Those of us whose children have forced us to listen to heavy metal know that music can cause suffering. Hannah More wrote in 1775 that “going to the opera, like getting drunk, is a sin that carries its own punishment with it”, while critic James Huneker wrote of Schoenberg that he “mingles with his music sharp daggers at white heat, with which he pares away tiny slices of his victim’s flesh”.
And music is put to many other uses that are not necessarily uplifting, such as advertising, lowest-common-denominator entertainment, ritual and vanity. Despite this, music is humanity’s best and most accessible blessing, the quickest and most reliable route to the transcendent.
As Protestant reformer Martin Luther put it rather more poetically, “Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us.”
Oscar Wilde expressed the same thought: “Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memory.” Which of us has never been lost, rapt, in inexpressible beauty at what in scientific terms is merely the designed disturbance of air.
I, like many, have found that music can seem to redeem our suffering. In this it is closely connected to prayer: at its most effective, it can touch our inmost being and alter our orientation towards our suffering, our sorrow, our very lives.
Mozart makes you believe in God – much more than going to church.
Just as St Paul tells us that “we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words”, so music can operate deep below the conscious level. It liberates the psyche or the soul, it opens a channel and allow emotions to pour out that are too painful, too deep, to be faced by the conscious mind.
Poets, philosophers, psychologists and others have pondered the link between beauty and the spiritual. At the simplest level it is obvious: both bypass our rational aspect and speak straight to our emotional or spiritual being.
The great conductor Sir Georg Solti spoke for many when he said: “Mozart makes you believe in God – much more than going to church – because it cannot be by chance that such a phenomenon arrives into this world and then passes after 35 years, leaving behind such an unbounded number of unparalleled masterpieces.”
Of course it is not the number of masterpieces, but where they take one. I cannot explain it: I am content for it to be part of the blessed mystery of faith. I simply conclude, with Nietzsche, that without music life would be a mistake.
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared at The Age.