I was listening to Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and found myself thinking about grief and anger. I love this piece, perhaps in part because, like the Psalms, I feel it gives voice to the feelings that we sometimes believe to be unacceptable, unutterable. It puts in music, again as do the psalms of lament in particular, feelings that we feel are just not okay, especially when we express them in social situations. Art allows their expression. But I also find in this piece a profound truth about those feelings.
When I listen to Night on Bald Mountain, I hear a raging, a stomping around, an anger so deep that it borders on the scary, the overwhelming. It is an acting out of our deepest fury, a temper tantrum, if you will. You hear in it conviction, self-righteous indignation, judgment, and mostly just rage expressed in violent voices that threaten to destroy and damage everything in the path of the one raging. The violins sound at times like they are thrashing around. The basses yell condemnation and stand strong. The flutes too at times sounds like they are throwing up their arms in exasperation.
But the profound truth of the music is that it not only fails to destroy anything, instead, the rage lends itself to a deep and moving piece of music. The fury moves. Sometimes it is stronger and forceful, sometimes it seems almost focus-less with the percussion driving a sense of random movement, stomping, an aimless pounding of the ground. The speed changes, expressing the frenzy building up and then pausing, slowing for a minute in a triumphant and articulate trumpet statement. There is a stepping back, a slowing that none-the-less begins to build again as the music gains clarity about its complaint. And there are even moments that sound cheerfully exultant, as if the one expressing themself has come to a point of realizing what they've said is good and right.
And then...and then, at the point of strongest furor, of more stomping, of more railing against the world, against life, against all things, suddenly in the midst of that climactic point of uproar and storm, there is a plummet into the sound of bells. It has always felt to me that the ranting and raving falls into clarity, into focus. But what follows, to my ears, (unlike in the Disney Fantasia version), is not joy, but sorrow, sadness, grief. There is real beauty in it, but it is not elation, not happiness. It remains in a minor key. And it is introspective, insightful, and painful.
Anger is what we call a "secondary emotion." What that means is that anger is, at its core, an expression of something else, usually sadness, grief, pain. That is the truth that underlies the rage. And Mussorgsky captures that perfectly in this piece of music. He has this outburst, this wrathful thrashing, he storms around, and then after that moment of clarity, of insight, of "coming home" which is expressed by the bells, the truth under the anger emerges: the real feelings of sorrow, of grief.
Just as our psalms show us, just as modern psychology tells us and just as this profound piece of music expresses, we have to feel what we feel in order to get through it to the truth and beyond. This piece does that for me. It allows the anger that leads into the deeper feelings. Our psalms of lament do that as well: they give expression to the voices of fury, the feelings of betrayal and injustice that we all have. They allow us to speak them out loud: "you did this to me! And I am angry!" before stepping through into healing, sometimes; into sorrow, other times; and occasionally the psalm never resolves (see Psalm 88). That's okay, too. That's real. Sometimes we aren't ready to "move on". It takes time to live through our feelings.
One of the most profound gifts of art is that it allows us to express ourselves in "acceptable" ways when raging at our friends and family never will be. It allows us to vent in a way that will not harm others. The Psalms were songs, hymns. They are art as well and give voice to those feelings. Dance can do the same. Stories, poems likewise. Sculptures, paintings, etchings, photography - all art allows the possibilities of expression of things that are hard with our cultural rules to otherwise state in meaningful and real ways.
I am so thankful for art, for its power to move us, to help us say what we need to say, to help us express ourselves fully. Today I am especially thankful for Night on Bald Mountain. Here, for you to enjoy as well: Night on Bald Mountain.