OMETHING UNEXPECTED happened recently, which made me think a lot. I was walking the streets of Macau, contemplating my imminent return to Rome. 1 During my walk, I happened upon two of my students. When I met them, they were taken by surprise—but I failed to understand the reason. One of them explained me: when I hailed them on the street, they were singing one of my liturgical songs, Angele Dei qui custos es mei (for solo, female choir and organ). I was, of course, surprised and pleased by this—realizing that many Chinese students are not Christians, but that my music can break barriers and appeal also to those that were not raised in a Christian tradition.
I deeply love my students and I always think that, despite the huge limitations of the city where they have to grow up, they are bright and brilliant if given a chance to develop their talents freely. I consider yesterday’s meeting a sign of God. I really want to think that their guardian angels are tapping on their shoulders, hoping to be noticed by them amidst the noises of a city totally immersed in a gambling atmosphere. If my music can help the guardian angels, should I not be happy for this?
Indeed—as I have always mentioned—music is not and cannot be neutral. Music has a power of influence that can awaken specific cultural and social memories in a way that can lead or mislead to the desired outcomes. This is why not all music is good for the liturgy: because not all music serve the purposes of the liturgy.
I was looking at a YouTube interview with Stephen Colbert. I must tell you that I like him, and take comedians very seriously. Now, he was being interviewed by a Jesuit priest, the editor of the magazine AMERICA. This priest asked Colbert about his favorite church hymns and Colbert started listing some of the 60s favorites, even beginning to dance to one of the tunes. That is exactly the problem: most of these songs are just relying on light catchy melodies strongly relying on rhythmic elements to save the day, but with no or little substance outside rhythm. Of course rhythm is important; but when isolated from a more general musical context, starts to become a worshiper of Dyonisus, and forget that it belongs also to Apollo.
I think that my students teach me an important lesson: God works in mysterious ways…mmm…did I hear this phrase somewhere else?
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 I will reside there after seven years spent working here in China, composing hundreds of new pieces—most of them now published around the world, for which I am so grateful.