Many years ago, Nicky and I participated in a conference in a beautiful monastery in Lower Austria. It was an interdisciplinary gathering, including faith leaders, scientists and writers, who shared deeply thoughtful discussions.
On the programme was also a short reflection: ‘Brother David leads us all in singing.’ What was he going to do with two hundred people of various persuasions? Would this be awkward, I wondered nervously? He got up on the stage, a smiling, wizen man of almost eighty, and with irresistible charm led the entire auditorium in singing ‘Viva, viva la musica.’ It was as moving as it was simple. That music still lives inside me.
One memory brings another. I was digging in the synagogue garden one Thursday some years back, when members of the community started to walk by in twos and threes with a degree of enthusiasm which suggested that they were probably not about to attend a religious service.
Cars began to arrive. Slowly, doors opened, and passengers were helped to get out. Some had Zimmer frames, others needed wheelchairs. There was my friend David Jackson, poet, scholar, lover of the Psalms, very frail now, whom it had been impossible to persuade to leave his rooms for many months. Then came a whole year group of six- or seven- year-olds from Akiva School round the corner.
They were all attending Intermezzo’s lunchtime concerts, the brainwave and joyous hard work of a team of five whose aim was to bring together gifted musicians, many young and still studying, with an audience of everyone and anyone, people from local care homes, and lots of children. The first concert took place in October 2013; the 70th will be next week. Lockdown didn’t stop the music; it merely put it online, where I expect, it was more appreciated than ever, a joy which will be superseded only when we can come together in person once again. Thank you, Intermezzo team!
There is wonder in the creation of music. My cousin’s husband is a maker and repairer of violins; he studied the art in Italy and now has his workshop in Jerusalem. I’ve visited several times: everywhere are instruments carefully stood up or rested on their sides. There are many kinds of wood, boxes of tools, all carefully labelled, vices and glues. It’s a world of spirits; I can imagine the violas and cellos rising at night like King David in the legend, to make music until dawn.
The Bible relates how Elisha was summoned to prophesy. He called for musicians and ‘when the player played, the spirit of God came upon him.’ The mystics read the words slightly differently: when ‘the player becomes the music,’ when we become lost in the melody, that’s when God is with us.
We don’t live in one reality only, intractable as the daily grind of society with its inequality, injustice and frequent cruelties is. We live, too, perpetually on the edge of wonder, a fourth (or is it fifth?) dimension, a plenitude of beauty, to which the entrance may be a line from a poem, a garden, the night sky, music, a friend’s words, or simply silent stillness. When we enter, we are embraced by something no lockdown can close off, no evil can destroy. We are inside holy space and it knows no barriers.
We read tomorrow in the Torah that ‘Moses gathered the whole community together to make the mishkan, a dwelling place for God’s presence. It’s also the other way round; when a dwelling place is made for the spirit, through music, through anything of deep beauty, it gathers us all together.