top of page
  • Writer's pictureBrian Mountford

Meaning of Music

Just found this chapter from an old book of mine which sold but a few copies and was surprised by how good it was! I've edited it a bit.


‘Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part

With all thy art.

The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,

Who bore the same.

He stretched his sinews taught all strings, what key

Is best to celebrate this most high day.’

George Herbert, Easter.

In Schaffer's play, Amadeus, Salieri fears that his rival, Mozart, has a direct line to God. Many others have heard the voice of God in music, including theologians such as the protestant Karl Barth, and the catholic Hans Küng. Even Einstein, hearing Menuhin play Beethoven said, ‘Now I know there is a God in heaven’. So what is it in music that is capable of opening up a new spiritual repertoire? Does music refer to meanings outside itself, or does it simply mean itself? George Steiner says starkly, ‘Music means. It is brimful of meanings which will not translate into logical structures or verbal expression’,[i] and he gives the example of Schumann, who when asked to explain a difficult étude sat down and played it a second time.[ii]

The Botswana Bowyers

My starting point is an account of how music functions in one of the planet’s remaining primitive societies. At the climax of the story about his encounter in the Kalahari Desert with the last surviving Stone Age men of Africa, Laurens van der Post describes the music of the Bushman.[iii] The Bushman's ancient instrument is a long bow with a single string bound taut to the middle of the shaft. He beats the string with a stick, and holds one end of the bow to his open lips using his mouth as a sound box to amplify the music, like a jaws harp.

Thus the essential tool of his survival is also the source of his music. In the day he would kill a buck or a wildebeest with poisoned arrows from his bow, and in the evening he would make music on his bow-instrument, ‘hunting meaning in the wasteland of sound’, as van der Post puts it.

He goes on to observe that music played on such stringed instruments expressed both contentment and thanks for life. At the end of the day the small community would sit round listening to one of their number playing the therapeutic music, which brought calm and peace to their faces.

On a particular occasion, when out hunting, he tells of meeting a group of Bushmen who literally were dying of thirst in the fiery desert, not having drunk for days. After they had been given water from the explorers’ supply, the first thing they did was to produce a lyre and make music as a way of saying thank you.

However, the greatest musical occasions he describes were those of the dance. To the author’s surprise they had no drums, but created rhythm by the clapping of cupped hands and the beating of their feet on the ground. This provided the backing for the notes of the single string bow, and the primitive four-stringed lyres, played by the women. One such dance occurred when, with the help of twentieth century guns, the hunters had brought home a mighty bull eland, a greatly prized and symbolic beast. Another happened at the coming of the rains. Music was inextricably linked with survival. He concluded, therefore, that music was as vital as water, food, and fire.

Sometimes we forget how recent our civilisation is and that our inherited genetic coding does not have to reach back very far to connect with our primitive forbears - there are many programmes deep in the psyche codified from experience. If, in a country where there are no dangerous spiders many of us suffer from inherited arachnophobia, and if it is true that we look at sunlight on the seashore with such pleasure because we have a distant memory of emerging from the waters of the earth onto the dry land, then it would scarcely be surprising if music put us in touch with primitive ancestral memories of thanksgiving under the stars for survival in a hostile environment, and the contentment of family, and tribal solidarity.

Amadeus Himself

A second clue is what is known by critics as music’s form, how it is constructed. Despite Steiner's comment that music is brimful of meanings that will not translate, music can nevertheless be analysed, and broken down into its component parts. It is a kind of language, the grammar of which can be learnt. An example of such grammar is the sonata form, which has influenced so much instrumental music in the last four centuries.

Mozart seemed to have had an intuitive mastery of form, evident in the way his music creates the brilliantly unexpected, while at the same time sounding perfectly natural, as if it were meant to be. Hence, perhaps, the sense that God is revealed, because God is original, unexpected, yet perfect in being, the ‘I am' behind all creation.

This is an idea which seems to me to have a lot in common with the view put forward by some mathematicians and scientists, that the more elegant, or beautiful, a theory is, the more likely it is to be true.[iv] Music and mathematics have often been seen as related disciplines, and it is not difficult to see why, because at one level music is the physics of the inter-relation of sound frequencies. The Oxford mathematician, Roger Penrose, believes that when the mind grasps a mathematical idea, it is making contact with an external Platonic world of mathematical concepts; that mathematical truth is as it were out there waiting to be discovered. Similarly, you might argue that when people find God revealed in Mozart, they are saying that the composer has expressed a musical truth of such elegance that he has mediated unwittingly a truth that is out there. In fact Penrose makes the connection between mathematics and art himself when he says that artists often feel ‘that in their greatest works they are revealing eternal truths which have some kind of ethereal existence.’[v]

Mozart - Traces of Transcendence is the elegant title of Professor Hans Küng’s investigation into why Mozart’s music provides many people with a sense of divine disclosure. He is at pains to acknowledge that such experience only comes to those who are open to it, and to avoid any suggestion that he is making a god out of Mozart, the man, who as is well known was no paragon of virtue and possessed a truly scatological sense of humour. A pivotal point in his argument is taken from Karl Barth: Küng says that Barth's great insight into the mystery of Mozart’s music ‘lies in the fact that it constantly makes audible both the light and the dark, joy and sorrow, life and death...but the darkness is always transcended and done away with in the light’.[vi] He goes on to quote from the Church Dogmatics where Barth says that in Mozart one hears ‘the positive far more strongly than the negative’. In other words, Mozart’s expresses in sound what Psalm 23 expresses in words, ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me’.

Perfect or Interrupted Cadence?

This counter-balancing between light and dark, joy and sorrow, leads to a third clue, which is music’s relation to the emotions. Whether it is the pulsating rhythm of a rock concert leading to feelings of ecstasy and exaltation, or hearing in the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, the Marcia Funebre, sadness, despair or grief, there can be no doubt that music is capable of affecting the emotions. At the simplest level it is an idea expressed in the old cliché that minor keys express sadness, and major keys joy and triumph.

But it is more subtle than that, and the beginning of explanation lies in the way in which musical sounds, when placed in relation to each other, can create either dissonance or harmony. Press down two adjacent piano keys at once and they produce a clashing dissonance which jars the ear and cries out for some kind of resolution; press down two white keys that are separated by another white key (a third apart) and they produce a harmony which the ear is content to listen to. Project this simple example into the labyrinthine music of Bach, the Beatles, or Beethoven, and you find a complex of counter-flowing sounds which create in the listener a tension, sometimes of excitement, sometimes of anxiety, which can only be satisfied by musical resolution. It is a creative tension which, at its best, can work on the imagination in such a way as to be a parable for the experience of suspense, uncertainty and resolution in real life. Music can therefore be cathartic, cleansing the emotions and freeing the spirit. That is why one feels a sense of triumph at the end of a great symphony when the final sequence of cadences is repeated over and over again - tension, resolution, tension, resolution.

When I was taught basic harmony at school, one of the rudimentary rules was that the leading note (the te of the tonic solfa scale) must always be resolved – don’t leave the listener suspended in mid-air with that nagging anxiety that the music is unfinished. Just try singing up the tonic-solfa scale and stopping at te to see what I mean. Doh, re, me, fah, so, la, te...

The psychological effect of music’s exploration of dissonance and harmony ties in closely with one of the basic religious insights about God - namely, that God brings order out of chaos. Christ is the healer, the one who integrates the disintegrated lives of people such as the madman who lived amongst the tombs. Thus God is found in the restoration of order and the resolution of dissonance - physical, spiritual, emotional. ‘In the beginning...the earth was without form, and void’ but God brought light and order (Gen. 1.1-3)

So far I have identified three aspects of the spiritual potential of music: a primitive link with survival, the eternal beauty of form, and the resolution dissonance. Maybe this simply substantiates the view that musical meanings cannot translate into logical structures or verbal expression, and that it is a far too extravagant claim to say that God is revealed in music. I accept that. But nevertheless I hope I have already shown that music is part of the image factory which expands the spiritual repertoire. Such a claim is justified, I would have thought, on the grounds of music’s historical record alone.

It is a particularly interesting record which backs up my thesis that Christ is sometimes experienced more vividly through secular imagery than specifically religious imagery. Music as we know it in Western culture has its origins very much in the worship of the Church, with the composition of music for the mass, and the evolution of the motet as a beautified setting of passages of scripture for use in worship. Composers relied on patronage for their living, and the princes of church and state competed with each other to keep up high standards. Thus musical ideas and techniques quickly cross-fertilised and mutated between the sacred and secular. A good example of this is the way in which some Mozart masses can sound almost too operatic and sensual to be used in worship, and how some of the most beautiful passages in his operas, particularly The Magic Flute, have a spiritual purity that one associates with the best of church music.

Much religious music touches the sublime: Allegri’s Miserere, Bach’s Matthew Passion, Mozart's Requiem, and Purcell's Funeral Anthems are examples in my list. In these, words and music are combined together in such a way that the one offsets the other, and brings out meanings and emotions that would otherwise be hidden. However, it is hard to resist the thought that these works are transcended by the great symphonies and concertos, which are in some sense their progeny, even more refined creatures, capable of enlarging the spiritual imagination without the use of words. Such music can bridge the gap between speechlessness and God in a way which necessarily defies explanation. And perhaps we should be grateful for that.

So I am not trying to promote an absolutist argument. I accept the objection that the meaning given to music is largely a matter of subjective judgement, culturally determined, depending on what ideas and images you bring to the musical experience. I went to the crematorium to conduct the funeral of a very grand old lady. The organist, who thought I was new, fussed around me in a Jeevesish sort of way, and began to tell me where to sit and how to press the button – ‘right in the middle, not at the sides, or it won’t engage’. When I looked over his shoulder at the piece of music he planned to play, I read, ‘From the Suite in D - HAMLET CIGARS’. This piece of Bach, then, was considered suitable to accompany in the coffin and to advertise a certain brand of cigar. Perhaps it was a subliminal government health warning.

On another occasion an English professor told me he was outraged to discover one of his undergraduates plugged into pop music while reading Shakespeare. How, he asked himself, could the student study a serious writer with all that pandemonium being pumped into his brain? Subsequently he found himself asking another question: whether he would have felt differently if the music had been Mozart? You see, the professor felt there was a congruity between Shakespeare and Mozart, related to artistic merit, and an incongruity between Shakespeare and pop music related to what he considered depth versus triviality. But the fact that the professor questioned his initial prejudice shows he knew this was a subjective judgement, and that of course there is good pop music, just as there is bad classical music.

But it is not all subjectivity, not just images from our own culture being played back to us. Music is a self-sufficient language of its own. It was in a church service that I first heard music played on the gamelan, a Balinese instrument constructed of tuned metal plates over brightly coloured wooden resonating tubes, played with hammers, a bit like a xylophone. The music, which was entrancingly rhythmic and syncopated, with persistent and repetitive tonal patterns, had no cultural meaning for me, except that it sounded ‘eastern’, yet I thought it was the most impressive and spiritual part of a service which otherwise was extremely wordy.

An Instrument of Four Strings

The intrepid traveller in the world of music will not only be keen to visit all the concert halls she can, she might want to know more about how the miracle is achieved. Maybe she enquires about the composer's life: the things that influenced him, his passions, hates, psychology. Or she attends a class given by the performer. She might be fascinated by the evolution of musical instruments, and therefore how musical performances have changed as technology has improved. She might visit a museum to see their collection of viols, and crumhorns, and bamboo pipes.

This box wants to speak. Even as it is taken out of its case it receives a knock and complains with a short, hollow shudder. Once I read a story about a young man who was teaching a stone to talk - a project which, as you can guess, came to nothing - but it gave the writer a theme for reflection, and the memorable line, ‘Nature's silence is its one remark’. But this box wants to speak. Which is a more promising start.

It is after all little more than a wooden box - a right shapely box, to be sure, with the grace of a young woman - a box with strings drawn tightly over a vertical bridge which stands three quarters of the way down its curvaceous belly. If we vibrate the strings with a horse-hair bow, the sound which issues is like the first primitive grunt of inarticulate speech. With practice and experiment this noise is refined into a note, a sound with shape and meaning. You can sing the note out loud if you want, to prove that it exists. Now press down your finger on one of the strings and you get another note - different in tonal character, less harsh - and by vibrating the finger backwards and forwards on the string the note is tempered into emotion.

Music must have been made on stringed instruments ever since man first held a piece of gut between his teeth and twanged it, but no one thought to vibrate the strings of his harp with a bow until the tenth century, somewhere in central Asia, where they were very good bowyers. Soon the practice spread through the Muslim world and into Europe; and, in medieval painting, angels began to appear playing their heavenly music on rebecs, beautiful pear-shaped instruments held on the thigh. This tenor instrument of the violin family is help upright between the legs of the seated player.

Taught by Tortelier

Here is the late, great Paul Tortelier and his beautiful cello with its famous angled spike. Wisps of grey hair fly backwards as man and instrument fuse in an ecstatic dance; his aquiline face stares out into the high space of the auditorium as if inspiration comes from beyond. I had asked him to give a lecture recital entitled Music and Spirituality, but he said it was impossible to give a systematic explanation of how music and faith intersect; however, he was willing to give a master class to three students instead, and the audience would have to make their own connections.

On the night, it seemed curious that a packed house should be spellbound by the laborious process of teaching; all stops and starts, apologies and repeats. Wouldn’t it be better to come back later when the rehearsals were over, and hear Boccherini, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky played in concert performance? But the lure of going behind the scenes is in many senses even more fascinating than the concert itself, because we are getting an intimate glimpse of the human side of the artist, stripped of all the glitz and glamour of the concert platform. In principle, the artist is a magician who wants you to see only what she wants you to see. Perhaps, with false humility and sleight of hand, she pretends that the process of making and invention is uninteresting and dull. But we, the voyeurs, know it’s not. We are all agog. Give us as much detail as you can.

The three student cellists who bravely volunteered to be the subjects of this class varied in ability from high school to concert standard. The result was that we were taken through the entire range of technical problems, from something as basic as how to hold the bow, to the finer subtleties of interpretation. I repeatedly asked myself why it so difficult for the apprentice to imitate the master, and couldn’t resist the thought that this is a theological question of some importance.

The art of bowing, which looks so simple, is much more complicated than it seems. Which part of the bow should you use? How much of its length is needed for this phrase or that note? What weight should be exerted on the string? How do you start without a scratch? (Every parent would be glad to know this). The bow is placed on the string exerting some pressure, and as the note is played the pressure is released. The exasperated pupil tries this twenty times, but cannot get it right, whereas Tortelier makes a beautifully clean melodic sound with a single stroke of the bow, every time, without fail. His eyes look quizzically, sympathetically: can you do it like this? Can you do it like this?

‘In my garden there are two beautiful turtle doves,’ he says. ‘When they fly together they fly in perfect harmony, comme ça (he flutters his hands in the air). You must make your playing like those doves, oui?’

‘A musician is a sculptor, like Rodin; a painter, like Botticelli, Cezanne, or Rembrandt; a thinker - how do you say, philosophe? - a lover, a dancer, and a sportman’. He falls to the ground and does some press ups. The audience applauds loudly, excited by the charismatic energy of the man. The lesson has become a performance by the teacher. The pupil, on whom so much attention had just been focused, suddenly feels like a spare part, and embarrassedly joins in the applause too, like a contestant outshone by a game show host.

He continues, ‘I do not play like the baroque players, da da da da da da. They play like that because they cannot play the cello! Do not try to be a purist. Jesus Christ was not a purist - he was pure - but he was not a puriste. He would play with freedom, (he plays some Bach) but not too free; (he plays with extravagant rubato) this is sentimental. In all things not too much, but just enough.’

When Tortelier said that Christ was not a purist, I think he must have had in mind both his impatience with pharisaism, and his eye for the essence of a moral question, rather than its formal structure. His playing was like healing on the Sabbath day. Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Applied to Bach, I suppose this would be, Bach was made for man, not for the baroque players.

‘Maybe in a few years I will meet Bach,’ he said cheekily. ‘Maybe he will kick me. But I would rather be told by Bach how to play his music than by purists.’ It was not to be a few years, but a few days. He died of a heart attack three weeks later!

The idea of Jesus playing the cello seemed neither blasphemous nor absurd, especially listening to the dissonant, interrogative, counterpoint of Bach. I was reminded of a poem by R S Thomas, The Musician[vii], which describes a recital by the violinist, Kreisler, who, he says,

‘ beautifully suffered

For each of us upon his instrument’.

He goes on to compare the toil of the artist with the crucifixion of Christ:

‘The hands bleeding, the mind bruised but calm,

Making such music as lives still.

And no one daring to interrupt

Because it was himself that he played...’

George Herbert had used the same image three hundred years earlier when he wrote of Christ:

‘His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key

Is best to celebrate this most high day.'

Those are lines from his poem Easter, and so he recognises that the effort and the suffering of Christ the artist are prerequisites of the music of Easter.

The most telling line of Thomas’ poem is, ‘because it was himself that he played’, because it makes a connection between the manner in which God’s love is incarnated through the passion of Christ, and the manner in which music is incarnated through the self-giving of the player. That is why there is a significant difference between a performance on CD, however good, and a live performance; seeing the music being incarnated, as well as hearing its sound, adds an extra dimension, and potentially expands the image repertoire. In his poem, Thomas says that he arrived at the recital late and had to sit on the stage,

‘So near that I could see the toil

Of his face muscles, a pulse like a moth

Fluttering under the fine skin,

And the indelible veins of his smooth brow’.

Its brilliant metaphor of the incarnation is my fourth, and most important, aspect of the spiritual potential of music.

This discussion had started with the claim that Christ was not tied down to the dead letter of the law, but, with rabbinic skill, Tortelier turned his image of freedom round on itself: ‘A musician is not free; you are a slave.’ Then, rhetorically to one of the students, ‘Are you free not to play the cello? Of course you are not. Are you free when you practise your scales? Are you free when you play in a string quartet? You must play with the others, you must be all together.’ It was as if he had picked up the paradox of Christian freedom expressed in the mattins collect, ‘whose service is perfect freedom’, or in Christ's teaching that whoever would save their life must first lose it. Playing is a vocation which demands discipline if it is to be fulfilling.

The final sentence of Tortelier's obituary in the Guardian said that ‘His belief in the beneficent power of music as a vital force for good never wavered.’ One of the pieces being studied in the master class was Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. At one point he stopped the student playing and said, ‘Music is about love, (pronounced not luv, but lovv-e). Musicians are loveurs. And gentleness. The world needs more gentleness, non?’ As he speaks I can't help noticing the callouses on the finger-tips of his left hand, like the pads of a dog’s paw, hardened by six hours practice a day. The Variations continue: ‘Two people dance together. They are married - but not to each other! They wish they were free to marry, but they are not. Come to me, come to me. No I cannot, no I cannot. Then at last, Goodbye.’

‘Everything is in curves and lines - look at the architecture of this church. Keppler, the astronomer, says music matches the created order: 7 notes in a scale - 7 days in a week; 12 semitones in the scale - 12 hours in the day. 24 keys - 24 hours in the day...’ Is this theology, or is it a bogus science of co-incidental numbers? I think of the student who asked to be confirmed because she found traces of God’s transcendence in the perpendicular architecture of my church. This is the incarnational ache all over again - the raw spiritual experience - this time answered by music.

The class was almost over when Tortelier turned to the audience and said in his drawling French accent, ‘Everything I say is banal. My wife tells me, Paul, everything you say is banal - it's the way you say it.’

Then he takes up his cello, adjusts his bow, and without any further comment plays a Bach sonata, and you realise how all the techniques he has explained and bullied over in the class are brought together into this captivating explosion of creation. He looks out at you with eyes bulging, almost mad, asking you the question: is this right? Isn’t this the way it should be done? Every muscle is poised every vein stands out; player and instrument are united. It is not a matter of effortless ease, this genius, it is a labour and a struggle, and a torment, even, that he ‘so beautifully suffered for each of us upon his instrument’. At the end the man is exhausted having given all, and he relaxes as if it were the seventh day. Those who have been privileged to hear this recognise they have heard something extraordinary because they have been in the workshop. They have seen the failure of an apprentice, but also seen that the master does not simply have as it were a God given gift. His art has cost him discipline, love, and physical distress over many years, and the final product is not on show like a sparkling jewel, but pours from the sweat of his brow.

[i]..Real Presences - George Steiner - Faber and Faber 1989 p. 217

[ii]..ibid. p. 20

[iii]..The Lost World of the Kalahari - Laurens van der Post - Penguin 1962 p. 224f

[iv]..This is discussed by Paul Davies in `The Mind of God Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning' - Penguin 1992 - p. 144ff and 175f

[v]..The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physics - Roger Penrose - OUP 89 - p.97

[vi]..Mozart - Traces of Transcendence - Hans Küng - SCM 1992 - p. 19

[vii]..Collected Poems 1945-1990 - Phoenix 1993 - p. 104

48 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page