On Music

Every night I hear piano practicing in the house—my son, Sam, and my daughter, Camilla, working tirelessly. Sometimes Chopin, sometimes popular songs my daughter likes to learn and quietly sing to. And over the last few months, almost nightly I hear the sound of the small plying voice of my boy, exploring old Beatles classics on his not always perfectly tuned guitar. Just last week I was in Nashville for a conference and a friend and I made it into one of the night clubs to hear live blues music. It was so loud we had to shout to make ourselves heard to one another. But the music made me so happy I wanted to cry. Earlier this winter I flew with my son to Los Angeles just for the chance to hear two Mahler symphonies performed by the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra with my brother, Bill. At the conclusion of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, one of the more extraordinary pieces of music ever composed, the choir sings words that Mahler composed himself, riffing off of lines first written by the poet Klopstock.

What was created

Must perish,

What perished, rise again!

Cease from trembling!

Prepare yourself to live!

O Pain, You piercer of all things,

From you, I have been wrested!

O Death, You masterer of all things,

Now, are you conquered!

With wings which I have won for myself,

In love’s fierce striving,

I shall soar upwards

To the light which no eye has penetrated!

Its wing that I won is expanded,

and I fly up.

Sam felt shaken by the experience although he didn’t quite have the words for it. Neither did my brother or I, although we were joined in a surfeit of emotion. Music does this trick with thoughts, expressing them not as ideas, at least not at first, but as sounds, and as sounds, they are abstractions, feelings, pulses felt in the blood. Ideas seem secondary to rhythm, to moving and complimentary tones that must first seduce us into a certain mood into which ideas gently drop as their setting. That is not to say that ideas do not matter or that all of truth could be summarized as feeling. But as the Spanish poet Miguel de Unamuno says in his marvelous book, The Tragic Sense of Life, “the end purpose of life is to live, not to understand.” Music enables such living by reminding us of the full bodied medium in which language and ideas take place—in mouths and in ears, with tongues, beating hearts and breathing lungs, flowing blood in the veins— which is why so often we are content with wordless sounds. Perhaps we enjoy being relieved of the burden of thought without being relieved of the privilege of deeply knowing and trusting. Perhaps music reminds us that there is no salvation without a body, no heaven without earth, nothing more important to yearn for except that which we already have.

What are these wings that Mahler feels takes him heavenward, these wings he has earned somehow through the “fierce striving” of love? Why does the wing expand, increasing his ecstasy, as he prepares to live? Why must one die in order to learn to begin again, to finally, truly be alive? Is music somehow taking us through this journey, teaching us to die a little so we can prepare to live? Critics say Mahler is characterized more by his search for God than for his declaration of having found Him. Does it signify a mere metaphor to call it, as we do, his Resurrection Symphony? Why is this striving for God so deeply moving if it is based on an agony, a striving, rather than on arrival? Why, for that matter, would the raw, off-key sounds of a boy copying popular refrains or the quiet joy of a girl at her piano feel like a kind of gritty poetry of the soul? Why can’t I distinguish any longer between the joys of an old Gibson guitar and the soaring ecstasies of dozens of violins moving in unison, between the otherworldly refrains of sacred music and the earth-stained strains of love songs? Call me greedy, but I want all of it. Music makes me feel that I just might be so fortunate.

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