I learnt a new word this week. Numinous. Do you know it? The word has been in use since 1647, so I was taken aback that I had not come across it before.
Where did I find the word? In the programme of a concert I was not able to attend, but did however manage to listen to the subsequent broadcast.
Arvo Pärt and JS Bach were the main composers featured in a concert given by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Choir. The music was mesmerizing; the singing and playing well up to their extraordinarily high standards. Even on the radio, something of the magic of the occasion came through. By all accounts being at the live concert was electrifying. For an amateur choral singer, to hear the choir sing for ten minutes a cappella and then be perfectly in tune for the orchestra to join them, was most impressive. But that is mere technique. There was something else about this concert which raised it above the usual.
Arvo Pärt and JS Bach come from different musical eras and from almost opposite ends of the religious spectrum. Pärt is a devout Orthodox Christian, having converted from Lutheranism as an adult, whereas Bach was a staunch lifelong Lutheran. Bach’s music is richly woven with patterns both visible and invisible, in contrast to Pärt’s music which often borders on the minimalist. Both Bach in the 1700s and Pärt today aim to make a profession of their faith through their music.
In the concert the music from the two composers was sewn together seamlessly. It segued from Pärt to Bach and back to Pärt and so-on with breaks for applause only at the end of each half of the concert. It was indeed magic.
The concert programme contains the usual notes about the music, and also two thought-provoking articles about the place of religious music, especially in an age when more people than ever profess no particular religious affiliation. It suggests that music and other art forms can be “numinous”. The dictionary definition of “numinous” is, “revealing or suggesting the presence of a god; inspiring awe and reverence”. This reminded me of a comment by a Choir member (I am ashamed to say that I cannot remember whom) after Messiah last December, “Whoever or whatever your god, somewhere in Messiah you will encounter them.”
Maybe that is true of all music. Maybe “numinous” is a term to describe what we are all seeking for in music, whatever our individual faith or religious affiliation. Maybe what binds us together as members of the Choir, is the common aim of seeking the “numinous” for ourselves and, having found it, to communicate it, as best we can, to our audiences.
It could be said that this all sounds a bit grandiose for a community group such as the Manly Warringah Choir. But I like to think that there is at least a grain of truth in those articles, and that it explains why we do so much more, under Carlos’ inspired direction, than just have a pleasant sing-along every Thursday.