Beyond the beauty, music can also be unsettling and ultimately enlightening
Tempting as it might be to declare this column a politics-free zone, not least in this, the most festive of seasons, to do so wouldn’t really do justice to the relevance we all know music has to the world in the widest sense, something I discussed here last month.
You don’t need me to point out that the year ends with many of our countries more aware of their divisions than when it began. The stark light of the democratic process has highlighted a worrying lack of unity and understanding within what are supposed to be shared societies. (Though it’s worth remembering of course that many more countries don’t even have a democratic process in which such divisions can easily and openly be discussed and addressed.) But given all this, it would perhaps be understandable if we simply sought release from such concerns, and the undoubted challenges they raise, in music – to find transcendence, and escape, through abstract art. But no – to do so would just risk rendering art mere entertainment. This is something that’s particularly pertinent, though not unique, to Christmas choral music, which is a focus of many of the features in the latest issue of Gramophone, as is usual in our December edition.
Much music of the church is of course simply beautiful in its own right, and can be taken as a pure and uplifting glimpse of heaven, if you like – at one with the soaring ecclesiastical architecture in which it’s invariably heard. But the music is meant to do more than that. It’s meant to elevate the meaning of the words it sets, not merely subsume them into something pretty and palatable. This is something equally shared by great composers of faith and of none: they all recognise the power of what message and music can, combined, convey. It is something that can, of course, be equally true of Lieder and opera. All great art should leave us seeing the world around us, and ourselves, a little differently.
But throughout the world, over the next few weeks, people will gather in churches or halls to sing or hear choral pieces – for some the only annual occasion when they might listen to such music. Some of the set words will speak of sharing peace and goodwill with all men – an important message, but also one that’s easy to nod along with and to feel good in doing so. Other words are much more obviously challenging, particularly those which have a bearing on the place that service, or the stranger, or possessions, are meant to play in our lives. Whether you are religious or not, contained in such music is something unsettling – though unsettled, perhaps, is what we need to be.
And when words aren’t involved? Purely instrumental music can be just as unsettling. Works written during periods of uncertainty, or during wars, or by composers in happier times and climes but whose work sought nonetheless to explore the difficulties and complexities of life. Such music was never meant to be escapist.
So whatever we choose to listen to this season, let’s listen with open hearts and minds; and then, emboldened and enlightened by what we have heard, endeavour to try to make our world a better place.
A very Happy Christmas to you all.