My undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of Fine Arts from York University. My major was music–I played the oboe–and for four years, it was my pleasure and privilege to perform with the Toronto Community Orchestra. Although my high school music department was considered very good, and took high awards in international competition, York provided my first opportunity to play major symphonic works in the arrangements originally intended by the composers.
One of the highlights of my time with the orchestra was when we performed the Brahms First Symphony. Immediately I fell in love with this rich, complex piece of music, and it has remained a favorite for the thirty years since my graduation from the university. Sitting in the middle of the orchestra and playing my part was thrilling, but in the decades since, I’ve spent many hours listening to Brahms I from the “outside”–recordings, live performances. I appreciate the depth and subtlety more now that I’m not worried about getting my notes right.
I’ve frequently thought that it would not be a bad thing to start major theological conferences–especially ones that have the potential to get contentious–with a concert rather than with the customary eucharist. A work such as the Brahms First is a wordless lesson in tension, conflict, harmony, dissonance, soft and tranquil stretches, periods of turbulence continuity (it is often performed without pauses between the movements), incomplete resolution, and then finally–after almost an hour of bloody hard work on the part of a lot of musicians each doing his or her own thing, but understanding their common purpose–achieving a glorious end where not everyone is playing the same note.
That’s the important thing about great music. It is complex. A multiplicity of instrumental timbres combine and become more than each of them would be individually. Harmonic progression requires dissonance to give it the sense of moving forward–musical dissonance is caused because one note being played seems that it belongs more “properly” to the chord before or after what everyone else is doing. Dissonance requires that not everyone is doing the same thing at the same time. Guess what? So does harmony. Unison is what you get when everyone is on the same note. Unison is simple–it’s hard to achieve, because it needs to be absolutely in tune for it not to be jarring and ugly. Unison allows no difference. Harmony requires being in tune as well, but cooperating more to make sure that each person is doing his or her own part well–not demanding that your part be the same as my part, but appreciation that your part is different from mine, and that our differences make us much richer and more beautiful together than sameness ever could.
And Brahms I starts off with tension! Banging, blowing, scraping–that’s how my university conductor described it. And that is how it is. It is hard to hear how pounding timpani, screeching woodwinds, bellowing brass, and long tense pulls on the high strings are ever going to come together to make this a beautiful listening experience. But the tension of the first movement gives way to a dreamlike start to the second–but there is still some tension and dissonance. The third movement seems to flow and travel with a smooth ease, mounting in urgency and uncertainty–but still moving forward. The fourth recapitulates the tension of the first, broken with occasional snippets of “brass chorale” that are reminiscent of earlier periods of music history. However, these glorious bursts of brass harmony do not resolve, but are interrupted. They are but a vision of the final harmonic resolution with which the symphony ultimately, joyously ends–a hint of what is to be, but still the sense of ‘not yet, anyway.’
What if church discussion–whether at the level of the congregation, or at international meetings–understood the process of bringing disparity together the way Brahms did when he wrote this glorious hour of music? Would we be able to understand those who rub against us uncomfortably as people who are working hard toward the same purposes? Would we appreciate the different skills and techniques needed to achieve glorious ends, even if those were not things that we ourselves had mastered? Would we listen with an inner ear for the cues that mean someone else’s sound should be more prominent than our own at a particular moment, and would we be courageous to play our solo lines, or harmonize when we were to share the auditory attention with another instrumentalist? Can we take our turns being silent, letting other groups of instruments do the work while we rest? Are we happy to take a bow together once the work has been completed?
In an orchestra, each instrumentalist does what she or he is assigned–I was an oboist, and my job was not to play the cello (or to attempt to play the cello part on my oboe). What was before me on my stand was the work I was to do as a part of the entire effort. My little second oboe part was important to the success and completeness of the whole, but it was far from the whole. It was one part, not the entire score. My job was to play, to rest, to listen, to make sure that I was doing the work I had to do to, and contribute to the success and richness of the whole. I helped create harmony and dissonance.
And to me, that is a prayer for the church. We need to be thankful for the dissonance that moves us to harmony, but we also need, in our discussions, not to silence the dissonance. It keeps us honest by being a valued part of what was, and what is to come. And we should not ever, in the churches, think that success means ending up with everyone playing the exact same note.
Because the richness of harmony is fuller than the simplicity of unison.