From Darkness To Light

The role of light and darkness in music, from Beethoven to Ligeti.

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The Seventh Plague of Egypt, by John Martin, 1823.
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

The psychological journey of Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) 5th symphony, from its declamatory 4-note motif to its uplifting C major conclusion, is often referred to as a traverse ‘from darkness to light’.

Darkness here represents the emotional unease initially expressed, an emotion that is organically developed and ultimately resolved in glowing triumph in the last movement.

That light encompasses connotations of general positive emotions is a longstanding idea. In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860): ‘Light is most pleasant and delightful; it has become the symbol of all that is good and salutary […] the absence of light immediately makes us sad, and its return makes us feel happy.’ Similar projections can be read in Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s (1749-1832) theory of colour, where light and brightness are associated with warmth and action, as opposed to darkness’ association with coldness and distance.

Empirical studies paint a similar picture. For instance, research in colour psychology (see here and here) demonstrates that brightness, either directly perceived or imagined, is associated with positive emotions.

Still, as much as jumping between differing forms of sensory information requires multi-layered considerations – alas, light is a visual stimulus, and therefore not technically musical – the representation of light in music is more complex and intriguing than to suggest a straightforward pleasure-emotion principle.

Notably, light can represent in music a religious, quasi-spiritual dimension, not least because of the relevance and prevalence of light in depicting Deity. Of many available examples, the biblical book of Revelations describes the New Jerusalem as following: ‘And the city had no need of the Sun, neither of the Moon to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it […] And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there’.

Dante and Beatrice Gaze Upon The Highest Heavens, from Gustave Doré’s illustrations to The Divine Comedy, 1892.

Accordingly, references to light appear commonly in sacred music, and are often adopted to represent religious purity. The Catholic Requiem Mass (a Mass for the dead), for instance, has imageries of light presented in multiple occasions.

The Communion section Lux aeterna (Eternal Light), preceded by the often gloomy Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) provides an antidote of serene peace. The deeply felt Requiem by the Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) proves a suitable example.

While György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) Lux aeterna was composed almost half a millennium later than the Requiem by Victoria, the spirit of ethereal peace resonates through the ghostly echoes of webs of sound.

The text is provided below.

Let everlasting light shine on them, O Lord
with your saints for ever:
for Thou art merciful.
Eternal rest grant them, O Lord;
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
With your saints for ever
for Thou art merciful.

Reference to Deity through light is prevalent beyond formal mass settings. In his late masterwork The Creation, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) creates a glowing imagery of the creation of the world in the stately section ‘And God saw the Light’, following descriptions of a chaotic and dark world in ‘The Representation of Chaos’. If this reminds us of the darkness-to-light motif of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, this may be no accident; in both works, darkness, represented in C minor, is resolved in the luminance of C major.

In another example, Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) Urlicht (Primeval light) of his 2nd Symphony, titled ‘Resurrection’, is a psychological depiction of a man’s encounter with heaven in the moment of death. This encounter, located between movements of morbid tension and spiritual transcendence, provides a purgatory of peace and contemplation.

O red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path
when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!

Another common association with light is the notion of catharsis, a spiritual transformation (from the Greek katharsis, which translates as ‘purification’ or ‘cleansing’). Thus when the American architect Louis I. Kahn suggested that ‘light releases the energy trapped in matter’, he was perhaps referring to an experience that would emancipate spirits beyond the tethers of matter, and that would utterly transform the subject of experience. In other words, light can be used as a symbol of enlightenment and epiphany.

In musical contexts, such powerful transformations are often conveyed through depictions of sunrise – light that awakens the still of night. Perhaps most iconic is the timpani-pounding opening of Richard Strauss’ (1864-1949) Nietzsche-based tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Nevertheless, of the works of Richard Strauss, I find the use of light most effective in his epic mountaineering tone poem An Alpine Symphony. The works starts with a hair-raising announcement of sunrise after a mysterious night. Through exhilarating episodes involving the ascent and descent of the large rocky mass, the work concludes back in its calm incipience.

In some cases, the moment of sunrise does not occur until the latter part of the work, which perhaps maximises its impact. This scenario is amply presented in the last movement of Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). After the nocturnal movement The Pines of Janiculum, The Pines of the Appian Way puts into music the spirit of Roman soldiers marching into Rome during sunrise. With time, the music gains in confidence and majesty, and ends in blazing glory.

A more serene picture of sunrise is painted in Carl Nielsen’s (1865-1931) Helios Overture. In his Nordic voice of translucent orchestration and restrained expression, Nielsen’s depiction of sunrise of the Aegean Sea is both spirited and delighted without traces of bombast, rendering perhaps a deeply-felt human transformation. Despite the lack of obvious fire power, in the silence that follows the last note the listener finds oneself transported to a place quite different from where it all started – the transformation is completed. Nielsen provides the following depiction of the score:

Silence and darkness,
The sun rises with a joyous song of praise,
It wanders its golden way
and sinks quietly into the sea.

A further observation of light’s depiction in music can be made in account of recent cross-modal psychology research, which report a positive relationship between visual luminance (brightness) with pitch height among non-synesthetes. While these studies mostly used simple psychoacoustic tones instead of more complex stimuli such as music, it is possible to ask why this shouldn’t be the case for music. In the aforementioned pieces, where the appearance of light is depicted or implied, this is usually represented through an ascending pattern of notes.

Sometimes it is not only about the expression of light within the piece, but also about the lighting of the environment the listeners are in. The prelude to the first Scene of Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) Das Rheingold presents a strong case. As the physical stage of Wagner’s mammoth Der Ring des Nibelungen starts to light up from darkness, Wagner’s mystical world is created and proclaimed – all while a sustained rumbling plane of bass notes gives a platform to tides of rising notes. Here, Wagner’s theatric as well as dramatic genius comes into light.

As such, light’s representation in music paints a fascinating picture. Beyond a mere allegory of positive emotion, light is often presented in reference to biblical terms, spiritual transformation, and high pitch.

Importantly, I believe that the aforementioned representations of light in music are related to each other in the end.

The Last Judgement, by Jean Cousin the Younger, late 16th-century.

That is, height often shares semantic associations with transformation or purification, as can be detected in words as ‘elevation’ or ‘sublimation’ (sublime, in Latin, implies rising motion). Furthermore, height’s religious connotations cannot be dismissed; in numerous cultures, the physical location of divinity is often found in high locations (e.g. Olympus, Paradise, Swarga etc.) including the sun (e.g. Ra of Ancient Egypt). In light of this, it may not be accidental that a large number of altars are located in high planes, as is the case for the Acropolis in Athens, and that many of the high gods often embody light. In Korean, Chinese and Japanese, the word ‘숭고/崇高’ (sung-go/ chónggāo) which is used to describe feelings of sacredness and similar high emotions, is literally translated into ‘high and high.’

Links between divinity, light, height and the likes thus share substantial meaning and emotions, which in turn enhances our understanding of how light is represented music.

Importantly, light in itself may not be sufficient. Just as great height requires the presence of great depth, salient light necessitates immense darkness. It is perhaps in this spirit that Edmund Burke, when describing the sublime – ‘the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’ – wrote: ‘mere light is too common a thing to make a strong impression on the mind… a quick transition from light to darkness, or from darkness to light, has yet a greater effect.’ All that is sacred, powerful and delightful must necessarily be surrounded by the dark base of lowness, in order to have itself properly shown.

Ludwig van Beethoven in his Study, by Carl Schloesser, 1811.

Returning to Beethoven’s 5th symphony, his work is then not only a journey between negative and positive emotions, but also a process of spiritual redemption of a personal triumph, of a sense of elevation, and of a quasi-religious experience. Even if Beethoven never explicitly stated any reference of light regarding his symphony, the piece’s intrinsic pulse is of a glowing nature. That the rugged darkness that is initially conjured later transforms to fulfil a psychological vision of bright illumination is a logical and fitting conclusion.

Read more by Young-Jin:

Of Illness and Creativity

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’).