The Lifesaving Power of Music
November 07, 2021 | Sarah Stewart
We are beauty’s handmaidens. It reproduces itself in us. It grabs our attention and displaces us from the tyranny of our self-absorption. Beauty does two things to us. The first is that it shunts us out of our delusion that we are the stars of our own story. We gaze on a wren hopping along a stone wall, or smell the soft head of an infant, or hear the strains of Mozart’s requiem, and we become the beholder. The beauty which our senses perceive is the most important thing, the thing which has (often against our will) grabbed our attention and made us pay homage.
But beauty does more than that. The second thing it does is reproduce itself through us. We hum a tune from the Requiem and recreate a piece of its beauty as we do. We encourage friends to listen to it, sharing the beauty with others. We may even practice an instrument, or take up painting, or become a birdwatcher, just to help recreate more beauty in ourselves and in others. Beauty is like an anti-virus, that uses our minds and souls to replicate itself, bringing us more well-being and contentment as it does so.
During the shutdown of the pandemic, we relied on this quality of beauty, especially through music. Suddenly, in the spring of 2020 and again last winter, we couldn’t go to concerts or visit museums. We couldn’t see the beauty of new babies in the extended family or hear writers read their work live. Yet we could still listen to music. And what a comfort it was. To hear the beauty of music we loved, reminding us that choirs, orchestras and bands had once been possible and would be again, brought us hope. To know that someone else had been spoken to in their soul such that they wrote the music, and someone else had decided to perform it, and some performers had recreated it, and now we were listening—music connected us to one another across distance and time and gave us faith in the perseverance of the human spirit.
Mozart composed his Requiem near the end of his life, in fact not finishing it before he died. He wrote it during his final illness, with full knowledge of the certainty that all our lives must end in death. His Requiem, the mass for the dead, displays his calm acceptance of death, a companion which he called the “best and truest friend of mankind”—because Mozart’s faith told him that a better world awaited human souls, in unity with the divine. So, the beauty of this particular music does more than connect us across the distances that still separate us, or the centuries that have passed while people have performed and appreciated this work of beauty. It connects us to those who have gone before, whose spirits still live in our hearts, and whose souls we commend to God’s loving embrace. When the bells ring at the end of the Requiem, I invite you to bring to mind your own beloved dead, whose memories are alive in you still. I love you all. Amen.
Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999. https://www.francemusique.fr/en/everything-you-always-wanted-know-about-mozart-s-requiem-15670