Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The Mystery of Music, Part II

By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 22, 2014 | In Reviews

Speak, you who are older, for it is fitting that you should, but with accurate knowledge, and do not interrupt the music. —Sirach 32:3

The task Labat sets about in The Song That I Am (see The Mystery of Music, Part I) is to consider “music as a language communicating an ineffable spiritual content.” That this reference to music as a language is not literal but analogical is made clear by the description of its content as “ineffable.” Everything in creation is an image, a sign, an icon, of a higher spiritual reality, but this signification must be understood in a more than abstractive way.

At risk of jumping too far ahead in this essay, we may say that things do not merely refer us to a Divinity completely outside themselves (as words refer us to things); rather, the spiritual significance of things lies in the immanence of the divine spark, from an actual participation in the source of their being – that is, in Being itself.

As man progressively dominates creation with philosophy and science and puts things to practical use, the simple presence of things tends to recede into the background, and with it our awareness of their divine spark or transcendent element. It is the works of art, even more than of nature itself, that are made not to be put to some use but to be present to us in themselves. It is their being itself – specifically being seen as admirable, which we call beauty – which we value.

The arts, then, and music in particular (for reasons elaborated in Part I), return to the center of our attention the divine spark manifested in the concreteness of things, and attune us to the “being-ness” of things in general.

The Essence of Music

Before we consider what music “signifies,” however, we must know what are the “musical signs” themselves. The fundamental elements of music are rhythm and melody. For Labat, rhythm is the masculine element of music, which gives order, form and life to the feminine element, melody. Rhythm is the element of “proportion and balance,” melody that of “spontaneity and grace”; music is thus a union of order and love. Harmony is basically a development, the manifestation of complexity in unity.

Beyond these basic elements, Labat does not attempt an inventory of all the historical techniques of music; these, she takes for granted, will keep multiplying as the human race continues its journey:

Because music is essentially a living art, it will always move toward new forms and new means of expression based on the foundations of melody, rhythm and harmony. In the measure that mankind matures and becomes more conscious of itself, of the poignant, complex character of its destiny, it seeks in music – of the arts most fit to convey its defining aspirations – ever new resources to express human life, love and desire. Thus, from the primitive yet perfect art of the Gregorian cantilena and the early motets to the art of Honegger and Stravinsky, music will always be looking for something more supple and subtle in its rhythm, for new colors of modality, for more suggestive voicing, for harmonies that are richer, bolder, more immaterial.

In what sense is music expressive? There has been no shortage of theories, of which in our culture the most popular is that music expresses emotions, passions or states of mind. On the other hand, Labat considers Igor Stravinsky’s statement that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc.” For Stravinsky, “music expresses itself.”

This may seem a harsh denial of the conventional view, but Labat sees it as an understandable reaction against a conception of music that fails to recognize that the source of music’s greatness “lies beyond human feelings, even the noblest, in an unfathomable absolute.” Indeed, it is difficult to make the case that music can be so precise as to express any particular emotion. Labat takes a more nuanced position, noting that “various passions are marked by different modalities”:

Love, for example, may be calm or impetuous, joyful or sad without ceasing to be love. Being an art of movement, music is apt to render those movements of soul that are not the substance of a feeling but rather expressions of the infinity of nuances a feeling may assume.

What we imprecisely call an “emotion” caused by a piece of music can be attributed to a variety of passions and “is not exclusively bound by any one.” If this were not the case, Bach or Mozart would not have been able to take a melody originally written for one text and transfer it to a different one with no artistic loss.

While acknowledging what truth may be found in the conventional view, Labat takes the Stravinskian line as to music’s essence: “While music does render feeling, or rather, the kinetic aspect of feeling, it is at a deeper level a pure construct of sound that transcends any stirring, any disposition of the heart.” That deeper level of music is “sovereign beauty,” its “sap of life” by which the great works are “charged with mysticism.”

Here we find an interesting analogy between music and the various levels of reading Scripture. In Scripture, we proceed from the literal meaning, legitimate in itself, to deepening levels of spiritual meaning. Likewise, when we hear a piece of music, we may initially be struck by certain impressions, feelings, associations and images. These may even be intended by the artist, as in certain pieces (for example) by Debussy. However, it is only when we move beyond these impressions and attend to the pure movement of sound that we discover sovereign beauty:

Anyone who has not been seized by this divine light has not yet gained access to music; he knows only its forecourts. In this perspective of an essential, divine element, it is quite true that music is ‘a construct of sound, nothing else.’ […] We stand before an absolute of truth and love shining forth in beauty. […] The pure beauty that transpires beyond the signs invites us to transcend music and go beyond ourselves in order to join it in its sanctuary.

Labat extends the analogy still further. There are some sayings in Scripture that have nothing but a purely spiritual meaning: “Before Abraham was, I am,” “God is love.” There is music, too, that is so purely joined to its creative source that it connects us with the invisible world without the mediation of thoughts or feelings. Labat, like so many others, finds this special purity exemplified in certain works by Bach.

For this reason music is the highest of the arts, because it approaches Beauty most purely and directly, without the mediation of words, concepts or associations. All other art forms, with the exception of non-representational painting and sculpture, involve some abstraction, external reference or admixture. It is music, as the most independent of the arts, that is closest to being pure form in the sense of being purely itself.

As long as the deepest essence of music is present, however, we ought not to be purists. What matters is the presence of transcendent beauty, not the absence of more or less incidental images or feelings. Nor is there anything wrong with music accompanied by words or appeals to the imagination. If they are integrated with discretion, so far from vulgarizing or distracting from music, these things may even help people to access it on a deeper level.

It should of course be remembered that music, whatever its transcendent qualities, bears the imprint of the individual who creates it. Labat notes that music that endures tends to possess both greatness, in the sense of transcendence or universality, and what she calls “character,” the mark of its creator’s personality as well as that of his culture, time, place and tradition.

If there is music that seems exceptionally pure, there is also music that betrays its purpose in vulgar displays of technique or manipulative use of associations. If the elements of music are used

to impress the listener, to do him a kind of violence, if they seek to affect his nerves more than his soul, if they occur merely to fill a gap or to bring out the performer’s virtuosity, then they do not answer to their value as signs: they become an end in themselves at the service of a prostitution of art.

Pure music opens, rather than crushes, the listener’s heart. Labat cites Gregorian chant in particular as music which “treats us with great respect.”

This strong emphasis on the true essence of music should not give the impression that listening to music must be a great straining effort. What is necessary is not tension but attention, an attitude “like the gaze of a soul that, in order to receive, empties itself and waits.”

Music and the Soul

Beauty is known by the intellect and touches the sensibility, but its indefinable character and the way it draws us beyond our everyday needs and attachments indicate that “our soul contains unexplored depths” to which music penetrates and which it reveals to us. This is not the subconscious but a “supra-consciousness,” which part of the soul Labat seeks to discover in her second chapter, “Situating the Perception of Beauty.”

Those who are most qualified to teach us about this interiority to which music above all the arts leads us are those who have experienced it: the mystics and the poets. (The latter are chosen to represent all artists as those who have most often attempted to put their experience into words, often as the subject matter of their art itself.) Labat distinguishes between the two, in that mystics in the Christian sense see everything in the light of redemption, sanctifying grace and the life of the Trinity, whereas poets, whether or not they see things in a supernatural light, are attuned to and inspired by the “breath of God” in all that He has created. However, I suspect she would not object to the statement that poets and all artists, on such intimate terms with Being, are themselves mystics of the natural order.

The mystics (among them St. Augustine, St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, Tauler, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Ávila) speak of the “depth, center or summit” of the soul as something “over and beyond our faculties, at the point where they originate, a mysterious sanctuary where we are inseparably joined to God and maintained by him.” This is “the region of perfect simplicity and unity, the place where grace is born and finds fulfillment,” “the true homeland we are called to recover through an ascent in depth toward our original being.” It is the interior desert, the kingdom of God, the place of absolute nakedness and richness, where silence and void “meet the wellspring and plenitude of being.” In Part I of this essay, I referred to it as “the heart,” though this term is prone to ambiguity.

St. Augustine calls it memory, “the ability at any moment to recover within ourselves the hidden presence of God.” In memory’s relation with the soul’s other faculties is found the image of the Trinity. For Augustine, as explained by Gilson, “memory generates reason and from memory and reason proceeds the will.” In other words, the summit of consciousness is the remembrance of the God in whose image we are made, and it is this remembrance which allows us to know and tend toward Him. And only in finding this imprint of the Creator do we discover our true self.

The mystic, having descended into this depth or ascended to this highest point of the soul, sees the whole universe in terms of God the Creator, and therefore has solidarity with all created things, as in St. Francis of Assisi’s “brother sun and sister moon.” Because he also knows God as Redeemer and Sanctifier, and incarnate as man, creation for him takes on a still higher dignity.

Because contemplation is essentially identification with the thing contemplated, this solidarity is also the vision of the poet, who touches the mystery of Being, and therefore of eternity, in the beauty of created things. He may not know it, but he touches it intuitively, and through poetic vision “redeems time” by returning created things to their eternal root. In this way, and again perhaps without knowing it, the poet discovers himself by touching the eternal root in himself. Labat quotes Paul Claudel:

O reserved, inspiring portion,
O reserved portion of myself!
O innermost part of me!
O thought of myself that was before I was!
O part of myself that are a stranger to every place
And my eternal resemblance,
Touching on certain night.

The mystic discovers eternity in things because he has discovered it in himself and therefore sees everything from the vantage point of God’s presence in the soul. The poet touches God’s presence in his soul because touching eternity in created things, he draws them through contemplation into the center of his self, as described by Thomas Traherne:

This made me present evermore
          With whatsoe’er I saw.
An object, if it were before
My eye, was by Dame Nature’s law,
          Within my soul. Her store
Was all at once within me; all Her treasures
Were my immediate and internal pleasures,
Substantial joys, which did inform my mind.
          With all she wrought
          My soul was fraught,
And every object in my heart a thought
          Begot, or was; I could not tell,
          Whether the things did there
                    Themselves appear,
Which in my Spirit truly seem’d to dwell;
          Or whether my conforming mind
          Were not even all that therein shin’d. […]

A strange extended orb of Joy,
          Proceeding from within,
Which did on every side, convey
Itself, and being nigh of kin
          To God did every way
Dilate itself even in an instant, and
Like an indivisible centre stand,
At once surrounding all eternity.

Thus the mystic and the poet both approach the same root of Being from opposite directions. The poet, who (if he is not a Christian) knows not what he approaches, identifies with Being, but in darkness and fleetingly, as the Beloved and the Lover in the Song of Songs are separated by a trellis. The mystic lives fully in the light, because Christ has knocked and entered through the door of the soul.

This hidden sanctuary exists in every person, not just the mystics and poets; art can draw everyone into this place and make them aware of this depth of the self. Even more than for poetry this is true of music, for poetry touches Being, but through words and concepts. Music throws us directly into the unknown, the inner world.

This is exactly the mission of music as stated by the great jazz pianist Bill Evans:

Music should enrich the soul; it should teach spirituality by showing a person a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise. It's easy to rediscover part of yourself, but through art you can be shown part of yourself you never knew existed. That's the real mission of art. The artist has to find something within himself that's universal and which he can put into terms that are communicable to other people. The magic of it is that art can communicate to a person without his realizing it... enrichment, that's the function of music.

Great music, if we are truly open to it, draws us out and sets us free from “enthrallment by the trifling,” the poverty of our limited intellect, and the poverty of the heart, shrunk by selfishness. If we keep this in mind we will receive music with more attention, respect and spiritual delight. All the same, within this more profound understanding, Labat allows that music is not necessarily demeaned when used to provide “refreshment and repose.”

[Note: A third part will conclude this series.]

Previous in series: The Mystery of Music, Part I
Next in series: The Mystery of Music, Part III

Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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