MUSIC AS SACRAMENT

by Dr. Paul Barnes

 

A great deal of my professional life as a concert pianist is spent exploring the intimate and fascinating connection between the world of music and the world of theology. Before I progress further, I must state categorically that I am primarily a musician who passionately loves theology. And while many times I might envy the theologian who passionately loves music, I do not consider myself a theologian by any means. So please consider the limitations of the following observations in that perspective.

I have always loved to make connections between subjects that at first glance seem wildly unrelated. And my lecture recital entitled Liszt and the Cross: Music as Sacrament in the B Minor Sonata is a perfect case-study. Unsuspecting concert goers are initially presented with a perfect example of what I have called “cultural dissonance” when they arrive for my performance of Liszt’s monumental B Minor -Sonata and see an enormous Byzantine icon of the Transfiguration on stage next to the concert Steinway piano. It is my challenge in the course of my lecture to bridge the seemingly foreign worlds of Liszt’s 19th century Romanticism with the ancient theology of the icon.

I begin with the important anthropological truth that mankind is a sacramental being. As Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy writes: “Mankind is a sacramental being by nature and needs the instrumentality of both sacraments and symbols to attain communion with the Invisible.”

And Franz Liszt, as a devout Roman Catholic living for a time in the predominantly Protestant German town of Weimar, understood this sacramental truth and was highly critical of Christianity devoid of sacramental reality. He writes in 1834:

How in the end did the reformers not perceive that to try to spiritualize religion to the point where it subsists devoid of all external manifestation is tantamount to claiming a reform of the work of God, the great and sublime artist who, in creating the universe and mankind, revealed himself as the omnipotent, eternal and infinite poet, architect, musician, and sculptor?

And we musicians innately understand this sacramental connection in relation to our music. Our medium is visceral, physical. In my case as a pianist, I strike keys that move hammers that strike strings that vibrate and with the help of a soundboard, create physical waves that directly and physically communicate to all within hearing range of the performance. And it is here where I find an important connection between the world of music and the world of the icon.

In contrast to standard Western painting where perspective is portrayed naturally, many icons use “inverse perspective.” Rather than the eye being drawn away to a spot in the distance where all lines naturally converge (as in reality), the iconographer frequently reverses this process and throws all lines toward the viewer. Once this is realized, the viewer (or if Orthodox, the prayer) is no longer the objective viewer of a “work of art,” but rather a participant in the sacred reality of the icon. Objectivity gives way to the mystery of sacred space — the viewer is engulfed in sacred love.

And in many ways, with music, the sound waves of a performance engulf the listener in a way that makes objectivity less possible. The listener is in the sacred space of the performance. The facade of rationality melts away and the listener is transported to a different reality — a mystical reality where God’s grace can be experienced directly. It is this sacramental quality about musical experience that resonates with the experience of the icon. The priest Felicite de Lamennais, Liszt’s spiritual mentor, wrote:

Music, a sister of poetry, effects the union of the arts, which appeal directly to the senses, with those which belong to the spirit; there object is … to second the efforts of humanity, that it may fulfill its destiny of raising them from the earth, and therefore by inciting to a continual upward striving.

Liszt biographer Alan Walker states in his monumental three-volume biography that “Music, for Liszt, was the voice of God. He often behaved as if music possessed healing properties. Because of its divine origin, he seemed to say, mere exposure to it was a spiritual balm.” And echoing the Orthodox theology of worship, Liszt himself writes, “Art is heaven on earth, to which one never appeals in vain when faced with the oppressions of this world.” And affirming the important element of mystery in sacramental experience, he writes again, “... Is not music the mysterious language of a faraway spirit world whose wondrous accents, echoing within us, awaken us to a higher, more intensive life?”

Understanding Liszt’s language about the mystical world of musical experience invites further connections. Certainly Fr. Gregory Petrov’s Akathist communicates that same idea:

In the harmony of many voices, in the sublime beauty of music, in the glory of the works of great composers, You lead us to the threshold of paradise to come, and to the choir of angels. All true beauty has the power to draw the soul towards You and to make it sing in ecstasy: Alleluia!

In fact, the most important connections go all the way back to St. Athanasius and St. John of Damascus. St. Athanasius’ bold and unflinching defense of the physicality of the incarnation of Christ reclaimed the biblical vision of God communing with his creatures though the physical world. And St. John of Damascus’ defense of the icon as the affirmation of the same incarnation is the very basis for a “theology of the arts.” In closing, what St. John says about the icon certainly gives patristic weight to the icon/music connection. His words could easily describe Liszt’s magnificent Sonata in B Minor:

[It] is a song of triumph, and a revelation, and an enduring monument to the victory of the saints and the disgrace of the demons.

Dr. Paul Barnes is co-chair of piano at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His lecture/recitals exploring the relationship of theology and music have received international acclaim. Liszt and the Cross: Music as Sacrament in the B Minor Sonata explores the fascinating relationship between music, theology, and the Orthodox icon and has been featured at the 1996 MTNA National Convention and the 1996 American Liszt Society Festival. It was also presented in several places throughout our Diocese and reviewed in Jacob’s Well, Winter 1997.

Barnes’ latest lecture/recital entitled Minimalism, Mysticism and Monasticism: Music as Contemplation delves into the contemplative aspects of music featuring works of Arvo Part, Philip Glass, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Barnes will give the premier performance at the Astman International Concert Series at Hofstra University in March 1998.

From Jacob’s Well
Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey
Orthodox Church in America
Fall/Winter 1997-1998

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