Watching Marc-André Hamelin Play Piano as a Religious Experience The Piano Virtuoso as Conduit for the Beautiful
Marc-André Hamelin - Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
I believe in Beauty but am not so sure about God.
Dear Dr. McDaniel,
Watching Marc-André Hamelin play Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 was, for me, a religious experience. The experience was not only in the sounds he produced and the music; but also in the dexterity, precision and speed of his fingers. It took me away from everyday life and transported me into something amazing and beautiful. For a moment I realized that the suffering I face and so many face is not the whole story. There is also the Beauty. Am I right that in process theology Beauty is another name for God? If so, I'm not sure I believe in a personal God, but I do believe in Beauty. Is that OK?
Yes, Shelley. There are many people like you: people who believe in Beauty but aren't sure about God. That's definitely OK. We can only believe what is real to us, and for many people Beauty is real even as they are unsure about there being a personal God.
Process theologians believe in both, and they think Beauty is essential to God's life. But they think of God as "person" in a relatively non-anthropomorphic way. They don't think of God as outside the universe as an utterly separate reality, but as the mind of the universe. And they think the universe itself consists of (in their words) concrescing subjects, all the way down into the depths of matter and out into the far reaches of space. Thus they envision God as the Concrescing Subject of the universe as a whole. For them, this isn't anthromorphic but rather, as it were, biomorphic or cosmomorphic.
For more on this, you might be interested in the six approaches to God offered at the bottom of this page. The first approach speaks of God as the universe itself as woven in love and the second as the weaving itself. Here "weaving" is another name for concrescence: a subjective gathering of the many into one. Beauty is the weaving; God is the weaving. The weaver is not separate from the weaving.
All of this is to say that, whenever you experience Beauty, you are experiencing God, thus named or not. As Patricia Adams Farmer explains, also at the bottom of this page, there are many forms of beauty: moral beauty, natural beauty, soul beauty, artistic beauty, and tragic beauty. All are God. But If the word God is off-putting, just don't use it. Say Beauty.
Marc-André Hamelin - Variations on a Theme by Paganini
Borrowing the lens of a poet's sensibility, we see the world in a richer way — more familiar than we thought, and stranger than we knew, a world laced with wonder. Sometimes we need to be taught how and where to seek wonder, but it's always there, waiting, full of mystery and magic.
— Diane Ackerman in Deep Play
In the spiritual alphabet of humanity, "B" is for beauty, "P" is for play and "W" is for wonder. At least so we in the world of process theology believe. We borrow the alphabet from our interfaith mentors, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality and Practice.
Piano virtuosos combine all three: beauty, play, and wonder. In our time one of the leading virtuosos is Marc-André Hamelin. Here's a description from chatGPT: Marc-André Hamelin is a Canadian virtuoso pianist and composer known for his technical prowess and interpretations of a wide range of classical and contemporary piano music. He was born on September 5, 1961, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Hamelin began playing the piano at an early age and went on to study at the École de musique Vincent-d'Indy in Montreal and later at Temple University in Philadelphia. He first gained international recognition in the 1980s for his performances of Franz Liszt's challenging Transcendental Etudes and has since become known for his interpretations of works by a wide range of composers, from Mozart and Chopin to Debussy and Ravel.
In addition to his work as a performer, Hamelin is also an accomplished composer, with a number of his own works for piano and other instruments to his name. He has received numerous awards and accolades for his performances and compositions, including several Juno Awards, the Order of Canada, and the Avery Fisher Prize.
Hamelin's performances are characterized by his technical skill and precision, as well as his deep musical interpretation and emotional expressiveness. He is known for his ability to bring out the subtleties and nuances of even the most complex and challenging pieces of music, and his performances have been praised for their virtuosity and musicality.
Hamelin is a wonder-priest. He may or may not be religious, but through his performances and compositions he helps evoke in us a sense of wonder that sustains the soul, linking us momentarily to something much more than ourselves: something mysterious and beautiful, both familiar and strange.
Those of us in the process world speak of this something more as "God" and also as "Beauty." Beauty need not be pretty or even happy to be beautiful; it can be tragic and dissonant, both familiar (immanent) and strange (transcendent). Hamelin is a master at evoking these emotions.
Listen to him play Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and Variations on a Theme by Paganini on this page. If you want language for the sounds you hear, musicians will speak of octave changes, arpeggios, runs, trills, glissandos, and tremolos. But the sounds are much more than the terms. And watch him, too. Note the dexterity, precision, and speed of his fingers. He is an athlete as well as musician: an athlete of the fingers, arms, and hands. This, too, is part of the magic and grace. The idea that Beauty comes from the mind and transcends the body is false. Beauty is in dexterity, too, in music as in sports.
In process theology we speak of God and the world as co-creative. God alone cannot create Beauty and the world alone cannot do it either. Beauty emerges out of a relationship between the two, with each doing its part. In the case of piano virtuosos, the "doing your part" involves almost endless hours of practicing and self-discipline. It also involves chance, that is, the sheer fortune of having been born with genes conducive to the talent you have and with early childhood encouragement. If we want to thank something for the gifts of wonder, we best thank God and the world, neither to the exclusion of the other. In a co-creative world we must co-thank.
The wonder Hamelin evokes is not fixed or static. Beauty is not a thing or a substance; it is a happening. And so it is with God and the world. They are happenings, too. It is true that in life bad things happen. Not all that happens is good. There's no need to pretend that everything is pre-ordained by God or that all things happen for the good. Witness rape, murder, war, depression, and untimely deaths. The good news is that Beauty happens, too. Listen and watch. You'll hear, you'll see. We need our wonder priests.