The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on August 7th, 2013

In the 1950s, when I was growing up in a small California town, life seemed pretty much horizontal.  It was as if we all lived on a rather pedestrian plain and our actions and thoughts moved chiefly in lateral directions. We were usually occupied with the day-to-day business of getting on in life ---school, duties and chores, friends and family, play and recreation. Oh, there were certain moments that stood out from the usual –-- moments of greater excitement, achievement, or sometimes misery. But for the most part it was a life relatively untouched by moments of significant inspiration. Sunday school and church were about the farthest I got in the quest for nourishment of that sort, but even that arena seemed to provide only intermittent and partial satisfaction. In short, life was good, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that something important was missing.
Then, when I was about 12, I came across an ad for the Columbia Record Club in which all nine of the Beethoven symphonies (conducted by Bruno Walter) were being offered as a free enticement to join. I had always loved music, and the blurb that came with the ad was very enticing. Somehow I was able to persuade my parents to allow me to place the order, and before I knew it those recordings were spinning on the 331/3 RPM turntable of our Montgomery Ward stereo, and I was being introduced in a way I had never before experienced to the vertical dimension of life.
In an instant, I was plunged into a world of emotion and imagination that felt strangely familiar but as yet relatively unexplored. Trips to the grocery store, school, feeding the dog, cleaning my room, arguments with friends, and all the other humdrum aspects of my life were left behind. Paradoxically, I found myself being pulled deeply inward to a private inner place where the events of my life impacted me and became meaningful, and at the same time elevated into a region of lofty inspiration that was clearly above the level upon which daily life took place. At the tender age of 12, my fledgling emotional and aesthetic sensibilities had been directly addressed for the first time. Suddenly I realized, with some relief, that I was not alone in my newly nascent feelings of greater emotional turbulence and increasing spiritual profundity.
It was as though Beethoven were an explorer of a high, distant plateau where the air is purer and the view more expansive, a place where experiences are revealed in their full affective intensity, and through his music he had come back to report on what he had found. And what he had to report was that just over the rim of our rather ordinary lives there exists a dimension that transcends the physical and the intellectual. It consists of the emotional and the spiritual, and at its best it approaches the highest ideals of beauty and truth. Great music, and in fact any great art, has the ability to give us a glimpse into this dimension. Even if you have never actually experienced that exalted region for yourself, you can see it reflected in the working testimony of great artists.
For example, watch this short clip of the 20th-century French pianist, Alfred Cortot, as he tries to guide a student into an interpretation of Robert Schumann’s Der Dichter Spricht  (The Poet Speaks), from his composition, Kinderzenen (Opus 15). His words to the student are immensely instructive from an interpretive point of view, but more illuminating still is the otherworldly look in his eyes when he is not talking. Clearly, he is viewing a “landscape” that is not part of the horizontal dimension of life.

Similarly, near the climactic ending of this performance of J.S. Bach’s Prelude from the Suite #1 for solo cello in G Major, the camera moves in a bit closer just as cellist Paul Tortelier suddenly looks up briefly from his concentrated work, his eyes ablaze with the inner vision of that higher place.
In each of these works, the composer has captured something extraordinary, something above the everyday, and the performing artists are gifted enough to be able to recognize it and conjure it up again for us. Their inspired performances actually provide us with a foretaste of the divine.
Divinity is generally acknowledged as the highest state of spiritual perfection. In the Bhagavad Gita, that profound spiritual document from India, the Lord (in the form of Sri Krishna) describes some of his characteristics so that his disciple, Arjuna, can begin to grasp something of his nature. In doing so, he represents himself in terms of perfect essences:

“Arjuna, I am the taste of pure water and the radiance of the sun and moon. I am the sacred word and the sound heard in air, and the courage of human beings. I am the sweet fragrance in the earth and the radiance of fire; I am the life in every creature and the striving of the spiritual aspirant.*”

He is saying that excellence, purity, truth, and beauty are hallmarks of his being. And it is into the outer court of that ultimate presence that we are ushered when we experience the best works of Beethoven and all the other great artists of the world. This is one of the tremendous gifts of the Arts ----- they demonstrate that there is undoubtedly a vertical dimension to life in addition to our well-trodden horizontal one. By giving us a tiny glimpse of the divine, the Arts inspire us, fortify us, and encourage us. They remind us that even in times of darkness ideals do exist, and they charge us to never cease striving for them. They point the way to joy.
*Bhagavad Gita quote from The Bhagavad Gita Translated for the Modern Reader, by Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, 1985

Posted in MUSIC    Tagged with inspiration, growing up, Beethoven, symphonies, Bruno Walter, pianist, interpretation, J.S. Bach, The Poet Speaks, Robert Schumann, Suite#1 for solo cello in G Major, Paul Tortelier, cello, divinity, divine, Eknath Easwaran, essences, Bhagavad Gita


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