The Art and the Hours

by Br. Gilbert Heater, OSB

With its elegant touching melody and a rich resonant harmony of suspended 9ths and 11ths, it would be easy to mistake this piece for a late 19th century composition, perhaps a work by Mahler or Sibelius. It was, however, written nearly two centuries earlier by the great French Baroque composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau. Originally an orchestral interlude from his opera Les Boréades, the outstanding Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson has recorded his own transcription of it for piano. Rameau gave it the ponderous title of “The Arrival of the Muses, Zephyrs, Seasons, Hours and the Arts.” All these mythical creatures have something to do with the arts and the passing of time and Ólafsson has renamed his arrangement “The Art and the Hours,” recalling the Greek aphorism best known in its Latin version: ars longa, vita brevis. This can be loosely translated as “art takes time and life is short.”

“Art” here is used in an older sense of skill, craft, or technique and the theme of skill and the passing of time was no doubt close to Rameau’s heart. Les Boréades was his last major composition and shortly before writing it he confided to a friend that after eighty years he felt he had run out of inspiration. “I no longer have any genius and the imagination in my old head has fled away.” Clearly, he underestimated himself because from that old head poured forth this gorgeous melody at once sweet and sorrowful, delicate and deep. The art of Rameau had not abandoned him, even in the late hours of his life.

It is a product of its time, yet not bound to it. While working within the careful constructs of the Baroque milieu, Rameau unlocked something timeless. There is an inspiration and imagination that crosses the span of nearly three centuries and speaks to our hearts with a vital and vigorous voice. There is something alive and mysterious here, an elemental yet enigmatic intersection of sound and soul where music touches the human heart and opens it up to something great and beautiful, something uniquely human and yet a mystery beyond our comprehension.

Music is such a human thing because it reaches into every element of our being. However, for something so prevalent and primal it is also frustratingly elusive. Its rhythms are present to us in the womb and yet millennia of history’s greatest minds have failed to define or explain it. This is because music, like all great and worthy things, is at its centre a paradox. It is a physical movement of strings and pipes and air but engages our passions and imagination in a way that no science can quantify. It is a child of reason and logic yet pierces our emotions to release the tears of sweetness and sorrow. It can be passive, but also has the power to engage every fibre of our being. It is something other than us but also profoundly interior and vulnerable. It is individual and communal; it engages our human nature but calls us to something divine. It is bounded and defined by the passing of time yet slips across the chasm of the centuries with an ethereal immortality. It is spontaneous yet can absorb a lifetime of study. It is a universal bridge across time and culture which finds its meaning in intimacy and immediacy.

Like all paradoxes, music lies at a crossroad that finds no resolution in our purely human experience. It is a mystery that draws us outside ourselves – an undeniable witness that our heart is not constrained to mind or matter but yearns for something transcendent and eternal. It is, perhaps, humanity’s greatest art for it is the communication of heaven and of that love which flows from the great timeless Artificer of the Father, the single Word whose praise resounds in the mouths of all the saints. Ars longa, vita brevis. And yet, at the end of all things, there is music: the new song which the redeemed shall sing for all eternity in a timeless perfection of art before the throne and before the Lamb.