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Music is a divine balm in the midst of the world’s sorrows. Music is also a sorrow in search of a balm. It offers a sui generis grace, one that we may wish to approach carefully.

Most of us understand the two sides of music’s power intuitively. Balm in the midst of sorrow is what we love. Although I tend to disapprove of listening to music through earphones, ensconced in an artificial fortress as the world goes by, I am too weak and hungry to adhere to my convictions. The other day, while walking through the heat of the city, surrounded by the debris of broken lives, I played a recording of a piece by the seventeenth-century composer Henry Du Mont on my phone. He was a trailblazer in the development of the instrumentally accompanied religious motet. Suddenly, as I stepped through the smoke-filled atmosphere, into my ears—and soul—there poured the transformative sounds of two sopranos singing “Quam pulchra es amica mea,” “How beautiful you are, my friend,” from the Song of Songs. Although I did not weep openly on the sidewalk, I might as well have. I had been offered a window of hope. The famous scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption captures this grace marvelously. Locking himself in the prison warden’s office, the protagonist illicitly broadcasts an LP playing a duet from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. The crystalline lines float across the prison yard. Out of nothing emerges a sense of wonder and joy among the astonished and otherwise benumbed inmates.

This is, of course, what David does for Saul. The narrative of the young shepherd’s musical gifts for his patron is well known, though perhaps not sufficiently appreciated. Here is a tortured king, unhappy in his vocation, humble enough, perhaps, but profoundly uncertain as he labors beneath the unsought burdens of his role. He is sinking into melancholy and what will soon appear as outright madness. Yet David, with a song, can still his master’s heart. “And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him” (1 Sam. 16:23).

David’s music echoes in the Psalms and becomes theologically paradigmatic. He is called, in Jewish tradition, “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1), and elaborate discussions unfold regarding the number of strings on his harp. (They are variously enumerated in the Psalms.) The differently figured strings are taken to indicate David’s elevation to levels of spiritual vision and existence brought by music itself—the eight strings pointing to the Messianic Age, the ten strings embodying the Age to Come. David’s music is a figural vehicle of the soul’s transformation, lifting us ever higher into the realms of joy before God.

But music stirs sorrow as well, and it does so in a way that is oddly attractive. YouTube is filled with playlists of “sad songs.” To tug at the heart’s aching can perhaps open us, in our very longing, to something beautiful. Or maybe not. For this shadowed musical realm is one attuned to fallenness and betrayal as well, chiming the ironic sounds of cruelty. Consider again Saul. It seems that David’s songs not only soothed the king, but at times did the opposite, rousing within him the flurry of “evil spirits,” stoking his anxiety, paranoia, and violence, even provoking his attempt on David’s life (1 Sam. 18:10; 19:9). Music can, it seems, conjure darkness. It can mask evil and mock or parody the good. We might justly think of the elaborate baroque compositions piled up in the colonial estates of Colombia and Paraguay to accompany hard labor, or of the rote hymns of missionary imposition, or even of the cruel musical charades demanded of the inmates of the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

It is important to hold balm and sorrow together rather than range one against the other. A few years ago, I learned of a discovery in a Mexico City convent school archive. It was an eighteenth-century manuscript of astonishing solo violin music by the otherwise unknown Nicolás Olivari, penned, it seems, for the young girls sent away, or confined, to the school’s precincts. We can only guess at their backgrounds, their resistances, and the swirl of pressures that clothed their education. Yet here, behind the walls, they learned music as penetrating as Telemann’s and as pellucid as Scarlatti’s. Olivari’s enigmatic manuscript points to the way this “colonial” and “patriarchal” music can be yoked to transcendence. Burden or gift? Not one or the other, it seems. Again, anyone who has worshipped at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and heard the orchestra made up of children at the church’s music school will understand this conjunction. The children learn and play mostly Western-style music and instrumentation. Such a tradition evokes vestiges of a twisted past; it is a lifeline; there is light in an abyss. Prayer flows easily and extravagantly. Tears of joy are real; they are also difficult. Can it be otherwise?

Music makes us weep as much as smile, recoil as much as give thanks. Handel understood this as well as anyone. In one of his earlier English oratorios, the magnificent Saul, he focuses on the paradox of David’s two-edged musical gift. To this end, Handel made strange and eerie use of the carillon and harp in Act I, representing, with their unusual timbres, the way melody both stoked Saul’s madness even as David also sought to bring him peace (effected in the incomparable aria “O Lord, whose mercies numberless”). How to sing of such divine compassion in the face of royal mania?

Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens (of Messiah fame), was unhappy with the composer’s musical choices. He described the instrumentation as a “maggot” in Handel’s mind—eccentric, troubling. Handel was confusing the clean lines of the narrative by attributing to David’s music the bizarre rippling lines of tenderness and savagery both. The haunting sounds seemed to open up—at least for some eighteenth-century ears—a frightening ravine of vying inspirations.

But Scripture is filled with expressions of this mystery. Balm and sorrow are ever combined. Another popular Song of Songs–inspired motet, Monteverdi’s “Pulchra es,” is itself a version of this tension. The love poem here (6:4–5) becomes an expression of God’s own passion:

Thou art beautiful, O my love,
sweet and comely as Jerusalem,
terrible as an army set in array.
Turn away thy eyes from me,
for they have made me flee away.

The emphasis on God’s emotive power is significant. It presses us beyond our habitual sense of music as a human act. To be sure, music is rightly seen as part of the created order, a creaturely production that, however inspired, is ours to offer as a gift. In this sense, music stands at the center of our worship of God. Calvin himself—not known for his sentimentality—was certain that music “lends dignity and grace to sacred actions, and has the greatest value in kindling our heart to a true zeal and eagerness to pray.” Music can function as a faithful tool for elevating our hearts in an “ascent” to God. Richard Hooker and other theologians agreed, and (against his Puritan opponents of the time) advocated the singing of the Psalms on the basis that this put our prayers in tune with the angelic melodies of heaven’s own adoring (and melody-making) host.

Yet we must go further, for God is the first singer: “The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing” (Zeph. 3:17). Before we open our mouths, God has uttered his own song. Our music, at its best, flows from his own heart, and from him the sui generis grace of song emerges. For God’s heart is one of justice and mercy both, and from its depths proceed his “tearing and healing,” his “smiting and binding” (Hosea 6:1), his sorrows and his balm. The divine holds music’s meaning in complete synthesis. He offers his body and blood in a meal and gets up to walk into abandonment, and then, with his wayward friends, “sings a hymn” (Mark 14:22–26). What the divine has done for us opens up a chasm of yearning that awaits its heavenly fulfillment.

Perhaps we should be wary of God’s heart, and of the music that is his “terrible grace,” to use Stephen Crane’s (and Balthasar’s) phrase. Or perhaps, instead, we should take our music more seriously, approaching it with more recklessness and hopefulness and longing. Music really isn’t for earphones. It is the sound that is made by the whole of our soul’s often joyful, often anguished journeying into the midst of God’s consuming light. 

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.

Image by Sailko, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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