The celebrated windows flamed with light
directly pouring north across the Seine;
we rustled into place.  Then violins
vaunting Vivaldi’s strident strength, then Brahms,
seemed to suck with their passionate sweetness,
bit by bit, the vigor from the red,
the blazing blue, so that the listening eye
saw suddenly the thick black lines, in shapes
of shield and cross and strut and brace, that held
the holy glowing fantasy together.
The music surged; the glow became a milk,
a whisper to the eye, a glimmer ebbed
until our beating hearts, our violins
were cased in thin but solid sheets of lead.

Evening Concert, Saint-Chapelle by John Updike

Why do humans love music? What part of the melody enraptures us again and again, not just in this century but in every one before ours, and makes us feel something more than ourselves? In his poem Evening Concert, Saint-Chapelle, John Updike explores a small piece of this in a way that resonated with me. The first half of the poem describes a classical music concert and slowly becomes energized as Updike illustrates what the listeners hear and feel—“passionate sweetness” (5), “the blazing blue” (7), a “glowing fantasy” (10). Some say humans are nothing more than animals bent on survival, but I disagree. We are more than that, even in the way that we feel something when we hear music. This is what music should look to us and what it should do to us.

I love the way Updike describes the music in the chapel. He describes music as “shapes/…that held/ the holy glowing fantasy together” (8-10), as if one careless breath might break the shapes apart and erase the floating emotion. (What would happen if an unbroken shape floated away? I read a book, Lost and Found, which had a similar idea. What if sound traveled in bubbles and “you had to pop each one to let the sound out”? (Brooke Davis, Lost and Found.) )  He ends the poem by saying, “…our beating hearts, our violins/ were cased in thin but solid sheets of lead” (13-14). We allow our hearts to open up to music for a short while before encasing them in lead again. Music is where we learn how to be vulnerable, how to bleed, how to see life with new eyes. When the music ends, we close up again and the world starts spinning like usual.

In the context of this poem, music may represent general art. Music, visual art, acting, writing—they are all pointless endeavors that give the illusion of worthlessness, but art brings meaning and color to our lives in a way nothing else can. Art and beauty makes you feel something, and that is perhaps the most meaningful part of living.


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