In a world ringing with noise and suffused with the more or less artful idolizing of passions divorced from objective goods, where are we to find melodies capable of penetrating our hardened hearts with spiritual truths?
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates leads a group of ambitious young Athenians on a search for the best way of life. Their verbal construction of a perfectly just regime is not motivated by idealism, real or feigned, but by genuine perplexity about the one thing human beings cannot help desiring: happiness. Glaucon, Adeimantus, and their companions want to know what benefit justice provides in the soul that could possibly outweigh the riches, powers, and pleasures intelligent and enterprising men such as themselves expect to acquire through artful injustice.
Given the state of its founders’ souls, it is not surprising that the first task facing this “city in speech” is to raise an army for the plundering of its neighbors. While describing the passions prompting such injustice as “feverish,” Socrates embraces this development on the grounds that it will help them to discover “in what way justice and injustice naturally grow” in human beings. Genuine virtue, and the happiness it brings, are not the result of ignoring or repressing passions, but rather of purging them of error and redirecting them toward those goods truly able to satisfy the longings of our hearts.
At first glance, this passionate path to justice may seem opposed to the Gospels, where penance, poverty, meekness, and mourning are proclaimed keys to blessedness (Mt. 4:17, 5:1-5). It is true that the Christian must deny himself and even “lose his soul (psyche) for [Christ’s] sake” (Lk. 9:23-24). Yet the purpose of such disciplines is not the suppression of passions but their cleansing and reorientation toward the only true source of gladness and joy (Mt. 5:12). Christ came to kindle fire on the earth (Lk. 12:49) so that we might have life more abundantly (Jn. 10:10), and he promises fulfillment to those who “hunger and thirst after justice” (Mt. 5:6), provided they seek it where it is found.
Socrates begins his education of Glaucon and friends by asking them to reflect on the characters of the imaginary citizens they admire most: the city’s warrior-guardians. They quickly agree that guardians require an extraordinary supply of thymos—the passion that drives us toward conquest and victory. In order to prevent these men from sacking their own city, however, their spiritedness must be counterbalanced with an equally developed eros or love of the good. The enthusiastic youths quickly grasp that a healthy soul is aflame with passion for what is truly desirable and willing to endure any hardship for its acquisition and protection.
We do not admire the bully who quarrels over every trifle, or the coward who flinches from necessary conflicts. The key to developing a character worthy of admiration—one that enables us to be at peace with ourselves—is the regulation of passion in accordance with the good. As rational animals, our primary means of grasping the good is through logos—reason or speech. Since reason is fallible and passions subject to habits formed before reason matures, achieving a condition wherein one’s passions harmonize with right reason about the good is no easy task.
In pursuit of this harmony Socrates recommends musike—a set of arts including speech and images as well as melody and rhythm able to influence the soul through each of its parts. In ancient times, poetry set to music provided the powerful setting in which men encountered the gods and heroes whose lives appeared most blessed and worthy of imitation. Here Socrates takes a countercultural turn, rejecting the dominant myths in which Zeus and Achilles act from unregulated lust and rage, accompanied by a score supporting their emotional inebriation. Socrates insists upon the development of a new music in which God is depicted as a single, stable, reasonable, and benevolent being, heroes are notable for their likeness to such a deity, and harmonies and cadences are marshaled to reinforce the beauty of their virtues.
Though the pagan world struggled to follow Socrates in this matter, as Christians we are in possession of a musike far surpassing the model he proposed. In the Sacred Scriptures we have not only God’s own word (logos) about himself, but even the divine Logos made flesh for our instruction and assistance on the path to perfection. In our lifelong quest to become true followers of God we are told to proceed musically, “speaking to [ourselves] in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing and making melody in [our] hearts to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19), allowing him to enter through every part of our soul so that he might redeem every part of our being.
In a world ringing with noise and suffused with the more or less artful idolizing of passions divorced from objective goods, where are we to find melodies capable of penetrating our hardened hearts with spiritual truths? Though Gregorian chant has pride of place within the Church’s life of prayer on account of its unique ability to raise the soul from earthly thoughts to heavenly contemplation, I would like to recommend another tradition that can be a powerful aid to integrating our human passions with divinely inspired reason: those numerous and wondrous works in which gifted composers use operatic techniques to dramatize the lessons of sacred texts.
One example from an inexhaustible trove is Psalm 109. As the first Psalm of Vespers on Sundays and major feasts, Dixit Dominus has been set to music on countless occasions, at least three times by the magnificent Antonio Vivaldi. Whether we consider RV 594, 595, or 807, Vivaldi invites us to bask in the thymotic dimensions of this messianic Psalm, as the Lord sends forth the scepter of the Savior’s power from his holy mountain, breaking kings, judging nations, filling ruins, and crushing heads in the land of many, until he makes Christ’s enemies his footstool. Moved by the joyful grandeur of the Lord’s definitive victory over wickedness, we gain fresh insight into the Apostles’ eagerness to know when Christ would “restore again the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6), and are reminded that the mourning Christ extols includes longing (and fighting) for the triumph of virtue in a fallen world.
At the same time, Vivaldi draws our attention to divine mysteries unknown to Socrates, overlooked by the Scribes and Pharisees, and difficult even for Christ’s disciples to grasp. Jesus himself cited this Psalm against those who questioned his authority, pointing to the paradox contained in its opening line: “If David then calls [the Messiah] ‘Lord,’ how is he his son?” The answer is that Christ is the son of David according to the flesh, and of God according to the eternal generation of his divine Person. It is God the Father who says to God the Son: “from the womb before the day star I begot thee,” a revelation Vivaldi highlights in one setting by emphasizing the words “genui te (I begot thee)” in a duet for two tenors. In another version, the ethereal intertwining of the violins and sopranos is suggestive of the Holy Spirit’s procession from the Father and Son and the charitable drawing of our souls toward the “brightness of the saints” referenced in this verse.
Though the Son of Man will come in power and glory to judge the living and the dead, fulfilling the glorious promises of this Psalm in a most literal sense, the disciples were reluctant to accept that he also “had to suffer many things,… and be killed, and the third day rise again” in order to conquer sin in accordance with the Father’s will (Lk. 9:22). This part of the messianic mission is foreshadowed in the Psalm’s last line: “He shall drink of the torrent in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.” In his renderings of this verse,[6,7] Vivaldi captures the torments of Christ’s Passion, reminding us that, as imitators of our Lord, we too must take up our cross and suffer persecution for his sake before we can enjoy the unspeakable joys of heaven.[5,6,7]
Strikingly, Vivaldi does not shy away from the feminine imagery of “the womb before the day star,” even giving us one version of “genui te” reminiscent of the pangs of childbirth. Though God is known as Father for good reason, he does create man in his own image, male and female (Gen. 1:26), and is the exemplar of all virtues, masculine and feminine. The greatest of all saints, to whom Vivaldi dedicated his major works, is also God’s mother. Though a holy tradition tells us she was spared physical pain in his nativity, we know that Mary suffered immensely as her daughter the Church was born from the pierced side of her beloved Son.
In her Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55), Mary brilliantly reflects the spiritedness and love with which her Savior scatters the proud and receives his blessed handmaid, exalting her for her humility and making her the instrument with which he crushes the infernal serpent. Here, too, Vivaldi dramatizes the passions implicit in our spiritual Mother’s hymn of praise and joy.
Rightly approached, Vivaldi’s music—and that of other great composers—offers us valuable assistance as we advance virtue by virtue to the brightness of the saints, pointing us to the sources of heavenly aid without which even the mightiest among us can do nothing.
This essay was first published here in January 2019.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (December 2018).
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3 Antonio Vivaldi, Dixit Dominus [psalm 109] RV 807
4. Antonio Vivaldi, Dixit Dominus [psalm 109] RV 595
5 Antonio Vivaldi, Dixit Dominus RV 594
6 Antonio Vivaldi, Dixit Dominus [psalm 109] RV 595, Ensemble Inégal, / Prague Baroque Soloists
7 Antonio Vivaldi, Dixit Dominus [psalm 109] RV 807
8 Antonio Vivaldi, RV 610, Magnificat, Alessandrini, Concerto Italiano
The featured image is “La Vierge aux Anges” (1881) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.