The Antechamber of Paradise

In lieu of a review, I'm posting today some connected thoughts about the power and character of music.

Music is a powerful force, for either good or evil. I think the first time I realized how powerful music can be was when I was studying music history. One the compositions I studied was Beethoven's 5th Symphony. The first movement, Allegro con brio, is one of the most famous four-note sequences in Western music. It has been compared to the knocking of fate at the door, and was used by the BBC during World War II to introduce its broadcasts, as the opening four-note motif is the letter "V" (for "victory") in Morse code.

I listened to the movement in my bedroom. The amazing sound, coming through the speakers and the subwoofer, blew me away. I was impressed by the sheer power this music had to move me deeply.

The blogger Dissidens, in his blog Remonstrans, mentioned an experience he had with music, which must have been both pleasant and unpleasant:

"There was a time in my life when I was not the sterling example of humanity poets write sonnets about. And I recall in those days putting a vinyl disk on the spindle, setting the needle and sitting down to listen to some JSB [Johann Sebastian Bach]. It was maybe eight bars into the piece and I don’t recall the words that occurred to me, but I do recall the sensation: 'You are nothing but a punk and a wretch! What gives you the right?' As I say, it was more visceral than voiced, but it was as real as a toothache."

The composition that Bach wrote was doubtless beautiful, orderly and symmetrical. Beauty and proper order in music contradicts the ugliness and disorder of our sinful natures.

This concept is well-illustrated by Theodore Dalrymple, a writer for City Journal, in his article When Hooligans Bach Down. I especially enjoyed the story he relates by one Simon Leys:

"Leys was sitting in a café where other customers were chatting, playing cards, or having a drink. The radio was on, tuned to a station that relayed idle chatter and banal popular music (you are lucky these days if popular music is banal only). But suddenly, and for no apparent reason, it played the first movement of Mozart’s clarinet quintet, transforming the café into what Leys called “the antechamber of paradise.” The customers stopped what they were doing, as if startled. Then one of them stood up, went over to the radio, and tuned it to another station, restoring the idle chatter and banal music. There was general relief, as if everyone felt that the beauty and refinement of Mozart were a reproach to their lives to which they could respond only by suppressing Mozart."

The music you listen to has power to affect you for good or evil. The music you listen to is also a reflection of who you are. I wonder: what does the music you listen to say about you?


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