Music: the Universal Language by Which Texts Soar

Music has been called the “universal language.” That, obviously, is an overstatement in that whatever the music, it requires some familiarity with it and its cultural context to fully appreciate it. For example, a Muslim call to prayer might seem to the uninitiated to be just a bunch of shouting, but to a devout Muslim, it might be the beginning of a very meaningful and religious experience. I find it remarkable, for example, that Japan has in recent years produced so many recordings of masses, such as Bach’s B Minor Mass, when a hundred years ago, that same music may have been for Japanese just so much foreign music concerning a religious topic that few of them had much to do with, let alone experience. Suzuki, the father of the Suzuki talent development method, particularly as applied to the violin and other stringed instrument, clearly understood the value of experience when he required that the mother play the violin so that while the baby was yet in utero, your she could hear the music and respond to it.

As I believe that there is great benefit in seeing the Bible through others’ eyes, and particularly through the eyes of a trained artist who has developed some sensitivity and artistic skills to convey a deeper experience of that world and to invite the observer to bring to the viewing his or her own experiences, so, also, music touches the soul in its own unique ways. One of the advantages of creeds, from an artistic standpoint, is that the same text can receive many different treatments throughout many different periods by many different composers as heard by many different audiences; and yet, each is unique, as is each person unique from all others. Music touches the soul.

I recall a time when I lay on the floor in front of my stereo record player (yes, indeed, I had one at one time) listening to a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I had a very deep religious experience. Music has a way of doing that, transcending the individual notes, rooted in this physical world, performed by trained and experienced musicians, transported by sound waves from voice or instrument to receptive ears, processed and interpreted by brains conditioned by unique experiences, and yet having the potential to transport human souls beyond the limits of everyday existence. It can do so individually as well as communally.

Western music owes much to Christian liturgy. That is my heritage. It has great meaning to me because, in part, I have chosen to participate in that heritage, and not to abandon it for traditions with which I have no familiarity.  I am enriched by music of other traditions, but this is where my roots were established; it is from here that I relate to other rich traditions.

I know that the spark of the divine, that which transcends mere bodily existence, is shared by each of us; or, expressed in other words, we are, each one of us, “made in the image of God”. Religion is more than a list of beliefs, more than a bag of supernatural rewards for such beliefs. In Eric Fromm’s definition, religion affects how we live by giving us a sense of orientation and an object of devotion. The Catholic theologian, Matthew Fox, puts it this way:

True religion is a union of the soul with God, a real participation of the divine nature, the very image of God drawn upon the soul, or [for us Christians], in the apostle’s phrase, it is Christ formed within us. Briefly, I know not how the nature of religion can be more fully expressed than by calling it a divine life. . . .

And now, in the rest of the pages of this musical section of the blog, we will seek to put words to flight that is reflective of the human spirit in union with the divine mystery.



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