The New String
by Malcolm Guite
Like many world faiths Christianity inspires its adherents to make music of all kinds, and also finds in music itself an image and expression of some of Faith's deepest mysteries. In this brief article I would like to explore what music has meant to some Christian writers and poets over the centuries, and I would like to begin with a verse by the priest-poet John Donne, written at a time he believed he was on his death-bed:
Since I am comming to that Holy roome, Where, with thy Quire of Saints for evermore, I shall be made thy musique; As I come I tune the Instrument here at the dore, And what I must doe then, thinke here before.
(Hymns to God. my God in my sickness)
Donne imagines his life as preparation or 'tuning up' for a concert which has yet to be played, a music-making that is yet to happen. He takes a traditional image of Heaven; the choir of saints making music before God in praise and worship, and gives it a new depth. For he does not say "I am coming to that holy room, where… evermore… I shall play thy music", but, "I shall be made thy music".
The prescence in the cosmos of the "new string" the Messiah, does not intrude on or threaten what is already there but it is a means of establishing harmony
He imagines the soul as both the instrument and the music. We have an instrument to tune but we are ourselves a note or perhaps a motif to be sounded within the wider harmonies of a larger music. How did Donne arrive at this notion? What lies behind it, and is it taken up and developed by other Christian writers?
Donne had certainly meditated richly on music and found in it a helpful analogy for the mystery of God's power as both creator and redeemer. Like his fellow priest-poet George Herbert he possessed and played stringed instruments and found a parallel between the collaborative and sympathetic resonance of all the parts of a well made instrument and the order and beauty of the world around us:
God made this whole world in such an uniformity, such a correspondency, such a concinnity of parts, as that it was an Instrument, perfectly in tune: we may say the trebles, the highest strings. were disordered first; the best understandings, Angels and Men, put this instrument out of tune. God rectified all again, by putting in a new string… the Messias, and onely by sounding that string in your eares, become we musicum carmen, true musick. true harmony, true peace to you.
(Sermons ed. Potter and Simpson University of California 1955 vol. II. p.170.)
Here it is not simply the individual soul, but the whole cosmos with all its living creatures which is the musical instrument "perfectly in tune". Within this single simple image Donne conveys three essential Christian ideas; firstly the original goodness of all creation, every part of which is intended to support the other and sound the praise of God, secondly the idea of fall or evil, as being not a separate force in itself. but a dis-ordering of what is essentially good. Evil is therefore something which needs to be re-ordered and redeemed, not annihilated. And finally that in Christ the Christian hears the key-note, tuned by God himself. By carefully listening to this note we can I gradually re-establish both inner spiritual, and outer cosmic harmony. The presence in the cosmos of the "new string" the Messiah, does not intrude on or threaten what is already there but is a means of establishing harmony. He is both a measure of the order in creation and a means and promise of redemption. Donne, like Shakespeare, was deeply aware of the interconnections between inner and outer nature between the microcosm of our humanity and the macrocosm of the universe, when he speaks of the characteristic Christian experience of self examination, leading to repentance and renewal he uses just this musical metaphor to describe what happens:
So when a naturall man comes to be displeased with his owne actions...though his naturall faculties be the Instruments in these actions, yet the Holy Ghost sets this Instrument in tune and makes all that is musique and harmony in the faculties of this naturall man. (Sermons vol.VII. p.222.)
So looking back to the poem with which we opened we can see how much was meant by that little phrase, "I tune my instrument here at the door.." But what of the rich phrase "I shall be made thy music," with its note of hope looking forward to a transformation for us and for our world? Has that intuition been followed or developed by other more recent poets in the Christian tradition? It certainly has. Time and again when writers and poets need to express that human hope which does not capitulate in the face of death and that longing for a better ordering of our relations with ourselves, each other and the world, it is music which helps them find that expression and flesh out those hopes. What happens next, says Seamus Heaney in his beautiful poem Rainstick, is a music you never would have known to listen for. Another contemporary Irish poet, Michael O'Siadhaii has developed Donne's death-bed metaphor in the light of his love of jazz and blues, introducing into Donne's images of tuning and harmony the further idea of improvisation, freedom within form, a music made both by listening and by creating. Writing from within the Irish situation and with a keen sense of some of the darkest conflicts of the 20th century O'Siadhail finds in music, especially in polyphonic music, an image which may help Christians and people of all faiths who seek to live together and hear one another in a multicultural society. So he writes, of the experience of jazz improvisation:
…To play is everything… broken tempos ofanguish seem to feed our joys; unexpected cadences, a tale of twelve bar blues…
…The stamp of one voice; Then pure concert as an ensemble improvises, Hearing in each other harmonies of cross-purpose As though being ourselves we're more capacious.
(That in the End Our Double Time Bloodaxe 1998 p.96)
In Motet, a meditation on the terrible role in world history played by the colonial powers of "white-burdened Europe" he rejects the monocultural "one voice" of colonialism and substitutes for it the notion that "All things share one breath" the conclusion of his poem seems to echo Donne's notion of the "new string" the listened-for note that helps make sense of all the others, what he calls the cantus firmus. For the Christian believer, this note resounding through all music, is the voice of God touching the strings of humanity in the flesh of Jesus Christ. But O'Siadhaii does not need to name the cantus firmus, like many Christians he believes that our faith is capable of harmonising with other faiths, neither losing its distinct motifs nor overwhelming or dominating others,
…We listen clash and resolve, webs and layers of voices. And which voice dominates or is it chaos? My doubting earthling, tiny among the planets Does a lover of one voice hear more or less?
…Among the inner parts something open, something wild, a long rumour of wisdom keeps winding into each tune: cantus firmus, fierce vigil of contingency, loves congruence.
(Motet Hail Madam Jazz Bloodaxe 1992 p.123)
It maybe that in sharing our love of music and improvising in this world together we may all begin to make a new "music of compassion" and find together "Love's congruence".