Buddhism and Music

I have been listening to this beautiful YouTube video of Elizabeth Parcell’s singing of Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate” and think that I should be saying something about Buddhism and music. But first let us listen to the first part of the video:

Very beautiful, isn’t it? The music does not end with this part, and I will post the second and final part toward the end of this present post. The theme of the music, of course, is Christian. If I am not mistaken, “Exsultate, Jubilate” are words that exhort people to praise Jesus, and the music ends with a rousing “Alleluia” or “Hallelujah.” (You will find this in Part 2 of the video.) Very Christian indeed.

So what does this have to do with Buddhism. I have thought for a long time, in fact since I was very young, why Buddhism does not have such beautiful music praising its founder as Christianity does with their founder. I went to a Christian school in early primary years, and they usually took me to a church where they sang hymns that contained praises to Jesus and things like that. I went with the flow, even though I was Buddhist as were most Thai students there, but I could not help thinking why there is no such beautiful music in Buddhism. All that we had was monks chanting, but monks in Thailand do not play musical instruments, nor do they sing melodies, and the chant had no harmonization at all. I was told, moreover, that music was a kind of “defilement,” something to be avoided. Music is something that leads you to become attached to sensuality and pleasure, leading you away from the true goal.

But then I began to wonder whether music is really as “defiled” as I was told. If music was really defiled, then the Mozart above would be so, but I find it very hard to bring myself to see that. In fact I remember the story behind the “Exsultate” according to which Mozart was commissioned by the Archbishop of Salzburg to write a piece of Church music for liturgical purpose, and Mozart came up with this classic masterpiece. The story had it that the Archbishop was not amused at all by this masterpiece, which he thought to be too “sensual” (well, I can see that too🙂 ).  Anyway, the point seemed to be that Mozart was a rebellious soul, and his “Exsultate” could be interpreted as a statement against the Archbishop and his conservative attitude. Perhaps art took precedence over piety. In fact I think historians of music would say that the “Exsultate” did not have any religious sentiment at all; in fact it is a piece of secular music masquerading as a religious one. In today’s secular West, the piece is performed not in a church but in a concert hall, where people applaud loudly, which they don’t do at all in church.

However, I believe that the music is very deeply spiritual and listening to it I can’t help but think of the devotion that Mozart must have felt toward God, but being the artist that he was, this was how he showed the devotion. If the singer has to sing like an opera diva praising God, then she sings that, even though it may arouse feelings that typically one does not associate with religious piety. But I think one has to look beyond that. The real significance of the music is that, precisely because of the very beautiful coloraturas and harmonization, Mozart shows that art can arouse deeply religious feeling, and one who thinks that religious music has to be dull and lifeless may have to revise what they think.

This pertains directly to Buddhism and music. My point is that it is not necessary that beautiful music such as this has to arouse attitudes or sentiments that run contrary to the goals of either Buddhism or Christianity. Of course the “Exsultate” is very sensual; that is the point. But one be sensual while being deeply religious. If you are not convinced try reflect on the meaning of the Latin lyric, but if you do not know Latin (which I don’t by the way), at least you should know “Alleluia” if you are a Christian. Let the beauty of the music come to you without any judgement (like the Archbishop did). Let is seep into you, soaking you with the sheer rhythm, melody and harmony, and blend them with the meaning of the lyrics. The two cannot be considered in separation of each other, and I think this is where the mistake of those who think this is essentially a secular music lies.

Now what if this kind of beautiful music be set to words that praise Buddha instead? What if there is a full expression of joy and delight that the Buddha comes to the world and teaches us the way out of suffering and samsara? Wouldn’t that be appropriate to “Exsultate, Jubilate” too?

I end with Part Two of Elizabeth Parcell’s singing of Mozart:

3 thoughts on “Buddhism and Music

  1. sumdoood August 13, 2008 / 10:32 pm

    Defilement seems to me to be too strong a word for what music might do to ones priorities but it can certainly be a powerful distraction. Anyway the speakers on my laptop are of poor quality, but even so I’m not enjoying the Mozart. I guess its perceived beauty is in the ear of the beholder?

  2. soraj August 14, 2008 / 6:57 am

    You are in a better shape than many here in Thailand, because some ISP’s do not even carry YouTube videos. So if you want to listen to the music here you need to find the ISP’s that do.

  3. Julian August 14, 2008 / 4:30 pm

    Thanks for posting this beautiful music! In terms of merging the spiritual with the sensual I’ve always found listening Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, sung by Teresa Berganza and Mirella Freni, the most awe-inspiring and emotional experience. (I couldn’t find that particular recording on YouTube but you might have it in your private collection anyway.) I’ve asked myself often how to describe the effect Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater had on me: was it profoundly spiritual or ‘merely’ deeply emotional? This begs the question how these two experiences fundamentally stand in relation to each other and leads back to your original question in your blog post. Thanks again for raising this topic!

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