Music and Transfiguration

Anton Bruckner, 1894

One of the pieces of music which has most haunted me in the classical repertoire over the years is Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. Particularly the third movement with its extraordinary ecstatic tutti outburst shortly after the opening. I thought of it again today, as August 6th is the Feast of the Transfiguration: I have always associated that incredible and wholly unprepared blaze of light with the Gospel narrative of the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. I see this as the most eschatological moment in nineteenth-century music, as if Anton Bruckner, who termed the Adagio of his Ninth Symphony his ‘farewell to life’ was suddenly granted a glimpse of Christ in the glory of his Resurrection, a foretaste of the life of the world to come given ahead of time. One conductor who seized this dimension of Bruckner’s symphonism with special acuity (whatever you may think of him in other repertoire) was Sergiu Celibidache, who made a penetrating comment on the composer in the film Celibidache’s Garden:

”For him, time is different from what it is for other composers. For a normal person, time is what comes after the beginning. Bruckner’s time is what comes after the end. The apotheoses of all his finales, the hope of another world, the hope of being saved, of being once more baptised in light – all this exists nowhere else’

the Alpine snowfields of La Meije - the inspiration for Messiaen's 'La Transfiguration'

A second composer who also seems to experience time differently from the rest of us was Olivier Messiaen (who curiously had no interest whatever in Bruckner’s music), who regarded the Transfiguration as the most significant moment in the history of our planet. His monumental oratorio of the 1960s La Transfiguration constitutes one of the high points of his output and his synthesis of music and theology.  This incredible work is too rich and complex a subject to be tackled in this post, but anyone out there undaunted by the French language and a fairly heavy dose of theology and philosophy can take a look at

Icon of the Transfiguration Theophanes the Greek, 15th century

The Feast of the Transfiguration has traditionally been highly important for Eastern Christianity, which has always viewed redemption in terms of the transfiguration of the whole cosmos under the Lordship of Christ. However, there has also been something of a re-discovery of late of the notion of transfiguration in Western theology. A striking example is provided by the great German Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg in his description of experiences as a teenager which led him to Christian faith. The most significant of these (occurring perhaps not coincidentally after a music lesson) linked Epiphany and Transfiguration:

‘The single most important experience occurred in early January 1945, when I was 16 years old. On a lonely two-hour walk home from my piano lesson, seeing an otherwise ordinary sunset, I was suddenly flooded by light and absorbed in a sea of light which, although it did not extinguish the humble awareness of my finite existence, overflowed the barriers that normally separate us from the surrounding world. Several months earlier I had narrowly escaped an American bombardment at Berlin; a few weeks later my family would have to leave our East German home because of the Russian offensive. I did not know at the time that January 6 was the day of Epiphany, nor did I realize that in that moment Jesus Christ had claimed my life as a witness to the transfiguration of this world in the illuminating power and judgment of his glory. But there began a period of craving to understand the meaning of life, and since philosophy did not seem to offer the ultimate answers to such a quest, I finally decided to probe the Christian tradition more seriously than I had considered worthwhile before.’ (‘God’s Presence in History’ in Christian Century, March 11, 1981)

This same theme of Transfiguration can be found in words written by Pannenberg fifty years later which musicians and other artists of faith would do well to meditate, and not only on August 6th. Some, indeed many of us have been privileged, like the first disciples, or Bruckner, Messiaen and Pannenberg, to experience a fragmentary anticipation of the coming glory of God through artistic beauty, human relationships and Christian community; would that our lives would transfigure the reality around us, however minutely, for the healing of a world in pain:

‘The comprehensive vision of a transformation of all things in the light of God’s glory can serve, among other things, as a clue to the specific character of art in the context of a Christian culture. It is the transfiguration of present reality, a transfiguration that includes the element of judgment as well as glorification. in the greatest works of Christian artists in the history of Christian culture such a transfiguration of present reality was achieved and thus intimations were present of the Christian eschatological hope’ (Wolfhart Pannenberg, ‘The Task of Christian Eschatology’ in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (eds), The Last Things: Biblical & Theological Perspectives on Eschatology, pp. 11-12.


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