Music is cathartic and a perfect balm to the soul in trying times.
I will always remember watching with my children. This past Easter, at the height of the pandemic overtaking northern Italy, when the Italians were locked away in their homes and the town squares had settled into an eerie silence, Bocelli sang for his people in Milan. His concert was broadcast throughout the world, including to our home where my children and I sat rapt in amazement.
I had a similar experience during the Easter Triduum in my parish. As a priest, I committed to praying the three days in their entirety. We had a Holy Thursday Mass, a Good Friday liturgy, and the Easter Vigil. Because of our stay-at-home order in St. Louis, no parishioners were allowed to participate other than a few musicians and readers, but we cut no corners. I and the musicians sang every part of those liturgies as though our lives depended on it. The Pange Lingua was chanted, the Exsultet was chanted, every single reading was read at the vigil and every Psalm sung. Every Sunday since, we’ve kept up our music program the best we can. People at home are watching and have thanked us for our efforts, noting that the music in particular has brought comfort. Music has the power to bring peace to weary souls, particularly in difficult situations.
The philosopher Alain de Botton makes a good point when he says, “Art has never been mere entertainment. Alongside religion, it has been humanity’s chief source of consolation.” I recently wrote about the importance of other types of art, about how vital poetry is and how I’m reading my way through quarantine. Music is every bit as life-giving. It isn’t just about distraction and entertainment, it’s an expression of the human soul.
When we are suffering or sad, that is exactly when we need music. De Botton explains, “The greatest share of the art that humans have ever made for one another has had one thing in common: it has dealt, in one form or another, with sorrow. Unhappy love, poverty, discrimination, anxiety, humiliation, rivalry, regret, shame, isolation and longing; these have been the chief constituents of art down the ages.”
Music in particular is good at letting us experience our feelings. It’s a cathartic, shared experience to listen to a beautiful song and meditate on the ups and downs of life. There’s a kinship — the artist understands us and we understand each other. God is in it, too, and offers consolation through a unique language deeper than words. We are lead into the deepest truth about what it means to be human, to suffer with dignity, to find grace and redemption in that suffering.
Lately, I’ve found myself sitting in the garden in the early afternoons with a cup of coffee, staring up at the bees feeding on crab tree nectar in the flowers above, and listening to music. I’ve been gravitating towards songs that evoke a sense of nostalgia and longing, that transform anxiety and suffering into transcendent peace.
Here are a few things I’ve been listening to and highly recommend. Maybe they can find a way onto your own playlist.
Giovanni Palestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli
The music of Palestrina is like looking through a stained glass window. His gift is to go straight to the heart of beauty. The poetry of the words merge into the melody. His most famous work is for use in the Church, and nothing is more fruitful than meditating on the juxtaposition of beauty and sacrifice that is present in his work.
William Byrd – Mass for 4 Voices
Byrd was a genius, but his best work was barely known during his lifetime. This is because he wrote music to be used during Mass, but in Elizabethan England, where he lived and worked, Catholic Masses were illegal. So Byrd’s work is intimate and delicate, made for three or four voices to be sung in small makeshift chapels hidden away from the authorities. His music expresses the soul of a people in captivity but who refuse to be caged — and it is gorgeous.
Cappella Romano – Cherubic Hymn in Mode 1
You have to hear this to believe it. Cappella Romano figured out how to recreate the sound of ancient chant as it would’ve sounded in the Hagia Sophia when it was still a functioning Byzantine Orthodox Church. The chant echoes off the room and fills the space in a way that sounds like the music of heaven itself. The music is bittersweet because it speaks of a time when the songs weren’t performance pieces but belonged to a living tradition. The music was prayer incarnate. It occurs to me that nothing can last forever, that beauty is fleeting, and we must appreciate each moment as it comes to us.
Arvo Part – Spiegel im Spiegel for cello and piano
This one is so gorgeous it rips my heart out. There’s a restraint to it, almost as if the mystery of which it speaks is too sacred to name. When I first saw it performed, I noticed that one of the other musicians was actually on the verge of tears while she played and listened.
The comment thread on the video is amazing, containing stories of miraculous healings and references to how it has helped some listeners survive feelings of isolation and despair caused by quarantine. One commenter gets it just right, saying the cello gently breathes and the piano is a peaceful, beating heart.
Gabriel Faure – Requiem Mass
I first heard Faure’s Requiem played live at the funeral of a priest. The priest had wanted to make one last gift of beauty to his parishioners. The music sounds like a bedtime lullaby, and Faure has said, “it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above …” We would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the pain of suffering and death, but at the same time Faure’s work reveals that there is a great tenderness to the bonds of love that continue to bind the living and the dead. We are each of us gathered into the arms of the Heavenly Father and nothing shall take us from his grasp.
Johan Johannson – Fordlandia
Fordlandia, for those who have never heard of it, was an entire town built on the middle of the Brazilian jungle. It was built by the Ford Motor Company for the purpose of cultivating rubber trees. The town itself was marked by misfortune and failure until it was largely abandoned. Johannson’s music about Fordlandia evokes abandoned buildings, the echoes of voices in an empty town square, and a long forgotten evening on the back porch in the summer heat buzzing with cicadas. In it, I hear a longing for what once was and a tribute to the passage of time.
These are just a few songs that have been on my playlist recently. Whatever you’re listening to, I pray it brings peace and consolation.