I heard the shocking news from Norway- a week ago- while I was in the midst of funeral and Sunday preparation. I would have agonized all Saturday about my Sunday sermon, but this was not a week for preaching. Instead, we had what was perhaps the best response of all: 7 young adults singing beautiful arias, Lieder and oratorio excerpts, within a Celebration of Music service.
Some years ago on CBC radio, I heard that the classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin had performed, just after World War 2, to concentration camp/Holocaust survivors. These survivors had experienced what I would name "hell"; not a place one goes to receive punishment after death [I have never believed that , for a host of reasons] but a condition human beings unfortunately create on this earth, all too often. Words fail us , and words should fail us, when responding to such a terrible manifestation of evil and inhumanity. Music goes where words fail, reaching parts of our hearts which words cannot. And there is something defiant, resistant about music- a refusal to be silenced by all the forces and dynamics which so easily stifle and silence, and snuff out whatever spirit is in us. Music makes me able to believe in "resurrection".
A few years ago, I visited an exhibition on the Holocaust and Anne Frank, showing in Halifax at ,I think, the Museum of Natural History. I read German. And so not only did I get the emotional impact of the pictures of Anne Frank and her family, and the pictures of Hitler, atrocities against the Jews, and the death camps themselves- but also every word of the Nazi propaganda in ads, placards and the like! The nastiness and brutality was there already to see in those words, even without the means to predict where it would lead.
By the time I left the museum, I was feeling physically ill, and rightly so. I was glad of the fresh air and the beautiful trees lining Summer St, with a view of Halifax's Public Gardens. On my way down Spring Garden, I happened into the late lamented Madrigal music store, just in time to hear a glorious performance of Beethoven's 7th Symphony by the wonderful Orquesta Sinfonica Simon Bolivar conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. I remembered again the ultimate healing power of music. In no way does it change or erase or make tolerable any past or present injustices, atrocities, suffering and death. But it is surely the breath of the human spirit which won't give up, which opens to the flow of "beauty and grace" [to quote a favourite phrase of mine from Annie Dillard].
The Simon Bolivar is a youth orchestra, many of its members from very underprivileged backgrounds who have been given this chance to find their musical voices and experience the joy of creative community. We cannot change all the young lives so tragically cut short by the Holocaust, and indeed by wars and violence past and present. But what better response than to do everything in our power to nurture the bodies and hearts and minds and souls of the young lives we can still tend, encourage and enjoy?
I mourn the deaths of those visionary, idealistic youth on what should have been a safe island haven. I have many such youth and young adults in my life and I would be devastated to see any of their lives cut short by any means. My abiding passion is to see young people grow and thrive and be all they can be. My abiding sadness is that we have made a world that is so fraught with danger, difficulty, injustice, environmental degradation and persistent violence- what are they to do with such a world?
Reminded so vividly of what a world our young are living in, I was all the more consoled and delighted on Sunday to hear these aspiring young singers. They are working and studying and managing performance anxiety and subjecting themselves to critical evaluation, in order to let beauty, and truth, and grace flow through their words and their very breath. And as I write , I hear Opera Workshop students singing beautifully outside my office. Two of them, and the pianist/saxophonist husband of one, are staying in my house , filling it with music and the energy, warmth and openness I so often find in my young adult friends. And there is a song in my heart and , amid all that is to mourn, I give thanks, and I have hope.