I have also been watching Howard Goodall’s Story of Music on BBC 2, The Age of Invention (1650-1750), and was enraptured with the performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I thought, surely this has been played somewhere in the world every day since 1723? Surely the world could never grow tired of listening to it!
I was surprised to hear that Vivaldi ended his days in his sixties in obscurity and poverty in Vienna, having left his beloved Venice, and that his music lay silent for nearly 200 years.
We all have these automatic assumptions. For example, surely New Year has always been celebrated on January 1st every year? According to Stephen Alford’s book The Watchers: a secret history of the Reign of Elizabeth I, January Ist as the first day of the New Year didn’t get adopted in England until 1752.
In the same period between 1650 and 1750 when the laws of gravity were discovered by Isaac Newton, Howard Goodall says musicians became aware of and began playing with the gravity of music. In particular he places one sequence of chords, ‘The Circle of Fifths,’ at the centre of musical gravity. In fact the dozen or so chord sequences beloved of composers in 1700, are, he says, still the top dozen harmonic sequences today.
Religion played its part in the discovery and invention of music, as it did in the discovery of the gravity of attention and awareness. All major religions played a part in this earlier age of discovery and invention of contemplative practices.
As I look at this gravity of awareness and attention, these archetypal chords of the mind, this still music within our thoughts and feelings – I think, surely the church has always been aware of this?
However, as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons fell silent and out of favour, so in the Western Church did this central area of attention and awareness. Watchfulness was once considered the hallmark of sanctity and holiness in the Christian life, but not so in the modern church. It has taken those outside the church, psychologists in particular, to mine the ancient wisdom of the contemplatives.
The modern church has limited itself to a meagre diet, the few notes that sound out reason, and rational, logical propositional thought, and has lost the ancient harmonies, melodies and rhythms of mystery. Indeed mystery and contemplation for some has been seen as forbidden fruit. We have become more harpsichord than piano, unable to play loud and soft.
So what are the archetypal chords of the mind?
The first is the ability to sustain our attention. When our mind wanders off on a ruminative tune, we notice that wandering, and what it wanders to, and switch our attention back to our object of focus. The aim is to catch the first thought as it sounds out, and not allow ruminative and secondary thought processes to write their own music, usually out of tune and discordant.
Within this pattern and in the infinite circle of the present moment we move from focused attention to a more open awareness. It is in that more open awareness as we still our minds that we begin to hear the music of God’s presence. We hear the seductive notes of the addiction to our own ego. We begin to hear the sounds of other people and the created world around us.
What is particularly interesting as you look at the history of composing, whether it is music, books, sermons, art, is that many Christians were involved. Many of them approached this act of composing as a ‘meditatio’, a meditation – and out of this approach came the most dazzling creativity.
Why do we need to rediscover the still music of our minds through contemplative practices? Through these archetypal chords of attention and awareness beauty is discovered and released, the visible is placed at the service of the invisible. In this new ecstatic seeing of reality, we are enabled to hear, in the words of William Blake, the song of the angel, the song of the wild flower.