The Fantastic Power of Music: A Note from 1667

When the diarist Samuel Pepys went out to the theatre one night in the late 17th century, something truly amazing happened.   The play was Massinger and Dekker’s The Virgin Martyr, and at one point an angel appears in a kind of Christian deus ex machina. The recorders, a relatively new instrument at that time in England, began playing as the angel descended and Pepys was completely blown away.  In one of the most exquisite passages of his diary he writes:

“But that which did please me beyond any thing in the whole world was the wind-musique when the angel comes down, which is so sweet that it ravished me, and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife; that neither then, nor all the evening going home, and at home, I was able to think of any thing, but remained all night transported, so as I could not believe that ever any musick hath that real command over the soul of a man as this did upon me.”

I’m sure this has happened to you.   You hear music so thrilling, so soul-piercing that you actually feel sick, like life is hardly worth living anymore because a different world has been revealed, a divine world far from the everyday concerns of this one.   It’s a siren song that makes your heart yearn for something you can’t even describe, and it stays with you for days.

That’s the Sacrament of the Arts.

This “transportation” that “commands your soul” can also come from a play, from a book, from a painting, a statute, or a song. And yes, Pepys gets it exactly right– it’s like being in love for the first time, when that glorious feeling seizes you, grips you, binds you to that other human being who has shown through the most secret acts of intimacy, that you are loved in return.  That’s a sacrament too.

The Virgin Martyr is rarely played anymore, and I’m not sure that particular bit of wind-music has been preserved, but what Pepys is describing has not been lost– it’s there for all of us to experience, not just when we fall in love, but also when we find that ineffable connection to the arts that ravishes us to our very souls.