Symphonic Magic

February 7, 2024

By Curtis Peter van Gorder

This weekend we attended a symphony performance that was truly awesome. Usually, these events are way beyond our budget, but we got a good deal with last-minute tickets, and we managed to get good seats at a matinee performance.

The piece they played was An Alpine Symphony1 by Richard Strauss. It was a symphonic poem or tone poem, which is orchestral music evoking a poem, short story, novel, painting, or landscape.

This piece takes us on an alpine mountain-climbing journey of 11 hours from daybreak to nightfall. Strauss had a deep love of nature and as a boy experienced the drama of a climbing adventure when he was with a group of mountaineers who got lost and were drenched in an unexpected storm. It seems the best artistic inspirations come from our personal experiences.

As I listened, I was amazed that over 100 performers could all be playing in perfect melodic harmony. Melody being the notes that are played one after the other, creating the main theme. Harmony being the combination of multiple notes played at the same time, fashioning a blend of sounds. Melody adds emotion and feeling to music, while harmony adds depth, texture, balance, and the drama of contrast.

There was never a dull moment as the piece went from slow to fast, and from soft to loud; from playing sweetly to furiously in crashing crescendos and then back again; from solo performances to certain sections playing and then the whole symphony playing together. All of it blending with the right tone, pitch, intensity; all played at just the right time, led by the stroke of the conductor’s magic baton.

It was such a rich aural experience and a mine of metaphor that I could apply to many aspects of my life. No performance would be possible without the musical score that everyone has in front of them. The score that all of the musicians have to follow is written by its creator (the composer) and can’t be changed; although inflections, emphasis, and timing come into play. Imagine if any of the players decided that they didn’t want to follow the score but play what they felt like instead? It would be chaos, of course. Yet, there is some flexibility and unique creativity that each musician brings to their performance.

What would the score translate to in my metaphor? I would say that it is God’s Word He’s given us. In that case, Jesus would be the composer—the Word made flesh. All the musicians have to internalize the score; they have to know when they come in and how they fit into the beginning, middle, and end. Just following the notes is not enough; each musician must add the emotion and feeling and the spirit of the piece needed to bring about the magnificent result.

The conductor would be the Holy Spirit, because He cues us and points to the musician who needs to play at any one particular time and what manner and intensity they need to use. There has to be a constant connection and attention between the musician and the conductor. Being in tune with our conductor and sensitive to even slight gestures or leadings is crucial for being in the Spirit and fruitful in our daily lives.

Now let us turn to the musicians themselves. Just think of the countless hours each of them spent first learning their instrument and then finally mastering it. It must have involved a lot of frustration and overcoming self-doubt. When I was taking private drum lessons from a Pittsburgh symphony percussionist, he had me drum for many months on a soft drum pad to learn hand and finger movements and had me learn how to read music before I could have an actual drum set.

Sadly, I am a bad example of perseverance, as I once played piano quite well when I was young but stopped taking lessons one day when I saw the famous pianist Liberace perform on TV without any sheet music in front of him, seemingly ad-libbing the whole show. I told my mom that I didn’t need to take lessons anymore and would follow his style. It seemed a lot easier and freer, and so I quit. Pretty soon, I got bored, reached a standstill, started to lose what I had, and now don’t play anymore.

Sitting next to us at the concert was a good example of a music student who didn’t give up but stuck to her task. She was a violinist from another orchestra who was attending this performance. We asked her how she learned, and she told us that she started playing when she was three years old following the renowned Suzuki method. This involves parental involvement; listening, observing, and reading; group classes; following a planned order of repertoire. It is about giving lots of encouragement to the child as they are learning to enjoy playing and building their character. One of their main slogans is “right character—right tone.”2

She told me that her skill was the result of many years of practice, with all of the heartbreak, patience, and the support of her mother who paid for and drove her to and from her lessons. This performance was the result of each one of these musicians growing through this process to now blossom into this mighty work. This reminds me that our lives have had so many makings and breakings in our past that have made us who we are today. I am sure the Lord was preparing us from the beginning. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you” (John 15:16).

Just as the body of Christ has many unique members, so each musician plays their special part.3 One instrument may have a brief part and have to wait patiently for their turn, but each is essential for the performance. You might have heard the famous story of the piccolo player. A piccolo is a half-size flute of the woodwind family.

The famous 19th century conductor, Sir Michael Costa, was leading a rehearsal with hundreds of instruments and voices. The choir sang at full voice, accompanied by the thundering organ, the roll of drums and the blare of horns. In the midst of all the din, the piccolo player far up in a corner said to himself, “It doesn’t matter if I play or not, no one will miss the piccolo,” and he stopped playing. Suddenly, the great conductor flung up his hands and brought the rehearsal to a complete standstill. “Where is the piccolo?” he cried.

Each one of us has a unique contribution to give, and we will be missed if we don’t play our part. How beautiful it is when every musician is playing together in harmony. “The multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32). Or as other passages in Acts put it, “of one accord.” They play the same chord or music together.

When the symphony orchestra first assembles, they tune their instruments to the A chord, usually played by the oboe.4 Before we begin each day’s performance, we too need to get in tune with our Concertmaster, and when we do, we will play magnificent music to stir the hearts of our listeners—heavenly music that will reverberate throughout eternity.


To hear the Alpine Symphony performance by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra:

2 More on the Suzuki method:

3 See 1 Corinthians 12.

4 Orchestras always tune to ‘A’, because every string instrument has an ‘A’ string. The standard pitch is A=440 Hertz (440 vibrations per second).

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