Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Art: The Gift of Music

One of the great blessings we enjoy everyday is music.

It surrounds us; bird songs, traffic humming, wind.
Our Ipods, MP3 players, and all the newest technologies allow us to hide music in our ears and our hearts. Our homes and cars are equipped with satellite radios that offer everything imaginable.

Why do we desire, crave, consume all this music?

Dr. Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at The Boston Conservatory, shares his insights in an address there on September 1, 2004.

Olivier Messiaen was 31 years old and a French composer when he was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.

Olivier was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose his music. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote a quartet with these specific players in mind. His composition was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp.

Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire and his Quartet for the End of Time is considered one of the most profound musical compositions of all time.

Why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music in a concentration camp? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music?

And yet—from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art.


Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life.

The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art.

Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are.

Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive..."

It was years ago, a summer night. Our family had just heard that someone loved had been in a horrific automobile accident; his chances of survival were slim. We were overwhelmed; we couldn't talk, watch television, play games like we usually did. We all congregated on the front porch, in the soft darkness, silent for a while. Then, someone started singing an old hymn, and the rest of us joined in. We were not gifted singers, we were not especially spiritual, we were not trying to impress anyone. The singing was spontaneous, possibly an act of grieving. The joining of young and old, male and female voices, calmed us, gave us strength. We endured.

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: 'Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise' Revelation 5: 11-12