Just over a year ago we acquired a piano with the help of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Sustainable Development Fund. Perfectly normal for a venue of course but something of a departure for a Meeting House that has been host to silent gatherings for nearly 4 centuries.
Silence is a valued commodity for Quakers, so what was the appeal of a piano for the small group that regularly meets here? After all, we don’t make much use of the instrument ourselves – a fine thing though it is.
In the past year we’ve been treated to a wide range of work – jazz, new compositions, spiritual songs and stories, solo and chamber choir recitals, as well as drama and monologue – some private, some public. From the notes in the visitors’ book, the occasional tourist scratches a musical itch by playing the piano as well.
For me, music is part of the fabric of living: woven into heartbeat and breath, available to help express instantly the desires, elations, traumas, rages and reliefs of the soul. Growing up as a piano student, my piano quickly became confidante and mouthpiece: a prosthetic emotional sounding board. The immense value of this particularly to young people can’t be overstated and it saddens me greatly that music has been one of the first casualties of cuts in education budgets.
The 19th century Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the verses which included words that would become the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ – somewhat ironically as it would turn out – as an entreaty to people to ditch elaborate ceremonies and noisy hymns in favour of the benefits of quiet reflection. But the experience of listening to or participating in music is such a richly rewarding one, so why would anyone want to exclude it from the heart of community life?
I don’t have an answer either for Mr. Whittier or for anyone who finds Quakers’ aversion to music in worship odd. But I do know what music can do and what at best it represents. As with all the arts, music somehow expresses truth more eloquently than a whole library of words. Melody, harmony, rhythm and texture all speak to the soul, giving voice to inner longings, joys and regrets, grounding the listener’s experience in the shared humanity of composer and performer. A well-crafted piece of music appeals across cultures and throughout time, dissolving perceived boundaries of place or people; and when performers join together to create music, it demonstrates the heights to which people in co-operation can rise.
And that would perhaps be all, except for one component of music that’s often forgotten. The truly heart-stopping moments in music often come when the instruments stop playing, if only for an instant. Every great performance is framed by silence, permeated by musical silences and in fact at its most translucent when silence is part of its texture. Those silences are the canvas on which the piece is painted, the questions it attempts to answer and the material out of which it is carved.
So amidst all the beautiful, inspiring and uplifting music of religions from around the world, perhaps there is after all a place for a kind of faith that is expressed in silence: one which offers an uncrowded space, in which the music of the soul can flow unconstrained and in which we are all performers regardless of the instrumentation of our lives.