Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Of Christmas and the Sublime

Christmas always seems to sneak up on me. Between school and church activities, it always seemed like I've never had enough time to really prepare for it. This year will be quite different from past Christmases since I'll be a new mother before it, and for the first time since high school I'll be unemployed and not in school. Last weekend, my husband and I put up a tree and all our Christmas decorations. I'm going to complete all my Christmas shopping this weekend so I won't have to worry about it after our son, Preston, is born.

I've had more time lately to reflect on the "real" meaning of Christmas. As a Christian, more particularly a Latter-day Saint (or Mormon), Christmas has a special meaning for us. Although we don't believe Jesus Christ was born on December 25th per say, we do revere Christmas as a celebration of his birth, and his life's mission. My favorite part of Christmas is the traditional Christmas carols and hymns. Musically, I'd fit perfectly in the mid-1800's because I just love Christmas (and other) music from that period and earlier. There are few modern Christmas pieces that I really enjoy. There just seems to be something missing from songs like "White Christmas" compared to "Silent Night."

Music has a interesting way of touching the human heart, for good or ill. When I think of the word sublime as a descriptor, the first thing I think of is music. I guess really good chocolate or other type of tasty food could be described as sublime, but I've never been moved to tears by anything that I've eaten. A woman in my church sang "O Divine Redeemer" by Charles Gounod a few weeks ago, and I was in tears throughout the whole song. It wasn't just the words or the melody that moved me, but I felt some uplifting of my heart, a look beyond the often depressing here and now of the world. I can't explain the feeling, but it's similar to the joy I've felt on the best days of my life, my wedding day for example. I'm sure that I will feel similar feelings when I meet Preston for the first time. Music composers of the past (and maybe a couple modern ones) seem to be able to capture that feeling of sublimety. I don't know if this is because of their belief in God or due to their unique talents that perhaps aren't as prevalent now (do we have a modern-day Mozart, Bach or Beethoven?).

Bach is one of my favorite composers, and he seemed particularly able to capture the sublime in his music. He wrote a lot of religious music, but even his non-religious music seems to have the same quality. For instance, his piece "Air on G String" touches me as much as "Jesu, Joy of His Desiring" although the former does not have any lyrics or any outright references to religious topics.

Of course, as the nerdy biologist I am, I'm extremely curious about the biological processes involved in emotion and spirituality. Why does some music touch some individuals and not others? Which centers of the brain produce feelings of sublimety or spirituality, and how do they vary from person to person? I'm sure that similar topics have been studied by behavioral neuroscientists, so I'll have to do a little research and report my findings. In the meantime, if you're having a bad day, might I suggest popping in your favorite CD and reflecting on the blessings of great music?

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