Oprah Winfrey, please come in: I need your help to confess some extremely intimidating and aggressive behaviour in my wild youth. Well, more exactly my rather tame early middle age, when I was rector of our diocesan seminary, Allen Hall.
My room there was just off a corridor along which the students frequently passed, and they could sometimes hear me playing the piano. They used to claim they could tell what state of mind I was in by the sounds coming from the room: if I was thundering out some passage from a Beethoven Sonata, they prepared themselves for trouble, while a soothing Chopin Nocturne meant all was well. So – here is my confession – I sometimes deliberately played loud, aggressive music just to scare them, so I could then have the pleasure of demonstrating later what a forgiving and mild-mannered sort of chap I was.
Extreme perversity like this aside, there is a serious question here: what exactly is the relationship between the emotions inherent in a piece of music and those we are experiencing at the time we play it or listen to it? At a concert during the Second World War, a well-known Soviet pianist once played a Bach Prelude and Fugue with unusual vigour and dynamic contrast, and afterwards, when asked why she played so aggressively, replied, “Isn’t it obvious? Because we are at war!”
We haven’t, at least in Europe, been literally at war for many years now, thank God, but I guess many people sometimes feel they are at war, for example against the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, and that feeling can give vigour to our actions, both at the piano keyboard and in life. Composers such as Schumann and Berlioz felt they were fighting a perpetual war against artistic Philistines; Margaret Thatcher gained popularity by fighting a war against Argentina, and went on to fight all sorts of wars on the home front; and much of the Bible is about warfare, whether against the human enemies of God and his people or against ‘principalities and powers’ in the spiritual realm.
And maybe this is why some form of artistic expression, in whatever form, is so important for someone who is trying to live the Gospel. Looking back over recent times, quite a few things have made me feel I am at war: the recent proposals from the Home Secretary to toughen up the immigration system, which already treats asylum seekers appallingly; the way bishops seemed all too eager to close our Churches when the pandemic began; the repressive actions of Governments like those in Burma (I refuse to call it Myanmar) and China; anyone at all who complains to a bishop about me. And that’s before we get on to Henry VIII and the monasteries…
Tempting as it is to get on to Twitter, Facebook or whatever to insult these villains, or to shout ‘No, no, no!’ at them all like Mrs. Thatcher, this is clearly not the way of Jesus, vitriolic as he could be about the Pharisees and Scribes. All the people I could be at war with are fallible, confused human beings like me who deserve my understanding and compassion if I hope to be forgiven my own far worse perversity. Better to let it out on the piano, even if it has Bach turning over in his grave, and let my anger turn into positive energy for change.