One of the most haunting images I know of comes from the last days of James Simon, a German Jewish composer who perished at Auschwitz. Having survived Theresienstadt, he and others were sent off to their final destination. Witnesses say that the last time they saw him, Simon was waiting for the train that would take him to his end, sitting on a suitcase amid the blowing wind, and scribbling out a piece of music.
Sadness and tragedy suffuse the image. Simon had never been a successful musician. Some of his works were published and performed and a few of his manuscripts were rescued and taken by a friend to New York. But most of his compositions never saw the light of day and never will.
Music that is never heard is a sobering challenge to our hopes and to our sense of what we truly desire. The issue is not lostness in itself. The destruction of twelve thousand musical manuscripts in the Royal Lisbon Library, consumed in the fire unleashed by the 1755 earthquake, was an irreparable cultural dispossession. The works of hundreds of composers simply disappeared, including those of astounding artists such as João Rebelo and Carlos Seixas. The surviving works give but a savor of what once was, and what we shall never taste again. Still, those works had once been performed, dazzling the ears and penetrating the heart. Most music from the past is lost. Written, performed, then fading into obscurity, like the millions of books in our libraries that no one reads, as forgotten as the titles of the lost Library of Alexandria.
Lostness is bound up with temporal limits; we cannot maintain an iron grip on the past. The inevitability of time’s erosion of things may frustrate us, but we know that this is simply how it is: We move, as Marcus Aurelius said, into a “future in which all things disappear.” If this reality discomfits, it is unavoidable, for it arises from the ongoing metaphysical grating underneath all creatureliness. By contrast with music forgotten, music never heard strikes us as a moral problem. It was created toward a specific purpose—to be heard!—but does not reach its end.
The moral issue is obvious when composers are suppressed. The Nazis willfully eliminated Jewish compositions, sweeping them away in the larger slaughter. Simon’s case falls into this category. But there is a long history of less deliberately orchestrated suppression. The recent renewal of interest in the brilliant work of the seventeenth-century Venetian vocalist Barbara Strozzi, or of the eighteenth-century Guadeloupean violinist (and fencer) Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is like auditory reparations for the women and enslaved African musicians whose social position left them silenced from the start.
The moral problem of oppression, however, may obscure the deeper expressive dilemma of throttled music. It is wrong to oppress, we rightly think; and it is wrong, therefore, that something never be heard. We are led to identify being heard with human dignity itself, indeed with being human. Movies of inspiration, like the many iterations of A Star Is Born, exhort the ignored to be true to themselves and thereby find the public adulation they deserve. These are fairy tales aimed at Everyman and Everywoman, urging us all to “find our voice.”
But James Simon, at least at the end of his life, didn’t seem to care. Sitting on a windswept railroad platform awaiting his final journey, he wrote what he knew must remain subject to everlasting silence. Yet still, he wrote.
Most composers and performers know they will never be heard. The sounds come together in their heads, are painfully transcribed onto sheets of paper, and are left in an undisturbed pile. Over days and years, scales are practiced and melodies sent soaring to the ceilings of small rooms, but they never roam outside. Most of these sounds will not reach the ears of audiences. That is how music and the public mix: in a few distillate droplets, which, through Fortune’s blessing, escape the current that sweeps all things downstream toward oblivion. We tend to judge this a horrible waste, the frightening abyss of stymied possibility. If music is a cherished mode of communication, someone must listen, we think, or else the world is diminished and everyone in it. In our individualist age, we generalize: The world must listen to me, or I am no longer what I was meant to be.
But is this the case? The philosopher Charles Taylor has linked his reflections on the modern invention and valuing of “authenticity” with the yearning for “recognition.” In our day, “due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need.” Taylor has been interested in how this modern sentiment gives rise to a sweeping political culture in which “recognition” is the right of every person. Each is to be acknowledged in his specificity. This demand is insatiable, and it has reoriented whole societies toward unsustainable and interminable quests of conflicting satisfactions. Self-expression is not enough. Expression must be acknowledged. Being “heard” becomes the measure of human worth, and its fulfillment drives the functionalist fantasies of every child’s dream of being discovered and lauded on the stage of public opinion.
Solitary confinement is rightly viewed as the worst of living punishments, a place where self-expression is doomed to fail. Solitary confinement “cancels” the self, which is neither seen nor heard. Yet Carthusian monks have retreated to solitary cells in order to find, or at least offer up, their truest selves. The paradox is real. The self is meant for other people, surely. But the deepest part of ourselves is not. It is meant for God. As Solomon prays, only God “knows the hearts of all the children of men” (1 Kings 8:39). This conviction allows us to consign the deepest mysteries of our identity to the Holy Spirit. It founds St. Paul’s patience before the limits on his ministry, which he cannot draw his own arms around.
We need not be called as apostles to grasp St. Paul’s circumstance. We misunderstand each other all the time, however much we shout or sing. And often we hear what is neither intended nor desired. We should have no illusions about hearing and “being heard.” But God knows; God hears. This must constitute our dignity, or little else will.
One of my closest friends was the late David Yeagley, a remarkable classical composer and piano performer whose artistic career was partially derailed by his unpalatable political views, which he disseminated on a variety of reviled blogs. Recovering from three bouts of cancer before finally succumbing, he was unremitting in his creative energies, supporting himself with odd jobs, working as a group-home assistant, and managing a few desultory adjunct teaching posts. He was lucky to get a few of his pieces recorded by obscure Eastern European ensembles on minor labels. The apogee of his public exposure came with the rescreening of the long-forgotten Daughter of Dawn, a 1920 silent film unique for its cast of Comanche actors and rediscovered in 2005. A member of the Comanche Nation, Yeagley was commissioned to write a soundtrack for the restored film. But even this brief moment in the bright lights drifted into the shadows of his illnesses and his poverty.
Yeagley died in a deteriorating house in Oklahoma City, surrounded by boxes and boxes of his manuscripts—quartets, masses, piano music, symphonies. It was an astonishing production, one that no one had seen and no one will hear. Along with these works, however, were piles of notebooks—Bible studies, commentaries, devotions, prayers. He had worked on these as well, all his life, meticulously, quietly, fervently, all of them destined for Another Ear.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.