Wednesday, June 09, 2004

My choir director asked me to give the choir a talk on beauty

Here it is, with some editing.

Tim has asked me to say a few words about beauty, which is really not my area of expertise. I’m a philosopher, he’s the artist. But I will do my best to shed some philosophical light (which often obscures more than it reveals) on just what it is that artists do.

I start with a quote from John Paul II, in his letter to artists: “In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty.” (3) Goodness and beauty are related, intimately. That which is beautiful must be good, since beauty allows us to see (or in the case of music, hear) the good. Take the example of a beautiful woman: she may be physically perfect, but that shallow beauty may be a lie if she is not herself good. It seems sacrilegious to have a beautiful person be mean.

Or take the example of fruit: a beautiful apple is beautiful because it is good. The beauty is the visibility of the good within it. The sparkling red, firm, shiny apple tells us “I’m yummy!” If the apple weren’t good, it wouldn’t be beautiful, and if it weren’t beautiful, we wouldn’t know it was good. The experience of the evil beautiful woman is like the experience of biting into a beautiful apple and tasting maggots. Beauty and goodness are different ways of understanding the same thing. Beauty is goodness perceived, made manifest.

What does this have to do with music? Music is revelatory: the pope calls art an epiphany, or, as we in the East would say, a theophany. Beauty, and especially liturgical musical beauty, is supposed to reveal the hidden goodness of God and his creation, just as the beauty of a woman is supposed to be a mirror of her hidden goodness.

The artist, then, and that includes us in this choir, has the obligation and duty to show forth the hidden, to create beauty. But here the word “create” is somewhat problematic. It is true that God is both the supreme Beauty and the supreme artist--just think of the words at the end of creation “He saw that it was very good.” But creation is to create out of nothing. In fact, in Hebrew, only God can be the subject of the verb “to create.” Humans can’t really create. We can make.

What’s the difference between creating and making? One creates out of nothing, one makes out of stuff. In carpentry, the stuff is wood. The carpenter is bound in his method by the material he works with. Ask any carpenter: can you make a stool out of balsa wood? The craft of carpentry has to follow the rules of the material. For the musician, who is also a craftsman, the material are tones and the length, pitch, and timbre of those tones. We’ve got to follow the rules there as well. Just as you can’t build a house without cross-bracing, you can’t show forth beauty in music that’s out of tune. That’s just as much a law as any law of science or craft.

Music is just as objective as carpentry. Certainly people will have different tastes, or prefer one melody to another, but no-one likes music badly done. That’s why we practice, so that we can match up to the necessities of the art form itself. Painters study canvas and paint, carpenters study wood, and musicians must study sound. All humans have ears, and ears hear sound the same way, simply because of the laws of nature set up by God. As a result, music that is out of tune, that isn’t together, that has different vowel sounds sung at the same time, that has consonants and sibilants uncoordinated, that isn’t blended, is just as objectively bad as a house built by bad contractors. As proof of the objectivity of music I offer the fact that no-one is beating down my door to hear me play the violin.

Part of the difficulty with communicating the ineffable glories of God in music is that since God is ineffable, there’s no specific chord or melody that can give us a vision of God. So lots of music could, theoretically, recall God’s glory. Lots of different types of tables could serve as a good dinner table. But in no case, do I think, could bad music do it as well as the same piece of music performed well.

Given that the beauty of music is in some sense objective, what is the point of it, especially liturgical music? We’ve already touched on that--it’s to show forth goodness. In our case, it is through beauty to show forth the goodness of the texts we sing. Can we do an example? Just listen to these words: “Let us who mystically represent the cherubim sing the thrice-holy hymn.” Say it. It’s a good text, pointing out the fact of what we represent at liturgy. But does it hit you? Now sing it! Can you hear the difference? Augustine says that “I wept at the beauty of your hymns and canticles, and was powerfully moved at the sweet sound of Your Church's singing. Those sounds flowed into my ears, and the truth streamed into my heart: so that my feeling of devotion overflowed, and the tears ran from my eyes, and I was happy in them.” The words communicate truth to the mind, the melody communicates that truth to the heart, by means of beauty. Or, as JP II puts it, “The `beautiful’ was thus wedded to the `true’, so that through art too souls might be lifted up from the world of the senses to the eternal.”

Dostoyevsky says that "beauty will save the world." Beauty can make us desire the good. It can call us out of a life of the ordinary, a life of sin and alienation, into the very life of God himself.

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