O joy! that in our embersIs something that doth live,That nature yet remembersWhat was so fugitive!The thought of our past years in me doth breedPerpetual benediction: not indeedFor that which is most worthy to be blest—Delight and liberty, the simple creedOf childhood, whether busy or at rest,With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast.
Listening to the choirs at Westminster these past weeks been both comforting and disturbing. While hearing music, I have found myself fixated on two distinct ideas. The first is magnificence: I do not mean it in the colloquial sense (something exceedingly excellent or glorious, although in that sense the choirs here are indeed ‘magnificent'). But in a deeper ontological sense, the word comes from an ancient root which means to magnify, to make greater, or to elevate. I am fascinated by the suggestion that what we do when we sing together is something as miraculous as life itself: the formation of a thing that is at its very core generating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The second thought is that music is expressive of something abstract, something ineffable. I have been perplexed by the notion that while the linguistic and visual arts are often directly imitative of our experiences and environment, music is abstract—only imitative in a qualitative, emotive sense.
My mother wrote poetry in college. One of her poems begins with a shockingly angsty line: “the agonies of being are far greater than all else.” While this is a profoundly sad thought, it is a nevertheless resonant one—indeed, much of our existence is defined by a perpetual sorrow which daily accompanies us. The blissful joy of childhood has faded, and our most profoundly meaningful thoughts are nearly always our most deeply melancholic.
Yet! Just when these “agonies of being” are so great that it seems we will crumble or break, a Truth that lingers saves us in our most beautiful thoughts: breathing in the cool moisture after rain, watching in awe as strong hands spring from the earth, reaching out and grasping strands of the clear air, running down a hillside so fast your legs seem to move themselves, looking up at the blank sky until stars wheel out from dark cupboards, and staring into someone else's eyes and feeling so hopelessly full of joy at knowing you are both alive that just one lifetime full of music could never express it.
In these crushing moments, we magnify ourselves by singing together. The chorus (somehow!) contains enough magnificence to tell the impossible story of our overwhelming existence. In this expression, we are comforted: not by the affirmation of others whose spirits are invaded and redeemed by the sounds we create, not by the towering intellectual achievement of the order and proportion of tones and time, and not even by the pulsating, nourishing emotional catharsis that music evokes. No, the comfort and Truth of music is in the knowledge of beauty: the realization—the revelation, even—that the universe is indeed beautiful, that in the space surrounding our bodies and within the combination of our voices, there is something so much more beautiful than inescapable sadness. Music is not abstract, yet it is every bit as mysterious as language: it simultaneously exposes, imitates, and quenches the ineffable and excruciating beauty of life. The reason we sing is the same reason we look at the stars.