Why is music so connected to the human experience? Minds greater than mine have pondered this question; yet, like the haunting notes of a stirring musical score, this inquiry is recurring and timeless. Why is music so inextricably linked to humanity? The harmonious and discordant sounds of the world as well as the notes of actual music greet us practically from the first moment of our existence in the wombs of our mothers. Even if by some bizarre circumstance we somehow were to live our whole lives without hearing any man-made music, we would still be serenaded by nature’s music, so lauded by poets, namely, the whirring of the insects, the chirping of birds, and the roaring of the wind.
I daresay that the majority of people have an opinion on music; there are certainly differing viewpoints on what constitutes good music, on what music is appropriate for certain times and places, and, undoubtedly, there are extreme variances in musical preferences.
A myriad of musical genres exists, and it is a good trait to have a cultivated and eclectic taste in music. There is no harm in enjoying classical, rock, country, and pop music. Nevertheless, some music, arguably, is objectively superior to other music. To paraphrase one of my former philosophy professors at Franciscan University, one can recognize the musical superiority of a Bach or a Beethoven and still simply prefer the music of the Beatles.
Yet all of this discussion still has not answered our initial question regarding music’s relationship to humanity. It is a somewhat cliche saying that “music is a universal language.” However, cliches become cliches because they are true, so what is it about music that makes it universal?
In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, music is described as an attribute of heaven. Ludwig von Beethoven, one of the greatest musical geniuses that the world has ever known, said the following statement: “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom
and philosophy.” Hans Christian Andersen of fairy tale fame, said, “When words fail, music speaks.”
In each of these descriptions of music, there seems to be an appeal to a transcendent quality? Is this the universal characteristic by which music is united with mankind? Is it that music appeals to our higher nature, to the spiritual part of us that is connected with God? And is this why even people who profess no formal religious beliefs sometimes claim to find spiritual expression through music?
Along with those who have considered these questions before me, I would answer with a strong affirmative. Music can be a channel through we come to a greater self-discovery as well as to a deeper realization of the meaning of our lives. Moreover, music relates to beauty, which leads to God; therefore, music is a vehicle by which we begin to discover our relationship to God. Finally, music also has the ability to facilitate a greater understanding between persons.
Firstly, let us consider how music can lead us to a better knowledge of ourselves and of our lives. St. John Paul the Great in his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” (which is a worthwhile read for everyone, no exclusively partakers in the arts) states,
“Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceiveand, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery. The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one’s own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things.”
These eloquent words exemplify the truth that an artistic intuition, which includes musical intuition, is an encounter with beauty and a means of transcending the mere sensory world to see something mysterious and unifying about reality.
How often has someone listened to a particular song or musical composition that seemed to afford a release and an outlet to feelings that were inexpressible otherwise? Music can be a catharsis and help a person to recognize pains or graces that were previously ignored or unnoticed.
Over and over again in this inspiring letter, our late pope speaks of beauty. Beauty awakens a yearning within us.
“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence . It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God…”
And God is beauty itself.
St. John Paul continues, “Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world. It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning.”
Music is art, and, thus, it has the power to shed light on man and on the world, subsequently leading to the transcendent end of faith and of God for Whom man was made. Certainly these are some of the reasons why music contains such potency and importance for mankind, why it is a universal language. Music bespeaks of mankind’s Creator, Who knows how to speak to the hearts of each of His creatures through His creation. God can use music as a means to call us to Himself.
Secondly, music can provide insight and understanding between persons. In the “Letter to Artists,” St. John Paul writes,
“Through his works, the artist speaks to others and communicates with them. The history of art, therefore, is not only a story of works produced but also a story of menand women. Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life, and they reveal the original contribution which artists offer to the history of culture.”
Thus, this is also a way in which music is universal: we feel connected to one another through music because each composer, each singer/songwriter infuses some of his very self, his soul into his art, and we cannot help but come to understand him better and to grasp more fully his view of the world than through listening to work. This builds communion and unity with one another and preserves the story of the past for future generations.
Whether it is the Russian nationalist music of Tchaikovsky or songs from the 1960s and ’70s protesting the Vietnam War, we have a musical record of people’s feelings towards events that were changing their personal worlds and the world at large.
Music is a wondrous thing. Music has the ability to transcend, to lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and of each other. Music can be a meeting with beauty, which leads us to a meeting with God. These qualities of music are, I think, solid answers to our initial queries. Yet, there are many more answers that are just as worthy, so let us conclude as we began–with thought-provoking questions: How has music been a part of your life? Have you felt the beauty of music? Have you been drawn closer to God and to your fellow man through a musical composition? How has the universal language of music influenced and changed the notes of your individual life’s song?
NOTE: This is a slightly edited version of a piece that I originally wrote for The Gadfly, a student publication at Franciscan University of Steubenville, in 2014.
NOTE: This is an edited version of an opinion piece that I wrote for Franciscan University of Steubenville’s student newspaper The Troubadour in March 2016.
This past February, Franciscan University was graced by the beautiful music of pianist and composer Eric Genuis. His concert was one of the most inspirational events I had experienced in quite a while. Not only was his music exquisite, but he also shared so many profound thoughts about the importance of beauty and the arts in people’s lives.
In my final semester of college and as a life-long ballet dancer, it was a timely reminder of the value of something that has always been an integral part of my life. Genuis exhorted the audience to fill their lives and their children’s lives with beauty. “Beauty is the language of God,” he said, and the arts have the ability to encourage, uplift, and offer hope to people through an encounter with beauty.
Genuis gave multiple moving examples of this power, such as seemingly hardened prisoners for whom he performed, being deeply touched by the beautiful music. He shared that one man stood up and exclaimed in the middle of the first piece that he had forgotten what hope felt like.
Genuis’ testimonies are concrete examples of how truly universal and unifying the arts can be. The arts, both fine and performing, have the power to unite, in cordiality and friendship, people who might otherwise not have much in common.
An instance of this is the friendship of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. She is a petite, liberal, Jewish woman, and he was a burly, conservative, Catholic man. They clearly did not share the same political or religious beliefs, yet Ginsburg, in her statement following Scalia’s death, said that they were “best buddies.” A noted part of their friendship was a shared love of opera. There was even an opera written about the two of them.
We live in a society that is increasingly polarized and divisive when it comes to morals, to politics, to some of the really important questions in life. These are, obviously, consequential differences that need to be respectfully discussed and considered.
However, part of the power of the arts is that they are, arguably, a great equalizer, a way to set aside our differences if even for a little while. They are a means to celebrate the joy of being alive. All people, no matter their political or religious affiliation, can enjoy and be inspired by a ballet, a play, a concert, or a lovely portrait. They can be reminded that there is more to life and to the world than materiality. They can be reminded of their own capacity for creativity and for goodness or for evil.
In his “Letter to Artists,” Pope St. John Paul II, makes the important distinction between creation or bringing something out of nothing, which only God can do, and craftsmanship or working with already existing material, which is what man does. Nevertheless, he writes, “God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task. Through his ‘artistic creativity’ man appears more than ever ‘in the image of God,’ and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous ‘material’ of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him.”
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the renowned and beloved Catholic nun and founder of the religious order, the Missionaries of Charity, was recently canonized a saint of the Catholic
Church. This means that Pope Francis declared, through an infallible statement, that Mother Teresa is in heaven with God, and she is worthy of our veneration.
The honoring of saints is such a beautiful part of the Catholic faith, but it is also a practice that is greatly misunderstood. Firstly, the notion that Catholics worship or adore the saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary should be dismissed. Worship and adoration are only for God. However, we do venerate, honor, and pray to the saints and to Mary for their intercession as we believe that their prayers are powerful with God. Think of it in earthly terms as when someone asks a trusted friend or colleague to speak on his or her behalf to someone else–that is what the saints do. They are our advocates and our friends, who are already enjoying eternal life with God; moreover, they are models for us of sanctity and faith.
Secondly, as we keep pictures and mementos of our loved ones, living and deceased, so Catholics keep pictures, statues, etc. of the saints. I have heard the saints referred to as “our elder brothers and sisters in the faith.” They are deeply interested in our well-being and our salvation.
Often saints are named patrons of specific causes, places, groups of people, etc. because they are somehow associated with that particular saint. However, the saints are not limited to their patron causes, and we can pray to them about or for anyone or anything.
So how does one become a saint? Well, every person who makes it to heaven is a saint, but to be a publicly canonized saint requires a declaration by the Church. Though as I recently heard explained during Mother Teresa’s canonization, the Catholic Church does not “make” saints. The canonization is a confirmation of the person’s holiness. Before this formal confirmation, a thorough and lengthy investigation into the person’s life takes place. Interviews are conducted with those who favor the person and with those who were critics of the person. It must be shown that the potential saint exhibited “heroic virtue and holiness of life.” Moreover, two miracles wrought through the person’s intercession since their death are also required–one prior to beatification or being declared “blessed,” the step immediately before sainthood, and then a second before canonization. Both theologians and scientists are involved in the investigations. These miracles must be determined to have no scientific explanation.
The whole process of inquiry is a painstaking, years-long process, which shows just how important the Church considers its declaration.
Even though popular opinion considered Mother Teresa a saint while she was still living, it is certainly a moment for rejoicing and thanksgiving now that she is officially a canonized saint of the Church. In his homily during the Mass of Canonization for Mother Teresa, Pope Francis said, “Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defence of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded. … She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity. … Mother Teresa loved to say, ‘Perhaps I don’t speak their language, but I can smile.’ Let us carry her smile in our hearts and give it to those whom we meet along our journey, especially those who suffer. ”
If you are curious to know more about the saints, you can learn about the saint whose feast or memorial it is each day at http:// www.catholic.org/saints/sofd.php. Mother Teresa’s feast day is Sept. 5th, the day that she died.
A Hopi Indian saying goes, “To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak.” Dance is expressive of one’s innermost feelings. It is a vehicle by which those emotions can be conveyed powerfully to an audience and can make the spectators feel what the dancer is feeling. Dance can tell a story without words, and it has the capability to transport those watching into a different time and place. Dancing has been an integral part of human history down through the ages. Nearly every culture has its own traditional folk dances that are unique to it. In the formal dance world of today, there are numerous genres of dance: classic disciplines like ballet, jazz, tap, and ballroom as well as contemporary genres like hip-hop and break dancing. The different kinds seem to be continually multiplying. There are several television shows that, happily, bring dance into people’s living rooms. Though, unfortunately, the emphasis of these shows can sometimes seem to be more about overt (and objectifying) sexuality than about the art form of dance and the portrayal of inspiring and beautiful relationships between a male and a female dancer.
However, this is not the only way in which the world of dance presents relationships, and one only has to travel to the theatre or search for a video on YouTube to watch a very different portrayal of relationships in the world of classical ballet. People may not initially think to look to ballet for an example of a positive, romantic man-woman relationship. Yet it is there, engrained in the very function and atmosphere of the movements.
George Balanchine, the world-renowned choreographer and founder of New York City Ballet, once said, “The ballet is a purely female thing; it is woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.” At first glance, one might be taken aback by this bold, perhaps stereotypical statement; nevertheless, it warrants consideration. Most of society certainly associates ballet with girls and women even though there have been repeated examples of male professional athletes who extol the benefits of taking ballet. The athletic prowess of male dancers could match almost any athlete; moreover, dancers must be graceful and artistic at the same time as they exude power and strength. There’s even a humorous saying about male dancers: “Real men don’t lift weights, they lift women.”
Nevertheless, I think Balanchine is grasping at something deeper than the mere physical aspects of ballet, though they could be considered the manifestation of that deeper concept. He is, arguably, touching on the relationship between man and woman as depicted in the world of ballet. That relationship is one of complementarity and chivalry, two words that are often excluded from the contemporary milieu regarding relationships.
This notion of complementarity and romantic chivalry is manifested through the steps of ballet and through the interaction between the man and woman, especially in what is known as the grand pas de deux. The grand pas de deux can be found in full-length ballets, such as the pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier in “The Nutcracker.” The grand pas is danced between the two leads in a ballet, and it includes five parts: an entrance, an adage (slow) section, male and female solos, and a concluding up-tempo coda.
Overall, the dance highlights the dancers’ strengths both together and individually. In the sections of the grand pas in which they dance together, the couple must possess unfailing trust in one another, not only emotionally but also physically as one’s bodily well-being partially rests with the other person.
The ballerina must trust her partner to catch her, to physically hold and to lift her, and to support her in her movements. In doing this, she exhibits vulnerability and self-gift, and through this, a certain strength and courage. On the other hand, the man must trust himself to care for and to uphold her, and he must trust her to do everything in her power to help him to support her. This help can be simply how she holds her body in a supported pirouette (turn) or by making eye contact with him before a lift. Just as communication is essential in off-stage relationships, one could say that the aforementioned examples are a form of unspoken on-stage communication which is necessary to make the grand pas de deux the best that it can be.
Also as in real life, a major part of this ballet relationship is timing. Timing is everything in balletic partner dancing. In rehearsals, the duo should strive to come to know one another on a personal level. In order for the grand pas to be successful, the couple must learn each other’s quirks, weaknesses, and strengths. Only then can the dance be seamless and united.
Naturally, this trust and coordination can only develop over time–which requires patience, another essential ingredient to both on and off-stage relationships. The two dancers painstakingly rehearse for countless hours, sometimes practicing the same step over and over. Through the good days and the bad, they must work together through frustrations, challenges, and even injuries in order to achieve their common goal of a mesmerizing and seemingly effortless final product for the stage. They both have a vested interest in the dance, and they must be willing to do what it takes to make it work.
The male and female solos are the opportunity for the individual dancer to display his or her dancing abilities. A female solo can be elegant, graceful and even a little bit sassy. The ballerina may show off her turning and balancing abilities or other steps that exemplify strength. The man’s solo is typically filled with bravado and impressive turns and jumps. These solos are short and impactful. Despite the fact that they are complete and lovely in and of themselves, when the two dancers come together again, it elevates the dancing to a new level. Together they are able to do things they could not do by themselves, and with their combined energy and teamwork, they create a thing of beauty.
The overall feeling of the grand pas de deux is one of chivalry, respect, and romance. The man’s character is inspired by the woman’s character, her beauty, and her love. The female dancer is supported, protected, and presented to the audience by her partner as the one to be watched and admired. His energy and strength are complemented by her quieter, gentler power. They are not in competition with one another but rather work together to be the best versions of themselves on stage.
This mutual giving and respect between the couple extends even to the final bow at the end of the performance. The couple returns to the stage together, but the man usually takes a few steps back for his bow so that, once again, the ballerina is the main focus. Furthermore, it is a tradition for the lead ballerina to receive a bouquet of flowers and often, she will pluck a flower from her bouquet and give it to her partner in a gracious gesture of sharing and affection.
From start to finish, the grand pas de deux and the world of classical ballet promotes a version of male-female relationships that may be idyllic but is also inspiring and beautiful. Though real life is not like fairy tales and ballets, the values these stories and traditions embody are certainly worthy ones, and they deserve a deeper consideration and perhaps emulation in the real world relationships that are lived each and every day.
NOTE: I originally wrote this article for The Gadfly, a student publication at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Welcome to Uncle George! Right now, you may be wondering about the origin of the moniker for this blog. As with all things seemingly out-of-the-blue, this name has a backstory.
Uncle George is my great uncle, one of the brothers of my late maternal grandfather. Growing up, I heard the story of how Uncle George, eager to serve, protect, and defend, did not wait for the United States to officially enter World War II but instead decided to travel to Canada from his home state of Louisiana in order to join the Royal Air Force. To me, this anecdote shows that Uncle George was a man of strong convictions, but, more importantly, that he had the courage to act upon those convictions.
The photograph in the featured image of this blog and in this post’s picture is a photo of my Uncle George in his aviator apparel. An inscription on the back tells us that this particular photo was taken somewhere in southern England where he an instructor in bomber pilot training. His Royal Air Force insignia is also visible near to the picture frame, and beside the photo is a pair of his ice skates.
Fortunately, Uncle George did not die in combat, but, tragically, he did lose his life during training.
Uncle George was a writer, a young journalist engaged to be married to a young woman, who was a fellow journalist. Often when I have displayed a penchant or an aptitude for writing, my mother has spoken about Uncle George and his story.
It is a warm and comfortable feeling to think that I have something in common with a relative who, unfortunately, I was never able to meet–a man of conviction who loved writing. It is a link to our family’s past, a legacy that helped to shape my family and myself.
So this blog is named for Uncle George. Through my writing, I hope to share some of my own convictions, some of what is important to me, be it serious or light-hearted or somewhere in between. In doing so, I hope to honor Uncle George’s memory.
Please come along for the journey. I hope that this blog makes you smile, makes you think, touches you in some way, helps you to understand another’s viewpoint even if you don’t agree, and maybe brings a bit of joy to your day!