At the turn of the year, I was thinking about what the role that music has played in my life, and I came across this article that I wrote at this time of year two years ago:
Music has been a part of human life for as long as we know. It fascinates me that we live in a time when advances in technology and the efforts of musicologists and musicians have made it possible to learn about, study, listen to, and learn to perform music from a vast profusion of times and cultures – far beyond what was possible in the past.
At the end of the year I spent some time reflecting on the range of topics I’ve managed to write about here. Each year I do this – hopefully – as an effort to reorient myself and refine my focus as another year begins. It’s a way of relating to my work that has a different relationship to time than I usually have. Most of the time I am engaged with the project of the moment, or several that I am working on concurrently, and don’t look too far beyond what project is coming up next. My hope for Off The Podium is that when the time for me to stop writing here has come, I will have managed to write about everything I feel I have something important to contribute, to say what it is I have to say.
Christopher Morrongiello performs “Lachrimae” (ca. 1590s) by John Dowland (1563–1626), Cambridge University Library manuscript DD.2.11. Filmed in the Chapel from Le Château de la Bastie d’Urfé at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
This morning I was reading Haruki Murakami‘s novel 1Q84, first published in 2009 – 2010. In a passage I came to this morning, two characters are sitting together, drinking herbal tea and having a conversation while listening to a recording of a performance of John Dowland’s Lachrimae. (I was slightly disappointed that Murakami didn’t indicate who was playing it or even mention the lute!)
Whenever she came here, Aomame felt she was in another world. The air was heavy, and time had its own special way of flowing.
The dowager said “Often when I listen to this music, I’m struck by mysterious emotions with regard to time.” She seemed to have read Aomame’s mind. “To think that people four hundred years ago were listening to the same music we’re hearing now! Doesn’t it make you feel strange?”
“It does,” Aomame said. “but come to think of it, those people four hundred years ago were looking at the same moon we see… Even if things were the same, people’s perception of them might have been very different back then. The darkness of the night was probably deeper then, so the moon must have been that much bigger and brighter. And of course people didn’t have records or tapes or CDs. They couldn’t hear proper performances of music anytime they liked: it was always something special.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” the dowager said. “Things are so convenient for us these days, our perceptions are probably that much duller. Even if it’s the same moon hanging in the sky, we may be looking at something quite different. Four hundred years ago, we might have been richer spirits that were closer to nature.”
(Aomame replies) “It was a cruel world, though. More than half of all children died before they could reach maturity, thanks to chronic epidemics and malnutrition… There probably weren’t very many people who lived past forty. Women bore so many children, they became toothless old hags by the time they were in their thirties. People often had to resort to violence to survive. Tiny children were forced to do such heavy labor that their bones became deformed, and little girls were forced to become prostitutes on a daily basis. Little boys, too, I suspect. Most people led minimal lives in worlds that had nothing to do with richness of perception or spirit. City streets were full of cripples and beggars and criminals. Only a fraction of the population could gaze at the moon with deep feeling or enjoy a Shakespeare play or listen to the beautiful music of Dowland.”
~ Haruki Murakami
1Q84, pp. 305-307
As often happens when reading a Murakami novel, I was struck by how exactly he expressed here – within the context of a fictional story – feelings and thoughts I have had so many times myself. Recently my personal music practice has returned to the lute to prepare for an upcoming solo recital (readers of Off The Podium may have caught on that I am a multi-instrumentalist and play music across several instruments and many styles and periods). This recital is focused on the early sixteenth-century Italian repertoire: 500 year-old pieces by the first masters of western instrumental music who left behind enough evidence of what they did that twenty-first century musicians can reconstruct and perform it with some semblance of what it originally sounded like, on instruments that are close to being of the same construction and produce the same sounds.
It is miraculous. It is time travel.
Music exists to express our humanity in ways that words fail us. In the hour or so each day that I am able to find to sit quietly in the corner of the studio and practice lute, there is a miraculous experience of kinship I have with these ancient humans across half a millennium, these fellow musicians who played an instrument much like the one I hold in my own hands, and took the time and care to write down some of the music they created, in some cases went to the tremendous effort it took to print it, and somehow against all odds (especially in the majority of cases in which only a single copy was ever committed to paper in manuscript) it survived! and I can play it and hear it and experience the same emotions they felt.
And yes, as Aomame states quite clearly in the last paragraph above: times were tough. And the truth is, for many, this hasn’t changed. Times are still tough. There are many people around the world, and here in the United States, who suffer. Many who “lead minimal lives in worlds that have nothing to do with richness of perception or spirit”. I am extremely fortunate to have any time or resources to devote to aesthetic pursuits.
To my mind, it is the spirit of music, and especially it is the purpose of music education, to bring “richness of perception or spirit” to all. To bring humanity to our lives – my life and yours, whoever you may be. This is why music exists, to enable us to experience a depth of feeling that brings meaning to our lives.
Happy New Year.
©2019 Walter Bitner
Walter Bitner is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, conductor, and teacher, and serves as Director of Education & Community Engagement for the Richmond Symphony and the Richmond Symphony School of Music in Richmond, Virginia. His column Off The Podium is featured in Choral Director magazine, and he writes about music and education on his website Off The Podium at walterbitner.com.