Music And Worship
( Originally Published 1912 )
Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp and the voice of a psalm.—Hebrew Poetry.
The origin of beauty has always been a difficult problem for the men of science and philosophy. Seen everywhere in nature, no One knows certainly how or whence it came.
As an external fact, the evolutionists think its primal root is in material things. The symmetry of animal forms, the gay plumage of some birds, and the brilliant colors of flowers they think may have been produced by a long process of natural selection. But, if this is true, it is only a partial explanation. It does not account for the presence of all beauty. It does not explain the splendor of a great red sunset; nor the sheen of a summer landscape; nor the mellow glory of an October afternoon. The firefly may kindle its torch, the bird may sing its song, and the cicada make the July woods and meadows seem to have a million voices, all in obedience to some instinct of natural selection. But it is no animal instinct that produces the graceful line where shore and water meet; that paints the seven hued bow on the storm cloud; and pierces the night sky with ten thousand brilliant stars. The cause of all this beauty must be sought elsewhere.
But, even if the origin of all forms and colors and sounds were found, the problem would not be fully solved. The inquiry then would be: How came these forms and colors and sounds to minister such delight to man? Beauty is there, without, in abundance; but whence came this sense of beauty within the soul? The world is, indeed, beautiful, but how did we discover that it is beautiful? Why does the child leave all the dead leaves behind and come forth from the May woods with its hands full of flowers? Why does the eye prefer a curved line to one full of abrupt angles? Why, among all the myriad sounds, does the ear reject all discords and select only the harmonies? Is it the result of experience? Partly perhaps; but when and why was the first act of experience performed? No one can answer this question. All any one can say is that beauty exists in the world as form and color and sound, and in the soul, it appears as a spiritual power. If we knew whence came the world and whence came the soul we would know whence came the beautiful. Denied this knowledge, we must permit it to remain embosomed in mystery.
That which is true of beauty in general is true of each one of its special forms. In the books of science we find interesting chapters concerning music in its origin and meaning. It is traced to a material source.
Its object was originally utility. The human voice was its basis. But the human voice is purely physiological. It is produced by the agency of certain muscles. The theory is that man found himself capable of uttering certain sounds. These sounds could be varied and modified to express different aversions and desires. By some means it was discovered that these variations assumed a rhythmic form and produced pleasurable sensations. Repeated many times, they increased the emotion which expressed them. Thus music is all traced back to some rude cries of pain or pleasure in our savage ancestors. The useful became beautiful merely as an incident of long continued experience. The Largo of Handel and the Pilgrim's Chorus of Tannhauser are only refinements of a few poorly articulated sounds uttered by man when dominated by hunger or passion.
This may be true, but it can hardly be all the truth. It leaves much unexplained. To trace all music to the human voice is to halt too soon. There must have been music in the world before man came. Man did not create rhythm. He only found it. The rain falling upon the leaves is music. So is the wind rising and falling in measured cadence. So is the down pouring cataract. So are the sob and roar of sea waves on sandy or rocky shores and the birds singing in the orchards and the hum of bees and the thunder rolling among the hills, all music. Man did nothing to produce this great oratorio of nature. He only discovered it. Long. before he came its many tones were grandly or sweetly sounding. As the poet has told us that many flowers have bloomed unseen, so many a song has been unheard. This detracts nothing from the rose, nothing from the song. Their glory consists in the fact that they possess qualities capable of awakening such admiration. The glory of man is that he can discover and admire their beauty. Each is fortunate in the existence of the other. Man's soul is the complement of the world. The spiritual is the explanation of the material. The world exists for use, but it exists also for man's delight. The harvests no more grow to satisfy the hunger of the body, than do all graceful forms, all rich colors, all sweet and grand and pathetic sounds exist to satisfy the hunger of the soul. As food taken into the body ceases to be food, but is trans-formed into strength, so sunsets and dawns, flower strewn meadows and star strewn skies, bird song and flute note, taken into the soul, are transformed into joy; into pathos; into longings and aspirations for which there is no name; into open vision of the Perfect. In its ultimate form and meaning all beauty is spiritual. If music began in sense, it ends in soul.
Perhaps we must turn to the poets to find the origin and meaning of this divinest of all the arts. Being the most spiritual of the soul's powers, it can only be discerned by the spiritual. It is the express-ion of the deepest and highest emotions of the human heart. What truths the lips can utter are within the realm of spoken and written words; but, often, there arises something within the heart which cannot be thus expressed. In all the many thousands of words, in a language enriched by contributions from many lands and many times, none can be found able to contain these uprising sentiments. One of our modern poets, looking on the sea, felt the inadequacy of all words to express his thoughts. He only stated a common experience of all sensitive souls. Many a heart confesses the inner presence of
"A yearning for some hidden soul of things,
Thus music came. It was to express the inexpressible; to measure the measureless; to teach the heart to know the unknowable. Thus it is that under the influence of music we are apprised that we possess powers of which hitherto we were ignorant. New outlets are made for our innermost being; new doors are opened into the realm of mystery lying all about us; dormant energies are aroused; and we feel that we may be what we have wished, but never have been 'and are ready to attempt that, which, in our common moods, seems impossible.
Have you ever heard the Zauberflote of Mozart? If so perhaps this will not sound strange to you:
"Here is the realization of a life above the world, an existence raised above all storm and struggle. I have hovered here for hours while countless thoughts floated around me. I was conscious of a sublime re-pose and felt nothing of oppressed humility. It is like an unfading, blooming life. To have lived such hours is the perfection of happiness; no; it is blessedness. I heard such sounds as I would like to hear in my dying hour, making death a delight. Oh, ye blessed spirits of song, ye who create a second world for the soul! The world as it is perplexes us. You unfold its meaning; you solve its problems. You offer ever and ever anew to mankind the rich wine of life in a golden cup and it is never empty though mill-ions there quench their thirst."
Many must have had a similar experience. If language is the road along which the soul passes when in pursuit of life's common duties, music is the splendid bridge arching the flood that rolls between the actual and the ideal over which, at blessed intervals, mortals may freely pass. If language is the chariot in which the soul rides across the earth, music is the wings by which it mounts and soars amid celestial scenes. Of all the arts it seems most subtle, most spiritual, most suggestive of the infinite and unattained; and we all know what is meant by the well-known sentence of Richter when he says of it: "Away! Away! Thou art that which speakest to me of things I never have seen and never shall see."
Such is its power, it is not difficult to see why many legends and myths cluster around its origin. We can see Jubal listening to the myriad sounds of nature until his gladness, rising to ecstasy, at last took form in the lyre and there was communicated to all the sons and daughters of Cain the secret of music; doing for them what spring does for earth,—new waking within their hearts a strange thrill and upward reaching of life and beauty. Apollo, cast forth a helpless babe on a barren island by the jealousy of the gods, can be seen seizing a harp and, touching its strings, lo! fruits and flowers sprang out of the flinty rock and proclaimed him and his art heaven descended. There, too, in the rich dream-land of mythology, Orpheus appears leading captive men and animals and monsters with no weapon but his lyre. In the name of love he descended to the dark under world, and, so persuasive and all subduing were his strains, that Tantalus forgot his thirst; the sad daughters of Danaus had respite from their hopeless task; the wheel of Ixion ceased to revolve; and even Pluto was stirred by pity. Nor must Pan be forgotten, friend of shepherd and shepherdess, haunting groves and fountains, patron of youth and joy, and who made the first flute. Thus a gifted woman has put his deed into-poetry:
"What was he doing, the great god Pan,
He tore out a reed, the great god Pan
This is the way, laughed the great god Pan,—
Sweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan!
This is the poetical statement of the origin of the flute; but if the history of its development is less poetical and mythical, it is more wonderful than its origin. The first discovery was that air rushing through a tube produces sound. That was enough. From that hint, after ages of experiment, came the pipe-organ. From the story of Pan, sitting by the river's brink making two or three notes on a hollow stick, has, at last, come this amazing instrument with its many hundred pipes and its many thousand notes, some of them deep and strong enough to make these stone walls tremble and others so soft and gentle that they would not disturb a sleeping child. Pan had only breath enough to fill two or three little pipes. But here, within, are lungs acting as if with human intelligence, taking light or deep breaths as may be needed;—a mighty bosom rising and falling rythmically; with force enough to lift hundreds of pounds of pressure; filling miles of tubes and pipes at one breath and still not exhausted! Everything within working noiselessly, and yet the thunder-bolt has been tapped to furnish force! It is nothing short of the marvelous.
What now shall we say of the great god Pan?
Thus if the origin of music is mysterious, its growth is almost miraculous. If the ancients thought it came down from heaven, it seems now to have re-turned to the divine heights whence it descended.
The musical term "scale," representing the arrangement of the notes, comes into our speech directly from the Latin word scala, which means a ladder or stairway. It is that by which ascent is made from the lower to the higher. How significant this is as applied to music! The musical scale is the stairway by which the emotions climb to the heights. As they appear to the eye, the many notes are the footprints of a beautiful spirit that has passed up and down the stairs. As they appear to the ear, they are the sound of the footfalls of the same spirit. In the gentler passages the rustling of its gorgeous robe may be heard. The rests are pauses where the enlarging outspread scene of life is beheld,— as, in climbing a mountain, one often halts to look back whence he came and toward the summit whither he is going and, from what is seen, gathers strength and inspiration to press upward. A ladder is largest at its base and to be useful must be firmly planted on the solid earth. Thus the lower tones are firm and strong. They seem to be of the earth and not of the air. Into them seems to be emptied the elemental forces which created and uphold the world. There is suggested the power which started the planets on their never ending course. There is the upheaval of mountains; the channeling of rivers; the crash of the earthquake; the roar of the ocean. Ascending, finer forces appear. Man comes on the scene. Thought begins. Cities, commerce, laws are suggested. Then still finer forces manifest themselves. Poetry, friendship, religion, aspirations, great spiritual uplifts, dreams of perfect goodness and life immortal appear. A great piece of music contains a picture of creation reaching from star-dust to the solar system and a picture of human history extending from the savage to the saint.
What a stairway was that built before our eyes on two nights of the past week! The one built by Pericles, leading from the city up to the Parthenon, was less magnificent. It was more like that one the Dreamer saw. Standing on the earth it reached, not to a temple made by hands, but to the great splendid heavens which only the soul can see. What forms were seen passing and repassing along its steps! What were they ? All we have ever thought or done or felt or loved or hoped of goodness and beauty. A numberless company of angels whose robes, in brilliant coloring, surpassed a meadow in June.
We may all confess that the mystery of music consists in its spiritual quality. Heard with the ear it is one thing; heard with the soul it is another thing. As a material thing it is subject to exact laws. A sound is simply caused by vibrations of air. Few vibrations in a second produce a low, many pro-duce a high tone. It seems very simple. These vibrations, striking upon certain sensitive nerves, pro-duce hearing. Everything entering into sound and hearing is material. Watching the building of this organ one could not avoid wondering how it could ever produce such marvelous secondary effects.
Everything entering into it is material. It is simply an assembling, in a certain form, of wood and metal and canvas and felt and air and electricity. These are all combined in accordance with a plan whose purpose is to produce many different sounds. This is done with scientific precision. But behold the result! When everything is arranged human hands begin to wander up and down the keys; the air begins to quiver; the nerves in the ear tingle; taste pronounces the sound music. But the instant the sound reaches the soul it produces another effect. Hope unfurls its wings; a sweet presence makes itself felt; unutterable gladness is there; the hour becomes sacred; tears may fill the eyes; vanished forms reappear; life becomes rich in possibilities; and the curtain is swept to one side for a moment unveiling the mystery of existence. This is the marvel: That the material is transmuted into the spiritual! Wood and metal changed into love and worship! Is it not wonderful ? We know not what it means unless it be that, before the material, the spiritual was;— that music is the voice of One who is from everlasting speaking, grandly or sweetly, to something in us which is to everlasting; it is deep answering to deep.
Our new organ will perform its truest function, not when it gives pleasure to the senses alone, but when it exalts and refines the soul. As often as we hear it we should behold a picture of our better selves. It is a voice direct to us from the ideal. No matter what the sermon may be, it will always be eloquent. Its meaning will never be sectarian, but universal. Whatever harm the sermon does, it will more than undo. Although the spoken prayer may sometimes fail to utter that for which the heart most longs, it will never fail. Coming together for meditation and worship, its tones will most inspire us. It will silence the clamors of sense and passion. It will shut out the din of strife and lay a restraining touch on our low ambitions. It will make our burdens lighter; our discontents it will banish; it will soothe the wounds our griefs have made; and for each other it will make our heart's love burn with steadier and brighter flame.
We speak of dedicating the organ, but already it is dedicated. Its music is its perfect consecration. It cannot utter a dull or uninspiring or irreligious note. Its whole work lies in the upper, the ideal, the sacred realm of life's meaning. It is we who need dedication. We should here resolve to consecrate ourselves to the spiritual life which its harmonies open to our astonished gaze.
Coming here from Sunday to Sunday and listening to its inspired and inspiring music may we all have this open vision of life's holiest meaning. May sweet memories and sweeter hopes hover over our souls. May we feel that we are being carried forward and upward to where the imperfect becomes perfect; to where the symbol gives way to the reality; to where the mortal fades in the splendor of the immortal.