“Music begins where the possibilities of language end.” So said one of my favorite classical music symphonists, the great Finnish master composer and violinist, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). He was correct in his observation, because as William Congreve so cogently reminded mankind way back in 1697, “Music has charms to sooth a savage breast”.
Sibelius, a true musical master, was widely acclaimed as Finland’s greatest classical music composer and, because of and through his music, he is credited by his countrymen with having helped Finland develop a unique Finnish identity during its difficult and ages-long struggle for independence from its giant neighbor, Czarist Russia. His tone poem, Finlandia, for which he composed the music in 1900, was often credited by his countrymen as one of the catalysts (it was forbidden to be played by their Russian overmasters) in the struggle to reclaim Finnish independence, which the Finns finally achieved in 1918.
Music, particularly sacred and classical music, has within it the power to transform a person from his ordinary and mundane existence to “riding above the clouds” with Richard Wagner’s “Valkyries”—from feeling dejected and defeated by life’s problems to celebrating “the thrills of victory” with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (The Eroica)-- from feeling “down in the dumps” to walking with our Savior in George Handel’s Messiah. In my early teen years, I was exposed to some of the popular music of the 1940’s and early 1950’s, and I developed a certain fondness (and still have it) for the music of that “Big Band Era” that was a cherished part of my youth, and which was relatively benign compared to the trash loosely called “music” played today. But I was fortunate to meet an amazing woman in 1952 who became my future mother-in-law. She was the daughter of a classical concert pianist who had studied with several great piano teachers in Berlin in the 1890’s, and who later in his life (in the 1920’s) became Dean of the School of Music for a large university. It was through her, and her father’s influence on her, that I slowly learned about “classical music” and developed a great love for it, even though I had “discovered” some classical music on my own even before meeting her.
Through her and other musical aficionados I learned that to love “classical music” you have to let it into your very soul—deeply into your mind—into the very essence of your being. The music has to grasp you, rip apart your comfortable awareness and your mindless “status quo”, and reassemble it in you differently. I believe that something is missing in the lives of people who haven’t ever wept when hearing the soul rending magnificence of Messiah, or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (The Ode To Joy), or Rachmaninoff’s Second and Third Piano Concertos, or Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (The “Pathetique”), or the 2nd movement of Shubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8, or the 2nd movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (From The New World) which introduced the beautiful “Going Home” music to mankind in 1893. (Note: This musical theme, played by the English horn, is often mistakenly considered to have been adapted by Dvorak from an Early American “folk song” or “Negro spiritual”, but this is incorrect. The music was original to Dvorak, although a “spiritual” was adapted from this hauntingly beautiful music by Dvorak’s pupil, William Fisher, who wrote lyrics for the music in 1922).
I often feel sorry for those who haven’t really liberated their minds to the glory of a GIFT that was surely given to mankind by our Heavenly Father Himself! Classical music gives us mere mortals a chance to escape from our common world and enter a completely different reality for a time. I believe classical music is perhaps the most abstract of all human artistic endeavors, and rises above the cultural barriers that sometimes bar other artistic forms, and far above the political barriers that separate people over temporal concerns rather than focusing on something that can attune all of us to the power and soul-wrenching beauty of music meant to open our minds to the “infinite”, and which will endure far into future ages when the noise of the present has been long forgotten.
A case in point is the immortal Oratorio, Messiah, written by George Handel in 1741 and first performed in London in 1742. If you’ve never heard Messiah, especially in its complete format, and preferably with a live orchestra, you’ve denied yourself an experience that transcends most of the things that we, as human beings, consider important. Listening to Messiah requires concentration and a willing mind and heart turned over to what is surely some of the most glorious and memorable music (and words from Holy Scripture) ever heard on this planet. (My wife and I always listen to this complete version every Easter Sunday). The Biblical text of Messiah was edited by Charles Jennens and given to Handel sometime after July 10, 1741. Handel completed ALL of the music in just 24 days, and had the entire original 259 page manuscript ready by Sept. 14, 1741. On the last page of his manuscript for Messiah Handel wrote the letters: “SDG”—‘Soli Deo Gloria’—“To God Alone the Glory”. I’m certain that each one of us who loves to listen to and absorb Messiah into our very beings has a favorite song from it. My favorite is I Know That My Redeemer Liveth. A soprano sings these glorious words:
“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the Earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. (Job 19:25-26). For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.” (2nd Corinthians 15:20).
God alone knows how many people have heard Messiah over the 278 years that have elapsed since its first performance in London in 1742. Probably millions of people have. How many people have accepted our Savior, Jesus, as their LORD and Savior upon hearing this stirring oratorio? Only Jesus knows. In my opinion, George Handel was INSPIRED by God over that 24 day period, as the Great Composer of the Universe put the glorious musical notes into his mind.
Lowell Hohstadt, in his treatise, Excellence in Music and Worship, reminds us that “spiritual principles are seen throughout (classical) music, and are reflected in the emotions” that this music engenders in the listener. It’s true that not all of our great or well known composers were Christians, but as Hohstadt reminds us, “…Many of them were, and were at least influenced by a predominantly Christian environment. Bach, the music minister, as well as Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms wrote masses and requiems…. But even if this weren’t the case, God’s glory can be seen throughout all of His creation….” Indeed it can, especially in the realm of classical music written to endure for endless ages.
I’ve been studying and listening to “classical music” for about 68 years, and I’ve just “scratched the surface” of what I could know about it. It’s important to understand at least some of the “basics” of classical form, and to know a bit about the great composers’ lives. But the MOST important thing is to really LISTEN, LISTEN, and keep LISTENING to God’s Gift of classical music, and determine for yourself which forms and which composers “shred your soul” the most. I’ve listened to some symphonies and piano, violin, and cello concertos hundreds of times over those many years, and invariably I discover something new just about every time, even if it is just one or two “unheard” notes or a previously “unheard” bar or two, or an instrument playing a few bars that I had never previously focused on.
During my daily routines I “play” this music in my mind. I don’t know every note or passage of a composition, but I do know enough to enjoy the “music of the ages” and “hum along” with an orchestra or soloist who is “performing” only for me, in my mind. Sometimes I’ll “play” portions of one of my favorite Tchaikovsky or Beethoven or Rachmaninoff piano concertos. Other times I “mind play” a symphony by Dvorak, a violin concerto by Mendelssohn, or a tone poem by Sibelius or Liszt. Sometimes I merely hum a few bars or portions of some long-loved composition that a man or a woman overcame physical or mental turmoil to complete. Whatever the music may be, it is my belief that “my” music—classical music--that I love, and always will, can change one’s outlook on life, if one but listens to it with intensity and passion, and most importantly, with an open mind. I urge you to explore the music I’ve loved since my youth, for it’s my sincere belief that if you do, it will change your “interface” with life, and you will rejoice forever more!