Monday, February 16, 2009

Music of the Spheres

Making joyful noise ...

One thing notably absent from Quaker meetings is music. At ours, the only exceptions are the annual Christmas celebration at which carols are sung, and the rare occasions where one of our members is moved to give his message in song form -- a unique and pleasant form of vocal ministry.

I've been known to feel musical envy for those other religions, like the Catholic and Lutheran, which have generated such rich troves of sacred music. I suppose I got this from my parents, both classical musicians, to whom it was so important that it was the main reason we ended up being Unitarians for a time -- because the organist played a lot of Bach. Reason enough!

Of course, not all musicians are as profoundly spiritual as J.S. Bach, who was known for inscribing the title pages of his works, "To the Glory of God In the Highest." Yet in a very fundamental way, the impulse to sing, to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord," must have been there at the earliest beginnings of human music. It certainly formed the foundation of Western European music, the notes and scales and rhythms and forms of which continue to define what music is, however hard we may try to twist it into something new.

What else is there to do when contemplating Divinity, or the Universal, or simply a beautiful day, but to sing its praises? So perhaps it is not surprising that I often find myself with music on the brain as I sit in supposed silence in our meeting for worship. Today it was Tchaikovsky -- the achingly beautiful slow movement to his First Symphony -- and later part of Leonard Bernstein's Mass, where the priest sings, "Let us sing the Lord a simple song ... for God is the simplest of all." But other times it has been Bach, or Beethoven ("On your knees now, O millions? Do you sense your Maker, world?"), or any number of the other selections that my brain has become stuffed with over the years.

I ended up thinking of an interview I saw with a physicist (I believe it was Phillip Morrison) who was asked, if we ever established contact with a civilization of alien beings, what would we have to say to each other? He answered that one thing we might do was to compare accomplishments. For example, he said with a smile, we might say, "We've got Bach's B-minor Mass ... what have you got?"

Well, that sounds like bragging to me. But it does raise the prospect that if such communication ever does happen -- and it may -- then perhaps it will be the music of the alien civilization that speaks to us most directly, and tells us that we have a common origin, and that we share the same desire to praise That From Which We Came. In short, it could be the most profound thing we have to say to each other, though it will come as news to neither of us.

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