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On The Power of Music that Stretches Beyond Words – How Beauty Serves Truth and Goodness

October 23, 2011

I have learned in all this that music is powerful beyond words, and often does what words alone can never do. I have often heard or read a Scripture, which may have had only marginal impact on me. And then the choir takes it up in song and it is pressed on my heart like never before, such that I can never forget it.

I have also learned with humility that I may preach boldly, but that it is often the choir’s sung response that makes the thought catch fire. I have learned to link what I preach to what is sung and work carefully with the choir and musicians. For while the spoken word my inform and even energize, the sung word strikes even deeper, engraving the word not only in the mind, but touching the deepest parts of the heart.

Music can often go where the word alone cannot. Beauty draw us to goodness and truth.

In my parish tonight our choir had its annual concert. 900+ in attendance, standing room only. There was a 20 piece orchestra and music that ranged from classical to Gospel, all religious in nature.

In tonight’s praise-filled concert, the congregation spent as much time on its feet in praise as seated and listening. Twice, they would not let the choir stop, and the refrain had to be taken up on both occasions, three times before the Spirit said, “It is well.” No one could leave Church tonight without the words and melodies of those songs alive: Great is thy faithfulness Oh God my Father….A change, A change has come over me….For every mountain you brought me over, for every trial, you’ve seen me though….I’ve got to say Thank you Lord!

In the concert a song was sung that, to some extent helps to illustrate how music can go where words cannot. The song stretches back to a scene in the movie, The Mission.

The scene is of a 17th Century Jesuit missionary priest, Father Gabriel, who goes deep into the rain forest seeking to win souls for Christ. He has heard that the indigenous people living there, though hostile to strangers, have a wonderful gift for music. Arriving near a settlement, he is aware that suspicious and fierce warriors lurking among the trees, likely intent on killing him, surround him. But Fr. Gabriel takes out his oboe and begins to play the melody that was the theme for the movie.I have included the scene in a video below.

As he plays the beautiful melody, the men emerge from the trees and begin to listen, now aware that no man who means them harm could play such a beautiful melody.

It is all a perfect illustration of the ancient insight that the beauty is powerfully related to truth and goodness. So Fr. Gabriel opened the door to truth by the beauty of music. And where his words would likely have had no impact, or be met with hostility, the beauty of the melody he played made most of them drop their weapons and open the door to him. Now they were ready to hear his words. But it was music, it was beauty, that opened the way.

In recent years the beautiful melody played by “Fr Gabriel” has been set to words and is now sung to new audiences who never saw the now old movie. The song in Italian is called Nella Fantasia and a quick summary of the translation is:

I my dream I see a place where all live in peace and in truth, and souls are always free,  and fully human in the depth of their hearts.

Tonight in our concert the choir sing this beautiful piece, and I thought how, once a gain, it wasn’t just the words that had impact, it was the magnificent beauty of the melody. And, somehow the vision of the words was alive if, but for a moment, and the Kingdom of God shown through: that place of peace, truth, freedom and the human person fully alive.

Through beauty the vision, good and true, was shared in the depths of every soul present at the concert. For, in the end it is not a dream, it is the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven. The words may speak of a distant future, but the beauty of the music made it present now. Yes, the goodness and truth of the Kingdom were now, if but for a moment, expressed in the beauty of music and deepening the the commitment to follow the beauty, to goodness and truth.

Perhaps it was Fr. Gabriel playing his oboe all over again to us, hostile denizens of a cynical and jaded 21st Century. But the melody by its beauty rings true. And the beauty points to the truth and goodness of the vision and opens doors to the heart that mere words could never do. The cynical mind tell us it will never happen, but beauty tells us it will, and that it already does, for true beauty echoes from haeven.

And in a hushed Church, a word went forth, preceded by beauty, and for just a moment a dream, good and true, echoed in many hearts: In my dream I see a place where all live in peace and in truth, and souls are always free, and fully human in the depth of their hearts.

Music is powerful beyond words.

Here is the original scene from The Mission where Fr. Gabriel reaches the people through beauty (all but one).

And here is a version of the song based on the melody of Gabriel’s oboe. I regret I don’t have a recording of it by my own choir to share with you, but this video captures the beauty.  Again the Words are in Italian and the basic translation is I my dream I see a place where all live in peace and in truth, and souls are always free, and fully human in the depth of their hearts

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Comments (16)

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  1. Nick says:

    God is the Ancient Musician, and the Instrument that begins and ends the symphony, and the Music we hear and imitate – to speak in such a bold way. 😀

  2. John says:

    Great reflection. It occurs to me, though, that Jesus doesn’t do much with music during his own ministry on Earth. Did Jesus ever sing? He must have in Temple.

    • Matt 26:30 – When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

      Another interesting point: the luscious beauty of the music we have today with its 12-tone scale is more modern than might be thought. The fuller scale and the singing in careful intervals we call harmony had a breakthrough in the late Middle Ages as the mathematical theory of Pythagoras was applied to music and harmony. Until that time chant and far more hollow harmony predominated along with a pentatonic scale. I do not suggest that music prior to that time lacked beauty, but only that we are heirs to a far richer experience since the late Middle Ages.

  3. John says:

    Beautiful music — indeed all beauty — is a small crack in the firmament through which we get a hint of what heaven will be like.

  4. Nick O'dEmmus says:

    I heartily agree, Monsignor. I would also be interested, however, in your views regarding the opposite potential of music – can some music be diabolical as well? Or can beauty transcend even the harshest and most discordant sounding of pieces? Or can discordance in music even be “didactic” in some way, in the similar way to medieval artistic depictions of the Four Last Things – medieval sculptors and artists depicted both Heaven and Hell in order to move and uplift/appal their audience. Just a humble reflection. God bless you and all who read your blogs this week.

    • As for Satan he can use anything, including Scripture.

      For discordant music that depends on context. For example when I am playing a hymn at the organ I can signal the congregation that we are ending by playing a “discordant” chord and then ritard, and bring back the harmony. This is points to beauty since in creating dissonance it also creates a longing for resolution which is then granted and beauty is restored. Modern iconoclasts however have more the tendency to extol dissonance, chaotic rhythm etc. for its own sake. There is something of a continuum at word to be sure but there ultimately comes a time when a line is crossed if you ask me.

  5. Paolo says:

    Thank you very much Father, for the wonderful article. I can just add that, as noticed by F. R.Cantalamessa, the power of music, for his inspiration, nobility, liberty, rhythm and harmony is perhaps the expressive means more naturally linked with the nature of the Holy Spirit. Certainly the less inadequate to speak of God, or to God, alleluia!

  6. Jann says:

    Beautiful. Makes me long to hear my daughter, the East Coast opera singer, in person soon as she warms up that most excellent gift our Lord has given her. Thanks, Msgr.!

  7. Donna says:

    Every so often a Catholic blogger wil publish a list of current hymns he would love to see deep-sixed. Inevitably the comments following will gleefully add another few dozen hymns to the list: “Good grief! If I hear City of God one more time, I’ll organize a national hymn-burning pyre!” Having grown up experiencing the traditional rite, followed by the Novus Ordo with its attendant difficulties, I often muse upon music and its effects on congregations.

    I like Gregorian Chant and even sang it in a funeral choir before the NO arrived. And, at times I’ve been one who smirked appreciatively at the list of well-disliked NO hymns – and found myself longing for a return to traditional Gregorian-style music at Mass.

    But it was just recently when my eyes teared up during one of the usual top-six-hit-parade Communion hymns it struck me that much of the current hymns deplored by purists just might have been the inspiration of the Holy Spirit! These songs/hymns appeal to the heart in lyricis and arrangement, very often quite different from the theology of traditional Catholic hymns. Could it be that, 40 years ago, the Holy Spirit inspired musicians then (and now) to respond to a very different emerging North American culture that was being fed and formed by television, the recording industry, the advent of rapid communication and the computer era? We are no longer Ward and June Cleaver or Margaret and Jim Anderson of a slower gentler, more innocent era; we are a very different society, and Catholics walk into parishes awash in this pervasive persistent culture.

    I well understand our well-loved pontiff’s eagerness to return to a more tradtional theology in music and liturgy. I know what he means when he says that the music of Church needs to be transcendant and not of this world, but I cannot help but wonder if North American Catholics need the catchier tunes with lyrics that speak of a personal relationship with Jesus. We are fishermen, are we not? And a massive pool filled with big fish right now in North America is our unevangelized, uncatechized fellow Catholics. Are these current hymns part of the bait? Most Catholics I meet love many of these hymns.

    To underscore these thoughts, recently we attended a solemn high EF Mass replete with a choir well trained in Gregorian Chant. It should have been heaven for my husband and me, but halfway through I realized we too were a product of our culture. Okay, it was heavenly and well appreciated, but we surprised ourselves discovering we were eager and anxious that things move along. This is who we have become in spite of our best efforts to abjure the world and follow Christ and His Catholic Church. Now if we who aspire to serious faithfulness (yet, of course, not always succeeding) find ourselves struggling with a slower-moving heavier ritual, then what of the many who come to Mass on Sunday ill-schooled in faith, liturgy and theology, yet who leave Mass, as you have suggested in your blog, inspired by the lyrics and tunes of current hymns which managed to underscore the homily?

    I can’t believe I am saying this, but, frankly, I feel we still need the pablum of these hymns given to us for our frenetic times. Just a few musings …

    • Cynthia BC says:

      When it comes to hymns it certainly isn’t possible to please all of the people all of the time…

      but I DO loathe “One Bread, One Body.”

      Cynthia BC the Hymn Curmudgeon

  8. jj says:

    Call me crazy but singing to me is like iccing on a cake. I’ll take the cake first. The word of God.

  9. Brian says:

    Here is another video of Nella Fantasia by my favorite singer…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wla6TNQbk6s

  10. Jacquelyn says:

    Thank you Msrgr. for sharing your thoughts about music and music theory. Hope you enjoyed the concert. I love this beautiful piece which the music by itself is fantastic. I appreciated it even more when I read the English translation. BTW, credits should be give to Ennio Morricone who wrote the piece for the movie. Lyrics were later written by Chiara Ferrau. I also heard that Sarah Brightman requested that it be put into words so she can sing it, and I heard her version, which is much more operatic. Sorry for being sidetracked from your theme.

  11. Jim Ryland says:

    Msgr,

    As darkness gives light its true glory, sometimes the grotesque can reveal the glory of beauty. I will remember always, turning a corner in the Nelson Gallery and coming face-to-face with a sculpture, “Ecce Homo”. It was a crucifixion without a cross, the stylized form simply hung on a burlap covered wall. The head was thrown back, the mouth was open in agony, and one hand had torn loose allowing the arm to be raised across the forehead. No crucifix in any church has had the impact of that encounter.

    Similarly, music can be impacted when the grotesque is juxtapositioned with great beauty. Contemporary Welsh composer, Karl Jenkins, perhaps best known for the vivaldiesque scoring for the De Beers diamond commercial, has used that contrast to great effect in his mass “The Armed Man – A Mass for Peace”, yet another setting of L’homme arme’. The serene Benedictus is punctuated by artillery fire during the stunning Hosanna. It’s a bit like Fr. Gabriel’s beauty amid hostility.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibwxzxER_pY

    I rather like some of Jenkins’ music. If your choir has not encountered his “Sol-Fa Chorale and Song of the Fields” from the African-inspired “Cantata Mundi”, they’re in for a treat.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2ufP1DQsO8

    As a closer reflecting sheer beauty in the face of what seem to be two reconcilable vocal resources, the “Pie Jesu” from his Requiem is simple but sublime.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BGe_ENJuRM

    Enjoy,
    Jim