I know nothing about music theory and neuroscience but I’ve always been fascinated by the power that a single melody can exert on me. It is a well known fact that music can soothe and heal our bodies; many studies have been published with the aim of explaining how and why this is the case. From my perspective as both reader and writer, however, I regard some emotions and experiences as simply inarticulable. They just don’t have a place within the limits of rationality and can only find full expression in more abstract realms: the mysterious, yet powerful, art dimension.
In De Profundis, Oscar Wilde offers one of the best definitions of art I’ve ever read: “Truth in art,” he writes, “is the unity of a thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit.”
Whenever I experience such moments of “truth in art,” I am invariably left wondering: Can a piece of art really capture, even if just for an instant, the totality of our human condition? Particularly music, which I consider the most powerful -and indeed universal- means of artistic expression. Can a simple melody allow us to grasp, even if just in a heartbeat, the intangible nature of our existence? I ask this because there certainly are some particular melodies which invariably fill me with awe. So powerful and profound they are, that I can hardly find a way of translating them into words.
Richard Addinsell’s 1941 Warsaw Concerto, a piano and orchestra composition for the British film Dangerous Moonlight, is one clear personal example. Each time I listen to the concerto, especially the melodies that build up from min 4:00 and explode throughout the thirty seconds following min 5:30, an overflow of emotions, which I can only clumsily describe as intensely and deeply human, burst out in my chest. It feels as if I could touch my own soul for a fraction of a second: an elusive, yet worthwhile, experience.
The fact that in the space of only a few seconds, a small combination of melodies can trigger such strong emotions and thus render humanness in all its purity, doesn’t cease to intrigue me. It’s almost as if music had the supernatural power to capture life within the limits of a musical staff. Epic pieces like the Warsaw Concerto indeed seem to work as narratives of life, reflecting suffering, triumph, love and tragedy in its crescendos, diminuendos and shifting tempos. But it is in the few notes that evoke sublime emotion where I find the most meaning, possibly because I perceive them as lucid illustrations of the instants that make life worth living: the sound of children laughing, a genuine kind gesture from a stranger, unprejudiced friendship and fellowship. Aren’t all these moments as simple as the combination of a few musical notes? Aren’t they full of melody and significance? This is what life is all about: those tiny bubbles of time that wrap us up in harmony and sublimity, those little fractions of a second that vanish as soon as they arrive and leave us longing for the next opportunity to experience them.
Listen to Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto here
An epic narrative of life in just one song? It has to be Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto n.3
It doesn’t have to be classical music. There is a melody in Strawberry Fields by The Beatles that makes me burst with joy every time I listen to it.