Symphonic Spirituality

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view from the KC Roof terrace

Last night, joined by a brother priest, I enjoyed the last of a four- concert series at the Kennedy Center.  Visits to the KC, especially on perfect spring days like yesterday, are about much more than just music.  If you’re planning on taking in a concert, always make the most of the event.  Take a stroll along the Potomac, stop for a bite to eat at the Georgetown Waterfront… just soak-in the whole experience.  You’ll find yourself renewed… And isn’t that the whole purpose behind recreation (i.e. “re-creation”)?

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riverside strolling by the Potomac

But I digress…

The music last night was a real revelation.  Two pieces: Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor and Mahler’s Symphony #5 presented great food for thought.  If last week’s meditations on Romantic music presented a somewhat negative critique of its subjectivism, I’d like today to look at the blessings we can find in that same phenomenon.

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Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto (available on iTunes) starts out with three simple notes played by the soloist against a background of shimmering strings.  These three notes form the core of the first (and longest) of three movements in which the theme is explored in various phases of development.  The exploration/experimentation is alternately joyous, confused, anguished, pensive, but ultimately finds a resolution that is celebrated in the [shorter] second and third movements.  The subjective individualism of the soloist throwing the theme back and forth to the orchestra is an easy metaphor for the everyman.  The theme is our life… it’s developments triumphs and tragedies are our experiences.  The exchange with the orchestra is something akin to Jacob wrestling with the angel of God.  In music we see subjective life-experiences played out in-small. …which may explain why audiences (consciously or otherwise) find such pleasure in the the harmonious resolution of themes.  It offers hope.

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler, who knew Sibelius, wrote the same dynamics into much of his own music, but at a level infinitely more complex.  If you like titanic orchestral works, listen to Mahler.  I think his theory was: If less is more, then imagine how much more more will be.  That being said, the composer hits the mark beautifully.  His own subjective experience of life, full of struggles and loss was a background for his music.  Often, Mahler would incorporate traditional Austrian folk tunes, children’s songs and other leitmotifs into his work to convey lifelong meditations on innocence, adulthood, struggle, joy, etc.  In several of his major works, Mahler even incorporated children’s choirs and adult soloists into his scores to great effect.

By the end of the Fifth symphony the emotional rollercoaster ride Mahler has led us on through a night of meditation finds fulfillment in an new sunrise at the end of the last movement… which is not to say all his life-questions have been answered, but rather, that there is hope as a new day begins.

Mahler and Sibelius’ self-explorations are certainly the musical children the Romantic period, but they also bear unique marks from  their own times (early 20th century).  Both wrote as psychoanalysis was exploding on the intellectual scene in central Europe, and (in Mahler’s case) as the Austian Empire was collapsing leading Europe -ultimately- to the Great War.  It was a period of profound questioning, self-examination even re-definition for European civilization.  The age may have found more peaceful fulfillment in music than in its political realities (two world wars in one hundred years)…. which brings about our ultimate question: What brings resolution to the human soul’s experiences?

Public Art on Display at Kennedy Center
Public Art on Display at Kennedy Center

The Catholic response is simple: Mercy… and not just any mercy, but particularly pietas… a mercy that is absolute… and filled with more than just juridical pardon… filled with compassion, love, patience, empathy.  The ONLY way to make any sense out of life’s ups and downs… the ONLY way to bring resolution to our themes is the application of such mercy.  Freud, Nietzsche, Bismarck, Marx and other central European luminaries of late-19th early-20th century tried their own solutions… I don’t think they worked very well.  But if you listen to Sibelius and Mahler and hear the subjective experience of the human person crying out from inside their music… how can the answer the anything other than pietas?  It brings a new beginning a new dawn for a new day… and most of all renewed hope! As the Church prepares an extraordinary jubilee “Year of Mercy” (read Pope Francis’ Bull of Indiction) consider the role played by mercy in the symphony of your life and your loved ones.  If you want to learn more, stop in to your local parish and seek out a priest for spiritual direction or Confession.  You’ll be amazed at the resolution it can bring!