Some time ago a regular reader of my blog asked me if I would write something about music used for mourning. I wasn’t ready to do it at that time. Now, I think, would be a good time.
When I read the verse quoted above a few weeks back, it seemed obscure and irrelevant. Now, in light of the horrendous attack on innocents in my city of Christchurch, it seems so poignant and real.
Though speaking metaphorically, the ‘musician’ in this verse has not put down his instruments in a time of grief, but has actively used them to express his pain. There is a sense that music helps the grieving process.
A few days after the attack I was asked to accompany at the piano a mixed religious group to sing all five verses of our national anthem. How appropriate it was that we could sing “God Defend New Zealand” at such a time! It is not just our national song, but also a beautiful prayer for the nation’s peace and righteousness.* Afterwards, when alone, I felt that the bold, anthem-like way it is normally sung seemed too strong somehow and I wanted to play it in a softer, more thoughtful way because of how I ached at the terrible loss of life. New Zealanders were killed while they were praying and I pray it never happens again.
After playing the cello on some occasion, a friend came up to me and said, “The sound of the cello goes to a place in your heart that nothing else can.” I think I know what she meant. And it holds true for other instruments as well. I do feel there are times that I can express my heart better without words, but through the way I play my instrument. Sometimes the best music comes this way because as the musician embraces strong emotions, they are transferred through the instrument to the listener’s ear. No wonder there has been so much beautiful music written at times of grief and sadness. Famous composers, such as Mozart, Fauré, Berlioz, Dvorák and Verdi, wrote requiems based on the Mass for the dead; and other sorts of requiem have been written after various wars to remember the fallen. These beautiful pieces have been played again through the years at special memorial times. Often they are passages from the Psalms or other Scriptures set to music, because a faith in Someone greater beyond our situation gives us a point of reference when the life we are living is rocked by things that don’t make sense. So many funerals include the singing of Psalm 23, which includes the line, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…” Even if the bereaved find it hard to sing, they can draw comfort from the song sung by the congregation and expressed in the music.
If sad music makes you cry, that is a good thing in a time of grief. I have found it to be true that my tears of grief were healing tears. There is no need to wipe them bravely away when they come at all sorts of odd and inconvenient times. It just shows we are human. Humans are emotional beings. And I’m okay with that.
For those of us in NZ, we are facing a sort of grief unheard of before. May we express our sadness in ways that will help us move through this time and build for a positive future. At the right time we will laugh again, but only if we have processed our time of grief well. And songs of lament are a rich source of healing through that process.
Though I shared this once before in an earlier blog, it seems appropriate now to again attach a piano improvisation of a piece of music I wrote for a musical called Father’s Heart, based on the story of ‘The Prodigal Son.’ In the song the Father’s longing is for his lost child. If you are a New Zealander, maybe you can use the time of listening to it to remember those who lost their lives and perhaps pray for their families.
*Here is a link to a piano version of God Defend New Zealand with lyrics and a few photos: https://youtu.be/3NxPhHyDSd4