Communing Musically:

The Aesthetic-Erotic-Communion Aspects of a String Quartet


by Judit Gellérd


Harmony has meaning in the context of dissonance. Grace is a gift in the midst of suffering.  Resurrection is in the death.  God is present in harmony and dissonance, in death and resurrection--the mystery, the ground of all.  Do we recognize God in both extremes, in whispers and tempests, in subtleties and imperfections of our relationships?  God permeates the whole of life, which thus becomes wholly holy.  How can we tune our soul to the sensitivity to discover the sacred dimensions in everything, even in its profanities, even in playing in a string quartet?

It happened in 1980.  Having revolted against the totalitarian regime in Romania with its increasing ethnic discriminations and persecutions, I immigrated to Hungary.   For the sake of a relative freedom, I left behind a flourishing medical practice, the security of home, family and friends.  With deep remorse for joining the mass exodus and brain drain of my native Transylvania, I was now trying to find new meaning for my life in Budapest.   If being a minority in Romania was a challenge, this time it was I who challenged life.  I loved the active existence--the creative struggle--versus a mere survival mode.  I joined the famous cathedral choir and the Semmelweis Medical Orchestra of Budapest, yet I was lonely, desperately lonely.  Sunday afternoons became unbearable.  But soon this faded into the tragedy of my father’s untimely death--his martyrdom. 

God shattered.  I lost meaning.  I lost vitality.  I was virtually dead.       

It was Lent.  My cellist colleague in the medical orchestra invited me to play the violin in his newly founded string quartet.  Rehearsal time: Sunday afternoons!  He was also mourning his young father who had died in an accident while climbing the peaks of the Caucuses.  String quartet playing was their family tradition.  But it was his attempt to reach out for me in comfort that prompted my colleague to convoke a quartet from among members of the medical orchestra.

On that Easter Sunday we played Joseph Haydn’s famous The Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross.  The outcry of the “words of dereliction” on my violin carried not only the agony of Christ on the cross, but my own agony, setting loose an avalanche of grieving.  We all trembled by the time we played the last movement, the Il Terremoto [The Earthquake].  The catharsis of the experience bound us together for the next twenty years. 

            Through music--its aesthetic, erotic, communal complexities--I found resurrection.  Grace touched me through music and transformed my being in relation to God and myself.  My friend ministered to me in such depth which brought salvation, liberation for me in the agony of depression.  If music had been in the center of in my life before, through this experience music became the sacred mediating, healing, guiding power that lead me back to God.  Music indeed is the language of the sacred in any religion, any culture, and even in cross-cultural exchange.  Immunity to music means being regretfully shielded from a divine source of blessing.  But beyond that universality of music, there is a particularity: the active music making and the blessing of the communing in music.

What was the core of the experience and our determination to stay together as a string quartet?  The context of our music-making and the pieces we chose--Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and occasionally Beethoven quartets--were secular most of the time, yet the experience was deeply religious by the virtue of the quality of our relationship.  Though neither the greatest mountains nor the late Beethoven string quartets have religious public identity, their effect is mystical.

In our busy high-tech life we are surrounded by music, which is meant to be strictly subliminary and background, to make one feel good.  Consumerism’s brainwashing techniques have stolen and abused our precious musical legacy meant to affect our being in its sacred core.  Today malls are modern replacements of the house of worship with their Vivaldiized, Mozartized sweet and nauseating music.  Music created in the fire of the divine touch of the genius to lure the soul to higher planes, in its modern use, it traps the soul in the ordinary.  The same is true in the attitude toward active music playing.  I tried playing in a similar ensemble here in the US.  It was then that I discovered the centrality of the spiritual element in music-making, beyond music.  There was no personal, intimate interaction here, only an aloof professionalism.  We played well, but no catharsis happened, the experience was like “wood-chopping.”


Aesthetic and Spiritual Dimensions

            Paul Tillich, in his opening speech at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, said: "The artist brings to our senses and through them to our whole being something of the depth of our world and of ourselves, something of the mystery of being... " (Paul Tillich, "Address on the Occasion of the Opening of the New Galleries and Sculpture Garden of the Museum of the Modern Art" In On Art [1964]. p. 247).  New dimensions of our inner possibilities open up.  These had been unknown to us before, but now they become new layers in the texture of our life.

            We had a vital need for the lofty and cleansing beauty of music, for as physicians we were exposed to the “mud, blood, and death” (Tillich) day after day.  The tangible proximity of death, the lost battles against it, at times seemed unbearable.  It is not a simple coincidence that in Europe there are medical orchestras at every major university.  To be fully initiated in music, art, and literature was also an intricate part of practicing the art of medicine.  Active music making was our spiritual practice in a secularized communist society.             

            Tillich wrote about his peak experience of encountering a masterpiece--Botticelli’s Madonna with Jesus:   “In the beauty of the painting there was Beauty itself.”  “That moment [of ecstasy standing before the painting for the first time] has affected my whole life, given me the key for the interpretation of human existence, brought vital joy and spiritual truth." (Ibid.)

            A masterpiece is a glimpse into the divine creative realm.  Thinking process-theologically, God’s creative "suggestion" and impulse from time to time find the worthy co-worker in the genius of a Johann Sebastian Bach or a Benjamin Britten.  Unfortunately, the same divine intention is often forced to compromise in the hands of mediocrity. 

            Beauty in a grand opus is not always “beautiful,” not always recognizable beauty.  Sometimes, like in the musical language of a Penderecki, even sacred music reaches the edge of chaos, a via negativa approach to the divine.  But be it sublimity or tempest, “the experience of great art disturbs one like a deep anxiety... like a near-escape from death...: it is a massive blow from which one recovers slowly and which leaves one changed in ways that only gradually come to light," as Tillich confessed. (Ibid.)

            Listening to and playing masterpieces, one affirms Thomas Browne’s notion of being “God as first Composer.”  Seemingly “random” notes on a paper become Christ’s cry of dereliction.  Some music seems to be divine creation.  Händel confessed that while composing the Creation, the heaven opened up and the very blessed God was manifest.   I view the creative genius as divine.  I can admire no other human greatness more than the genius of the composer.  And, in fact, nobody but the genius should dare to compose music.  Bad music is sacrilege, especially such music intended for church use, when we have Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Britten, and so many others, who have the power to affect us wholly as human beings, who “translate” theology and the human predicament into music, resulting in a new creation of meaning, impossible to express by language.  Music is revelatory of the transcendent, transforming of the spirit.  When I listen--or better, sing--the “Lacrimosa” in Verdi’s Requiem, I must shed tears over the goodness, closeness, and majesty of God.  There is no deeper prayer, greater adoration, truer self-transcendence.  How ultimately ironic that during the Holocaust, in the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt, Verdi’s Requiem was performed three times by the very victims--each time by a different choir and orchestra, for members of the previous ones had been sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.  Only the conductor was used for all three performances, before his own peril.  What an ultimately evil abuse of the most sacred music!  What a bottom of dehumanization of making the victims sing their own requiem mass as a kaddish.

            Goethe, admirer of Beethoven, in his reflection on Beethoven’s string quartets, pointed out that music created “an intimate imaginary discourse of feeling--the awakening of reminiscence” (Goethe’s Gespräche). In the act of listening, internal dialogue and patterns of memory are triggered.  Music, though social for the listener or the musician, is secret and deeply intimate at the same time, luring the listener to powerful personal appropriation.  Goethe emphasized the tension between the pure logic and reason and the rich texture of emotion in music.  Beauty consists in the resolution of this tension.  Schiller admitted that though beauty--music--is a manifestation of humans’ “play drive,” it is ethically good, aligned with Kant’s moral philosophy.  In fact, he saw music and arts as a “rational surrogate for religion.” (Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters [Oxford, 1967]).

            Music is more than the realm of aesthetics--it is also theology and philosophy.  In 1931, Ludwig Wittgenstein said about Ludwig von Beethoven that “Beethoven tackled problems of the intellectual world . . . which no philosopher has ever confronted . . . in the obscure language of prophecy, comprehensible to very few indeed.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans. Peter Finch, ed. G. H. von Wright [Chicago, 1980]).  In Wittgenstein’s view conventional language was hardly capable of expressing ethical truths and core questions of life.  “Musical themes are in a certain sense propositions.  And so the recognition of the essence of logic will lead to the recognition of the essence of music.” (Brian McGinness, Wittgenstein--A Life: Young Ludwig, 1889-1921 (Berkeley, 1988).  For Wittgenstein, Beethoven “remained the true ‘prophet’ of the 19th century, in whose work ethical truth and beauty are communicated adequately.” (The Beethoven Quartet Companion, ed. by Robert Winter and Robert Martin, [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994] p. 82).

            Music reveals some depth of the human predicament, raises basic human questions, and gives prophetic answers.  Music heals, restores, resonates with the human spirit’s yearning, longing for God.  Yet music is largely ignored by theological traditions.  So little is written on the theological aspects of music.  

            By the simple virtue of playing an instrument, the sacred realm of music opened up generously for our string quartet.  We played the masterpieces as best we could, but we were just amateur musicians and were never really able to be technically worthy interpreters.  Ours was indeed an exercise in humility and reverence.  But the reward of the sincere engagement bordered on sheer bliss as we became part of, had intimate glimpse into, the divine creative process, filtering it through our mind-heart-soul and trusting it to our bare fingers.  If listening to music can be spiritually transformative, then playing it actively means doubling that blessing.

            There is also a significant difference between singing or playing solo versus singing in a choir or playing chamber music.  The highest refined form of the latter is the string quartet.   This is obviously arguable for those who sing in a choir.  And because I do, I am aware of the rich experience of singing a Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater or Brahms’ German Requiem in a gothic cathedral.  The overpowering yet sublime grace and mysterious magnificence of the gothic cathedral creates a state of spiritual levitation, a stirring type of peace.  Leftover prayers and chants from earlier centuries hover and echo around like a slice of eternity.  While singing, we connect with those before us.  A cathedral is an intersection between earth and heaven when the pure, angelic voices of the all-women’s choir of Pergolesi or the robust chorus of Brahms replace the words of prayer in joyful thanksgiving or of cry from the depth of suffering and carry them to God. 

            Playing in a music ensemble, though there is a literal “playing” element involved, which is much richer than the mere playing together in sports.  We have the need for passionate self-expression, liberating emotional satisfaction, and, ultimately, finding meaning, healing, wholeness, centeredness, and expression for the ineffable truth.  The most precious of all is its capacity to open one’s life toward the transcendent dimensions.  Even if our playing was imperfect, it was an essential integrating process nonetheless.  Emotionally, one nurtures the “soul’s desire” and sensitivity.   It is in making music that the body actively participates, dictating the mind and engaging the heart, opening up the intuition.   The kinesthetic participation enhances the sense of the wholeness.  The focus and self-discipline of regular practice on the musical instrument for a lifetime, is indeed serious spiritual practice and rigorous training which shapes one’s life very positively for other tasks. 


The Communing and the Erotic in the Playing in String Quartet

            Music affects the heart, the mind, and the soul--the very elements the Great Commandment calls forth: love God with your heart, soul, mind and strength.  Some qualities of the moment of mystery and intimacy of the communion [Lord’s Supper]--when one faces the divine, the neighbor, and oneself--are recognizable in playing music together.  It is the same bringing together of the rational with the emotional and intuitive--and in the playing of the instrument--with the actional.  Both instances of communing are integrated and integrating modes of perception of one’s relation to God, one’s neighbor and one’s own life. 

            By an often cited witticism, music is nothing (more) than the right notes in the right time.  Well, our playing together did not always meet this criterion perfectly.  But joyously, zealously, we wove the fabric of music in a synchronized heartbeat.   Our individuality was relevant only in the context of that community as long as we played.  We were one body for those hours; being a quartet was our sacred identity.  Melodies intertwined, embracing and caressing, sometimes confronting, comically imitating each other.  Throughout the years we learned to tune to each other’s intuitions, emotions, styles, strengths, and weaknesses.  We learned to be in true dialogue with each other, to pass on and receive a fine line of melody, to be in harmony, to listen and to appreciate the other and to build up each other to shine.   In our communing with each other, we exposed ourselves in our utter vulnerability: ours was not the musical eloquence of the concert halls.  To the astute listener, our music was anything but sophisticated.  But we were constantly forgiving each other lovingly when one of us missed the intended perfection.  In a constant marvel of the composer's genius, while meeting and occasional nuisance over technical difficulties, we celebrated every moment.  The imperfect character of our playing together, the struggle, the vulnerability, the intimate openness, the intertwined emotions--love being ultimately at its origin and final coda--gave a deeply religious emotional charge to this music making.  If one "reduces" music to mere display of virtuosity--be it far superior to our limitedness--it would lose its religiously, morally compelling depth.  And I doubt that beauty itself would be more present either.

            We were intoxicated by the beauty coming out from our instruments--and ultimately from our spirit.  We transcended our own selves and technical possibilities.  We were soaring high as if we were Yehudi Menuhin and Rostropovics.  There was an intense intimacy in the dialogue among four instruments with equal roles, in the passing back and forth of the line of melody, with half-smiles, rushed eye-contacts across the music stands, asking for forgiveness, acknowledging small triumphs of bringing out the beauty of rich harmonies, breathtaking suspense-dissonance, sighs and cries, pirouettes of rapid scale runs, bursts of laughter. 

            This musical communing was intensely sensual and pleasurable.  In fact, I argue, playing in a string quartet is nothing short of the erotic.  In the process of the co-creation of beauty, sacred and transcendent, a very special and intense love was born among us.  The spiritual closeness of music partners is next to the intimacy of lovers.  The artwork’s implicit sensuous character creates bodily ecstasy that exceeds the ordinary physical sensuality.  For example, the first movement of Schubert’s C Major Cello Quintet (Op. 163) has recurring modulations so sensual, so intensely erotic, that they evoke suspense, a breathtaking, quiet ecstasy any time I listen to it [hear musical illustration].

Our quartet time was sacred for us; nobody was allowed to intrude.  We never performed before an audience; our music was just for us, for the sake of music making, sacred-time carving.  Only family shared this space--in surprising reverence.  And the family around us was ever growing.  For a few years a new child per year was born to our audience.  Children of the string quartet--that was their highest status from early age.  But as these children were growing into adolescence, we were surprised that they kept hanging out with us every Sunday afternoon--by choice.  They had increasingly refined personal opinions and critique of their parents’ playing.  The five-year old asked for “that” Schubert piece where Papa played the solo.  “Our” children, one by one, began to study instruments.  In these twenty years we have grown into a chamber orchestra.   But our identity is still a string quartet.   When I told my partners about my thriving at BU School of Theology, my cellist friend, now leading cardiologist of Hungary, wrote back: “This is expected from one being ‘raised’ in our string quartet.”

            The intrinsic mysticism and joy of music-making in general and of the string quartet in particular can never be replaced and fully expressed by words.  Neither should be underestimated the saving power of these friendships during shipwrecks of life.  In his last sermon, the day before he died, my father preached these words: “God does not expect from you to save the world: your mandate is limited to one single human being, which could be just yourself.  Each word of comfort, each act of compassion is a small bonfire during dark nights.  But these tiny flickering flames, the simple gestures of loving hearts will add up and will eventually save the world.”

            I entered this quartet at a moment of crisis, during my own dark night.   My friend’s gesture of compassion guided me back to life through the passion in music and love in the community.