Music and the sacred: a heavenly match


Readers familiar with the Old Testament know that even ancient people held a close connection between music and the sacred (e.g., Psalm 150, my favorite).

Today we might fairly wonder, “Why is music associated with the DIVINE?”

This is a deep question in theology, philosophy and brain science. Let me hazard a layman’s guess, and ask you, readers, to try it out for yourselves.

Undoubtedly, music carries information. The philosopher Michael Polanyi once wrote that music and mathematics both testify to the paradox that man can “hold important discourse about nothing.”

I once gave this idea to a class of philosophy students, and a young woman, now a professional musician, objected vigorously: music is certainly not “about nothing.”

But if that’s the case, what then is it about?

Music arouses emotions, strong emotions, to be sure, but we cannot get people to agree on what emotions are expressed by a piece of music. Individuals even feel different emotions from the same music heard at different times.

We must therefore bring these feelings to the music ourselves, freely giving it its power. Yet we cannot put words to that power. Is music then “about” emotions?

To religious people, music might be “important discourse” about God, not about nothing (ironically, Polanyi did believe in God).

A friend suggests that music provides the extra dimension needed to carry words into the realm of the spiritual. Good call.

So here’s something to think about as you listen to performances during the “sacred season” of December. Why does the music move you? Is it “about” nothing? Or does the question of “about-Ness” even matter?

The Walla Walla Symphony’s Sounds of the Season concert on Dec. 10 at 7:30 p.m. in Whitman College’s Cordiner Hall presents a perfect opportunity for these meditations. The program includes music of Johann Sebastian Bach — perhaps the most profoundly spiritual composer of all time — though in this case the piece is secular, the “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.”

Enjoy the tennis-match “dialogue” between the larger orchestra and a small group of just flute, oboe, trumpet and violin (one each). Ideas bounce around in a friendly competition between the larger force and the smaller one (David and Goliath?), with moments of triumphant cooperation.

The trumpet in particular stuns us with its high, clear virtuosity: just the sort of thing King David must have been imagining when he penned Psalm 150. The most spiritual treat of the evening is Vivaldi’s stunning “Gloria,” sung by the Whitman College Chorale.

This is a generous setting of a portion of the Latin mass, nearly a half-hour of music for orchestra, two sopranos, alto and chorus.

Since the subject matter is explicitly sacred, taste the soaring heights of 18th-century religious ecstasy in what might have been a merely plodding ritual. Gloria!

Also offered by the Symphony, on Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m. in Cordiner Hall, is the Clarion Brass Choir, a Spokane ensemble, led by the Symphony’s principal trumpet, William Berry. Berry possess a delightful wit and promises, along with the traditional brass renditions of Christmas songs and carols, some fun and games. You’ll hear the fastest and wildest version of Jingle Bells you will ever survive and the “First And Last Ever Clarion Holiday Sing-Along” — guaranteed to be different from any other singalong you have ever experienced. (Perhaps we diverge from the sacred here. ...)

Whitman College presents its annual free opera workshop on Dec. 5 at 7:30 in Chism Hall.

The show presents a semester’s work by talented students: six scenes from six operas, ranging from Glück and Mozart to Kurt Weill and Giancarlo Menotti. The scenes are culled from the operas, so they are something like highlights, with appropriate emphasis on tuneful arias and special dramatic moments. I’ve never been disappointed at this event.

The Feast of Carols, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. in Cordiner Hall, is a communitywide celebration that features choral groups from Whitman, Walla Walla High School- the Village Church, Sharpstein Elementary School, the Walla Walla Choral Society and the Walla Walla Symphony Youth Orchestra. Admission is free with a food donation

Many churches also will put on their big Christmas concerts.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s free First Thursday concert in December starts at 12:15 p.m. and features the Wa-Hi Christmas Band.

Walla Walla University’s concert, at University Church in College Place, takes place Dec. 13 at 6 p.m. and again at 8 p.m.

John Jamison teaches in the Quest program at Walla Walla Community College and serves on the board of the Walla Walla Symphony. He retired to Walla Walla in 2003 from a teaching career in Seattle. He can be reached at


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