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Beauty, Music, and “The Weight of Glory”

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Driving home yesterday, I happened to hear a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E-Minor, Op. 64 on Michiana’s 24-hour classical music station 90.7 FM (the greatest gift our local airwaves have to offer).

If you’ve never encountered this piece before, do your soul a favor: take half an hour, turn off all notifications on your phone, click below, and simply listen.

If you don’t have that kind of time right now, just take eight minutes and listen to the second movement. Even though the entire work is written such that the movements are to be performed without the traditional breaks in between, you can still gain a sense for the beauty of the whole by listening to this one part.

For me, this second movement contains some of the most sublimely beautiful music ever written. It’s not about the technical components of the music—its rhythm and meter and chromaticism and instrumentation—something much deeper is at work here. There’s something about the way this piece is constructed: in its moments of tension and release, of sweetness and sorrow and ultimately hopefulness, Mendelssohn has managed to capture something of the human experience in this music.

When I hear music like this, I can’t help but think about C.S. Lewis’ essay “The Weight of Glory.” Lewis articulates perfectly what has taken place in my heart again and again over a lifetime of studying music when I encounter pieces like Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto—pieces I’ve come to refer to as “Heartbreaking Works of Staggering Beauty” (with thanks or perhaps apologies to Dave Eggers). Lewis writes:

The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.[1]

Longing. Longing is what Mendelssohn has captured in this piece. In the unforgettable moment that the violin soars to the high C for the first time, our souls want to soar right alongside it; we want to break through the veil of whatever separates us from this beauty and enter right into it. Again, Lewis helps me grapple with this phenomenon:

We do not merely want to see [or hear] beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see [and hear], to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.[2]

When we are faced with such unalloyed experiences of beauty, we long to be a part of them, and yet, deep down, we are also perhaps made aware of all within us that is not beautiful. When I hear the violin sing Mendelssohn’s melody with such sweetness and simplicity, I am reminded of all the times I have failed to be sweet and kind-hearted to others, the times I have failed to rest contented with the simplicity of trusting in my identity as a beloved daughter of God. When I hear the anguished harmonies in the moments of tension, I realize that, more often than not, I create similar tensions and anguish in my own life and others’ lives by my shortcomings as a human being—by my impatience and pettiness and defensiveness and meanness—and I long for transfiguration within myself that will bring about the triumphant resolutions that I hear unfold in the music.

Yet, rather than being filled with despair at the knowledge of all I am not in the face of such beauty, when I listen to Mendelssohn, I am ultimately filled with hope that, by continuing to place myself within the presence of the beautiful, I myself might one day become beautiful. The trick here is to remember Lewis’ words that, no matter how beautiful it is, this music is not the source of beauty itself:

These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.[3]

The longing that I experience when I listen to Mendelssohn—the longing to become beautiful, to be transfigured—is, in the end, merely an extension of my longing for union with God, the Source of all that is good, true, and beautiful. The beauty of this world breaks our hearts, but it breaks them open so that God can enter in and fill us with himself. Indeed, earthly beauty is one of the most powerful ways in which God gently, gently draws us to himself, wooing us with images of his own beauty manifest in the world around us. But ultimately, this earthly beauty can never suffice, and if we make it the ends rather than the means, we will never have enough of it. As Emily Webb cries in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, “I can’t look at everything hard enough.” We will never be able to look hard enough, listen intently enough, inhale a fragrance or savor a taste or relish a touch deeply enough because the beauty of this world is transient. Were it not, it would become a “dumb idol” rather than serving as an icon of a beauty beyond our imagining. Indeed, it is a sign of God’s mercy that encounters and experiences of beauty can never last forever, because transience prevents us from getting stuck in one place, like Narcissus staring at his own reflection. Instead, each experience of earthly beauty has the capacity to draw us “further up and further in” to the beauty of God, if we but have the courage to follow.

Featured Photo: Jose Zaragoza; CC-BY-NC-2.0.

[1] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 30.

[2] Ibid., 42.

[3] Ibid., 30–31.

Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the associate director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music.