Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Musical experiences have been described as mind-altering, soul-stirring, body-consuming, and humdrum-transcending. More than hyperbole, these terms attempt to elucidate the ineffable moment when music fills the whole of an individual. Such occurrences are not regular in the sense of happening all the time or resulting from all exposures to musical sounds. Reaching this higher plane depends on the type of music and the type and level of one’s involvement with it. Still, it is achieved often enough for the above depictions to resonate. Though perhaps not automatic for the majority of us, we can recall experiences of musical captivation.
Moments of this sort can be profoundly life-enhancing (and, in some sense, life-saving). Musical absorption offers temporary relief from fears, anxieties, stresses, ailments, and other burdens. Surrendering to the sounds, the person is transported from an existence fraught with turmoil to one in which all is well.
As might be imagined, those involved in the making of music are especially susceptible to its optimal impact. A quotable espouser of musical relief was Joseph Haydn. In his youth, Haydn possessed an exquisite soprano voice. He was sent off to study music, first at the household of a relative, schoolmaster and chorister Johann Matthias Frankh, and later with composer Georg von Reutter, who was music director at Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Neither master took proper care of young Haydn, who was frequently hungry and often wore filthy clothes. Part of his motivation to sing well was to gain the audience of aristocrats, who treated him to refreshments.
By age sixteen, Haydn’s voice had lost its boyish luster and he was dismissed from the choir. He found himself in destitute conditions, living in a cold and leaky attic. He earned a meager income giving music lessons to children and performing in orchestras. But he was not inclined to complain, for it was then that he embarked on a campaign of composition, which would eventually yield over 750 works. Looking back on those lean years, Haydn recalled: “When I sat at my old, worm-eaten clavier, I envied no king his great fortune.”
So it is with anyone who receives music’s holistic embrace. In that moment, however brief, it is as though reality is held in suspension. Hardships resolve in musical waves, and emotional surges quiet the worried mind. The individual enters another realm where nothing is lacking.
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