Finding Our Way Home

      Comments Off on Finding Our Way Home
(c) 20th Century Fox

In the musical The Sound of Music, the Von Trapp children beg Fraulein Maria to teach them how to sing.

She insists that it’s easy.  She introduces the basics of harmony, rhythm, and tonality – the building blocks of Western music for the past thousand years. 

Maria teaches the notes that make up the classic octave.  We begin at Do.  That’s home.  Then we leave home and set out on musical adventures up the scale.  We encounter Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti (“a drink with jam and bread”), which brings us, inevitably and joyfully, back to Do.  We return home. 

Before the children know it, they’re singing like NSYNC before the departure of Justin Timberlake. 

Classically, Western culture has always embraced the notion of “home.”  We start somewhere and after a while we return.  We may be different when we get there – hopefully we will be wiser – but we can always know that home is waiting for us.

These ideas shaped Western painting, music, and literature.  Over the centuries, the arts mirrored the Christian idea that life is a Grand Story that has meaning, purpose, and direction.  We begin at Creation and are heading towards the New Heavens and New Earth.

On any given day, individuals might feel lost and alone and cut off from home.  But they can always know that home exists.  They can live in the hope that they don’t have to be stuck forever on So or Fa or Mi, feeling unresolved and incomplete.  They can make their way back to Do

All that changed, however, during the opening decades of the 20th century.

The cultural movement called Modernism swept across Europe and North America.  The old ideas (including the specifically Christian assumptions about the universe) had begun to seem staid, stifling, and stuck in the mud.  Enlightenment philosophers, emboldened by new discoveries in the natural sciences, suggested that maybe, just maybe, there was no Grand Story after all.  That meant no fixed rules for personal behavior. 

When Sigmund Freud published Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, the veneer of European civilization was pulled away.  Every human mind, according to Freud, was a deep well of unsettling thoughts and feelings – including fantasies about sex and violence – that were typically banned from polite conversation.   

But there they were, nonetheless.

World War I (1914-1918) shattered Europe’s confidence that life had meaning.  Artists began to portray human existence as rudderless, directionless, hopeless.  In 1922, James Joyce published Ulysses, a long, rambling account of the stream of consciousness of a single man over the course of 24 hours in Dublin.  Although many have found Joyce’s book to be virtually unreadable, critics widely identify it as the single most important novel of the 20th century.  That’s because it brilliantly depicts a world in which there is no home.   Life is just a series of disconnected moments leading nowhere in particular.

In the field of music, up-and-coming composers like the Austrian Arnold Schoenberg (pronounced “Shurnberg”)  made it their ambition to dismantle the traditional Western tonal system.

It was time to leave Do Re Mi in the dust. 

Schoenberg helped pioneer the 12-tone scale, whereby the dozen white notes and black notes within every octave on a piano keyboard are treated with absolute equality.  The composer endorsed the “rule” that no note could be repeated within a given melodic phrase.  As musicologist Howard Goodall observes in The Story of Music, this was “the equivalent of decreeing that no letter of the alphabet can be used more than once in a sentence.”

Schoenberg’s most famous composition debuted in 1912, a few years before he committed himself fully to the 12-tone scale.  But it rocked the music world nonetheless.

Pierrot Lunaire (“Moonstruck Pierrot”) is a compilation of 21 short pieces based on poems by Albert Giraud.  Pierrot is the traditional “sad sack” clown of European theater.  In Schoenberg’s work, it’s hard not to conclude that Pierrot is descending into madness. 

Each piece illustrates the turbulence of the Freudian subconscious.  Each is a protest against rationality.  There are no catchy tunes that one can hum in the shower. 

A single soprano voice performs the lyrics by means of sprechstimme, German for “speech-singing” – a bit like rap music at the center of a bad dream.  Here’s the first of the 21 segments of Schoenberg’s disquieting masterwork.  Notice that the piece starts and ends suspended in midair.  There is no center of gravity.  The composer has banished the idea of “home.” 

Other musicians lauded Schoenberg’s innovation.  The composer declared, “I have made a discovery which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.”

Talk about swinging and missing.

The public at large was baffled.  Goodall declares that atonal music has failed to produce “in its purest, strictest form, not one piece of music in a hundred years’ worth of effort that a normal person could understand or enjoy.”  I must admit that when I was sounding out various recordings of Pierrot Lunaire on YouTube, my dog put down his ears and quickly left the room. 

Notice that Goodall believes there is such a thing as a normal person. 

Modern and post-modern philosophers (as well as many artists, scientists, and theologians) may dismiss out of hand the notion of something like normality.

But there is a reason that the vast majority of people find the music of Mozart and Haydn soothing to the soul – not to mention the transforming effect of beautiful sunsets, starry night skies, paintings that capture something of the human spirit, and stories that rekindle our hope that we are not cosmic accidents but players in a drama that means something in this world and the next.

In Jesus’ most famous parable (Luke 15:11-32), a young man who has thrown away his life wonders if he can ever return home.

What will his father say – the father he so gravely disrespected? 

The father runs to meet him, to embrace him, to weep over him. 

Which is Jesus’ way of assuring us that there really is a place called home.  And we really can go there again.

Even if the music of our lives has shifted into a minor key we no longer recognize, the Father can always, through the miracle of his grace, bring us back to Do.