing Bach immediately through Gould; a poor musician, or one whose ego is not disciplined, encumbers the music by interjecting himself inappropriately into the process. There is a time for faithful, accurate performances, and a time for more free-ﬂowing interpretations, but in either case, musicians must know their craft and have disciplined effects on hearers. Music of a high quality often admits of a wide range of performances and instrumentations, for the original composition is rich in potentialities which various musicians can effectively bring out. The compositions of J. S. Bach, in particular, admit of an astounding variety of performance options, in part because of their intellectual, even mathematical, precision. This does not mean, for instance, as one musicologist wrote, that Bach lacked a sense of tone color. It means that an entire palette of colors can be displayed from a single Bachian melody, harmony, rhythm. Arrangements of Bach’s works for different instruments than he originally intended demonstrate such potentialities.
Consider Bach’s exceptionally masterful and reﬁned “Art of Fugue” as an example. Scholars have long debated for which instrument(s) Bach composed this late composition, as Bach did not explicitly specify the instrumentation, although the case for harpsichord seems persuasive. But I have listened to arrangements of the “Art of Fugue” for harpsichord, for piano, for organ, for string quartet, for brass, and for orchestra, and each performance had much to offer: each arrangement displayed the compositional genius of the original, and delighted the mind that sought to hear and to understand the original work as conceived in Bach’s mind. It is apparently true, however, that if the music has a higher emotional impact than intellectual one, that the original instrumentation and tempi need to be followed more closely to have the desired emotional effect as intended by the composer. Would the highly moving “Adagietto” of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, for example, have nearly the same emotional impact if it were played on a piano, rather than using the vast resources of Mahler’s large orchestra, or if it were played presto rather than slowly and tenderly?
Now consider the art of music and how it works on hearers. The gods, as it were, give extraordinary gifts to musicians, and move them to share their inspirations with fellow human beings. The musician must bring forth beauty in sound in order to follow his calling. As I can detect, often a composer is ever trying to attain perfection, trying to put as well as he possibly can his vision of the Beautiful, which he hears and longs to communicate. Composition demands not only divine inspiration, but disciplined knowledge of the craft of composition, and knowledge of effects of hearers. Music is sound ordered through time, using the chosen media: voice, instruments. When a text is set to music, the composer seeks to communicate the meaning of the words through both the words sung and the accompanying music. At all times, the composer is speaking to the attentive listener in the personal, expressive, moving language that constitutes high quality music. The one abiding condition or measure of all art music is that it be beautiful: and that means that the music entices the hearer to experience beauty, if possible to commune directly with Beauty itself. Perhaps that is what the gods or Muses require when they pour their gifts into favored souls to bring forth beauty in sound: that the composer and musicians guide the hearers back into the heavenly realm. What is not perceivable as beautiful in sound is noise. What is beautiful and what is noisy may in some sense give pleasure, but beauty has more elevating, ennobling spiritual and emotional effects on the soul than noise can possibly have.
In addition to all of the well known emotional effects of music, it is the singular spiritual effect which deserves exploring. Quality music is indeed a divine-human creation, a foremost work of the Muse, abiding between God and man, sharing at once in the human and the divine. In Christian terminology, the Muse could be called “the Holy Spirit,” and this spirit is indeed holy and good. Music, the Muse’s inspired work in the composer, has a divinely appointed task to perform, as hinted at in the preceding paragraph. Music acquires its grounding, its reason for being, as it incarnates divine Beauty itself, communicating Beauty from the unseen realm to listeners in time. Music’s grounding is not static or ﬁxed, but a movement, a ﬂowing from the eternal through time and leading human souls back towards eternity. Music moves in the in-between, but is beautiful and noble, “a gift of the gods,” in its task of drawing the listener from this shore towards the farther shore. If it merely runs up and down this tangible shore of existence, music is not justly called beautiful in the full and elevating sense, although it may be delightful and entertaining. Such music would leave the hearer ﬁrmly planted on this shore of existence, in passing time, as music passes in time. What remains in passing time, passes away. Needlessly to say, many want this experience in music, which can be pleasant; perhaps they crave to remain entrenched in this passing world. Some persistently cling to passing life, and ﬁnd music suitable for that mode of existence. (Remember “disco”? It was far better for wild dancing than for transcending anywhere.) The divinely-inspired spiritual duty of genuinely beautiful music, however, is speciﬁc: to lead the listener from where he is now to the border of existence, towards death. Beauty ever bespeaks of death, for beauty is at once wonderfully exquisite and poignantly passing. Truly to behold something or somehow that is beautiful includes the awareness that beauty in this temporary form is passing away, and such an experience is at once wonderful yet tinged with sadness. Seeing beauty may bring tears to one’s eyes: so beautiful, and yet, so ﬂeeting. Beautiful music draws one to experience existence on the edge of eternity, and to meditate on death, on death in life, on life in death. In other words, in hearing truly beautiful music, one is moved to experience a foretaste of death, and by trust to move through the void of passing away towards the ever-lasting. This experience occurs as one succumbs to the drawing of the beautiful to die to self, to release one’s entire interior world, to enter into the selﬂess state we call death. One is charmed and enticed by beauty to release one’s anxious grip on existence, so that here and now cease to matter; and so one transcends himself and communes with Beauty beyond space-time, with the eternal—with the God who ever comes to human beings, wrapped in death.
To listen to music with an active mind, a discerning ear, an open heart, is to listen to the human spirit, and to spirits. With time, study, and familiarity, one can grow in the ability to discern the spirits of the composers, as well as to understand what cultured and nourished them. As one discerns the spirits of the composers, one also grows in self-knowledge, to various movements within one’s own soul. Furthermore, in discerning the Spirit in music, one experiences an openness to the many and various workings of God in human beings. Through music, I have met Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Bartok. These men are not distant strangers, but are familiar to me. Their souls have drawn close to mine through their music. They communicate who they are, what they think, what they feel, what they love or hate, their openness or closeness to the divine, through their well-conceived and highly polished compositions. To study their works is to be educated in the discernment of spirits, for they are masters in communicating spirit to spirit. Even if a sensitive composer is spiritually or emotionally ill, yet has solid musical skills, knowing and employing well his composing craft, the careful listener comes away enriched and educated—not always uplifted or spiritually renewed, but wiser in the ways of humankind, and wiser at discerning the Spirit at home in human beings, and displayed in works of art.