Hail Mary, Full of Grace

I think that classical radio hosts should give trigger warnings before playing things like Schubert’s Ave Maria during the morning commute. No sooner had a buckled my seat belt after dropping my son off at school this morning, than out came the first bars of said song. The music hit me like a sock to the gut. But a lovely sock to the gut, if that makes sense. In a bit of serendipity, the final bar played as I pulled into my parking spot at my destination. I collected myself so that I could go about my business without seeming like an emotional train wreck. But an emotional vibrancy lingered in the air for several minutes after I turned off my car. The world felt simultaneously stripped bare and softer. For just a little while, before the spell of that song wore off, there was something magical in the air. Imagine a whole city of people simultaneously going about their business listening to that song on ear buds! I have to imagine that people would be kinder and more attuned to one another. But then again, I suppose not everyone is moved by art in the same way.

Anyway, this unexpectedly emotional morning drive had me thinking about the twentieth-century art I’ve been teaching this semester. About how so many artists sought to capture that je ne sais quoi of music in new, modernist art that was moving toward greater abstraction. I’m supposed to be a defender of the visual arts, but I have to say that I don’t think the modernists succeeded in imitating music. I just don’t think the visual arts can do the same thing. Not in the same, way at least. Take Barnett Newman’s Cantos, for example. I think they’re intellectually interesting. But they do not hit me in the visceral way that music can—and does. It’s more intellectual than music. Which has its place, but is such a very different experience.

Maybe—probably—this is subjective. No doubt there are people out there who strongly disagree with me. But I can’t help but think that the power of visual art comes from an altogether different quality. Seeking to define that quality is the subject for another day.

Back to the Ave Maria. Religion isn’t my strong suit, and I was not raised Catholic. But I find some beauty in the words of the famous prayer:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

I find beauty in the simplicity of the words, in their sincerity, in the fact that they are words spoken by millions of people across the world. Words spoken with a sense of hope and belief. That combination of sincerity and hope is a thing of stunning beauty on par with Schubert’s composition.

Beginning of the Ave Maria prayer from the Hours of Charles d’Angouleme, 15th century

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