Last winter I was moving to school, and my friend gave me a CD of Sergej Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto #2 in C Minor as a going away gift. I am embarrassed to admit that though I played the violin from 4th grade through high school I did not listen to much classical music. What drew me to take an interest in the CD was not the words “Concerto” on the front cover, but the way the music was explained on the inside pamphlet of the CD case. The writer contrasts this work of Rachmaninov with Beethoven’s violin concerto and says, “I perceive [in Rachmaninov’s Concerto #2] the human “I” as it is drawn up, literally made to emerge, evoked through and within a company, a chorus.” I was struck that the music connected so clearly for him to human experience.
I was working on a blog post with a couple friends through the amazing technology of Google docs and as we worked late into the night I listened to this concerto. This piece of music communicated to me what I was experiencing with my friends working on the blog that night. There was real communion among us as we worked on the blog. We went back and forth cleaning up sentences, organizing thought processes, and clearing up the story line with a unified desire for truth, goodness and beauty to be communicated among us and from us. The beauty of the concerto elevated my spirit to take part in the work in this way. I was able to receive this beauty with the help of the description on the pamphlet. The question still remains, “What is the particular beauty of this concerto that is able to come so close to our human experience without words?”
Imagine yourself passionately working on a blog with your friends while listening to heavy metal, Caraselle or Celtic music.These experiences could easily be contrasted with my experience listening to Rachmaninov. It is undeniable that music touches the human spirit, and each piece has a different level of beauty. The beauty of music is distinct from a moral or intellectual value in this way. It has levels. This beauty is defined as a qualitative value. An object can be more or less beautiful than another. The Celtic music is more beautiful than the Caraselle music and the Concerto is even more beautiful.
The highest level of beauty is spiritual beauty (1), and this is what is most beautiful about the concerto. The audible has been brought together in such a way that a mysterious link has been made to spiritual truths about who we are. For example, in the first movement, the Moderato, a third of the way through the piece the key changes to minor, the violins steadily rise up the scale and the piano is going down the scale in triplets. It is as if after hearing the beauty and uniqueness of the wind instrument just before, the piano, though falling comes to rest on the rising to the violins. The spiritual reality of unity is communicated. This is why the experience listening to the concerto while writing can be so much different than working and listening to something else.
The second quality that is not spiritual beauty is expression. This can be understood as the mood of the music. As we’re making our way to the spiritual beauty of this concerto, there is an “analogous kind of link” between expression and spiritual beauty, “but it does not contain the same mystery that the relationship between a lofty spiritual beauty and a visible or audible entity bears in itself” (2). The expression of this piece is melancholic, but it does not negate simplicity and joy. It moves into joy with a thoughtful, patient treading. It is the “serene and vibrant” (3) which is the expression of the music.
The spiritual beauty is the particular beauty of Piano Concerto #2 in C Minor. This beauty is contradicted with an anti-spiritual beauty in heavy metal music. It is non-existent in carousel music, and it is present to a lesser degree in celtic music. The spiritual beauty of the concerto comes into existence through the music, and yet has no intrinsic link to the tones, composition, or instruments that make up what becomes audible to us. It is the communion, the drive towards destiny, the fidelity to the vitality of life that is communicated through the piece and yet beyond the piece itself (4). We see that spiritual beauty is distinct from metaphysical beauty in this way.
Unlike the human person whose spiritual beauty is intrinsic to his or her essence, the link between the audible and spiritual beauty is not intrinsic. It is as if the notes are pulling out something that is always existing around us but unable to be detected by the usual man going about his daily life. Hildebrand describes this phenomena:
“The visible or audible bearer is only a pedestal on which this beauty mysteriously appears. It does not draw up its bearer to the level that the beauty itself possesses. This beauty speaks not of the essence of its bearer, but of something incomparably higher” (5)
When I encounter the spiritual beauty of a person the link beauty the spiritual beauty and the person is intrinsic. I long for communion with that person. When it comes to music the spiritual beauty I encounter does not make known the essence of the music, form and melody, but a higher reality (6), and when we listen to Rachmaninov’s Concerto #2, this mystery is revealed. The tones that exist have been organized by man is a way that man is not brought to the essence of tones, but of the essence of something transcendent. The Concerto brings man to the essence of communion as the violin begins to play with the piano and they move forward together. The music radiates the inner excellence not of tone’s but of something greater.
Rachmaninov’s Concerto #2 lifted my spirit with its metaphysical beauty and expressions, but I was responding to an even greater value. The arrangement of the piece did not contain a spiritual beauty in the existence of the notes and instruments, and yet there it was- the spiritual value of communion-which I encountered in the music Music can be composed in a way that it brings to our ears the spiritual realities of life. The music radiates the inner excellence not of the tones but of something greater. From this study of music we learn that material can communicate something spiritual. This is fascinating! It’s something to contemplate if you’re one of those people who often find themselves crying because of a song while you’re driving down the road in
your car. What is happening to you spiritually because of the music?
1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, 203.
2. Ibid 207.
3. Luigi Giussani, “In Belonging there is Peace” cited in “Collana Diretta da Luigi Giussani” by Spirito Gentil.
5. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, 209.