In this week’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, I write about one of music’s most mysterious powers. Here’s an excerpt.
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Music is the most mysterious of all the arts. Incorporeal and seemingly without intelligible meaning, it nonetheless has a powerful effect on most of those who hear it—though not all….
Not the least of music’s mysteries is that so many of us turn to it in times of trial. That’s what Philip Kennicott did a few years ago. A once-promising pianist who is now the senior art and architecture critic of the Washington Post, Mr. Kennicott decided to try to learn Bach’s Goldberg Variations after the death of his mother…
Anyone who has resorted to music under like circumstances, whether as a player or merely a listener, will find much to ponder in Mr. Kennicott’s reflections. One of them, though, struck me particularly hard, not because it recalled my own experience but because it didn’t: “I bristle at the idea that music is consoling or has healing power. It is a cliché of lazy music talk, the sort of thing said by people who give money to the symphony and have their names chiseled on the wall of the opera house….”
I scarcely know where to start disagreeing. To be sure, most of the over-familiar words spoken by those who sympathize by rote with the plight of a mourner or caregiver are ineffectual at best, irksome at worst, leaving you with no choice but to paste a fixed half-smile on your face and say something equally meaningless in response. But music is different, in part because it speaks another, deeper language. When Beethoven, who understood suffering well, gave a copy of his Missa Solemnis to Austria’s Archduke Rudolf, he inscribed it as follows: “From the heart—may it return to the heart!” Moreover, countless listeners have similarly testified to the power of music to miraculously bypass the greeting-card banalities of reassurance and help heal a shattered heart….
* * *Read the whole thing here.
The Busch String Quartet plays the “Cavatina” from Beethoven’s Quartet in B Flat, Op. 130:
Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic perform a transcription for string orchestra of the same movement: