My text this morning is all the music offered throughout this service of worship — from the organ voluntaries, the Old Testament reading from an ancient hymnbook, the Book of Psalms, and the choral anthem, to the hymns you have sung as a congregation. What I shall I offer as a message is my reflection on music as a gift of God, and I begin not with Bach or Mozart or Beethoven or Douglas Lillburn or David Hamilton, but with an ancient Roman poet, Ovid.
Eight years after the birth of Christ in distant Palestine, this man was sitting in a lonely room on the shore of the Black Sea. To him it must have seemed the most desolate spot on earth. A place where the Danube froze over in winter; a savage world of barbarians living in brutish poverty, Ovid had been banished from Rome, then the capital of the known world, and sent to the edge of the Roman Empire to die, separated from his wife and his family. He says he would have gone mad or committed suicide if he hadn't had the comfort of being able to express his feelings in the poem he was making, a poem which has come down to us more than 2000 years later.
It's hardly surprising that making rhythmical verses relieves the horror of this terrible place, he says, for don't human beings do the same kind of thing everywhere?
The ditch digger, even though he is shackled, turns to song,
lightening his heavy load with a rough tune; he also sings who,
bent forward over the slimy sand, tows the slow-moving barge
against the current; so does the slave pulling regularly on the oar,
timing his stroke to the sound of the flute; the weary shepherd,
leaning on his staff or sitting on a rock, calms his sheep
with the drone of his reed pipe; the slave girl whiles away
her toil, singing as she spins at her allotted task.
Music, this precious gift of God, is a peace-maker. One of the most important social functions of music in every society is to make misery tolerable. For music can take the griefs and rages and fears and hostilities of the present time and turn them into song and melody; getting our troubled emotions and dangerous thoughts off our chests (and hearts) as it were. You have probably noticed how modern pop songs have turned to themes of war, pollution, loneliness, our fears of global warming, the defiance of oppressive authority, and all the rest. And modern high-art music is full of discords, jagged rhythms and electronic hisses — perfectly matching the increasing doubts and anxieties of modern society. Indeed, I’m pretty sure that’s why the relative calm and positive sound-scapes of earlier classical music have such an attraction for so many listeners.
Ain't it hard to stumble when you got no place to fall,
Ain't it hard to travel when you got no place to go,
In this whole wide world I got no place at all,
Left my friends behind, there’s no one here I know.
I'm a stranger here, a stranger everywhere;
I could go home, but honey, I’m a stranger there.
Says a Negro blues song.
Oh what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a new born baby with wild wolves all around it,
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept dripping,
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin',
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
And it’s a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it’s a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a gonna fall,
What a vlsion of dread! And even if Bob Dylan has never again spoken so powerfully, that's a musical statement that carries the accumulated terrors and sufferings of the past, and the anticipated horrors of the future for us all.
Of course, music doesn't always carry such an enormous load of communal dread and anxiety. Indeed, we are often more grateful for the healing power of this gift of God; its power to soothe and calm our anxious fears. Music, in fact, can cheer and encourage us; make us feel happy and secure.
Hush little baby, don't you cry,
Mamrna's gonna make you a blackberry pie (American lullaby)
My pigeon house I open wide and I set my pigeons free
They fly up high into the sky and they sit on the highest tree.
And when they return from their merry, merry flight,
Oh, if you need a friend, I'm sailing right behind.
Like a bridge over troubled waters I will ease your mind;
When you're down and out, when you're on the street,
When evening falls so hard, I will comfort you (Paul Simon)
This astonishing gift of God can calm and console us; sometimes even allow us to give a shout of exultation.
VIVALDI GLORIA /HALLELUJAH CHORUS
The power and beauty of music can be such that it's tempting to dream about its moral virtue, and that's what happens on a warm Italian night when in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice two young lovers talk together as they listen to a musician play. Jessica — who is usually a high-spirited girl — tells Lorenzo, 'I am never merry when I hear sweet music'. Lorenzo (who must have been something of a student) replies that is because of the mysterious power of music over the very soul, for even wild horses will calm down in the presence of music. That’s why the poets invented the myth that Orpheus with his music could draw trees, stones and rivers:
Since naught’s so blockish, hard and full of rage
But music may quite change its nature.
The man that hath no music in himself
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds
Is fit only for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his desires dark as Hell —
Let no such man be trusted.
Well, it's a romantic passage, and it would be comforting indeed to think that men and women with music in them were quieter and calmer and morally finer than the tone deaf and the awkward and the unmusical. Alas, Hitler enjoyed listening to Wagner, and Stalin enjoyed American hillbilly music. In the Renaissance we hear of choir directors kidnapping young singers from other choirs for their own choirs, and the quarrels of pop group musicians are legendary. Like all good gifts, it’s what you do with it that matters.
I turn to yet another aspect of music as a gift of God. Music can provide a vision of a universe in harmony with God and with itself.
For thousands of years there existed a most unscientific but very beautiful idea that music was not only part of the soul of all human beings; it was part of the very nature of the physical universe. That the stars and the planets in their moving created a wondrous and actual symphonic sound.
Let’s go back to our Merchant of Venice lovers. There they are, sitting together in the moonlight, while a friend plays quietly on a lute.
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! — says Lorenzo.
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night
become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with dishes of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou beholdest
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubim —
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But, while this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close them in we cannot hear it.
From the time of the ancient Greeks until the late 16th century it was believed that the planets, circling round our earth and rolling within great crystalline spheres, in their motion gave out a wonderful harmony of sound—the music of the spheres. A sound so sublime that only souls released from the prison of the body at death could hear it, so pure and perfect were the 'cadences and carolings' of the stars and the planets.
Joseph Addison, in his fine hymn (seldom sung these days) 'The spacious firmament on high', gives us€ an idea of what it meant to have lost such a sense that earthly life was a reflection of real cosmic harmony, when scientific discoveries eventually destroyed any belief in the music of the spheres:
What though in silence all move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice or sound amidst these radiant orbs be heard?
In reason's ear they all rejoice and utter forth a glorious voice,
For ever singing as they shine, the hand that made us is divine.
Well, we now know that space isn’t as completely silent as the early scientists supposed, and we’ve been brave enough to send out the music of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven as evidence to whoever is out there of our intelligence and creativity. I half wonder if one day our radio telescopes and all the other hardware we now use will actually pick up a mysterious music, perhaps rediscover a symphonic universe.
What is certain is that music, this beautiful gift of God, is capable of offering a dream, a vision of a good world, a world worthy of the loving providence of God; a world of harmony and concord and mutual love.
You can glimpse it in the way musicians play together as performer and accompanist, as a pop group, a band, a quartet, a great symphony orchestra. I am reminded that Daniel Barenboim founded an orchestra that brought young Arab and Jewish players together — as a symbol of the peace and co-operation that might displace the rage and hostility all too evident in the Middle East. Hearing these young men and women performing the German composer Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its final appeal to the brotherhood of all human beings, brought tears to my eyes.
In music, that dream, that vision of a New Heaven and a New Earth is constant and irresistible. May be there is no music of the spheres; may be the morning stars didn’t literally sing together when our universe came into being (as Job imagined they did). But people everywhere in the world go on expressing through music and song their obstinate sense that there is a harmony at the heart of things; they persist in using this sublime gift of God to set forth their own vision of ultimate goodness.
‘Somewhere, over the rainbow’, sings Judy Garland, for us all.
And American poet Edwin Markham declares
There is a high place in the upper air,
So high that all the jarring sounds of earth,
All cursing and all crying and all mirth
Melt to one murmur and one music there.
And so, perhaps, high over worm and clod,
There is an unimaginable goal
Where all the wars and discords of the soul
Make one still music to the heart of God.
But we have our own poets and our own songs to express our own imagining of the kingdom of God on earth. And one of them is surely Shirley Murray’s ‘Where mountains rise to open skies’, with music by Vernon Griffiths (AA 155).