Spirit in Sound

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Wagner is my religion.” Thus said an enthusiast when asked by a friend why he had not been attending church. The response was certainly not a comment on Wagner the man, whose character and views are even less worthy of devotion than the average person. Nor was it meant to imply that Wagner’s music was sufficient to replace the multi-layered and multi-faceted complexity of religious affiliation. Not coincidentally, the quip hearkened back to words penned by Wagner himself, namely: “I found true art to be at one with true religion,” and “[I]f we obliterate or extinguish music, we extinguish the last light God has left burning within us.”

What, if anything, should be gleaned from the remarks of Wagner and the extoller of his musical virtues? Is it not careless to compare works of music to religious beliefs and practices? How can listening to music possibly fulfill the duties and obligations placed on the religiously observant? Is human-made music really comparable to the light of God? Are these statements hyperbolic or intentionally provocative?

These and similar questions appear on their face to be reasonable challenges. Surely, it is impossible for music to replace the awesomeness of a deity or the dogma, ritual and pageantry a deity commands. But this line of questioning does not accurately address the “music as religion” position. It is better to ask if and how, on an experiential level, music satisfies central aims and expectations of religious adherence.

A musical experience might involve a series of quasi-religious epiphanies. Attaining them depends on a number of conditions, not the least of which are the listener’s orientation and attributes of the music itself. Just as religious practices yield varying and circumstantially shaped results, epiphanic musical moments can sometimes be unobtainable, at times fleeting and other times long-lasting. Any discussion of the overlap of music and religion must therefore begin with recognition that we are dealing with ideals.

Potential musical revelations include the following: Penetrating tones might stimulate deep introspection; Emotional and kinesthetic reactions might suggest the indwelling presence of a spiritual force; The arrangement of sonic materials might evoke a sense of cosmic order; The abundance of sound might suggest a transcendent power; The creativity the music exudes might inspire renewed faith in humanity; The listener might be motivated to translate the music into positive action. In these and other ways, musical and religious engagement can have similar (or even identical) benefits.

R. Heber Newton (1840-1914), an Episcopalian writer and priest, supplied a summation of this effect in his treatise, The Mysticism of Music. In characteristically eloquent language, he compared the feelings roused at a concert with those derived from religious activities: “Here is the broad thought known to all who love music intelligently, that it expresses, outside of the church, the highest principles of religion and morality, as they influence the sentiments and actions of men. Music vindicates thus the cardinal principle of religion, its central article of faith—that human life, as such, is divine, that the secular is after all sacred.”

What Heber observed and what has been described above is probably closer to spirituality than religion proper. Religion is a technical term encompassing an intricate network of social, historical, cultural, doctrinal, aesthetic and ritual elements. Music alone cannot replace such a system. But, again, this misses the point. Religion and secular music converge in the arena of outcomes. They differ in substance and form, but can be directed toward like ends.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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