MUSIC: Plucked From The Universe by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

Plucked From The Universe by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

While reading the biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe, I was enchanted to learn that the great theoretical physicist was also a violinist and sometimes even performed at scientific gatherings.  After the response of several colleagues to a lecture, Einstein declined to provide further comment, saying instead, “It will perhaps be pleasanter and more understandable if instead of making a speech I play a piece for you on the violin.”  He proceeded to perform a sonata by Mozart with, according to Frank [the host of the event], “his simple, precise, and therefore doubly moving manner.”  What a splendid scene this is: one of the greatest scientific minds in history responding to colleagues with music.  How do we account for this?

Earlier in his biography, Isaacson reflects on why Mozart and Bach were the physicist’s two favorite composers: “What Einstein appreciated in Mozart and Bach was the clear architectural structure that made their music seem ‘deterministic’ and, like his own favorite scientific theories, plucked from the universe rather than composed.”  I love that phrase, “plucked from the universe,” for it captures something that is true of both physics and music.  It identifies something that I – in a much less profound way than Einstein! – felt when I was studying physics and playing the flute.  Working out a mathematical formula to predict the behavior of bodies and straining to figure out how to phrase a long melodic line of Bach’s gave me a similar delight, and when I figured out either the problem in physics or the challenge of the Bach, the solution seemed so utterly obvious, so self-evident, as if it were in a phrase “plucked from the universe.”  It was not something I had discovered or the physicists had invented or Bach had created from his own capacities, but it was something wondrous, beauty springing out of the deep dear core of things.

Organists know about this phenomenon when they finally get a piece on a particular instrument just right – when the combination of stops, the interplay of the inner voices, and the tempo and articulation all come together, and there is a sense of, “Ah, yes, that’s it!”  As John Dryden put it in a poem on harmony that Handel later set to music, we sense “each note in justest order placed.”  It sounds “plucked from the universe,” although it took hours of work and hard practice to arrive there, just as it took Einstein years of thought experiments and getting some of his formulations initially wrong before the breakthrough moments came.

Good preachers and poets are also familiar with this phenomenon through the medium of words.  When the sermon becomes a vessel of the Spirit or when the poem captures the right cadence and music of language, it sounds “plucked from the universe.”

I can already imagine some readers skeptical about the idea that great music, preaching, poetry, and science are “plucked from the universe.”  We live in an age that has become highly attentive to how meaning and art are socially constructed and culturally conditioned.  What sounds plucked from the universe in one culture may sound as nothing more than cacophony to another.  And yet I find it fascinating that one of the greatest scientific minds of all time had an intuitive feeling about the nature of things that he found to be congruent with artistic and spiritual expression.  Instead of arguing about the truth of one perspective over another, such as theology versus science or religion versus art, perhaps it is time we celebrate that the most satisfying accomplishments of these different human perspectives arise from a visionary act, from an imagination that is alive to the deepest dimensions of reality whether they lead us to perceive with delight and wonder the relativity of time and space or the intervals of music or the wisdom of faith.  Here then is a prayer for all musicians: May your music making reach that wondrous point where it seems plucked from the universe!

4 Comments on MUSIC: Plucked From The Universe by Thomas H. Troeger

  1. I’m a poet, so i understand what you’re saying. You’re saying that it sounded good (in music) or worded well (in preaching or poetry) that it was “plucked from the universe”


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