A young woman is here seen playing a hymn on the organ keyboard. Lost in thought, she seems to be unaware of both the angel and the music score he is holding up for her. What is the point, then, of his holding the sheet thus? Saint Cecilia was not familiar with music, and the scene was obviously never meant to represent an earthly concert.
This is a painting of St Cecilia and the Angel by D’Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639). The choice clothes and the aspect of the persons give them an aura of calm and dignity. Cecilia is in early 17th century attire and the chubby angel could well be her brother. She wears no halo, and if the angel does have wings, this is to create a visual echo for the pipe organ. Both are of flesh and blood, but they embody a spiritual reality.
Saint Cecilia has been linked to music because, on hearing a strain of heavenly music on the way to her martyrdom, she burst into song while waiting for the executioner’s axe. The harmony between Cecilia and the angel is not a musical one but seems to point to the voice of God that can be heard at the bottom of the hearts of all who love Him.
We don’t need to be familiar with solfege in order to play the hymns of God’s love, nor do we need any music score to recollect ourselves and abandon ourselves into His hands. Thus, while it’s true that Saint Cecilia is the patroness of sacred music, in reality she is the patroness of all of us. Her example inspires us to live in harmony with our belief in God and with whatever pertains to God.
On our part, are we cultivating that harmony in our relationship with God and with our brethren? Have we found both the rhythm and the right tone in our prayers? Are our lives in tune with the designs that God has set for us?
A harmony that caresses the heart
Harmony, from the Greek harmonia, means a collection of musical sounds that are played together and are pleasing to the ear. Some philosophers consider God to be the best musician, creating harmony with the elements he has created. They talk about the harmony of the cosmos as it reflects the harmony of the heart. On their part Christian philosophers apply this concept to religious music. This penetrates the heart, an action that benefits the listener. Musical harmony turns sadness into joy and attenuates the inclination to anger. It extinguishes evil passions and stirs towards purity, even transforming feelings of hatred and disgust into a spirit of mercy and compassion. Harmony in music caresses the soul and leads the listener to where words alone cannot arrive.
St Clement of Alexandria, a theologian of the first centuries, says that Jesus Christ came into our world to transform its dissonance into melodious song. According to St Augustine, singing in a choir brings about consensio cantantium, meaning that harmony is enjoyed at the same time by several singers. In The Confessions St Augustine bears witness to his experience when he writes: “How warmly I wept as I listened to your hymns and songs! How touched I was when your church echoed in me the sound of the melodious voices of believers. These voices stuck in my ears and the truth melted my heart. From there came feelings of piety, and how beautiful it was for me to cry.” (Confessions 9,6)
Harmony in art
Painting, perhaps not so much in our day, reflects the symmetry, the harmony and the order of creation, in much the same way that cosmic beauty can put humans in touch with the authentic and pure image that God has placed in every person. The art of the Middle Ages tried to reveal the true beauty in nature, even if this may be hidden at times. In every work of art there is the promise of a desired reality. This is particularly true of icons representing saints on a golden background, bringing out the divine light behind each image. Icons transform darkness into light and bring out the beauty of God. When we look at icons, they may calm us down, even heal us, and give birth to harmony in our soul.
On the contrary, certain contemporary music relies on dissonance because one may perceive in this an advantage over harmony. It expresses the interior tears and fragility of modern man. This does not hinder us from seeing in modern art the desire for harmony, without which no art is possible. A painting that at first glance may seem to be lacking in harmony may well represent the fragility and frustration of the world. A modern painting can have a provocative character in as much as the viewer can react or propose a criticism of the present situation of human beings. In contemporary works we can see a form of harmony shining in the hope that art proposes. This is so because today we have a new way of looking and listening.
Harmony calls for an effort
Harmony does not come easily. As a matter of fact harmony in music forms part of advanced music studies. In addition to the theory of harmony, the composer must have a good ear. He must listen carefully to what he has written and be attentive to the details of each instrument that will be taking part in this harmony, as well as to every member of the choir who will be executing his work. Harmony is no easy task, because who among us does not feel the force of the contradictions that hinder us from living in harmony with God, with others and with ourselves?
Even a single person, whether in the family or in larger communities, will be out of tune once he chooses not to live in harmony with the others. The more time people spend together, the more necessary is the spirit of harmony. It would be a pity if an ongoing activity is tarnished by internal disagreement. It is also fair to say that dissonance can enrich music, even that which belongs to the past. Sometimes part of the prestige of music depends on how the composer deals with dissonance. In a way we can even apply this to the way a good leader manages to unite the group in spite of the dissenting characters and ideas.
To be in harmony one needs to start looking at the faces of others in order to discern the different needs, desires, passions and impulses that can be addressed. In certain cases, we may have to live together with what is out of tune and is hurting our ears, but which will ultimately instill joy within us.
If I had to propose a beautiful and useful virtue for our daily life as Christians, I would definitely propose that of harmony.