I read this article today about a computer that creates music. A reader at Andrew Sullivan’s blog outlined some of why it bothers me, especially in its assumption that all composers do is follow logical rules in their composition. But the following quotation stands out:
In [Cope’s] view, all music — and, really, any creative pursuit — is largely based on previously created works. Call it standing on the shoulders of giants; call it plagiarism. Everything we create is just a product of recombination.
I don’t really mind him thinking this latter part, that creation is a process of recombination. There’s not a lot going on in our heads, if you ask me, that wasn’t fed to us by society and education and culture. But to assume that the process is mechanical, that the recombination doesn’t have intent behind it or doesn’t synthesize something in a new or profound way, that doesn’t seem right.
Take the second movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony, the “Reformation” Symphony. It does its thing, yes, but a trained and perceptive ear will catch that it often flirts at the edges of J.S. Bach’s famous cantata “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Such a quoting is not accidental: it is Mendelssohn making a specific statement about the Reformation, only writing it in music and not words. And the entire final movement is a development of “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” If you know anything about Lutheran evangelicalism, you’ll recognize why the quotation is significant — and why any symphony dedicated to the Reformation would not be remiss by incorporating it.
Or take my personal favorite work, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem. In movement VI, following a set of movements based on Walt Whitman’s war poetry and the woeful pronouncements of Jeremiah, Williams’ libretto adapts the texts of Micah and Daniel, Haggai and Luke, Isaiah and the Psalms, into one coherent whole. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall the sword go through their land. Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed,” sings the chorus, and the melody on “mercy and truth are met together” is one of the prettiest I know.
But it’s more than just a pretty melody — at the conclusion, Williams brings in selections from the Lucan Gloria, and as the choir sings “Goodwill towards men,” the notes at several places sound a very specific pattern: the same phrases and chords as exist in similar words in Handel’s Messiah. As the choir concludes each line of “goodwill towards men,” the orchestra bursts in with full force, recapitulating without words the earlier melody of “mercy and truth are met together.” The quotation, then, serves an essential function: it ties the message and meaning of Handel’s Messiah into Williams own project, the same project of the psalmist who desires to see these two principles so often in opposition meld together in the perfect eschatological moment of completion.
So when someone says that music often sounds to her like the voice of God, there might be something to it. At least, to the extent that what a good musician often does is stylistically represent the possibility of a coherent, ultimate reality. And that’s an awful lot like theology.