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Music and prayer have something profoundly important in common

A couple of weeks ago I forked out £10 ($A18) to hear an online lecture given to the UK Wagner Society by opera journalist Helena Matheopoulos on prayer in Wagner.

I have long known that prayer and music have something profoundly important in common because both deal with the ineffable, the inexpressible, matters that words cannot fully capture. Both can bypass the rational centre of the mind and reach deep into the soul, with an impact that we cannot utter.

The money was well spent. Matheopoulos talked of how prayer is an effort to communicate with “the spiritual world” while music is an attempt to materialise something which, unlike all other art forms, has no material substance.

“All it has is a score. But a score in itself is not real, it’s no more than a password bequeathed by composers … And when those two efforts merge, when prayer is expressed through music and the genius of the greatest composers, the power generated is extraordinarily highly charged,” she said.

Although for Christians (and other monotheists) words are central to God’s revelation, they cannot reveal everything because of our human limitations. So much is mysterious and grasped only inchoately.

“There is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music is,” said American theologian William P. Merrill.

That is why in his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes: “We do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Music, too, draws out emotions we cannot always express; especially the strange link between beauty and pain and longing.

“There is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music is,” said American theologian William P. Merrill; the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther declared categorically that “next to the Word of the God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world”.

Music alone, he averred, produces what otherwise only theology can do, namely a calm and joyful disposition. It drives away the devil and creates innocent delight, destroying wrath and pride. That is why the prophets did not use any art but music.

A gifted musician himself, highly competent on lute and flute, Luther wrote and composed many hymns of which the best known is A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

Matheopoulos is right that music and prayer can each reinforce the other’s potency. That is one reason why so many Christian denominations have a sung liturgy. If you doubt me, listen to the sublime setting by Schubert of Ave Maria, or the same prayer by the doomed Desdemona in Verdi’s opera Otello, or the communion chorus in Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal.

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.