The Art and the Hours – Wonder

by Br. Gilbert Heater, OSB

Leopold Godowsky’s Java Suite is a collection of tone poems written by the early 20th century Lithuanian composer after visiting Indonesia. This composition pushes the piano (and pianist) to the very limit and ranges at times from thunderous onslaught to tender whispers, from nearly atonal chromaticism to diatonic minimalism, and from dense opacity to thin and threadlike melodies. Inspired by the exotic sights and the native gamelan music, he was able to create an astonishing synthesis of cultures and styles and it is no surprise that the Indonesian born, and Western trained pianist Esther Budiardjo is able to bridge both worlds and bring this music to life in such a marvellous and sensitive performance.

This movement, “The Bromo Volcano and the Sand Sea at Daybreak,” conveys Godowsky’s sunrise encounter with an awe-inspiring eruption of the Bromo volcano and, as he puts it, “the boiling, roaring, rumbling subterranean forces, seething and spouting up from abysmal depths, the sulphurous vapours and dense clouds, spreading steadily and menacingly over the horizon.” The terrifying hugeness is conveyed in exploding and cataclysmic chords building to a dramatic climax (19:56).

The music is full of extended pentatonic harmonies and is, perhaps, the most technically demanding of the suite with sweeping triplet figures divided between the two hands which are carried throughout the piece, interlaced with the core melodies and resulting in a thick and dauntingly complex texture. Unlike most of the other movements, the climax occurs in the middle, conveying (to my mind, at least), the image of the volcanic eruption diminishing and cooling down – the sea returning to its calm tranquillity. The initial apprehension is gradually dispelled by the brightening of the rising sun which we hear in the delicate melody presented as a gentle dialogue between the hands (21:23) recalling “a passionate adoration for the unknown source of all consciousness.”

Perhaps for Godowsky this source was indeed unknown, but I believe that in the wonderful awestruck experience of nature which his music so clearly conveys, he was entering into that desire for God which is written in every human heart. God never ceases to draw each person to himself and every encounter we have with God is an occasion for wonder. I think our feelings of wonder are simply the delight our soul takes in seeing an aspect of God’s love for us. Wonder is our response to recognizing the presence of God. The Bromo volcano moved Godowsky to an awareness of something tremendous and transcendent; it pulled him beyond himself, to something greater than himself. All wonder is a glimpse of something lovely and beautiful, of something we are unable to understand or contain. It is, in the fullest sense, the unveiling (and revelation) of a more perfect reality in which we see a darkling shadow of that pure and perfect Wonder, the beatific vision which shall not be exhausted though we spend all eternity in adoration.

Wonder is a foretaste of heaven. A sunset reveals the fiery flaming glory of God undimmed before the ending of the world. Man’s noblest works of architecture suggest the gilt and glittering grandeur of the new and heavenly Jerusalem. Our rituals and ceremonies (and all ceremonies are religious) are allusions to the unending liturgy of heaven. Art is the celebration of man’s participation in God’s act of creation and the more those works reflect the love of the Trinity, the more they stir our hearts to awe and admiration. And music – music is that marvellous mystery that pierces the most interior movements of our hearts, an expression of wonder that encompasses body, mind, and soul and yet is transcend to them all.

God has spoken only one single Word, that one Utterance in whom he expresses himself completely. Perhaps this Word was spoken. But I like to think he was sung. Our propensity to express in song the deepest hungers of our heart is surely part of our participation in the image and likeness of God. For Christ is the Father’s love song to his children, that perfect encounter with God for whom the only proper response is love and wonder.