Many thanks to A. Ward, K. Ward, I. Cross, and C. Lalone for their inspiration and support of this article.
The Via Pulchritudinis (trans. Way of Beauty), the concluding document of the 2006 Pontifical Council for Culture’s plenary assembly, begins its section on “The Beauty of the Arts” with the following passage:
“If nature and the cosmos are the expression of the beauty of the Creator and bring us to the threshold of a contemplative silence, artistic creation possesses its own capacity to evoke the ineffable aspects of the mystery of God. The work of art is not “beauty” but its expression, and it possesses an intrinsic character of universality… Artistic beauty provokes interior emotion, it silently arouses astonishment and leads to an “exit from self,” an ecstasy.
For the believer, beauty transcends the aesthetic and finds its archetype in God. The contemplation of Christ in the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption is the living source from which the Christian artist takes inspiration to speak of the mystery of God and the mystery of man saved in Jesus Christ.”
Herein the Church explains the fundamental truth about the beauty of art: It directs us to supernatural realities, the understanding of which surpasses the work of our senses. That is to say, art speaks to the soul and, in doing so, directs the soul to the Creator who is beauty itself. Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, for example, is not something that is simply viewed and considered in the mind. It reaches far beyond the visual and mental faculties and stirs the soul into something much deeper than mere observation. This stands true for music as well as, and perhaps even more so than, visual art. This is because music has the ability to affect the soul in a unique way, accessing it more easily than other art forms. Because of this, music can evoke powerful emotions within people or even cause them to experience internal dispositions beyond their understanding. This is likewise why music can oftentimes express feelings and emotions more profoundly than words alone.
One clear example of music’s ability to transcend the mind and senses and, in doing so, lead us to deeper realities is Hammock’s “Mysterium.” “Mysterium” is the second track of an album released by the post-rock duo in 2017 as a requiem after the death of Clark Kern, the young nephew of band member Marc Byrd. As is the nature of post-rock, Hammock’s songs tend to be exclusively composed of instrumentals. There are only a handful of songs outside of this album which feature any vocals, and many of these do not feature true lyrical music; the vocals often just serve to supplement the instrumentals in a unique way. This requiem album, itself entitled Mysterium, dwells on themes of suffering and hope, life and death, love and loss while building a somber aesthetic utilizing the typical instrumentals with the addition of a choir. The unique inclusion of a choir helps set the solemn tone of the entire album and directs the listener to enter a deeper contemplation of the themes being presented. The title track “Mysterium” primarily dwells upon the relationship between suffering and hope, masterfully crafting a seven-minute ambient journey through these themes.
The depth of feeling present in this lyricless song is profound. Beginning with a slow, quiet synthesizer opening with a brass section supplementing bass tones, there is an atmosphere of solemnity established. As the string section joins in, and violins make a slow crescendo alongside the brass, the listener experiences a feeling of painful acceptance, as if they themselves are having to witness the tragic death of a young boy with a debilitating disease. As the music builds and more strings join in to provide a vibrato, the sorrow builds along with it. The questions that accompany all tragedy begin to rise as the listener is struck with the profound sense of a broken spirit:
“How could this happen?”
“What’s the point of such suffering?”
“Why my son?”
“Why my nephew?”
“Where do we go from here?”
“How can we possibly move forward?”
“Is there such a thing as hope?”
It seems that the world is crashing down as the questions persist and the painful reality continues setting in…until the music breaks and we are left with the low, steady bass notes of the synthesizer. For a brief moment, there is quiet. There is stillness. It is in this quiet, as it was with the prophet Elijah, that the whisper of God’s voice is heard. In this moment of calm, the listener learns the answer to every tragic question being asked without a single spoken word. The tranquil notes seem to almost stretch out their hands and gently guide the soul’s gaze to the cross, whereupon the listener realizes that the answer to each question lies in the non-answer of a Lamb led to the slaughter without uttering a word of reproach. This is the fundamental truth “Mysterium” points to: In the midst of the deepest suffering, the only thing which can make any sense of it is the Cross of Christ. This is a profound reality and an even more profound mystery. Somehow, the sorrow and pain of tragic illness can be inexplicably soothed by the Paschal Mystery. It does not answer any of the aforementioned questions directly, and yet it somehow answers each one of them perfectly. “How”, “what”, and “why” are given the response of “Who”, and that is the mystery.
As the song resumes from the quiet respite, the brass section reenters with a sound of victory, as if the listener is now slowly walking away from a battle won and an enemy defeated. For a second time, the music builds toward a slow and steady crescendo, with the strings taking over from the brass as it fades out. The strings, like the brass, offer a much more hopeful mood now than in the earlier half of the song, as they suggest a feeling of courage and steadfast hope. It is almost as if the music itself is acknowledging the pain which is being endured, all the while pointing the listener forward to a victory which it knows is on the horizon. The crescendo continues as more strings join the introductory violin and every instrument grows louder and louder, each one contributing something unique to the victory hymn being produced. Finally, the choir joins in as the music reaches its final peak. The choir chanting brings the music to its proper conclusion wherein the only remaining act is to “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation.” The instruments completely cut out in the last thirty seconds of the song as the choir resolves the song alone, praising God and proclaiming ultimate trust in Him. The listener is left once again in a still, quiet place. The choral tones affirm the solemn yet hopeful emotion of the listener in these last moments, for the entire triumphant buildup closes with a newfound peace and strength. The cross still exists, the disease is still pervading, and tragedy still occurs. And yet, a deep and true sense of hope exists in the reality of Christ’s triumph over sin and death. The track thus ends on this note of hope, once again directing the listener toward the mystery.
The realities of “Mysterium” directs us to become even more immediately transparent. As with the introductory ambience of pain and grief in “Mysterium”, so too is Jesus’ suffering and death not the end of the story, but only the beginning. The triumphant buildup in the latter half of the song is synonymous with His victory over death, again directing the soul of the listener to ultimate hope in the Resurrection. It is in this way “Mysterium” encapsulates the true beauty of art—pointing people to transcendental realities. “Mysterium” isn’t just a song about Clark Kern’s death or Marc Byrd’s suffering. It is a song about the truth of suffering itself, and the truth that there is always hope in the midst of it. No matter the situation and no matter the tragedy, these truths always remain. The ability of lyricless music to portray such deep realities is nothing short of a masterful expression of beauty. And such is the mystery.