Thoughts from a Musician's Heart
She sat down at the piano in my summer studio and played a Bach prelude and fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier. One of a group of music students from Beijing, spending a week in rural Indiana to sing in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, she was slight, quiet, deferential, and serious. Having performed the same piece in a recital the previous evening, she played quite capably. “You know this music very well,” I commented; “What are your questions about it at this stage in your experience of it?” Her answer surprised me: “Dr. Horn, I am not a Christian, but I know that Bach was very religious, and I want to know how to play this piece more religiously.” It was a question as amazing as it was unexpected, and forced me to think hard about how to respond. Is there a “religious” way to make music? Is there an approach that anyone can learn? It so happened that this particular prelude and fugue is one that with its brooding, slowly pulsing prelude has always brought to my mind the opening chorus of the Saint Matthew Passion -- “Come, you daughters, help me to mourn. Behold! Who? The bridegroom comes. See him! How? Just like a lamb.” I told her that for Bach, all of his music sprang from his faith in God, regardless of whether he wrote for the church, court, or coffee house. I told her about the Passion chorus, and described what it might be like to watch Jesus pass by, beaten, bloodied, bowed down by the weight of the cross he was carrying for you. I then asked her to begin the prelude again. After the first few phrases, I stopped her and asked: “Are you noticing anything different this time?” She said, “Oh! I have feelings now!”
Although a number of years have passed since that moment, I still have feelings as I think back on it, and ponder what it was that happened in that moving exchange. Did my young friend encounter Jesus as she pictured him in that makeshift teaching studio? Did our encounter lead her at some point to confess him as Lord? I don’t fully know, and in many respects, I may never know this side of eternity what all it meant. It’s perhaps a reminder of what Paul meant when he wrote in Colossians 3:3-4 that “your life is hidden with Christ in God:” that God is doing many things in, through, and around us that are perhaps not for us to know, and are bigger than any one of us. It’s encouragement to each of us to go about our routine, daily tasks of music-making, teaching, and living knowing that routine, daily faithfulness carries with it the potential for extraordinary and unforeseeable consequences. I also think that our encounter speaks to something very important about doing the work of an artist in obedience to God’s call. The Good News means nothing apart from embodiment and incarnation. The Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us. It was in flesh that Jesus followed his path to the cross as Bridegroom and Lamb. We as musicians and artists of all sorts are in the business of working with sounds, words, and images, and making them come to life through our hearts, minds, and bodies. As members of the Body of Christ, we also have the privilege of modeling and testifying to His life as we go about our own lives. We model and testify not through our striving, but through humbly yielding ourselves in all of our imperfection, sinfulness, and weakness so that He may do with us as He wills, however little or much we know of what He is doing. I am certainly still learning the lessons suggested by my memory of that teachable moment many summers ago, and sometimes forget them entirely. As Martin Luther wrote: “To progress is always to begin again.” But I stand in awe, encouraged by the fact that the Eternal God can use even my weakness to embody and testify to beauty, grace, and truth.
Pianist Daniel Paul Horn is keyboard chair at the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music. He lives in Winfield, Illinois with his wife, mezzo-soprano Denise Gamez.