[WARNING: I am not a wine connoisseur. If you place a glass of red wine in front of me, I will not swish it around, inhale it in, and say (with a pretentious accent), “Splendid: an angular wine. The sweetness and hints of cedar-wood give it a cigar box flavor and there appears to be a hint of oak. I would say this opulent, velvety wine must be a 1942—no—1940 from the Trebbiano grapes of Italy.” I would probably take a few sips and say, “Dang, this is a lot better than boxed wine.”
Similarly, I know next to nothing about classical music. I cannot yet tell a Baroque from a Romantic, a viola from a violin, a canon from a concerto. Yet when I listen to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6, I can still be rendered speechless and think, “Dang, this is so much better than bro-country.”
Those who boast much experience with and knowledge of classical music, you have been warned.]
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About a third of the way into the 2011 film Tree of Life starring Brad Pitt, there is a fifteen minute scene that depicts the great drama of creation from it’s beginnings to the first stages of human life. Accompanying the stunning cinematic effects is some pretty epic background music. The first installment features an opera singer whereas the second installment is solely instrumental. The richness of the music in both cases is a tantalizing supplement to the special effects.
Not surprisingly, the director Terrence Malick is not the first person to want to express the intricacies of the unfolding of creation through music. In fact, we can find someone who took such an approach all the way back “in the beginning.” Yes, I’m speaking of none other than the author of Genesis.
Almost all of my readers have read, at some point, the creation story in Genesis 1. Most people recognize that the genre of this passage is not a literal, scientific explanation of the origins of our universe. We need not believe, for instance, that the author wished to teach us that God created the world in six twenty-four-hour days. With careful studying, the reader can pick up on some rather intriguing features in the passage. The following is a modified (underlined, different spacing, italicized, bolded) version of a snippet from the passage which should show that the author was trying to tell us something more than just what we find on the surface:
“ And God said,
‘Let there be light,’
and there was light…
And God SEPARATED the light from the darkness.
God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.
And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said,
‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters,
and let it SEPARATE the waters from the waters.” …
And God called the expanse Heaven.
And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.”
Notice the patterns? The rhythm? That’s not a coincidence. The ancient Israelite’s saw this account of creation in Genesis as a liturgical hymn which culminates in the seventh day when God creates the Sabbath. Think of the structure of a modern day pop song. There’s generally a verse, a chorus, a new verse, a repeat of the chorus, a bridge, and a repeat of the chorus. We can see in the Genesis account of creation a kind of hymn being shared with us. The first verse deals with light and darkness, the second verse deals with the waters and the heavens, yet there is a chorus of sorts that repeats in both days and brings about a harmonious unity.
There are many other Scripture passages which convey this understanding of the wonderful ordering of creation in such a poetic manner. Several of the Psalms, which were written as lyrical/poetic hymns of praise to God, touch on these themes. Psalm 96, for instance, proclaims: “Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice; let the sea and what fills it resound; let the plains be joyful and all that is in them. Then let all the trees of the forest rejoice before the Lord…” Psalm 139 states, “How precious to me are your designs, O God; how vast the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the sands.” And who could forget the canticle from Daniel 3:52-90 which includes, “Mountains and hills, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever. Everything growing on earth, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever. You springs, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever. Seas and rivers, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever.”
What does this have to do with my growing appreciation for classical music? While in prayer the other day, I realized that a great symphony surrounds me at all times. God, the Great Composer of the universe, has placed certain people in my life to form a piece Beethoven never could have conceived of. Some people in my life take the role of a violin, some take the role of a trombone, others a piano, a harp, or a bass. Still others are a clarinet, a flute, or a bass drum. When I’m in my Trinity class and my elderly, Jesuit, Irish-version-of-a-hyper-Clint-Eastwood professor is yelling at all of us about the Modalism Heresey, I can hear the pace of the score picking up as a rambunctious trumpet suddenly steals the spotlight. When I’m in a chapel filled with seminarians facing Our Lord in the Eucharist just a few feet away, my soul rises up with the peaceful chords that glisten off the strings of a cello (until someone sneezes).
When I’m caught up in a Shubert piece I’ve never heard before, I experience a sense of unpredictability. Unlike a pop song where I can quickly pick up on the words of the chorus by the end of the song, some classical composers seem to be a little more evasive. As I listen to a classical piece I can pick up on patterns here and there, but I can’t guarantee that the piece won’t all of a sudden shift into a minor key and slow down considerably within three measures. At times the piece seems chaotic and I think, “Where did that come from? Where are we heading?” Yet after a period of time, if I’m listening attentively, I can usually recognize, “Ah, so that wasn’t as random as I thought it was. It really did serve some purpose after all.” What seems in the present to be a moment of chaos ends up being classified, in retrospect, as merely unpredictable. From my experience, what appears to be chaotic generally entails a sense of unpredictability, but unpredictability does not necessarily entail chaos.
And so it seems to be in the symphony of my life. I have had some people contribute one lousy note to the score. Some people have been present for a measure. Some have merely blended in with the masses while some have had a solo all of their own that has captivated my attention for an extended period of time. I have wept as some who had made a significant contribution to the experience stood, took a bow, and walked off the stage with what appeared to be no intent of returning. In these moments I can fall into despair, thinking that the symphony has come to an abrupt halt and the Conductor chose to culminate this overall aesthetically-pleasing work, filled with a wide range of emotions, into the faint buzz of a lone kazoo. If I don’t keep the entire symphony in mind, I can think that I’m drowning in a whirlpool of meaningless chaos. If I can recognize that God has ordered the universe in some sort of symphonic manner and, with even greater attention and love, ordered our lives in a symphonic manner, I can see a confusing duration as being simply unpredictable, not meaninglessly chaotic. It is in those moments that I must keep my eyes fixed on the Baton of the Conductor, faithfully playing the notes placed before me measure by measure.
This is why I have started to listen to classical music. The yearnings of my heart for the transcendent are guided upwards by the beauty that emanates from a well-written symphony. A sense of order and rhythm that sometimes takes a strenuous attentiveness to notice reminds me of the invisible realities at work in our visible universe. The frustrations I have regarding the unpredictability of life is abased. Life regains meaning. There is a reason to keep going. This present moment serves a purpose. Everything that has led to this point has served a purpose. In the end, when the Divine Conductor takes His bow and the angels and saints offer their applause, the magnificence of the piece will finally hit me. I will recognize the value of every note, every instrument, every rest. In that moment I will desire nothing more than to bow down in humble adoration for all eternity.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.’ The one who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” -Revelation 21:1-5