Love can teach us to listen to our enduring melodies

February 2, 2008
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 2nd February 2008

In his new book, Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks (no relative, alas) tells the poignant story of Clive Wearing, an eminent musician and musicologist, who was struck by a devastating brain infection. The result was acute amnesia. Wearing was unable to remember anything for more than a few seconds. As his wife Deborah put it: “It was as if every waking moment was the first waking moment.”

It is a heartbreaking story. Unable to thread experiences together, he was caught in an endless present that had no connection with anything that had gone before. He had no past at all. In a moment of awareness he said about himself: “I haven’t heard anything, seen anything, touched anything, smelt anything. It’s like being dead.”

Two things broke through his isolation. One was his love for his wife. Whenever he saw her he felt intense relief, knowing that he was not alone, that she was there, loving and caring for him. The other was music. He could still sing, play the organ and conduct a choir with all his old skill and verve.

What was it about music, Sacks asks, that enabled him, while playing or conducting, to overcome his amnesia? He suggests that when we “remember” a melody, we recall one note at a time, yet each note relates to the whole. He quotes Victor Zuckerkandl, who wrote: “Hearing a melody is hearing, having heard, and being about to hear, all at once. Every melody declares to us that the past can be there without being remembered, the future without being foreknown.” Music is a form of sensed continuity that can sometimes break through the most overpowering disconnections in our experience of time.

There is something spiritual about music, and something musical about the human spirit. When the Israelites experienced redemption at the Red Sea, they sang. So did Hannah when she had a child. The Levites sang in the Temple. Every day, in Judaism, we preface our morning prayers with what we call “Verses of Song” with their magnificent crescendo, Psalm 150, in which instruments and the human voice combine to sing God’s praises. When language takes wing heavenward, it modulates from speech to song.

Mystics have gone farther and spoken of the song of the universe, what Pythagoras called “the music of the spheres”. This is what Psalm 19 means when it says: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands . . . There is no speech, there are no words, where their voice is not heard. Their music carries throughout the Earth, their words to the end of the world.” Beneath the silence, audible only to the inner ear, Creation sings to its Creator.And music may have something to do with the meaning of a human life. In 2006 Michael Mayne, Dean of Westminster, knowing he was about to die, published a journal of his last year and called it The Enduring Melody. In it he spoke about life as a melody. In early times liturgical music — plainsong in the Church, nussach in the synagogue — consisted of a single dominant chant, the cantus firmus, the “fixed song”. Gradually this became ornamented with counterpoint and harmony, but it was the underlying melody that gave unity to the whole. So, said Mayne, we can sometimes look back on our life and hear beneath the harmonies and dissonances, the “enduring melody” of who we are and what we have tried to be.

Faith, I suspect, is more like music than like science. Science analyses, music integrates. And as music connects note to note, so faith connects episode to episode, life to life, age to age in a timeless melody that breaks into time. God is the composer and librettist. We are each called on to be voices in the choir, singers of God’s song.

Oliver Sacks ends his account of Wearing’s illness with the words of his wife: “Clive’s at-homeness in music and in his love for me are where he transcends amnesia and finds continuum.” I was deeply moved by those words. Love and music redeem our solitude, mending the broken connections of our lives. Faith teaches us to hear the music beneath the noise.