Illness & the Joy of Music

When I was a child, I was a bit sickly; I had allergic reactions to certain types of grasses, which is a bad lot when you grow up in my home state of Florida. When I was a child, I recall having to wipe my nose on my pants at the private Christian school I attended when I was about 4 or 5. It is one of my earliest memories. Eventually, I more or less outgrew the problems with my allergies, but I still detest sinus problems when I get colds or the flu.

I am bloggin about this because I have fallen ill in the past couple of days, and illness has a way of reminding me of weaknesses that I am not terribly eager to acknowledge when I am in good health. It is odd, but even since my embrace of the Christian faith, I have found that it is easier for me to approach God in prayer, to draw near to Him, when I am ill, than in my periods of good health. I suppose, it reminds me of my dependence upon him, and of the many gifts he has blessed me with in my life. One of those is the gift of music. I had, before moving from my former parish, been a member of the choir for most of my time there, and had the privilege of being able to sing to God some of the most beautiful expressions of the faith that are a part of the Catholic heritage. I always wished the people in the congregation could hear the polyphony of Palestrina, or Tallis, the way I heard it in the choir when we sang it. It is like nothing else: my own voice joined with a welter of voices around me, like a cloud of witnesses, all distinct, all different, still coming together to form a harmony that virtually lifted you out of your body. And besides this, in my off hours, I have always liked to play guitar and sing, more for therapeutic reasons than anything else, as a means of lightening my anxieties.

Well, since I have been sick, my sinuses have made my throat quite sore, and so the pleasures of song are denied to me for the time being. Strange how you take things for granted, even stranger that you appreciate them that much more when you cannot do them as you are wont to do. Human beings are funny that way. I’ve always wanted to teach a course on the relationship between art and illness, and how people have dealt with it through religion, and artistic expression. Some of my favorite pieces of writing and music came about because of this. John Donne, the great Anglican preacher and poet, wrote his devotional treatise, “Devotion Upon Emergent Occasions,” after his recovery from an illness he thought was fatal. (This was the work where he famously declared, hearing a funeral procession outside his window, that “no man is an island, entire of itself,” such did he identify with the dying man.) Then there is the poem “Crossing the Bar,”‘ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which was written after he crossed the Channel while ill toward the end of his life. Even now, I can recite it from memory:

Sunset, and evening star

And one clear call for me,

And may there be no moaning of the bar

When I put out to sea.

For such a tide as moving seems asleep,

Too full for sound and foam,

From that which drew from out the boundless deep

Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,

And after that, the dark.

But may there be no sadness of farewell,

When I embark.

For though from out our bourne of time and place

The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my pilot face to face

When I have crossed the bar.

The poem wasn’t the last that Tennyson wrote, but it appears, per the request in his will, as the last poem in all published collections of his works.

There are many others (Book of Job comes to mind) but for me, the most beautiful work of art I associate with illness is the third movement of Beethoven String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor.  One of his late works, Beethoven wrote this section of the quartet after recovering from a long illness.  On the score, he gave the movement the title, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” meaning roughly, “A Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity from a convalescent in the Lydian mode.”  As this musician and author points out, putting this section in the Lydian mode was a nod to ancient church music, and it exemplifies the prayerful quality that Beethoven could reach in his music.  (This video lecture given by a Stanford professor explains this in more detail.) Like many of his late works, it is very different from the popular image of Beethoven, the defiant revolutionary shaking his fist at God and all authority, as if some sort of Enlightenment icon:  not the bombast of the Eroica, nor the triumphant, almost Titanic humanism of the 9th symphony, but a smallness, a delicacy, and in the 15th quartet, a brokenness and even a humility shine through this music as in no other instrumental piece I have ever heard.  Beethoven, years after having lost his hearing, could still hear the voice of God in his head, and could still give thanks after many years of illness for the gift of life.  I leave you with a performance of this most beautiful of works, and hope it will be a source of joy for you in your time of convalscence, as it has always been for me.


~ by Alypius on September 1, 2012.

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