Music and Catharsis

by Dr. Andrew Childs

We can—and, I would argue, we must—develop our ability to undergo and endure catharsis, the release of human tensions and perplexities, even monumental and complex emotions, through our habitual exposure to great art, simply because we ultimately benefit from it. Catharsis teaches the limits of human experience through vicarious exposure, recalls past experience and emotion in ‘purified’ artistic form, consoles in times of present or lingering suffering, and prepares us for the overwhelming experiences we will inevitably face. Music, in particular, allows controlled access to those emotional heights and depths, infrequently but universally experienced; when forced to operate under extreme psychological conditions, endurance may depend on our meaningful participation in—and submission to—this prior experience.

Catharsis in the Classical literary sense represents a purgative or purifying evocation of pity or fear through tragedy. In his Poetics, chapter 4, Aristotle states, “Imitation is natural to man…and it is also natural to delight in works of imitation. The truth of this second point is shown by experience: though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to see the most realistic representations of them in art…”1 Two chapters later, he defines tragedy as “the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself…with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” We have come to accept a much more general sense of the word as meaning, “the purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through a work of art, as of tragedy or music.”2 It remains in either sense, a matter of the heart.

At the Feast of the Annunciation, the Word became flesh in order to dwell among us. Twenty-one days later, the Sacred Heart beat for the first time inside the womb of His mother, and two immaculate hearts beat as one.3 Thirty-three years later, this Heart beat its last—emptied and crushed by the weight of history’s sins. God took on our nature, our will, our flesh—our “muddy vesture of decay”—primarily to redeem us, but also to teach us of the overwhelming immediacy and intimacy of His love for us. The Sacred Heart teaches us of this love; He teaches us also of our own capacities, and that our hearts can feel incomprehensible joy, and unimaginable sorrow. The heart is designed to beat—in an average lifespan, nearly three billion times—and it is designed to break. Excruciating or exquisite, the pain of heartbreak in many ways defines the human condition. It certainly represents one of the most profound connections we have with God.

The modern reader-listener lacks comprehension not because he cannot read literally or hear accurately; rather, he lacks imagination and empathy, having detached from the reality of overwhelming emotion through the creeping numbness of an increasingly virtual and therefore unreal modern condition. As we habituate to the convenience of not knowing how to do, we hardly notice that we have forgotten how to feel; in the end, we risk not knowing how to be. We risk, literally and figuratively, losing heart; what remains of it, in the words of the poet, is “like a hollow ledge, holding a little pool left there by the tide, a little tepid pool, drying inward from the edge.”4 The heart still exists, but one that, lacking the energy to break, can only gradually dry up.

We know by faith, however, that the Sacred Heart breaks continuously for us; scientific proof exists for this. In 2013, a Eucharistic miracle occurred in Poland, in which a dropped consecrated Host began to bleed while purified in water. Sanctioned medical tests revealed heart tissue; further, “DNA tests also determined the tissue to be of human origin, and found that it bore signs of distress”—in fact, the Sacred Heart breaking for love of us.5 How can we answer the call to greatness of heart? In part, as with the acquisition of virtue, through habit.6 Though Aristotle compels us to cathartic purgation and purification particularly through tragedy, the greatest artists of every age have put stunningly realistic depictions of painful realities before us to effect these things in nearly every genre. Whether through the agonies of Oedipus or King Lear, or the ecstasies of Bach or Beethoven, we have but to see and hear, and know ourselves in the process.

Aristotle distinguishes literary tragedy for its seriousness as the proper means to catharsis, but music has its equivalents. Technically, such music will tend toward minor rather than major tonality (though not necessarily) for the depth of the emotions evoked; move slowly rather than quickly to allow for a more measured contemplation; explore extremes of the dynamic range, often for extended periods of time to heighten emotional tension; and it will lead deliberately and unmistakably to overwhelming climaxes inviting cathartic release. Size does matter, but not decidedly: a Mozart orchestra typically contains fewer than 40 players, yet the famous trio from his opera Don Giovanni (1787) contains some viscerally fearsome music. We do not pity the Don as he refuses the directive of the Commendatore to repent, but we shudder when, after a relentless build-up of musical and dramatic tension, the floor collapses, and we see him fall into hell.

Overwhelming effect based primarily on size requires the orchestras of Wagner, Richard Strauss, or Gustav Mahler, all 120 players or more. The immolation scene of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung comes in the 23rd hour of the 24-hour, four opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. In the 1995 Seattle Opera production in which I sang, 100 choristers, a dozen soloists and a horse occupied the stage; 125 orchestra players in the pit below promised—and delivered—stupefying sonic menace. For good measure, two firemen in full gear stood offstage, in case the six-foot flames coming from the propane pipes in the stage floor caused actual rather than merely theatrical immolation. We do not, of course, identify in any practical way with Brünnhilde, a Valkyrie demi-goddess lamenting the death of her half-god half-nephew husband as she decides to burn—to the ground— him, herself, the aforementioned steed, and Valhalla—the palatial abode of the gods, but seeing and hearing the spectacle brings us as close to a realization of the last judgement as we dare.7

Richard Strauss’s orchestra in his Four Last Songs equals Wagner’s in size, but has more benevolent intentions; the soprano, who could sing Brünnhilde, chooses rather to navigate Strauss’s expansive settings of Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff poems which explore the depth of marital love which ends only in death.8 The composer, 84 when he wrote the last of these songs, “Im Abendrot,” knew exactly the debt he called. Each of us who gives the heart completely to another perceives the initial investment, and fears the ultimate cost. The bond of marital love prepares the united heart to bend and swell and break, but never to separate—until the inevitable death of the one takes the greater part of the heart that remains with the other. Strauss chooses to play this ultimate separation ob scena: we hear the couple, voiced by the soprano alone, face the ultimate question—“is this, perhaps, death?”—in utter serenity. The final minute of music belongs to the hushed orchestra alone. It sounds to the younger ear poignantly sentimental; to the older, as the crushing confluence of realization and necessary resignation made bearable only by the promise of eternity.

The cathartic event need not involve a cast of hundreds.9 In the case of Art Song, it requires only two. T.S. Eliot famously wrote regarding the literary consideration of the human condition, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.” He attributed to Shakespeare mastery of breadth, to Dante, height and depth.10 Risking literary blasphemy, Art Song taken as a genre, is a worthy third. I quickly, deferentially, remind the Masters’ disciples that in the case of song, two artists collaborate to amplify a single sentiment, a great advantage. The poet frames the scenario, the composer weeps—or rages, or swoons—with him. The results frequently defy belief, both in terms of the depth of psychological exploration, and the immediacy of narrative depiction.

The fatal illness of a child is an event from which complete emotional recovery is scarcely conceivable. In his song Erlkönig, Franz Schubert requires that his singer voice four distinct characters. He depicts a father galloping through a misty forest clutching his terrified young son: the narrator dramatically paints the scene, the right hand of the accompaniment relentlessly hammers the keyboard, the Erl King, figure of death, whispers in the ear of the child who cries out in fear; the father arrives at safety only to find the child dead in his arms. Mahler goes further in his song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), exploring parental coping with the death of a child from every imaginable angle.11 Mahler set only five of Friedrich Rückert’s group of 428 poems written after his two children died of scarlet fever. Mahler engages the subject with relentless force, as the text demands: “Now the sun wants to rise brightly, as if nothing terrible had happened during the night,” (song 1); “When your mommy [Mütterlein] steps through the door, my gaze falls not first on her face, but on the place nearer the doorstep where your face would be,” (song 3); in the final song, as a storm rages in the accompaniment, the father sings repeatedly, “In this weather, this gale, I would never have sent the children out…” Finally, purged by his own catharsis, he can sing “In this storm, they rest as if in their mother’s house: frightened by no storm, sheltered by the Hand of God.” It is intentionally, necessarily, unbearable. We need catharsis and the tears that often result not to lose control, but to gain understanding and peace.

But tears do not always come as the result of sadness. Robert Schumann maps a constellation of cathartic events—mostly positive—in the life of a woman in his 1840 song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben (Woman’s Love and Life).12 In the 6th song, “Süsser Freud du blickest mich verwundert an” (Sweetest friend, you look on me with wonder), Schumann depicts the first night of the newly married couple with unmistakable accuracy, yet treats this moment of ultimate intimacy with such noble delicacy that no discomfort results. She begins in tears of pure love, “Do you not know, sweetest friend, why I can cry?” Words fail; she presses him to her chest and her heart speaks for her; we hear, for a moment, the dazzling beauty of God’s plan.

But God would have an even higher union with us, that of true friendship between our heart and His; an ultimate, mutual outpouring of love. The Enigma Variations of Sir Edward Elgar takes friendship as a point of departure, writing each variation on the anonymous—hence enigmatic—theme as a depiction of a friend, whom he indicates with initials or a pet name. He represents his wife, himself, friends and associates, even a friend’s bulldog—these are all masterful, most of them charming, some poignant. The 9th variation, “Nimrod,” however, approaches the sublime, and though the climax cannot rival Wagner or Mahler in size, it is equally effective; a series of cresting waves, at least one more than expected. Elgar, transcending the particulars of his subject, created an utterance of pure love, a conversation between hearts.

It is the last piece of music I play for my students.13 In a very important way, the art that we share prepares them to accept overwhelming joys with gratitude, and to embrace purifying devastations with peace of soul, and trust in God. The heartbreak defining their human condition will come for them as it has for all of us, yet through these great works—which teach, console, support—we know more immediately and confidently that God’s heart beats, breaks, and mends with ours.

Jesus, so great of Heart: make us meek and humble, so that our hearts may belong entirely to Yours.


1 Ingram Bywater, trans.

2 Webster’s College Dictionary

3 Fetal heart rate increases steadily from weeks 5-12, gradually stabilizing between 120 and 160 beats per minute. Initially, however, the hearts of the mother and child beat at the same rate.

4 “Ebb,” Edna St. Vincent Millay

5 Reported in the SSPX Bulletin, May 4, 2016 (

6 Plato speaks of music as imitating the emotions, and beyond this, of its usefulness in accustoming the listener to particular emotional states (Laws, book 2; Republic, books 3, 4).

7 Richard Osborne wrote an excellent one volume primer (The Operas of Richard Wagner); the performance led by Sir Georg Solti on London Records remains the standard.

8 In order of preference: Lucia Popp/Klaus Tennstedt (EMI); Jesseye Norman/Kurt Masur (Phillips)

9 The ‘last word’ on overwhelming scale is perhaps the finale of Mahler’s 8th, the “Symphony of 1000.”

10 “Dante,” Selected Essays

11 Mahler orchestrated these songs as well

12 In order of preference: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; Brigitte Fassbender

13 Definitive recording, in my estimation: Bernstein, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Two minutes longer than most readings, every second needed.