The Art and the Hours – Epiphany

by Br. Gilbert Heater, OSB

There is something mysterious about music and its ability to captivate our souls. It is a ubiquitous part of our human experience that remains somehow beyond our grasp. Like all things great and beautiful, it meets us where we are, yet draws us beyond ourselves into something transcendent and divine. The bounds of human language are incapable of adequately condensing or explaining it but as creatures of reason, there is value in seeking expression for our experience for it enlightens not only others, but ourselves. And one of the wonderful things about music is its ability to captivate us. I suspect we have all encountered a piece of music which resonated with our heart – some combination of words or mood or melody that spoke to us and harmonized with the inner yearnings of our soul. Perhaps it was an ephemeral moment, or it may be music that we turn to often in certain seasons of our life. Music can accompany us in sorrow or exult in joy. It reminds us of love and friends; it can recall the past or awaken hope for the future. Or sometimes, a melody simply grabs us and draws us in. For me, such a piece is this short piano sonata by the early Italian Classical composer Domenico Cimarosa.

It is very simple, almost childishly so. And yet, in this musical poverty if you will, there is something profound. It is haunting and charming, and its brevity and harmonic austerity do not in any way diminish its brilliance. Cimarosa (educated by Dominican friars) was renowned for his grandiose operas, yet this piece is stark and thin, a single melody draped over arpeggiated chords interspersed with intermezzo octaves. But in this almost ethereal delicacy there is a surprising amount of dissonance in the fleeting but frequent clashing 2nds. There is also unexpected harmonic sophistication such as the d  E flat  A progression in ms. 7-8 (0:11-0:16). And I am fascinated by the subtle but persistent motif of a chromatically altered note returning to diatonic (such as the G sharp in m. 2 returning to G natural in m. 4) that is melodically captivating and enriches the outlined chords, giving us the secondary dominant, which resolves to the dominant seventh and back to tonic. It also has a vague and nebulous ending, a kind of musical question mark. The harmonic motion implies a lingering dominant in the octave A, but it is a hollow chord that leave the piece feeling restless and unresolved.

The renowned French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix wrote of Cimarosa’s music: “It is perfection itself. No other musician has this symmetry, this expressiveness and sense of the appropriate, this gaiety and tenderness, and above all … incomparable elegance.” This is also a perfect précis of Vikingur Ólafsson. It is no surprise that this Icelandic pianist (one of the greatest of our time, in my opinion) is able to capture the gentle and poignant beauty of this sonata. It is a simple and unassuming piece, yet he pours all of himself into it and his tender caress of the keys, his command of dynamics and tone, and his mastery of subtle voicing is what makes it come alive. His art elevates the elementary notes into a timeless moment that transfixes and transforms us, bringing this melody which lay forgotten for generations into a present which somehow flows beyond us into Eternity.

When music captures us and touches our heart, it is, I think, an epiphany. It is a sudden insight into ourselves and the world around us. We have a new and intuitive understanding of our own interior, our emotions and desires. This music reveals to us a tender vulnerability, an opening into our heart that has just now been unveiled and made beautiful. It captures our attention and awakens our mind to something bright and glorious. Music can also be an Epiphany, a revelation of God as he draws us to himself and speaks to our soul in the language of heaven, allowing our heart to nestle in the heart of God.