May 11, 2006

The Sounds of Music

The film version of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical opens with a sweeping view of the Austrian Alps, pans across the town of Salzburg, and zooms in on Maria, who is skipping through a meadow singing for the sheer joy of music and nature. For many, Salzburg is defined by a film that is as inaccurate as it is appealing.1 Who wouldn’t cheer for the plucky Von Trapp family as they sing catchy tunes and defy the Nazis?
I was 10 when I first watched The Sound of Music, a film I had long heard my parents discuss, a film I was certain I would abhor. I was, of course, wrong. I was charmed--the Alps, the love story, the children, the singing. Years later, when I learned I would be teaching in Salzburg, part of the appeal lay in a film, which I now enjoyed as much for its kitsch as for its optimism.
I arrived in Salzburg on a cold February night. And for the first two weeks it snowed nearly every day--a quiet, beautiful, hushing snow that settled upon the town like a shawl. So, this is Salzburg, I thought as I walked through the old town, bells clanging overhead, their sound interrupting an hour of stillness. The stone buildings were shades of pastel and looked as soft as chalk. Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by Mozart: Mozart chocolate, Mozart postcards, Mozart’s house, Mozart’s music.
1513 page13I had come expecting the Von Trapps and had instead discovered a musical virtuoso. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born here 250 years ago, making 2006 a momentous year to visit Salzburg. I could catch a Mozart concert every night of my stay.
In an era when classical music was flourishing, Mozart stood out. At one of his concerts, Beethoven reportedly whispered to Ferdinand Ries: “We’ll never think of anything like that!”2 Mozart was born extraordinary. At 2, he heard a pig squeal and recognized the sound as G sharp. At 10 he’d composed a symphony. As an adult, his work came to epitomize the new classical (as opposed to Baroque) sound. At his death at only 35 he’d written 626 musical pieces.
It’s difficult to imagine a world without Mozart, more difficult still to imagine a world without symphonies and concertos, and impossible to imagine a world without any music at all. The earth itself is an instrument--from the singing of birds to the clicking and whirling of insects to the lashing of rain against a jungle.
We’ve grown up with music, learned our ABCs through song, sung in the shower, brightened when a favorite tune came on the radio, and perhaps even played a musical instrument. We’ve all hated some songs and been drawn to others. And if you’re an Adventist, you’ve probably discussed the role of music in church: What’s sacred? What’s frivolous? What the conversation often leaves out is joy.
Music taps into emotions--whether it’s sorrow (a requiem), patriotism (a national anthem), or romance (anything by Bach). “There is a time for everything,” Solomon once wrote, “and a season for every activity under heaven.”3 Certainly there should be a time for joy, a time to gather and praise God not just intellectually but also emotionally, with happiness and yes, even with repetitive lyrics.
I love the Adventist Hymnal. I’m spiritually filled when I stand in church and the organ plays and the congregation sings “A Mighty Fortress.” But I’ve been most blessed by praise music. I think of singing “Deep Persuasion” in Thailand, my two Buddhist friends playing their guitars, other friends sitting on couches, it’s nearing midnight, and no one wants to leave. We sing song after song, ending with a Thai version of “This Is the Day.”
Praise music might not be to everyone’s tastes, but it speaks to a growing number of Adventists. And while it might seem a new phenomenon, it is in fact as old as Scripture. In Psalm 100, David exhorts us to “shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.”4
Here in Salzburg, I look to the hills where the snow is fast melting, and I think of music. I think of being so filled with emotion that one must burst into song or write a symphony. I feel blessed that God created music as well as mountains--and that He created a variety of sounds and sensitivities.
1 While the Von Trapps were an actual family, they little resembled their screen characters. The family sang classical pieces rather than folk songs; Georg’s oldest child was a boy; Maria was the strict one in the family; and when the Von Trapps fled Austria, they went to Italy (not Switzerland), and by train (not on foot).
2 “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. April 1, 2006.
3 Eccl. 3:1.
4 Ps. 100:1.
Sari Fordham is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, currently taking part in an exchange lectureship program at the University of Salzburg in Austria.