Monday, April 2, 2012

Music hath charms, and a whole lot more

One of my favourite Shakespeare quotations is rather obscure. It comes from Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Scene iii:  
Benedick: Now, divine air! now is his soul ravished! Is it
not strange that sheeps' guts should hale souls out
of men's bodies?

And here it is, accompanied by a great song:

I’m glad there is a God, because if there wasn’t, I might possibly worship music. And that wouldn’t work, because as good as music makes me feel at times, it couldn’t, all by itself, save my soul. (Of course, without a God, the profound beauty and sublimity of music could not have come to be, but let’s not get too theological.)

Our local region (a cluster of several small communities) has just finished its annual music festival.  Five of my (seven) daughters competed in piano solo and duet classes, as well as in a choral class with their church youth choir. As a mom it’s more or less my duty to brag: the choir won an award and so did each of my five girls, one of whom was named Most Outstanding Performer of the festival by the adjudicator. But I am, of course, equally proud of them all.

The festival is the culmination of months of hard work and dedication by teachers, volunteers and music students. The reward is not so much the prizes, wonderful though they are, but—to my mind at least—the opportunity to suspend life's usual mundane schedule, and sit there for hour upon end, gorging on live music. It’s not all professional quality of course (though some of those older teens come darn close); in fact none of it is, but there is still a lot of joy in seeing students who love music sing and play their hearts out. And yours too.

In one class, my 12-year old (Miss P. #5) played a song called “The Last Lullaby” by Michael Lett. I searched in vain for an online recording of this music. Maybe I’ll try to get one of my tech-savvy children to record it and post it on here as a video or audio file. I had, of course, heard this piece over and over for the past several months, as Miss P. was learning and practicing and rehearsing it, and enjoyed its sweet melancholy strains. But it wasn’t until just before she performed it in competition that I was having coffee with her music teacher, and learned the story behind the song. Not only was it composed by a Canadian, but he’s from my own province of Saskatchewan, born and raised not terribly far from where I live. When Michael wrote the piece, he was still in high school (wow). And --gulp-- he composed it for his sister, who was dying of cancer. (*reaches for kleenex*)

I wish the teacher hadn’t told me that—at least not at that moment. I have strong emotional (and sometimes physiological) reactions to music at the best of times. For instance, I can’t relax and go to sleep while listening to some classical music, because it makes my heart race and/or makes me break out in a sweat, even if I’m just lying on the couch doing nothing. And I’m not talking John Philip Sousa, either, but ethereal, sublime stuff like Fauré’s Requiem (I know. Totally weird). It’s much worse when it’s being performed live: there is no comparison whatever between a good recording played on a good stereo system and a living, vibrating instrument in the same room. You might feel the vibrations of a stereo speaker, but you can’t feel the timbre.  Or the excitement of a live human being singing or playing exquisite music. In a few years, hopefully I’ll be able to blame the flushed faces and near-swooning fits on other middle-aged lady reasons, but for now it’s bit embarrassing to be caught slack-jawed (I hope I’ve never drooled in public), glassy-eyed, or in various other near-ecstatic states in the middle of a live musical performance.

But back to the music festival, where parents sit with held breath and profuse prayers, hoping that their child will make it through their painstakingly prepared pieces...well, in one piece (there is nothing, absolutely nothing worse, from a child's perspective, than playing your piece a thousand times perfectly at home, only to come to festival and have a train wreck. It's hard on those watching too, because you can imagine how they feel.) 

Miss P. started playing “The Last Lullaby”. In addition to my vicarious nervousness, I also started thinking about that young composer and his sister. I could feel my heart being twisted out of my rib cage and drawn slowly up my throat to the point where I thought I might suffocate or faint, and I naturally didn’t want either of those things to happen—interruptions being strictly verboten at music festival. It had to come out somewhere, so I just started to cry instead. Not sobbing, of course—just got really choked up and my eyes were blurry, so that I could no longer watch my daughter perform; I could only look down and discreetly try to blink away those tears threatening to overflow and ruin my mascara. I regained my composure before the next competitor took the stage. Luckily she was playing a blues piece so that helped. Miss P. was awarded first place in that class, and later received a scholarship for that performance, not that it matters. It would have been achingly beautiful regardless of outcome.

I used to feel quite freakish about the way music affects me, until I read an essay by Chesterton (about love and the family) in which he obliquely refers to the “unbearable beauty of music.” I know just what he means.

But you know what? I’m not surprised that music can do this. It is a gift from God, and (as far as I can tell from Scripture) it’s the only thing we can ‘take with us’ when we die. For there is, and will be, music in heaven.

On this first day of Holy Week, I leave you with Allegri’s Miserere Mei, sung by one of my all-time favourite choirs. 1987 recording, so just ignore the funny glasses, and concentrate on those amazing voices, especially that soaring little treble.  


  1. Mrs. P., that was beautiful.

  2. Thank you, Anon. And I mean that in a non-Shakespearian way.

  3. You're welcome, I trow. (Anonymous was I. I was just too lazy to sign in.)

  4. A pox upon you for a scurvy knave. Forsooth, I thought I had an actual reader there for a minute. No offence.

  5. You guys (and I mean that in the most feminine of manners), are just too funny!

  6. I don't mind being called a guy. I think guy is Latin for "man," or something, and that means all of humanity. The only people who don't like being called "man" are feminists. Because they just wish they WERE men, but without breasts... or was that two other ladies. What were we talking about again?