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Some Notes On Music

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At times I’ve mentioned that my spiritual journey began with poetry, but thinking back, music was the art form that first spoke to that side of me. My mother has always been an active flute player, and I had years of piano lessons; records and radio were a constant presence in our house. Now I mostly listen to rock songs or meditation instrumentals, but the years that I was really into exploring classical music coincided with the years I began studying progressive Christianity.


When I was a child sitting in the Congregational church, what made the biggest impression on me was not the words of sermons or hymns, but the deeply resonating chords of the huge pipe organ filling the sanctuary. In sixth grade, I heard Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony at a concert and learned about his short and miserable life, and Beethoven composing great works even while going deaf. As I read about other composers with painful, tragic lives – Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Mahler, Delius, etc – it seems they must have been touched by something otherworldly, beyond the human, to create masterpieces of such beauty.


While I admire the choral works of Handel, Bach and others, I’m more drawn to compositions that aren’t secred music but just as soul-stirring: ballet suites (like The Nutcracker), opera preludes (like Tristan and Isolde), tone poems (like Pictures at an Exhibition). Two pieces in particular I associate with spirituality: one is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis. The first time I heard this on the NPR station, it sent chills up my spine. It still does. Vaughan Williams was an agnostic, but the atmosphere of his music could not be more visionary. The piece links the Renaissance with the early 20th century…two separate string sections in a vaulted cathedral respond to each other like choirs. The sweet, melancholy motif moves through a series of echoing mystic chords toward a soaring climax – the solemn minor key suddenly releases into a major-key, final chord of unison like a flash of insight or glimpse of eternity.


The second piece is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival – a breathtaking experience of joy, rapture, exuberance. Though he was a non-believer, the composer was interested in liturgical themes and chants, and said he wanted his music to be both pagan and religious in feeling…to portray the transition from grief and despair, to the joyful celebrations of Easter morning. For me, these pieces suggest the suffering servant and compassion on one hand, rejoicing and vitality on the other.


More examples of reverent, contemplative music – Sibelius’ first two symphonies. You can sense the austere sublimity of the Nordic landscape, a transcendent awe of nature and the infinite. Three orchestral works that inspire me in a different way with their passion and energy – Dvorak’s Symphony #9 From the New World, Smetana’s The Moldau, and Ionesco’s Rumanian Rhapsody I. Whether conveying the excitement of discovery, nostalgia for homeland, or a colorful folk dance, these pieces electrify me every time.


You might not share my response to these particular sounds. Everyone has their own favorites that can move them to tears or wonder or delight. It does seem that music of all types is a universal language, with unique power to connect us to the divine. It’s been a continued blessing in my life and I hope in yours as well.


--in memory of WVTF’s announcer Seth Williamson

Edited by rivanna
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