What Makes Music Beautiful?

If you look under “music” in our resource section, what you will find so far will be music about beauty, songs that you might want to add to your repertoire if you are leading worship and would like the people at your church to think about beauty a little more often. Hymns and spiritual songs have power to shape our imaginations, and so such resources are important. But here I’d like to think about a more vexing question: what makes music beautiful? And – even more importantly – is it possible to communicate our sense of beauty in music with those who don’t immediately share it? 

One of the premises that drives this website is that beauty is objective. It’s really out there in the world, built into the nature of reality. In fact, the world is overflowing with beauty. As Hopkins says, the world is “charged” with the current of God’s glorious grandeur, which is to say, with His beauty.  Problem is there’s so much beauty that no one person can perceive all of it. Indeed, no one culture can express or record or recognize all of it. So even though beauty is objective, it’s also perspectival. 

Lewis talks about this in The Great Divorce. A painter who is visiting heaven on a field trip from hell expresses a desire to paint the celestial landscape. His friend — also a painter, but one who is at home in heaven rather than in hell — tells him that this impulse is “no good here.” 

‘When you painted on earth—at least in your earlier days—it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came. There is no good telling us about this country, for we see it already. In fact we see it better than you do.’ 

‘Then there’s never going to be any point in painting here?’

‘I don’t say that. When you’ve grown into a Person (it’s all right, we all had to do it) there’ll be some things which you’ll see better than anyone else. One of the things you’ll want to do will be to tell us about them. But not yet. At present your business is to see. Come and see. He is endless. Come and feed.’

There was a little pause. ‘That will be delightful,’ said the Ghost presently in a rather dull voice. (chapter 9, pp. 83-84 Kindle ed.)

This sort of sharing, which I also talked about in the post What Is Thinking Beautifully?, is more comfortable for me when it comes to visual art than it is when it comes to music, probably because I am most often on the receiving end of such sharing when it comes to visual art, and also because I am less invested in my own perceptions.  

When it comes to music, the perspectival quality of beauty is more obvious to me than its objectivity. I used to teach a January-term class on the theology of beauty, and at one point in the class every student brought in a piece of music that he or she considered beautiful and shared it with the class. Very little of what they shared was beautiful to me. When I would share a piece of music that I found beautiful, they were often confused. Once, in a church where I was talking about beauty, I played Handel’s “Let the Bright Seraphim” with Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis, a piece so overwhelmingly joyful and glorious that I thought everyone would immediately understand what I was talking about. But no, one woman was very offended that I would hold up as beautiful a style of singing that she could not replicate. She took this to be elitist. Another time, in a Christianity & Culture class, I had an African student grow actively angry with me when I shared a piece of music that I find beautiful (Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel Im Spiegel”), asking the class to listen attentively and share what they heard. He said it sounded like a funeral and that I was being culturally imperialistic to claim that such a piece of music was beautiful. When I assured him that none of the other students liked it either, this didn’t seem to make things better. 

The fact that I can’t hear the beauty in some music that others find beautiful troubles me less than my inability to communicate the beauty that I do hear. Perhaps that’s a problem. Back in the late 90’s, I once went to hear Cecil Taylor perform at a jazz club in Cambridge, Mass. I was listening to a lot of jazz at the time and expected to enjoy the performance, but after half-an-hour my friend and I decided it was time to leave. I couldn’t detect any pattern, any shape to anything he was playing. It was just painful.¹ Our dismay was apparently sufficiently understandable to the the manager that he refunded the cost of our tickets, without our even asking him to do it. 

A few days later, I was listening to some jazz musicians I knew playing at a jazz brunch, and during a break I discussed my Cecil Taylor experience with Bill, the bass player. I asked him if perhaps the emperor had no clothes; did he think that Taylor was really creating worthwhile music? He told me there was definitely something there, that the music was complex and intriguing, and that he found it worth listening to. I asked how much time I would have to invest before I could hear what he was hearing, and he told me that it would take many years. I decided I would just believe Bill.  Hearing the musicality of Cecil Taylor could be his job, and I would take his word for it. 

It occurs to me now that Bill did not use the word beautiful to describe Taylor’s music, and I don’t know if he would have had I pressed him. It seems to me that real beauty, which is essentially self-revelatory, should not ever be hidden quite so deeply, though it is true that our sin blinds us to beauty as it does to truth and goodness, and also true that YHWH, who sports with Leviathan, might endorse a wild understanding of what musical beauty is. Then again, not all 20th-century art aimed at beauty, and perhaps Taylor’s goal was something else, something more cerebral. In any case, I still don’t hear it. (As I write this I’m listening to JazzRadio.com, the “straight-ahead” channel, recovering from having tried once again to listen to Cecil Taylor.) Then too, there is a natural law approach to music that might help to establish some objectivity, laws about overtones and harmony and the nature of sound, not to mention the difference between singing that damages the voice versus singing that strengthens the voice. I don’t see how Taylor can meet those natural law standards, and perhaps he didn’t even want to. When it comes right down to it, I have to admit that Bill did not entirely convince me. And if he did not convince me, why should I be surprised that I do not always convince others? 

Naturally, it seems to me that the beauty I hear is more obvious than the beauty I can’t hear. This is clearly a fallacy on my part, but because it seems so much more obvious, my inability to help other people hear what I hear troubles me more than my inability to hear much of anything in Cecil Taylor.  I am left with a sinking sense that I’m not very good at talking about the beauty of music. And yet music is one of the places where I have most consistently encountered beauty in my life. So I’m going to give this another try. Perhaps in this space it will be possible for me to articulate what I’m hearing and so “lend my mind out” to you in order to share the beauty I hear. And perhaps some of you will be able to share what you hear as well. 

GOUNOD, Roméo et Juliette

We’ll start with something that should at least not give offense. At least, it’s never given offense when I’ve played it for students before, though I suspect it leaves them a little underwhelmed. This is a piece in two parts from Charles Gounod’s opera Roméo et Juliette. This music frames the famous balcony scene. It begins with the Entr’Acte between Acts 1 and 2, an instrumental interlude that sets the stage for a night-time scene in a garden under moonlight. 

It’s a lovely little piece, and I am especially charmed by the simple, ascending scale in the melody. To me, it creates a sense of reaching for something, something that is just out of reach for the first part of the piece. The delay of the scale’s culmination contributes to a sense of longing, and in my mind longing and beauty are partners. It is a gentle, wistful, beautiful piece of music, though on a small scale. This clip ends abruptly, but the long note is eventually joined by the voice of Romeo, who has arrived in Juliet’s garden during the instrumental piece. 

The scale of the piece increases when it is completed by its repetition after the balcony scene is over. This is quite a long scene. First, Mercutio arrives in the garden and has some back and forth with Romeo. Once he leaves, there is the balcony scene itself, with lots of climbing up and down, and lots of passionate singing. After this long scene, Juliet finally says her last goodbye and the music we heard at the quiet beginning of the act is suddenly back, but in a new way. It is still not a monumental, explosive expression of beauty. It is still gentle, wistful, and longing. But the addition of a human voice gives it more power. 

Because the melody is so simple, it feels familiar when it returns, even if this is your first time listening to this opera. But the pleasure of recognition is complicated by the surprise that the tenor (Roberto Alagna in this recording) is not singing the melody. Instead he is singing in harmony to the melody. For several measures he sings only a single note. And somehow the simple, almost childish melody is elevated into something more than it was. Now not only is the scale’s completion delayed, but the voice’s union with the melody is also delayed. He only joins the melody for his last eight notes, and he hangs back before the last of those. If the music communicated longing before the balcony scene, it communicates more now.

Then too, there is the beauty of an unamplified human voice, singing something simple and tender, not virtuosic, although there is a lot of training behind that tone. The act of singing is such a strange act, if we think about it. It doesn’t seem strange, because people in every culture around the globe and throughout the history of the world sing. But why? It is not an act that can be understood in terms of productivity. It is something done for its own sake, and also, by many people, explicitly to give God glory. I think it is not accidental that singing involves the breath. When God made the first human being, He breathed into him, and that breath – which marks life in all animals – in us is also a mark of the image of God, a sign of the presence of God the Holy Breath in us, lifting us beyond our nature and capacitating us for a relationship with our Maker. To sing well, to sing with power, to sing with control is all about breathing. To sing well with others is to experience the relationship between yourself and them in the body, as you breath together, and your joined voices create vibrations through your head and chest. If any music can transcend cultural differences and perspectival distance, it should be music made with a human voice.

MONTEVERDI, Vespers, “Duo Seraphim”

Let me try one more piece, a piece I play in class every semester when we discuss the Trinity. Usually students are quite respectful of this piece. In part, I think, that is because I do not tell them that I find it beautiful. After we have talked about the dangers of trying to portray the Trinity in visual art, I tell them that Monteverde was using music to create an “image” of the Trinity in sound, and I’d like them to listen to see if they can hear it. And yet, most semesters the classroom grows unusually still while they listen.

This is a movement from Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, called “Duo Seraphim.” The text begins with two tenors singing (in Latin) a text from Isaiah 6, “Two seraphim were calling one to the other: Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory.” Then a third tenor joins to sing an old translation of 1 John 5:7, “There are three who give testimony in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit: and these three are one.” Then they go back to the song of the seraphim, but this time with three tenors and a more complex harmony. This recording is of Harry Christophers and The Sixteen.

Duo Seraphim clamabant alter ad alterum:
Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth:
plena est omnis terra gloria eius.
Tres sunt qui testimonium dant in coelo:
Pater, Verbum, et Spiritus Sanctus;
et hi tres unum sunt.

What I love, especially in this recording, is how closely matched the three voices are, singing lines that weave through each other, making it difficult to tell which voice is where. The effect for me is an impression of the fullness named by the seraphim: my listening space is filled with the glorious, multiplying sound of awe and praise. The singing is more virtuosic than the little section from Gounod, and I have enough voice training to recognize how hard it is and how beautifully executed. I delight in the difficulty of the piece. Elsewhere on this blog, we’ve reflected on the role of knowledge in perceiving beauty, and I think this is another example. Sometimes we need to know more and understand something more deeply in order to perceive its beauty.

Because Monteverdi is not trying to be subtle, most students can hear that the three voices sound remarkably alike, making them good representatives of the three consubstantial persons of the Trinity. Most students can hear that the voices sing in a round sometimes, and in chords other times, and in one particularly obvious place they sing together. So I can exegete the piece with students, but I’m not certain that I’ve been at all effective in sharing my sense of its beauty. (And yes, I am aware that in this exercise I am “using art to illustrate a theological idea,” and in my last post I said that was not what I am aiming for. I’m not aiming for it, but sometimes that’s where I land anyway.)

On the other hand, there are always some students who have a little familiarity with Renaissance choral music. Perhaps they were in a choir that sang madrigals. And they listen to Monteverdi with joy and appreciation and talk to me after class about what a great piece that was. And there are always some students who have never heard anything like this in their lives and can hardly keep from laughing, not in joy but in amusement, because it’s so unfamiliar and strange. How do any of us move from thinking something is strange to thinking that it is beautiful except by exposure, and then by loving attention? Maybe it is really true that if I kept listening to Cecil Taylor I could make that move as well.

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  1. If you’ve never heard Taylor, take a listen: https://daily.bandcamp.com/lists/cecil-taylor-discography-guide.

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