Why does music move us? Why can it make us feel so alive, so human?
Yesterday morning, I woke up very early, as the birds were beginning to sing. It was the day we had to move out of the house we moved into just a year ago – the landlady had decided to sell it. While I was waiting for everyone else to wake up so we could begin the move, I surfed YouTube, and came across the film A Room With A View, one of my favourites.
I watched the opening scene, which features the Puccini aria O Mio Babbino Caro, and the music moved me to tears. And it still does, when I watch a video of Maria Callas perform it today. The music is so beautiful that it makes me cry.
Why? What is happening in the mind?
Let me attempt an explanation – forgive me if it’s crass – attempts to describe why music moves us are usually as ham-fisted as attempts to explain why humour moves us.
I think opera, in particular, moves us because it is an expression of the unique human condition – a sense of the sweetness of some aspects of our earthly existence, such as love and beauty, juxtaposed against an awareness of their transience, of time, death, break-ups, decay.
But, more than that, I think the true sweet grief of opera is a sense, a feeling, that, because we’re aware of our predicament, because we’re aware of the glory of existence and its transience, we somehow transcend the transience.
There is not just death and dissolution – there is a soul in us, greater than death, and it is from this soul that music comes. I think that’s why opera moves us. It’s the perfect expression of the thought – ‘life is brief, things fall apart, humans are weak, frail prisoners of circumstances, and yet beneath that all, we are somehow greater than our circumstances’.
This is the mystery of being a human: sometimes, when we are weakest, when we are most defeated, when our limitations are most exposed, that is when we reveal our true invincible spirit.
Watch this clip of Callas singing in her final London concert, before she died at 53. What is the spirit, in her frail body? Where does it come from? Where did it go?