In 1997 Francis Spufford sat in a London café reeling after a recent fight with his wife. He felt hopeless, and, although he was a longtime Christian, he was grappling with his belief in God. How does one reconcile an omnipotent, all-good presence with such a dark world, one full of disputes and broken hearts? “I could not see any way out of sorrow that did not involve some obvious self-deception, some wishful lie about where we’d got to,” he wrote about his dilemma.
Then, a server in the café put on a cassette tape.
The novelist Richard Powers once said that Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto sounds like mercy. What this means exactly is something that’s difficult to fathom. The song is, as Spufford puts it, “patient,” and each time one listens to it the waves of the strings interceding before the clarinet takes over is a moment where the entire body begins to move with the song’s ebb and flow. The second movement, the slow section (the adagio), is the piece’s best part for it is a movement of rejoicing, and yet it is also a movement that is rather sad. The orchestra lifts the clarinet in a patient excitement, whereupon the clarinet delivers the news that this will not be a frenzied, ecstatic song, but one of truth, of pensiveness.
When it began to play in the background at the café, the strings swelling up, ready to hit the very A note that it had started out with, the song seemed to transcend even the emotions that Mozart had so carefully imbued it with. Scribbling down notes, trying to sort out his life, Spufford noted that his faith was restored over the course of this song:
“What I felt listening to Mozart in 1997 is not some wishy-washy metaphor for an idea I believe in, and it’s not a front behind which the real business of belief is going on: it’s the thing itself. My belief is made of, built up from, sustained by, emotions like that. That’s what makes it real.”
But how could one song, one burst of emotion, so quickly change a man’s heart?
Music creates emotions faster and with greater regularity than any other type of art. In a book, a film, or a play, catharsis comes after growing with a character, seeing him/her change from experiences, and, by the end, both the character and you (the reader) have learned something new about the world, perhaps gained a new perspective on humanity. Good music though somehow transcends all of this, quickly guiding you through a visceral adventure, delivering surges of excitement or melancholy or thoughtfulness or sheer happiness each time it reaches its chorus...