Ask the composer.

Ask the composer.

Massimo Freccia

There’s a story that I heard recently about an Italian conductor, Massimo Freccia, and his brush with one of the great composers of Italian opera.  I have no way to verify whether this story is true, but it almost doesn’t matter – it’s one of those stories that ought to be true, even if it isn’t, because it makes such a great point.

As a young boy in the early 20th century, Freccia developed an early interest in music and took every opportunity he could find to watch musical performances.  One day, he snuck into the back door of the famous La Scala opera house to surreptitiously watch a performance of the opera Tosca, composed by none other than the great Giacomo Puccini, one of Italy’s most famous composers of that era.

Careful to avoid being seen from the stage, Freccia made his way into the auditorium and took his seat next to an elderly man who was listening intently to the music.  After a few minutes the man became agitated, apparently disliking something about the way the music was being performed, and began banging his cane on the floor to indicate the tempo at which he thought the music should be played – a tremendous breach of concert hall etiquette.

Freccia, mortified, looked up to him and said in a scolding voice, “You must not make so much noise!  You’re disturbing the performers.  This is one of the great works of opera, composed by Puccini himself!”

The older man, surprised by the interruption, looked at Freccia with a puzzled expression on his face and said, “But, I’m Puccini!”

One of the really interesting things about music as an art form is that any given piece of music will never be performed exactly the same way twice.  While a composer will spend a great deal of time and energy plotting out exactly which way he or she thinks the piece should be performed – indicating the correct tempo, dynamics (volume), notes, rhythms, etc. – each performer will have to use his or her own skill and judgment to actually bring the music to life, and each performance will be different from all the others.

One of my favorite pieces of classical music is Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler.  The first time I ever heard the piece was on a recording by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but I now own at least three other recordings of this work and I’ve heard it performed live twice by two different symphonies.  Although they’re all reading from the same sheet music and playing the same instruments, each of these performances contains differences from the others, and I like them all for different reasons.

When I’m working with the choir on a difficult song, we’ll sometimes come across a situation that requires a judgment call on how we will perform it.  Should we slow the tempo down?  Should we sing louder?  Should we emphasize some notes over the other?  Ultimately, we must make a judgment call about what we feel fits the music best.

Truthfully, this is one of the things that makes music so much fun – the opportunity to use our own creativity to bring a new perspective to someone else’s composition.  That’s why the famous pianist Glenn Gould said, “We don’t play the piano with our fingers, we play it with our minds.”  Musicians call it interpretation, because the musician has the opportunity to look at the music and discern for themselves how to wring the most meaning and significance from each note.

Often, after we’ve decided what we’re going to do, I’ll joke that I don’t think that the composer will be here on Sunday to hear us sing, so they won’t mind if we do it differently than they had intended.

Real life, of course, is more complicated than music, but I think you can probably see some parallels.  Each of us, as we go about our daily business, is presented with circumstances and opportunities that we must navigate, and each of us has the opportunity to use whatever drives us – our faith, our intellect, our creativity, etc – to make the most of them.  There are times when things seem to neatly fall into place and everything makes sense, and there are times when we can’t imagine how we are supposed to make sense of the chaotic and frightening world in which we live.

In each of these situations, we are a little bit like the performer looking over a brand new piece of music, trying to decide what interpretation fits the notes and rhythms on the page.  And, in each situation, we do our best to do what we believe is right.

But, fortunately for us, we don’t have to idly wonder what the “composer” of life intends for us to do at any given moment.  To carry the analogy a little bit further, we are like the folks in that opera house performing Tosca.  We’re not left on our own – the composer is right there, and he’s more than happy to guide us through the music.

Proverbs 16 has many verses that are filled with wisdom about how we approach life’s challenges, but let me share two of them with you.  Here’s verse 3:

Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and He will establish your plans.

My favorite part about that verse is the word whatever – Do you really feel free to bring whatever you’re doing to God for His approval and blessing?  God wants the best for us in all that we do, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem.  In every situation, at every moment, God has a plan for our lives.  He reveals His plans to us through the study of His Word, the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the wisdom and counsel of other believers, and His sovereign control over all of life’s circumstances.  If we will commit to faithfully seeking God’s will in each of our endeavors, He will see us through all of life’s difficulties.

Now, read verse 9:

In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.

Ultimately, God will decide the course of events in our lives.  His will for us is far better than anything we could plan on our own, and He seeks the best for each of us.

One more quick music story, then I’ll be done.  When I was in college, I played trombone in the Longhorn Band at the University of Texas.  There were over 360 of us, and we could – and did – quite literally fill the football field from endzone to endzone.  As a singular player in a group that big, you never really get to see the “big picture” of what everyone else is doing from your vantage point on the field.  All you really know is where you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to be doing, but it doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense in that moment.

However, at the end of the each season, they would release a VHS tape (yes, I’m that old) with recordings of each of our halftime performances.  (I still have a couple of these, even though I don’t have a working VCR any more.)  I always found it fascinating to watch these tapes, because it was the first time I was really able to see what the whole formation looked like.  And, lo and behold, all of those seemingly random movements by all of those people suddenly made sense!  There were these big formations, stretching all the way across the field, and I could finally see how my little insignificant part played into the finished product.

My point is this: we generally go through life with a very limited perspective on what’s happening around us.  Often, we only see the “big picture” much later in life, when we are able to look back and see how our actions played into something much bigger than ourselves.

So, don’t be afraid to ask the composer when you find yourself at a moment in life when you need guidance about what to do.  God sees the big picture and He knows what is best for you, and He is anxious to see you fulfill the purposes that He has for you.  You may not see until much later how God worked in your life and in the lives of others to bring about His perfect plan.

P.S. – If you’re interested in the opera I mentioned at the beginning, Tosca, here’s a link to a film adaptation of the opera which contains the original music as well as some handy English subtitles.

And, if marching band is more your style than opera, here’s a video that one of the snare drummers in the Longhorn Band made a few years ago showing what it’s like to march the pre-game show from his perspective.