Beowulf_Cotton_MS_Vitellius_A_XV_f._132rIn college I had an English professor who cried every time he read Beowulf.  Every semester, he stood in front of his young students and translated the story from its original Old English text, and then read the entire version in Old English, weeping profusely when he reached the part where Beowulf succumbed to the wounds incurred in his fight with the dragon, Grendel.  It was a song.  A dramatic performance. A delightful, poetic presentation.  Once finished, he would pull a handkerchief from his pocket, wipe his eyes, blow his nose, and continue with the next assignment.

I have a similar response when listening to choirs- especially when the musicians are children. Every December, I listen to Pavarotti’s version of Panus Angelicus wiping the tears as they stream down my cheeks.  The beauty of Pavarotti’s rich tenor voice melding with the boys from Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal reduces me to a puddle before they end the first stanza.

This is nothing new.  One afternoon when I was a small child, my mother played Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version of Old Rugged Cross on the living room hi-fi.  I remember the lump in my throat growing until I began to weep.  When my mother asked me why I was crying, I couldn’t explain it, but she knew, and quietly stroked my head, reassured me that shedding a tear when music touched me was perfectly acceptable.

When I became an adult, my husband and I sang on our church’s worship team.  We practiced in the sanctuary on Saturday mornings while our children played hide-and-seek under the pews.  Rehearsals were generally light-hearted sessions where we concentrated more on form than content, but one morning as we practiced “Be Thou Glorified,” we hit a golden triad that hung suspended in the air for what seemed like an eternity.  I was overwhelmed and I turned to the others on the team to see that they too shared the same reaction. Tears abounded. Some people knelt. Our souls were so touched we had to stop for a short time to gather ourselves. It was a moment I will never forget.

gabe tux 2My two oldest children were avid participants in their school choruses. At their middle school Christmas concerts they looked like red-cheeked cherubs in black pants, white shirts and bow ties. Their renditions of multi-cultural holiday music melted my heart, and the tears flowed.  By the time they were in high school, they both sang in the “Chamber Choir” and performed complicated, sophisticated pieces in several languages.  At one such concert as I sat in the audience and prepared for them to begin, I could see Gabe nudge his friends to lay bets on how long it would be before I had to bring out a tissue.  He was never disappointed. I cried at that concert.  I cried when he sang at Carnegie Hall with the National Youth Choir.  And at the end of Abby’s senior year when the band and chorus performed an extravaganza of Carmina Burana. I sobbed through the entire performance.

Now that my children are grown, you would think this malady would no longer affect me.  But that is not the case. Every time the children from a neighboring school visit my workplace for a seasonal lobby concert, I tear up so badly that I have decided to remain in my office instead of attending the performance.  And when my grandsons sing to me, it takes seconds before I dissolve into a puddle.

In an article in Psychology Today, R. Douglas Fields, PhD says that people who have a tearful response to music are experiencing one of two emotions; sadness or awe.  He makes a strong case for this, and while most music doesn’t make me feel sad, I do believe I often experience awe. To me, music is often a spiritual experience and the innocence of children’s voices coupled with the magic that happens when harmony and dissonance are created the result is incredibly inspiring. When music happens, my soul is touched.  In one measure, I am reminded of the mystery of our creator, as it is an amazement to me that we were designed in such a way that we can fashion tones that bend and weave together in a ballet of sound.

I suspect that Professor Atwater’s response to Beowulf was much the same.  Awe of the creation. Awe of the Creator.  Awe that we can live in a world with people who create beauty that can be passed through the ages by college professors, tenors, and little children.

imagesIt’s December.  The snow is falling. I’ve been hunting for the perfect Christmas gifts for my loved ones. The tree is trimmed and plans are made for reunions and celebration. Time to turn on Panus Angelicus and let the tears begin!

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